Amy Tarr: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
David Barzirgan: I spent summers as a dishwasher during high school and gradually learned enough to be promoted within the restaurant. I didn’t do very well in high school, didn’t leave my options open. We were always cooking food at home – both my parents cooked so I would help them. It just sort of developed from there.
AT: Which early job position and/or restaurant do you feel was most influential in shaping your culinary style and business philosophy?
DB: I learned a lot about pastas while working at Galleria Italiana with Barbara Lynch, but I think I really honed my skills when I worked for Barbara at No. 9 Park, where I worked for 5 years. I also learned a lot working at Olives with Todd English – it was his only Olives at the time. He purchased all of his produce seasonally and it exposed me to a lot of ingredients that I hadn’t seen before.
AT: How would you describe your cuisine?
DB: I’d call it Mediterranean food with French technique.
AT:Who do you consider your primary mentor?
DB: I’d say Barbara [Lynch] is my primary mentor. She taught me that technique isn’t everything. The end result flavor and texture is more important to me than how the plate looks.
AT: What chefs do you admire?
DB: I look to New York – Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Jean-Georges because he brought a strong Thai influence using flavors such as lemongrass. Daniel for continually coming out with refined French food that does not necessarily have unusual combinations but always raises the bar. Also Alain Ducasse – his is the type of food I love.
AT: Are there any unsung regional ingredients that everyone should know about?
DB: I like to use ground sumac – it’s got a nice, acidic flavor and can be used in place of juice when I want to start the cooking of a fish or meat. It has a nice amber red color and is used in place of lemon in the eastern Mediterranean. I use it in a couple of marinades and to season the lamb tartare – it really brightens up the meat.
AT: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
DB: A Japanese mandoline – I use it for fine and really thin layers of cuts. Also a mortar and pestle because we ground so many different spices.
AT: What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?
DB: Make sure that this is really what you want! If you don’t love it, forget about it. And read as much as possible. Expose yourself to different options in the culinary food – becoming a chef isn’t for everybody – there are so many options in the field.
AT: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
DB: Who’s your favorite chef in New York and why? I think New York is a mecca. There are just so many chefs to embrace and such great things are happening there. I think all young chefs should spend time in New York – at least go out and eat there. The availability of ingredients is amazing.
AT: Is there a place that you want to travel to for culinary researching purposes? Why there? Which place that you’ve already been to has had the greatest impact on your menus?
DB: I definitely want to go all over Spain but haven’t had a chance yet. I’d like to go to Japan, Southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. Before I open my own place I want to do expanded travel and research for a while in order to figure out exactly which way I want to take my food.
AT: What are your favorite restaurants in San Francisco?
DB: I like Thep Phanom for Thai food and Delfina for simple Italian.
AT: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry right now?
DB: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a new trend but a lot of people are doing sous vide cooking. Right now I don’t use the technique much in my cooking but I plan on using it more. I’d start out with a cheaper one because we don’t really have a huge equipment budget.
You can get a small cryovac machine for a few hundred dollars. I plan on using it with foie gras to prevent moisture loss - also fish, meat, storing vegetables to freeze them and use them in the middle of winter, mushrooms.
AT: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
DB: Right now I’m running three restaurants for Jocelyn Bulow – Baraka, Chez Papa and La Suite – and I plan on doing this for a few more years. They’ve given me a great opportunity.
AT: How do you manage being at three places at the same time?
DB: I have strong sous chefs at all three restaurants. I come in and make sure that things are going well and help with prep before service. Baraka was the first place I started at. I’m excited to do new things and I obviously like to keep very busy. And I’m happy to be chosen for the award. It’s nice after working really hard to get exposure and recognition like this.