SF Chefs 2010: View from the Topfeatured

What happens when you get some of the best chefs in San Francisco together under one roof for a panel discussion? Great conversation, a mutual love for food, and energy in the room that screams, “I’m in love with what I do.”

After the indulgences of Friday’s events, guests at SF Chefs were greeted with a fresh start Saturday morning atop the Westin St. Francis Hotel for a panel discussion about the ins and outs of the industry. Culinary rock stars Michael Mina (Restaurant Michael Mina), Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards Grill, Go Fish, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen) and Charles Phan (Slanted Door, Out the Door), Perry Hoffman (étoile) and his grandmother, French Laundry legend, Sally Schmitt, all joined together to share their legacy.

The main focus? Advice on how to start your own restaurant, have it stay afloat, and how to stay happy in the process. Each chef shared the obstacles, joys and wisdoms of how to create a successful restaurant in the city.

SF Chefs 2010 View from the Top

Sally Schmitt (French Laundry legend) and grandson, Perry Hoffman (Etoile)

Among advice that nearly all the panel could agree upon: be careful whom you bring on your team. Whether it’s family members or strictly business partners, a big team or a small team, these decisions will be one of the main ones that will make or break your success.

“It’s like getting married. You’ve got to trust your partners,” Mina said. “If your partner goes out and buys a bad bed-sheet, you’re going to sleep on it.”

“You’re going to enjoy the good and the bad,” Phan said agreeing. “But it’s hard to get married three or four times.”

Everyone noted the importance of creating a family within your restaurant. Whether your team consists of members of your actual family, or staff that slowly turns into your family, these people are who give your restaurant its essence.

“I don’t really see the difference between relatives and staff,” said Phan who has worked with both family and non-family members throughout his career.

For French Laundry legend Schmitt and her Grandson Hoffman, family has been everything. Hoffman, who grew up in his grandma’s kitchen at the French Laundry now uses inspiration from her in his own kitchen at etoile.

“We confer with each other,” Hoffman said. “If it weren’t for my grandma I wouldn’t be here.”

“Everyone on the team has to know it’s their baby and they’ve got to do it well.” Schmitt said about the  importance of consistency within the kitchen and the team.

SF Chefs 2010 View from the Top

SF Chefs 2010 View from the Top panel

Who to choose for your business partner/s was also a hot topic. The chefs shared horror stories of picking the right partners for their team. They also shared thoughts about the joys of having a second family within the kitchen.

“You’re either a one man band or you like to play in a big band,” Phan said about how important it is to know what works for you.

Other key ingredients all the chefs could agree upon: quality, taste and location.

“They’ll pay for it and they’ll come back,” Pawlcyn said.

A question during the audience Q and A session brought up the topic of sustainability and its relevancy currently in San Francisco.

“It’s here to stay. We all know that,” Hoffman said.

On the top of his sustainability complaints was, “This city still has sucky chicken,” and then offered, “if anyone in the audience opens a sustainable chicken farm, I’ll buy all of your chickens.”

The switch from plastic cocktail straws to biodegradable paper ones, Pawlcyn says, has been a green practice that has benefited her restaurants’ finances.

“Switch to paper, it makes business better,” Pawlcyn said.

Someone from the media asked whether or not the chefs still read all the reviews. When asked if they had a love/hate relationship with social media, there were mixed emotions.

Mina admitted he still reads all the reviews even when he knows the author isn’t a qualified critic of the importance of fine dining. He told a story of a reviewer who wrote that they loved everything they ate at his restaurant but gave it a low rating because they could have bought nine burritos instead.

However, everyone agreed on loving one thing about online media: the word of mouth. Smaller restaurants that wouldn’t normally get coverage are easily spread around time by local foodies who will go anywhere for good food (that’s us :)).

SF Chefs 2010 View from the Top

Perry Hoffman, Cindy Pawlcyn, Charles Phan

The discussion came to a way-too-soon ending, and the chefs ended with telling us what makes them sincerely happy about their job and what inspires them to continue to be better.

Mina said he enjoys the satisfaction of a guest coming up to him on the street and acknowledging that his meal was one of the best they have ever had.

“No words to describe how good it feels,” Mina said.

Schmitt says the ultimate flattery comes from simple compliments like people telling her they’ve been using her same recipes for 20 years, or that she taught them how to use a knife.

Hoffman and Pawlcyn hope that their guests gain inspiration, that they learn something from them, and that their food tasted good.

“I strive to push the envelope. I don’t want my colleagues to think I’m getting lazy,” Phan said.

Don’t worry, Chef, I don’t think any of you have to worry about that…

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