What was your first memory of cooking and what did you cook?
A BLT – in the kitchen with my grandmother, using tomatoes and lettuce from the garden I weeded, bacon from the smokehouse my family worked at, and wonder bread and best foods mayonnaise course.
What is a knife you cannot live without?
Mutsumi Hinoura 180mm Wa-Santoku Aogami Supe
What is one ingredient you cannot cook without?
Capers. They’re like tiny little secret weapons, careful with them though.
When did you know you wanted to become a chef?
When I was 16 and got my first restaurant job, I was obsessed and never thought twice about it.
What about when you knew you wanted to become a restaurant proprietor?
When I was 32 and realized it was time to step out of my comfort zone and welcome new challenges.
Share more about PRAIRIE? The menu? The inspiration? For those who haven’t been what should they know besides how fabulous the food and vibe is?
I wanted to create the modern version of a neighborhood grill, in fact our small kitchen doesn’t even have gas, just runs off a couple of wood-fired grills, one from Spain, one from Texas. We place a heavy emphasis on vegetables and draw from an expanded pantry beyond Italian ingredients. There isn’t anything fancy about this place, we’re perfectly happy having a restaurant that is fun and maybe a bit quirky – like all of the bottled beers are Japanese, there are 1950s conceptual space colony paintings on the indigo-dyed walls, we take everything pretty seriously except for ourselves.
Who has been the most influential mentor/chef in your career?
My business partner, Kathy Chan.
With an 11-year career with Delfina and Locanda what inspired you to leave that incredible organization and start your own restaurant?
I grew quite a bit there, opened 5 out of the 6 restaurants, grew into the role I wanted leading the company, and decided it was time for a change. It’s been amazing to try new things, let loose a bit and create a business of my own, one that reflects who I am, the kinds of aesthetic, values, and maybe a bit of zanniness I want to contribute to the world.
There is talk in the culinary world about how Chef’s run/lead a kitchen and the environment it creates for their teams. What is your style? How does this compare to some of the high-pressure kitchens you have worked in?
We have a pretty small, closely-knit team here. Since I’m pretty involved in the FOH and bar as well I try to bring a constant level of positive energy to each part of the operation. I think the team seeing this from me is important, it becomes infectious, and so even though there is still a lot of pressure people can feel like they are valued and want to give it their best, get better everyday.
What was your inspiration behind the PRAIRIE “New School Italian” menu? What are some of the staples dishes that will remain on the menu year-round and what are some of your most popular and successful seasonal dishes?
Kind of funny, we started out quite a bit more Italian than we are now at 8 months in, kind played to what I was most familiar with, but since we’ve been in the space it has grown so much. I’m sure my cooking/taste/aesthetic will always lean towards Italian, but I’m not necessarily married to it. One of the dishes that perfectly sums up what we’re all about is the charred cabbage, which delivers with the impact of steak – half a head of the humble vegetable is roasted until it is creamy throughout and then heavily grilled, we drench it with a beurre blanc made with dried scallops, shower it with a ton of torn herbs.
What was one of the biggest mistakes you made the first year as a restaurant owner?
Lol. I’ve made so many mistake I don’t know where to start, the past year has been tremendous for growth and learning. I would say nothing is more important than the people you choose to work and align yourself with.
What is your favorite after work drink?
My wind-down drink is a cup of hot water with raw honey and Braggs apple cider vinegar, really great for you and puts you down immediately to sleep like a baby.
What is your favorite local San Francisco dining spot?
So I know this is a little weird, but I love going to Hillstone on the Embarcadero. My free time is pretty rare these days, and since I’m generally so absorbed in the trending restaurant/cooking world it is a relief to just be able to check out, eat a French dip, and be some place “normal” without running into anyone or sitting through 5 minute long dish explanations.
AbV. Hands down.
Tell us something that would surprise people about you?
People don’t expect this from chefs, but I’m big into taking care of myself. My most important assets are my body, mind and soul, so keeping them on track and healthy are of utmost importance. I hold tightly to an intense daily morning, practice yoga, meditate regularly, eat healthy, and carve out time to engage in active learning, read and play violin.