INTERVIEW WITH REED HEARON BY LAURA LEHRMAN FOR STARCHEFS.COM
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LL: In 1987, you were selected as one of the 30 most promising young chefs in the country by Gael Greene, Larry Forgione and Julia Child. 12 year later...would you please tell our readers how you have gone about fulfilling this promise?
RH: This was an enormously unexpected and flattering thing to happen. I was sous chef under Mark Miller at Coyote Café in Santa Fe at the time and we had just opened the restaurant. It changed my relationship with the chefs and sous chefs who worked with me. Ultimately, there's a huge amount of talent in the industry that doesn't get recognized. To try to realize this kind of promise is something we all do everyday. Some days you look good and some days you look like you're resting on your laurels. It's an ongoing challenge.
LL: Describe the collaborative process that you participate in when you open a new restaurant from the inception all the way through opening night.
RH: Most often the success of chefs and sous chefs is at one extreme the pure expression of a single person's strength and ego. But, the external reality for a restaurant's vision or its guidepost needs to be based on team effort and understanding. Everyone can look at the same external goal; the debate is how to get there. What is most consistent with the vision? The process in creating the restaurants that I am a part of ultimately comes out of the neighborhood where the restaurant is located. I want the restaurants to be developed as a response to and an affirmation of their neighborhoods. We look at what defines those neighborhoods. Frankly, what we do is very political whether it is supporting sustainable agriculture, organic farming, humane practices or concerns of the neighborhood. They are the choices having to do with what sort of world we want to live in. Making money is secondary. That's not the reason why I'm in this business.
LL: What would you say are the key characteristics of your three restaurants in San Francisco? What kinds of comments are the most satisfying for you to hear from people who enjoy your restaurants - what do you want them to take away from their dining experiences at Rose Pistola, Black Cat and Rose's Café?
RH: Rose Pistola is located at 532 Columbia Avenue with entrances on Columbus and Stockton Street. It is a North Beach restaurant in the Italian neighborhood which was settled by poor people from Liguria in Northern Italy. When these people arrived in the Bay Area, they found unexpected wealth here because of the agricultural opportunities, more important even than the Gold Rush. There's an interplay here between California cuisine with its opulence of products and the restraint and minimalism of the food influences brought from Liguria. We want the food that we use in our cooking to speak for itself.
Rose's Café, 2298 Union Street, is an offshoot of Rose Pistola which we put in the Cow Hollow end of Union, close to Chestnut Street. It is a café in the sense of the little places in the south of France or in Italy with a very European and very San Franciscan feel. We wanted it to be an alternative to the proliferation of chains like Starbuck's and Crate & Barrel taking over these neighborhoods. There should be an increasing rate of community in the world, not a loss of local identity. We're trying to enhance that.
Black Cat is at 501 Broadway at Kearny. We ended up leasing a space that had been vacant for 11 years. It was between a bunch of girly joints on Broadway. Our vision was that we wanted something that reached back to the past and at the same time reached forward. Its location is near four historic districts: Fisherman's Wharf, North Beach, Chinatown and The Barbary Coast. The Barbary Coast was the birthplace of modern dance, jazz and comedy on the West Coast. Black Cat is about a celebration of San Francisco. San Francisco is not homogeneous, not about fusion. It is about diversity and wide groups of people working to help the city become a place where different groups can co-exist.
Black Cat was named after a restaurant that existed in the '30's at the time of the early Bohemian movement. It was the time of early beat when so many important cultural and political changes were happening like the early banding of gay and lesbian groups to effect legislation. It was the time of the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and local beat writers lived here. This neighborhood is not a fusion, but a slightly uneasy co-existence among different populations. The menu features food that reflects the city's ethnic reality - Chinese-style barbecue from a wood-burning duck oven, Fisherman's Wharf-inspired shellfish chowders, Barbary Coast favorites like grilled chops and foie gras and North Beach-style pastas and sautes. Black Cat is open until 2:00 a.m., 7 days a week. If you see who is coming in during different times of the day, you see that we are getting a cross-section of the whole city.
LL: You are known for being fond of generously spreading your wealth of food knowledge with others. In what ways do you do this?
RH: I was a math and philosophy student which does not make for very good cocktail conversation. For me, food is a language - a tribal and sociological identifier. It tells about our passions and our sensibilities. I am literately intimately involved with a lot of people because of my food affiliations. I love talking about it. It's enormously sensual, banal and trivial and important, all at the same time. I like all aspects of it.
LL: Many people reading this interview are unfamiliar with the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. This is where your restaurants are located, where you get some of your culinary inspiration and also happens to be the area where you live. Tell us about North Beach and how you have given back to this special neighborhood.
RH: In my totally unbiased opinion, North Beach is the greatest place in the world to live. It combines what is great about the U.S. and what is great about Europe. Not to be totally Eurocentric, additionally, it is immediately adjacent to and a part of Chinatown as well. I go to a gym before I head on to work in the morning. On the way, I can hear half a dozen languages and say hello to 10 or 20 different people who I know. It's a real neighborhood!
LL: Who are a few of your "food idols" and why are they Star Chefs and/or Star Restaurateurs to you?
RH: I can name a lot - Alice Waters and Richard Olney, Larry Forgione, Jonathan Waxman, Marian Cunningham, Paula Wolfert, Colman Andrews, Frank Cerruti, Ducasse's chef. Also Soledad Diaz from Oaxaca who is very dear to me and Rose Pistola.
LL: You wear many hats and juggle multiple balls - Chef, restaurant owner, cookbook author... Did I leave anything out? What are your strengths and the supports that enable you to make it all happen?
RH: I think that the big piece of advice that I can give is for people to re-examine how they look at work. The crime of the Industrial Revolution was that it led people to think that you worked for money so that you would have the money to use in your leisure time. Do what you love to do and then figure out how to make money at it. Surround yourself with people who are passionate and care like you do. I'm fortunate to have a lot of them around me right now.
LL: I think that our readers would be interested in hearing about your approach to cooking and do you have any cooking tips for the home chef?
RH: My food is a little different from that of most restaurants. I get a little bored with the food prepared by most restaurant chefs. I have an enormous passion for real food like the food that is prepared at home. After all, the best meals are those made by someone you love, for you, the person they love.
Two things that are important are to tell the truth and that you press yourself. We have turned food into something that is fraught with anxiety. You should like to have a relationship to food. Trust your senses. Build on your aesthetic judgement. As with any language, learn the rules, but say what you want to.
In my new book coming out in the Fall of 1999 from Broadway Books, Rose Pistola North Beach Cookbook that I've written with Peggy Knickerbocker, I talk about this notion. When you're going to cook a meal, don't start with a cookbook. Go to the market and buy what's cheap and in season. Buy what you like to eat. If you like artichokes, get them. Then decide how you're going to prepare them. Running all over town, going to 12 different stores to get the exact right ingredients to make a certain recipe makes the process filled with anxiety, difficulty and it's expensive.
LL: What's on the horizon for you in the way of books, restaurants and any other exciting food- related projects?
RH: We've talked about my new book already. We're working on something to do with pig farming and that's all I'm going to say about that. We're working on the formation of a neighborhood market in North Beach. A two restaurant project on the waterfront slated to open in 2001 which will include a large piazza right on the water. It's adjacent to a park designed by the same guy who designed Bryant Park in New York City. I will continue to spend time on the Black Cat as far as helping it become more responsive to the needs of the neighborhood. What's great about what I do is that the world gets bigger all the time. That's the paradigm for me for a successful relationship on any level. The world gets bigger, never smaller.
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