Chef James Syhabout
PlumpJack Café | San Francisco
James Syhabout has spent time in some of the most renowned fine dining kitchens in the world, and his resume reads like a dream for most working cooks: commis at El Bulli, chef de partie at Alkimia, chef de partie at Daniel Patterson’s Coi, and sous chef at Manresawith David Kinch. Not to mention stops at Mugaritz and The Fat Duck along the way…
The twenty-eight year old Oakland native was led to cooking by his mother, a chef at a Thai restaurant in Oakland. He graduated from California Culinary Academy in 1999 and headed to Manresa; in 2004, his friendship with Kinch and Harold McGee led to a stage at The Fat Duck, which opened the doors for his other seminal European experiences.
The precise techniques he’s picked up along the way – and continues to build and master – shine through in dishes like his tempered foie gras where he slowly brings the whole lobe up to temperature in a thermocirculator before chilling it and then shallow-frying it for a perfectly even browned crust with minimal loss. For James, it’s all about the details - whether it’s mixing a curry powder that suits his palate or whisking a perfect sabayon to compliment the season’s first asparagus. His range of high-concept techniques and ability to manipulate products don’t conflict with his appreciation of seasonal ingredients – which goes to show that with the right chef, even in San Francisco, the two schools of cooking don’t have to butt heads.
AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
JS: I got most of my chef experience in Europe, but before I went to Europe I was the sous chef at Manresa in California with David Kinch. When I moved to Europe I started out in Bray, England in October of 2004 at The Fat Duck staging under Chef Heston Blumenthal. After England I moved to Spain and served as Chef de Partie at Alkimia in Barcelona and Mugaritz in Errenteria. Two weeks before I was scheduled to go back the states I got an email from El Bulli letting me know they had an opening that I should look into. I jumped at the opportunity, got the job, and was fortunate enough to work there as commis for Chef Ferran Adriafor the 2005 season. When I can back to the United States, I served at chef de partie at Coi in San Francisco before making the move to PlumpJack Café.
AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
JS: I would recommend culinary school, but it’s value depends on the type of program you’re enrolled in. I graduated from California Culinary Academy in 1999 and it was a good experience. I think you learn the most in the long run from working at haute cuisine restaurants. You get to see what the industry is really like; they don’t baby you there.
AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
JS: Harold McGee and David Kinch are my mentors first and foremost. They helped me set up my Fat Duck stage which was really valuable. Of course Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria were major teachers; they are non-stop in their work, and the way they perceive and conceive dishes is unique but timeless. Heston is in constant search of perfection and takes a really scientific approach to his cuisine.
AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
JS: We start by asking about work history. We ask a prospective employee what cuisine they would focus on if that had their own restaurant. We also ask “what’s your favorite restaurant?” and “what’s the best dish you’ve had in your life?”
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JS: Train your palate by eating everything you possibly can, and don’t be afraid to try anything. You will learn something from every food you try.
AB: Is there any ingredient that you feel is particularly under appreciated or under utilized?
JS: Fresh sardines – I get them local from Monterey Bay. People tend to overlook them because they’re cheap but they’re a really solid ingredient. In terms of spice I think caraway is often overlooked. I toast it, and it goes really well with maple.
AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
JS: I love anise and licorice flavors mixed with acidic ingredients, and butter offsets spice well.
AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
JS: Spoons – I have my spoon on me at all times, it’s practically another appendage on my body.
AB: Is there a technique that you have either created of borrowed and used in an unusual way?
JS: We never use the coffee grinder shortcut to grind our spices, we use an old fashioned mortar and pestle to really bring out flavors. We don’t use a Robot Coupe either; Thai peasants didn’t have a Robot Coupe and they did fine!
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
JS: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee is one of my favorites. His explanations of the way things work in cooking never get old and help you troubleshoot any snags you’re having. I just got the cookbook from Le Meurice by Yannick Alleno which is great.
AB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
JS: I like to go to Japan because they have such a love for food. It’s all so pure. They’re obsessive about the quality of ingredients, they pay incredibly close attention to detail, and they’re really delicate in their approach.
AB: What languages do you speak?
JS: Thai and Spanish.
AB: What are your favorite restaurants off-the-beaten-path in your city?
JS: I like the Provençal French restaurant JoJo in the East Bay for its fennel salad and bouillabaisse. For fast food I like the Taco Truck on 23rd avenue and In N’ Out where I always get the Double Double and sometimes fries. And Jai Yun in Chinatown on Pacific and Powell. It’s traditional Chinese with no menu; they feed you what’s fresh and good.
AB: Which person would you most like to have dinner with?
JS: There are a lot of smaller, chef owned restaurants springing up, which is good to see because the food is less commercialized and more personalized.
AB: Which person in history would you most like to have dinner with? What would you serve?
JS: I’d eat with Bono from U2. I think he does really cool humanitarian work. I think we’d eat something straightforward like bangers and mash, and drink scotch.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
JS: I’d be a motorcycle mechanic.
AB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
JS: I’d like to own my own restaurant in the East Bay. Something personal with a handwritten menu and little details.
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