2016 San Francisco Rising Star Chef Ian Palazzola of Mourad

2016 San Francisco Rising Star Chef Ian Palazzola of Mourad
May 2016

When Virginian Ian Palazzola turned 14, he got his work permit and a humble start cooking at a retirement home. He loved it, and after high school Palazzola kept cooking, honing skills and having a ball cooking at mom-and-pop joints. After a year, he headed back to school, enrolling at Le Cordon Bleu Atlanta. During this time and after graduation, Palazzola worked at white-tablecloth bohemoth Rathbun’s, for Rising Stars alum Kevin Rathbun. Under Rathbun’s tutelage, Palazzola learned speed and professionalism at a breakneck pace of 500 covers a night. 

Tired of the strain, and after rising to sous chef, Palazzola moved on to work at Restaurant Eugene for Linton Hopkins, who also became a mentor. Serving a manageable 150 covers, Palazzola learned to wield tweezers and cook with care and artistry. He also gleaned the importance of developing relationships with farmers, which influences the way he cooks to this day.  

Moving out of his Southern comfort zone, Palazzola went west to Aspen’s The Little Nell, where he met a third mentor in Robert McCormick, for whom he worked as sous chef for three years. In 2014, Palazzola moved further west and started as one of 4 sous chefs at Mourad Lahlou’s eponymous Bay Area fine-dining temple. Ten months in, Mourad received a Michelin star, and soon after, Palazzola was promoted to chef de cuisine, commanding the spice pantry of Morocco with hints of his Southern roots shining through.    

Interview with San Francisco Rising Star Ian Palazzola of Mourad

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start?
Ian Palazzola:
I got my first job in a kitchen when I was 14, after I got my worker's permit, at a retirement home.

I took a year off after high school and then went to culinary school at Le Cordon Blue Atlanta. Chef Kevin Rathbun [of Rathbun's], that's where I did my externship during school, was a pretty well known in the area. His restaurant serves 550 on a Saturday night. He taught me how to cook like a man and to stay in control and not get anxious. But I got tired of cooking for 500 and moved to Restaurant Eugene with Linton Hopkins, serving about 150 people. Then I moved to Aspen and worked as sous chef at The Little Nell for Chef Robert McCormick.

SK: Who is your mentor? 
Linton Hopkins (Restaurant Eugene) connected me to farms and changed my relationship with food.

SK: What are the biggest challenges you face at Mourad? 
With a large staff and a large number of covers, we need to retain staff. But under 100 covers is a bad day, and 200 covers can wear down cooks. I try to keep it fun; they know when I'm serious and when I'm joking. We're serving people, not doing surgery.

SK: What's your five year plan?
From the the moment I met Mourad, we've had a unique bond. I moved here to work at Mourad. This is a good jumping off point; I would love to open more restaurants with him. Then, as we grow more, I want to expand with the company outside of San Francisco. You can't live here for 10 years, it's too expensive. 

SK: How do you see your Southern roots melding with Moroccan flavors?:
The saucing [on the New York strip dish], for me, is inspired by my Sourthern roots. A lot of times, in The South, you're eating off-cut meats, which is very similar to Morocco. To makes these cuts of meat seem fattier, more luscious and flavorful than they are, we use gravies. The walnut-marrow emulsion gives the New York strip a richer flavor than it would have had on its own, or even with jus. With the tartness of the fermented green garlic and the freshness of the broccoli and ramps, the emulsion adds fat and texture to help balance the dish. Aerating the sauce makes it seem less overwhelming and fatty than it would as a classic Southern gravy.