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Best of Northside Food & Wine 2008
Chefs of the year: Independent spirits
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
Photos by Elizabeth Armstrong

As the owner of two independent publications, I can relate to our 2008 chefs of the year, the “independent spirits” who forgo comfortable jobs with established restaurants to do what they love the way they want to do it. In a world of Pac-Man-like conglomeration, it is exciting to see that there are still chefs out there who are willing to work harder than they ever imagined, and risk it all to turn their visions and dreams into reality.

Ben de Vries: Luella
1896 Hyde St. (at Green), 415-674-4343,

Ben de Vries was well on his way to becoming comfortable – he received fantastic reviews for his work at LuLu and Andalu, and he turned down a six-figure offer to be the executive chef at the Cliff House’s upscale eatery, Sutro’s. But when he and his wife, Rachel, had their daughter, Gemma, he knew it was just going to get physically and mentally tougher to stand behind the stoves for hours at a time. “I didn’t want to be a puppet,” de Vries explains. “If I was going to work 100 hours a week, it was going to be for me, not for someone else.”

His charming Mediterranean restaurant on Russian Hill, Luella, will celebrate its 4th anniversary on Nov. 17.

What makes a chef an independent spirit? De Vries says that’s an easy one: “If you don’t have investors; if you’re putting your money on the line and watching the bank account, you are an independent spirit.”

Brenda Buenviaje: Brenda’s French Soul Food
652 Polk Street (at Eddy), 415-345-8100,
Chef and owner Brenda Buenviaje was born in New Orleans to a Filipino-Creole family who supported her artistic and culinary talents. After graduating from Louisiana State University with a BFA in painting and drawing, she followed her other love, cooking, to a string of noteworthy New Orleans restaurants, including Mike’s on the Avenue. Ten years ago, Buenviaje settled in the Bay Area, where she gained recognition as executive chef at the well-regarded Oritalia on Union Square, and at other eateries including Sumi in the Castro, downtown’s beloved Café Claude, and Delessio Market and Bakery. She could have rested on her laurels and let someone else pay the bills, but Buenviaje’s ambition and love of her native cuisine finally led her to open a place of her own.

Carlo Middione: Vivande
2125 Fillmore Street (at California), 415-346-4430,
When Carlo Middione and his wife, Lisa, opened Vivande in 1981, most Americans still thought that an Italian dinner consisted of spaghetti and meatballs. For over a quarter of a century, Middione has quietly and humbly turned out authentic, traditional southern Italian dishes like pollo al mattone and frittata di verdure using only the freshest local and highest quality imported ingredients. Middione never bowed to trends like low-fat or low-carb – he just kept making food the way his Sicilian immigrant parents, both in the restaurant business before coming to America, taught him. Somewhere along the way, what he was doing became a trend – the olive oil- and seafood-based Mediterranean diet caught on, as did restaurants that celebrated regional Italian cuisine like Delfina, Quince and A16.

Flora Gaspar: Da Flora
701 Columbus Avenue (at Filbert), 415-981-4664,
Venetian-inspired Da Flora has been a well-respected, well-loved institution on the outskirts of North Beach for over a decade. Owner Flora Gaspar, bread and pastry guru Mary Beth Marks, and chef Jen McMahon are a great example of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy – they have a winning formula that keeps people coming back. From the handwritten menu to delightful dishes like roast asparagus with quail egg salad, dining at Da Flora feels comfortable and homey, and a bit like sharing a meal with family and friends.

Mike and Tim Selvera: Bar Crudo
603 Bush Street (at Stockton), 415-956-0396,
I first tasted Mike Selvera’s food at Cafe Maritime, where he was the opening chef. At the time I remember thinking that his sensitivity to ingredients, keen sense of seasoning and sleek, modern presentation seemed wasted on what was basically an upscale seafood shack. At Bar Crudo, the diminutive restaurant he and his twin brother, Tim, who runs the front of the house, opened together, Selvera is able to use all of his skills in dishes like rich cubes of Arctic char with creamy horseradish and dill, and pristine raw scallops with orange, fennel, olive, and mint. In December, the brothers Selvera are set to move the restaurant from its tiny home on Bush Street to bigger digs on Divisadero in the NOPA neighborhood where Mike lives.

Dennis Leary:
Canteen and The Sentinel
817 Sutter Street (at Jones), 415-928-8870,
37 New Montgomery Street (at Stevenson), 415-284-9960,
After working in restaurants from the age of 14 and graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Wheaton College with a degree in English literature, Dennis Leary wound up at the renowned Rubicon. In less than two years, he was appointed executive chef. With a comfortable paycheck, a job at a respected restaurant, and accolades pouring in, Dennis Leary did what any true independent spirit would do – he left it all to open a 20-seat diner where the Tenderloin meets Nob Hill in the Commodore Hotel. At Canteen, Leary serves wonderful brunches, lunches and dinners and continues to garner those accolades while doing something he loves. He still mans Canteen’s kitchen at dinner, but his mornings and afternoons are now spent at The Sentinel, his new, even tinier seatless breakfast and lunch hot spot in the Financial District. Leary posts his revolving menu and specials online each day, and workers flock from their cubicles to sample tasty items like corned beef on flatbread with Gruyere, turkey meatloaf with cranberries, and pork loin with figs and Manchego.


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