The Stars YearsNovember 5, 2009
When I arrived in San Francisco in the mid 1980’s with cooking school and a few years of restaurant experience behind me, I was electrified by the food revolution taking place in the Bay Area.
Stars Restaurant opened in 1984 and I was part of the original team. We knew we were doing something different but we did not fully appreciate how Stars and other restaurants at that time would change the way Americans looked at food and what they ate. We were like Apple computer in Steve Jobs’ garage. We permanently changed American food culture right here in Northern California.
Working at Stars from 1984-1995 was a culinary wild ride. Jeremiah Tower’s was the creator and driving force behind the restaurant. His creativity and palate were brilliant. I have never met anyone like him since. The combination of JT, Mark Franz, and my co-chefs who have gone on to locally establish themselves in their own right (Bruce Hill, Loretta Keller, Wendy Brucker, and Colleen McGlynn among others) made the restaurant a culinary think tank.
For dessert I was making Summer Pudding, Stareos, Gingerbread with Apples and Cider Sabayon. Today these desserts seem common place and are now classics. Back then they were cutting edge.
Stars had one of the first open kitchens in the city. Not only could the customer see into the kitchen but the cooks could see into the dining room reinforcing the roles on each side. For the first time kitchen activity became part of the dining experience. One of the best things about Stars was how it made everyone equal. There would be a group of guys in baseball caps and jeans at the bar after a ball game eating pizza and drinking beers. In a corner table would be a couple formally dressed sipping champagne and having a few oysters. People would come in for dinner, leave their cars with the valet, go to the symphony or opera and come back afterwards for dessert. No one felt out of place. The excitement over the food and the wine was the common denominator.
Bay Area customers are some of the best in the country. Without an enthusiastic audience it wouldn’t be as much fun to bake. In San Francisco, food has been always seen as a pleasure not just as a source of fuel. In San Francisco during the Gold Rush, there was a house of prostitution on every corner. The way the businesses distinguished themselves was through the “free lunch” they would offer customers. Every house had girls, but the ones that distinguished themselves were the ones with the best food.
The suppliers back then were eccentric. I remember Rocky the berry man. He would show up on Monday after promising to be there on the previous Friday, so hung over you knew he had just crawled out from under some rock. We would be annoyed he was late but his blackberries and raspberries were so incredible we would take as many cases as he would let us have. It was a dysfunctional relationship but we didn’t care. We were as addicted as he was.
On one level California Cuisine with its eat local and let the food speak for itself mantras is simplistic and straightforward. Our food is not hiding behind sauces and garnishes. But when you look deeper you see the complexity of the relationships between the ingredients and the chef and the underlying spirit of California. It is this relationship that makes cooking in CA so dynamic and exciting.
Stars Restaurant wasn’t that long ago so there are many people in the city who were a part of that experience either as a customer or an employee. There are many young people and newcomers to the area who came to the city after it closed. I wish they all could have seen it. It was a magical place.
In retrospect I am fortunate I moved to San Francisco when I did. It was fundamental to who I would become as a chef. The simultaneous timing of my arrival in California and the growth of California cuisine couldn’t have been planned. It was plain luck. And I thank the stars for that.