Interview with Chef Jennifer Biesty of COCO500 - San Francisco
Antoinette Bruno: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jennifer Biesty:I was 16 years old working as a busgirl at a friend’s restaurant in Brooklyn. One day I told the chef that I wanted to give cooking a try and in less than a year I was working there as a cook full time. After high school I enrolled in culinary school at CIA.
AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
JB: When I first left culinary school I got a job as a line cook at Aquavit in New York. I was a line cook at March with Wayne Nish and also at Restaurant Charlotte at the Harry Macklowe Hotel with Patricia Williams, which really taught me about working with a female chef. I spent time working with Loretta Keller at Bizou in San Francisco. I worked in Paris with Tracy des Jardins at Jardiniere, then went to London and worked at River Café, where I met Jamie Oliver (who was then a line cook). I was chef at Universal Café, then I went back to Bizou, which we entirely revamped. After the renovation, Bizou became Coco500.
AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs without a culinary school background?
JB: I attended CIA which was good for me. It gave me credentials which made it easier to get a job as a female. There are a lot of schools around today which I don’t recommend though because they are a little soft. It’s better to go through the school of hard knocks and be underpaid in a great kitchen.
AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
JB: Definitely Loretta Keller – she opened a lot of doors for me. Jeremiah Towers at Stars in San Francisco is someone I look up to as well.
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?
JB: I ask what cookbooks they read, and why they started cooking. I also ask them to rate their work ethic on a scale from 1 to 10. I try to test their integrity through a one day trial.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JB: I think it’s important to write everything down. Work in as many restaurants as you can to get a variety of experiences. And read! Read everything you can – books, magazines, editorials. I like to take my cooks on field trips to taste food. The best way to learn is to eat!
AB: Is there any ingredient that you feel is particularly under appreciated or under utilized?
JB: I love really rich, oily fish, like sardines which I don’t feel are as popular as more expensive fish. They’re really versatile.
AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
JB: I love olive oil and lemon. I also combine aged Italian oak barrel vinegar with sautéed champagne grapes. And the sweet and salty combinations is classic.
AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
JB: My tiny French spatula and my spoons – I have a vast spoon collection.
AB: Is there a technique that you have either created of borrowed and used in an unusual way?
JB: Slow-braising is great. Never underestimate the levels of flavor you can get by braising slowly with red wine and ancho chilies in an oven.
AB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
JB: I would love to go to Asia. My dream trip is to go to Laos, Vietnam and then to Australia for two or three months.
AB: What are your favorite restaurants off-the-beaten-path in your city?
JB: Ton Kiang is really good for Thai Food. I get the shark fin soup there. I like Tu Lan for Vietnamese. It’s a dirty little hole in the wall, but it’s very authentic and they have great noodles. Blue Plate on Mission avenue has great, totally seasonal food. Front Porch is good for fried chicken in a bucket.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
JB: Chefs are owning their own restaurants a lot more. Authentic, rustic new American seems to be the popular thing to do.
AB: Which person would you most like to have dinner with?
JB: I would make a cassoulet for Julia Child.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JB: I always try to make my food fresh and seasonal and use local ingredients. I think it’s important to do new and surprising things. I like taking old classic dishes and putting a contemporary spin on them.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
JB: Wood work or furniture design.
AB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
JB: I have a concept for a restaurant that I’ve been working on for a long time that I’d really love to see come together.