My favorite chefs:
Jan Birnbaum, Daniel Patterson, Timmie Yu, and Jacqueline Patterson
By GraceAnn Walden
Photos by Elizabeth Armstrong
When we decided to do a cover story on my favorite chefs, considering the talent here in the Bay Area, it was a daunting task. I had to sit down and think beyond food to the qualities that I admire in people generally. What draws me to people is their passion for what they’re doing. Another is loyalty, to each other, to family and respect for tradition. Beyond just their cooking skills, there is the further dimension of artistry – inventiveness. As a self-starter myself, I love the new kid on the block who is eager to learn and crazy enough to take a chance.
Here are four of my favorite chefs and their stories.
soulful and smart
I’ve known Jan Birnbaum since he was the executive chef at Campton Place in the early ’90s.
On a trip to Aspen for the Food & Wine Classic, we hung out at a nightclub, and later, both pretty inebriated and high, sat on a bench and talked about our lives.
“I remember that night – that’s when you and I became soul mates,” he says.
Birnbaum was married, and I was living with someone, but the crush was mutual. I never took the next step, and I can’t say why; I just didn’t.
That aside, I loved his food at Campton, and later at his own place, Catahoula Restaurant & Saloon in Calistoga. He built a big wood-fired oven in the dining room and wailed.
He thought the Napa Valley would spread northward, but instead the city of Napa became invigorated with restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. After 10 years, he closed Catahoula.
Birnbaum was born in and grew up in Baton Rouge. His dad was a haberdasher; his mom worked in the governor’s office. He has one older brother, Jeff, who is in the engineering world.
His parents were Polish Jews from Brooklyn, and they kept a kosher home. When he was 6, his mother went back to work, and he began helping in the kitchen. One of his earliest and fondest food memories was when he was 12, and he cooked the family Sunday supper.
“I remember how cool it felt – everyone gave me a round of applause, and they said, ‘How can a kid make supper for 15 people?’”
“I remember my heart swelling and I thought, ‘How do I do more of this?’”
Growing up Jewish in Baton Rouge wasn’t always easy.
“I knew I was different, but not until someone called me Jewboy, did I get it,” he explains.
That kid got hung out the side of the school bus, Birnbaum recalls.
“In college, I was doing what I was supposed to be doing [studying engineering], but at the end of the day, I’m looking at people who have the job, and they’re anxious for 5 o’clock to come, for Friday to come. Why is everyone spending most of their lives getting away from what they do?”
“That’s when I said, ‘When this is over, besides breathing, I know I am gonna work most of my life, so I’d better find something I love.’”
He met Paul Prudhomme in 1979, and that changed his life. He was the only white guy in the K-Paul kitchen.
“I changed at work, because it wasn’t cool to be a chef. We were the guys sweating behind the door – servants,” he says.
These days, he’s co-owner with Pat Kuleto of Epic Roasthouse.
At Epic, beautifully located in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, Birnbaum has brought together his experience from K-Pauls, The Quilted Giraffe and Campton Place, and his oven roasted, southern-kissed food from Catahoula, and wrapped it all around a soulful steak house. At Epic there is both a custom-built wood-fired grill, and a large wood-burning oven.
Birnbaum, always a big man, now weighs 165 pounds and swims daily.
He says if he weren’t in such great shape, at 54, he couldn’t do Epic.
“I’ve come from my place in Calistoga, where everyone had to come see me, to a place everyone is gonna be. When I came to San Francisco in 1979 with Chef Paul, I said, ‘Look at this place.’ And now I’ve got it – the culmination of everything. I’m back to that day I made dinner for the family. I want to make them happy.”
creative and bold
Daniel Patterson, now 39, didn’t start out to be a chef, and considering that fact, he has certainly set the San Francisco dining scene on its ear. He is presently the co-owner of Coi with wine expert Paul Einbund.
Chef Jan Birnbaum said of Daniel Patterson, “There are about 10-12 chefs in the world who can do what he does. In my opinion, he’s a genius.”
Patterson was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. His mother taught French and history; his dad was a lawyer. Both parents were Francophiles, so he spent a lot of time in France.
“I had several of my first great food experiences in France – the perfect apricot tarts …”
“One of my strongest memories I have is experiencing the pleasures of the table in France, the conversations, the food.”
He says this is why he does what he does.
“I am fascinated about the cultural context of food – it’s about how we relate to each other, and the place where we live; it’s infinitely complex,” says Patterson.
When he was 14, he began working in restaurants as a dishwasher, and it turned him on to cooking. Patterson went to Duke University for a while, but dropped out to become a cook.
“I don’t think my parents were thrilled about my wanting to be a cook in the ’80s. It wasn’t a well-respected profession.”
In 1989, he had to make a decision: New York or San Francisco. He moved to Sonoma with Elisabeth Ramsey, his girlfriend at the time, and later his wife. They opened Babette’s. Reviewers gave it four stars, and raved about the second dining room’s $45 prix fixe.
Five years later in 2000, they opened Elisabeth Daniel in San Francisco. Although it got great reviews, it didn’t make it because of 9/11.
“We lost 40 percent of our business,” he explains.
Briefly, he worked at Frisson, since closed. But at Frisson, he began infusing aromatherapy techniques into his combinations. He wrote a book with Mandy Aftel on the subject: Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance.
When he embarked on Coi, he had been out of work for a year. He thought a lot about what he wanted to do next.
“I thought that I should return to the scale of Babette’s, the size [29 seats; 20 in the lounge] was controllable and I could just cook.”
Patterson utilizes some techniques and elements of molecular gastronomy in his kitchen. For the uninitiated, it is a set of theories that brings science into the kitchen, and includes some of the following precepts:
• how ingredients are changed by different cooking methods;
• how the mechanisms of aroma release and influence the perception of taste and flavor; and
• how cooking methods affect the resulting flavor and texture of food ingredients.
Two dishes that I tried recently at Coi illustrate these principles.
One starter, a pink grapefruit sorbet, sits atop a mélange of cognac, black pepper, ginger, and tarragon. Before diners dive into the dish, they rub a small amount of grapefruit oil on the top of their hand. They smell the essence, and it enhances the experience.
For the other dish, a walk through his garden inspired Patterson, who lives in the Presidio. The sweet smell of alyssum filled his senses; to him it smelled like milk and honey. Using a transforming reverse spherification process, he encases milk and honey in a small globe. Scattered near the globe, which is consumed in one bite, are alyssum petals.
Besides his groundbreaking cuisine, Patterson has written about ten articles for The New York Times magazine. One he wrote in 2005 had tongues wagging all over the Bay Area.
Here’s a quote: “So deeply embedded is the mythology of Chez Panisse in the DNA of local food culture that it threatens to smother stylistic diversity and extinguish the creativity that it originally sought to spark.”
The other subtext was that there are few critics in the Bay Area with influence, and they are
all conservative Chez Panisse worshippers.
With a restaurant that is very precise and demanding (he even churns his own butter), his band (Syd’s Last Trip) and his wife, Alexandra, pregnant with their first child, I asked Patterson how will he juggle it all?
“A lot of people are wondering that, especially my wife,” he says with a chuckle.
“Even when I was 14, I used to work 70 hours a week. I always loved to work, for no reason that I can put my finger on. I love work in and of itself, and on top of it, I never enjoyed sitting around and doing nothing. I just feel useless,” he says.
tradition and happiness
Yuet Lee is every late-night rambler’s go-to place for very good food served until 3 a.m. Whether it’s a whole steamed fish, the salt and pepper squid, Hong Kong-style chow mien, a stir-fried crab, or succulent greens with luscious shiitake mushrooms and tofu, Yuet Lee never disappoints.
Timmie Yu, the co-owner and chef of Yuet Lee restaurant at Broadway and Stockton, was born in Hong Kong. His family moved there from the province of Canton during the Communist Revolution. He started working at the family restaurant when he was 15.
His family moved again in 1977 to San Francisco. Yu was almost 18 when he began cooking at Yuet Lee with his brother, Michael, who was the head chef and 14 years older.
“As far as cooking, I learned a lot from my brother, and my father especially,” says Yu.
In their first few years of business, the signature dishes of salt and pepper squid and clams with black bean sauce were written up in The New York Times.
I remember walking by Yuet Lee, already a fan, and seeing a photo of Michael Yu in the window, fire exploding from the wok he was stirring. They were an overnight sensation.
Michael Yu was not to see the long-running success of Yuet Lee. He was shot in a bar in 1984.
“The police never found out anything. It was a big shock to my family. People pass away, but the work goes on,” Yu explains.
I asked him if he ever thought he’d like to work at something else – on a boat, teach or be an architect.
“In the older times, you couldn’t think like that, think of what you wanted to be; you had no choice, you must work for the family,” Yu says.
“But I never considered doing anything but cooking – it’s given me so much – my friends, the ability to take care of my family.”
He is married to Theresa and has two teenage sons, Alvin and Edgar. Yu is leaving the boys’ career plans up to them. So far they’ve haven’t shown an interest in cooking.
Because Yuet Lee is a Hong Kong-style restaurant, it is very important to buy the freshest seafood.
“We check the quality every day of everything that comes in – if it isn’t up to our standards, we send it back,” says Yu.
“We used to have freshwater snake eel. Now it isn’t allowed because of over-fishing, so we took it off the menu,” he says.
“The number one thing about food is that it is in season and fresh,” he explains.
I asked if Yu ever worries that seafood will become scarce in the future?
“I think about it, but there is nothing I can do.”
As far as other ingredients, he tries to buy locally as much as possible.
When it comes to his rules about food, Yu sounds like a Slow Food devotee, but he is not a convert. He’s speaking from his cultural tradition.
young and talented
I learned about 25-year-old mixologist and bar manager Jacqueline Patterson through friends who raved about her signature drinks at Orson, the new edgy restaurant South of Market.
It’s difficult to categorize Orson, except to say that some of the techniques and flourishes of Daniel Patterson’s Coi are evident. But whereas Coi is restful and restorative, Orson is all go-go: loud, zesty fun.
Patterson (no relation to Daniel Patterson) fits right into the fun-filled stew.
Some people might say, “Hey wait a minute, how does a mixologist get to be in the same league as a chef who studies for years and spends long hours perfecting his or her skills?”
In my opinion, bar chefs, who make all their own mixes from scratch, experiment and secure new and historical spirits, and create new and intriguing cocktails or revive the classics, are as dedicated in their field as food chefs.
Patterson was born in Bethesda Naval hospital in Maryland and grew up on Oahu. She came to San Francisco on a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute where she studied art and photography. Like many college students, she needed to work to make it in the City, so she began waitressing and hosting.
While working as a hostess at Frisson, she met chef Daniel Patterson, and she also became acquainted with bartender Duggan McDonnell, who is one of the City’s cocktail pioneers.
Eighteen months ago on a whim, she entered a cocktail competition at Rye, one of the new-wave cocktail bars in the City.
“The contest featured Corzo Silver Tequila – that made my head spin because I thought,
‘What do you do with Tequila besides make margaritas?’”
She settled on a fruity approach, inspired by the fruit markets of Mexico, and a popular snack, sliced fresh mango doused with chili and lime.
“I created a cocktail called the ‘Agua Caliente,’ a shaken blend of Corzo Silver Tequila, fresh lime juice, mango puree, Triple Sec, and a dash of Campari, served with a chili, salt and lime rim,” Patterson explains.
She won first place, some cash and membership in the United States Bartenders’ Guild.
Subsequently, because of the guild, she placed in several contests, and got to associate with the cocktail movers and shakers of San Francisco like Jeff Hollinger of Absinthe.
Patterson’s next stop was Le Colonial, the stylish French-Vietnamese restaurant in midtown where she reinvented the cocktail menu.
So, I ask, how did you wind up at Orsons?
“I met star San Francisco chef Elizabeth Falkner in the fall of 2007 when she was walking her cute dogs near the Ferry Building. We just started chatting, and she told me about her new restaurant project, and how they were in the process of looking for someone to do the cocktail program. I gave her my e-mail address, thinking I would never hear from her again. A month and a half later, I got an e-mail offering me the opportunity of a lifetime.”
On a recent night, I tasted, and I do mean tasted, several of Patterson’s creations. The “Lady from Shanghai” concentrates on gin, passion fruit and grapefruit juice without being sweet. It’s a showstopper topped with fragrant osmanthus flower foam.
Another killer drink, “Touch of Evil,” changed my mind about bourbon, which I have always despised. It also features mint, lemon juice, absinthe, and rhubarb syrup. And a wacky “Celery Gimlet” tasted almost healthful, except for the gin.
“Prohibition in this country really set back the evolution of the cocktail. Today we’re catching up,” Patterson explains.
What a great time not to be a teetotaler.
Epic Roasthouse: 369 The Embarcadero (near Folsom); lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner nightly 5:30-10 p.m., brunch Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 415-369-9955,
Coi: 373 Broadway St. (near Montgomery); dinner Tuesday-Saturday
5:30-10 p.m.; 415-393-9000,
Yuet Lee: 1300 Stockton St. (at Broadway); lunch & dinner Wednesday-Monday 11 a.m.-3 a.m.; 415-982-6020
Orson: 508 4th St. (at Bryant); dinner Monday-Saturday from 6 p.m.; 415-777-1508, www.orsonsf.com
GraceAnn Walden, a former cook, wrote about restaurants for 16 years, and now leads tours of San Francisco neighborhoods. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org