Chef Michael Tusk, Quince, Cotogna, San Francisco: A Seat At The Three Michelin-Starred Table

A few weeks ago I saw Chef Michael Tusk being celebrated at the Michelin Gala in New York for his restaurant Quince being awarded its third Michelin star. As I watched the photographers shuffle the three-starred chefs on the stage for a group photo, I realized that the handsome, blue eyed Tusk was one of the tallest chefs as well. The evening was the culmination of years of hard work and striving for excellence by the chef chosen as The Best Chef: Pacific by the James Beard Foundation in 2011. The New Jersey transplant has been part of the city’s fine dining scene since he opened Quince at its previous location in 2003. It was no surprise to his diners and fans that he was nominated for Outstanding Chef of the Year while his restaurant was nominated for Outstanding Service  by the JBF for 2016.

I first visited Quince at its Octavia St location the year it had first opened and it was a standout experience amongst many others in the city. The restaurant named Quince after the fruit was a warm space enlivened with prints of its namesake  while the present iteration is a soigne, polished space with rich color on the walls lit not only by the chandelier overhead but an eye catching art collection that is the pride of its owners  Over the years it has established itself as a world class dining experience and what stands out is not only the fabulous cuisine but also the level of hospitality extended to the guests. In many formal restaurants the service staff can be aloof and stiff but at Quince the personable service puts guests at ease adding to the experience. When Michael Tusk and his lovely wife and partner Lindsey speak about welcoming guests as if into their home it they really do manage to impart that experience. The restaurant has chosen to serve a seasonal tasting menu since 2015 and in this case there is no better choice as the chef really does bring the best of the seasonal to the table.

The affable, down to earth couple are a pleasure to communicate with and recently moved to their new home in Sausalito. Tusk happily shared that he loved driving over the Golden Gate Bridge to work being able to view the city that he loves while appreciating the short commute. For me the colors on the plates, the tastes that linger on my palate are matched by the many colorful stories that they shared with me.

A version of this story was published in The Daily Meal.

Michael Tusk: Three Michelin Stars for Quince, San Francisco

A few weeks ago an ecstatic team at Quince along with Chef Michael Tusk welcomed news of his restaurant in San Francisco being the recipient of a prestigious third Michelin star for San Francisco Bay Area & Wine Country 2017. When we met a few months ago it had been three years since the second Michelin star and Tusk was hopeful this year as he and his wife Lindsey had completed another refurbishment of the California Italian/French fine dining establishment. It was validation at last with the distinction of being the only restaurant in the country to gain a third star this year bringing San Francisco on par with New York in the star count. Now Quince is one of 118 such fine dining establishments around the world and Tusk finally has a seat at the three Michelin-starred table.

In the late 80’s Tusk, with an art history degree from Tulane in hand and after graduating from the CIA in New York, took off for Europe to explore its culinary traditions while working and staging at Michelin-starred restaurants. It was the Barbaresco region of north Italy that won his heart and a lifelong passion for fine Italian cuisine ensued. Tusk a consummate story teller has been sharing his stories on plates since he began his career stateside at Jeremiah Tower’s Star restaurant in 1988. A year later he joined Alice Waters Chez Panisse in Berkeley and while there for four years he imbibed the product centric philosophy which he credits for helping develop his own personal style before moving onto Oliveto for six years. Respect for Waters and his time there was evident as we chatted about Alice Waters upcoming travel to Spain, a country he is very fond of; he quipped that he would be happy to go along even if only to carry her hat!

Quince opened in 2003 and was relocated in 2009 from Octavia St to its larger quarters in Jackson Square in San Francisco. In 2010 the informal Cotogna opened next door, both restaurants inspired by the seasonal produce of the Bay Area and more recently their own dedicated farm. Many accolades and recognitions had been awarded over the years and its exemplary food and stellar service has made Quince one of the city’s top tables. In the elegant dining room lit by spectacular Murano glass chandelier artfully plated creations tantalize the palates of its well-heeled guests. The arrival of a champagne cart at the table signals that this tasting menu only dining Mecca might be a special occasion destination for many. Guests are welcome to tour the kitchen and served a small bite as they watch the efficient kitchen brigade go about its business.

dsc02675A dining experience at the elegant restaurant with its well-curated wine selection to match never fails to impress with stunning presentation and complexity of its contemporary cuisine. An indulgent creamy avocado soup set off with reserve caviar might be followed with freshly dug potatoes harvested on a staff field trip to the farm paired with oysters or a tagliolini with squid and geoduck while the sweet ending might be a Bing cherry dessert in season. Quince a distinguished member of the Relais & Chateax global fellowship of luxury restaurants and hotels around the world is definitely worth a detour to the city by the bay.

A shared love for travel, cuisine, art and architecture prompt the couple to journey around the world especially Spain, Italy, France and Japan. After being celebrated at the recent Michelin Gala in New York for the US restaurants, the couple took off for Japan on another dining odyssey, the last having been to experience Noma Japan while exploring other fine kitchens. Disarmingly down to earth Tusk enjoys engaging with guests at his restaurants and is a great conversationalist. It is refreshing to come across a chef of his stature with two extremely successful restaurants, who is just as much in awe of culinary stars as any of us.

One afternoon while the staff bustled about to set up dining room for the evening he shared an amusing story from his last visit to San Sebastián Spain. “On my last day in Spain during my visit to San Sebastián this year I decided that it was time for some good fish, somewhere right by the ocean, so we headed to ElKano in Getaria. When I walked in I noticed that on the small raised platform on the left there was a large table full of people having what sounded like a really good time. As I am seated at my table I see a gentleman go by me towards the bathrooms and I pointed him out to my wife and said ‘Guess what? Carlo Petrini just went by.’ To catch his attention I walked over to the host stand that was on his way back to his table trying to look nonchalant while I waited for him to come out. I have known Carlo for years from my time at Chez Panisse.”

“So when he went by I hailed him by his name and he immediately recognized me and said ‘Michelo, let me introduce you to my friends’ and I look over and see it’s that big party wondering who it was. He said it was a slow food gathering so we went over, me with my mediocre Italian, while my Spanish is even worse and who do I see at that table. The first person is Juan Mari Arzak, along with Ferran and Albert Adria, the Roca brothers, on each side of the table were the most well regarded chefs in the world as well as people from the Basque Culinary foundation. I was in a state of shock because I thought I was just going over to say hello to some Italians companions of Carlo never imagining who I would see. Just that morning while at lunch at another restaurant I had seen another gentleman and asked my wife if that was who I thought it was and she said ‘Yes, that is King Juan Carlos.’ So it was an amazing day seeing the King of Spain that morning while at night I saw the kings of gastronomy.”

The Daily Meal:

Your story about that wonderful day and seeing the camaraderie between these people from the industry brings to mind the question: Are we missing this spirit in our food culture in the United States?

No we don’t see that here, though sometimes it’s evident in small clichés but for the most part everyone is just doing their thing. Everyone is too busy and I don’t want to say that they are looking out for themselves, their businesses and families but I agree that it would be nice to see that spirit and awaken it.

Is our food culture more competitive stateside and more about money making than about the art and the craft?

I think part of this comes from the real estate component of our industry for example in cities like New York rents are going up exponentially. There are also other pockets in the country where this is occurring, maybe not to the extent in places such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago but still occurring. There are however some interesting food communities all over the country. I recently visited Nashville, Charleston, Portland and Maine where they are not uber competitive like in the big cities.

When I travel to places like Italy I see a lot of chefs who own their places and don’t need to turn over tables many times during the course of an evening. They don’t need to do a 120 or so covers every night to cover their expenses while others have no choice. I had a conversation recently at a farming conference about restaurants that are passed on in families The top five organic farmers/ chefs discussed why they couldn’t go on farming the land as none of their children wanted to carry on the family farm but wanted to be in tech or medicine etc. In the restaurant business it a similar story while in Europe it a more natural, human story of restaurants being passed down in families, in the US there is that constant pressure.

San Francisco has become an extremely hard city to run a restaurant and a lot of people want to come here but when they experience the cost of doing business here they realize it’s hard just like in LA and other parts of California. I have been here for 29 years and I have adapted to it but like anything else in life you have to make adjustments. There is a lot more pressure these days right from the beginning as earlier there were only magazines or newspaper reviews that gave the ability to work out some kinks when you just opened like we did cross town at the original location. We spent ten thousand dollars on that kitchen since that was all the money I had. Fourteen years later things are so different and we were able to get to a different level and the cooking and some of the clientele has changed over the years. At this stage we didn’t have that pressure from day one to take off from the moment you open the doors. Nowadays when you open a new place the younger chefs face immediate pressure since there are people blogging or taking pictures right away. I am glad I didn’t come from that generation where it’s kind of scary since everything is out there in the open. You don’t really have the time to work through issues that were unexpected.

dsc02638You are a veteran in the business with two extremely successful operations, so what is your take on the impact of social media on the restaurant industry?

You just have to be open to it all just like when cameras first became prevalent in dining rooms. It was the tripods, then recordings and so on. So you can’t really shy away from it but just go on and do your thing and take it with a grain of salt. These days everyone has a device of some sort and anything can be posted whether it’s true or not and we all have to deal with it. I understand why some restaurants don’t want you to take pictures. However I feel at a certain point it’s all about ensuring that the guests are happy, that you are happy with the job you and your staff are doing and that is enough for me. I used to get worked up about stuff earlier when someone would bring out a tripod and would annoy the guests next to them but these days the phones are more unobtrusive and quick and I don’t think any more about them.

I admit when I travel I take pictures too because I like to remember something or show them to friends. Twenty years ago I could remember what I ate at a restaurant if it was that good and now sometimes you need a little help to remember. Also for inspiration or show the staff when you are impressed by something. It could be a bottle of wine or a restaurant I want to go back to, the architecture or design.

Why are more chefs like yourself becoming interested in having either dedicated or their own farms?

A lot of it has to do with education and as the owner of a restaurant my wife and I feel we owe it to our employees and guests to know where things are coming from. Twenty years ago it was exciting to go to a market and buy boxes of stuff, since there was a sense of immediacy those days. Then I thought if I could work with Peter our farm supplier on his farm I could encourage maybe one person from our staff here to go into farming, since this generation is falling off farming. At the end of the day we could share what we are using in the restaurant to let people know what is on the plates and what they are eating, since for me it is a sign of the quality of products. Many cooks or front of house who have gone to school didn’t get many opportunities as is the norm to go to work in farms and get that first hand education. Recently one of our field trips to the farm resulted in our creating a potato dish on the fall menu. One an earlier visit ground oyster shells were added to the soil and what they brought to potatoes in taste and strength to the soil is the inspiration behind that dish. Peter is a great teacher and we all planted potatoes and then we harvested them together to create the dish that they will never forget along with the experience. For me it is a perfect and honest story that we can tell in our food.

How helpful is it to have a spouse, like in your case your wife, or a partner in this business who is supportive in order to stay in the long run?

It’s pretty crucial and to get to where we are after starting in a 40-seater restaurant, then moving across town and opening two restaurants and getting other projects like the farm we couldn’t have done it without the support of each other. My wife was working in the industry when we met and since then we have been working together and it’s been the best way to spend time together. We both have a mutual interest in the design, the art being from an art background, art history for me while she comes from a design family and we combined our interests together in our work. Coming here is like going to someone’s house who collects art or cookbooks, cookware and we collect them here in the restaurant and also at home. For us it’s eventually all about being around the table and hospitality and we want to make our guests feel comfortable as if they are in our home.

There is a keen interest by chefs in social causes these days. Is this coming from a genuine desire to make a change?

Chefs are constantly asked to support various causes and it is tough to say no especially if I have asked a chef friend to support me then I have to be willing to support them. As long as it’s something new that I am able to learn about and educate the staff about then I am open to it. If I don’t agree with a cause then I choose not to participate. The role of a chef has changed in recent years and we have more of a platform not only to share our views about different causes but to actively participate in many different ways. As a chef I think we now have a greater social responsibility but when you are a young chef you end up agreeing to be part of more events. As you get older and more comfortable in your own skin you narrow your focus and choose where you want to devote your time and resources. Then your efforts are not diluted and you are able to make an impact in one cause. That is what we have done with the farm since its agricultural land and has been deeded by Peter, our farmer partner and his family so it will always remain farmland. It’s something we believe in and so have supported it.

dsc02649Is educating diners about ingredients, sourcing responsibly, and sustainability also part of a chef’s job these days? If so, how much information should be shared?

I feel you should give them as much as they ask for without being preachy. We invite everyone into the kitchen and so they get an opportunity to see what we do. If they ask for information about following our example in their own kitchen, or have questions about equipment like Pacojets, combo ovens or products, we are glad to share it with them. It’s the same when I am at the table talking to guests and if someone is engaging me I can go on all night about what they are interested in. It could be where things come from, though it’s become standard to share this information on menus.

I like the element of surprise in food when your palate tells you that there is something interesting. In that case guests might have questions about where the plate came from, where the product came from or how the dish was developed. I find that majority of guests are genuinely curious about everything from the art work, our collection of large format photography which is probably the largest in any restaurant in the world and incites a lot of interest. It is part of my personal collection and some from galleries in San Francisco so that makes it interesting for our guests to have these visual clues around. A lot of it comes from my own background of art history. You also have to respect the ones who don’t want information but just have a relaxing experience.

dsc02656You mentioned your visits to Italy and to Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. Is modern Italian cuisine becoming more the norm now?

There was a time when you wouldn’t see a lot of interaction between the regions except if say the father of the family was Piedmontese while the mother was from Napoli etc. Now you can see both tradition and innovation on menus in Italy. You can see traditional shaped tortellini along with tortellini in a capsule form which is really fascinating.

How important are the lists and Michelin awards personally to you as a chef, and are they entirely good for business?

There is some part of me that realizes that being part of a group like this is important. At the end of the day I am more concerned about what the guests experience is at my restaurant over anything else. It is a conflicting reaction and I would be lying if I said it’s not important. The third star is what everyone wants to achieve. This is what pushes people to excel.

dsc02665Is the stress of maintaining the stars or the spot on the Best Of lists worth it?

Well there is already enough stress in this job to begin with so I say bring on a little bit more. It is always stressful and I have been through a lot during my time in the industry. I remember that I didn’t get to travel a lot in the early years of having my own restaurant and spent all my time in the small kitchen at the old location. Over the years I have evolved and learned to accept this stress. I visit plenty of restaurants around the world that don’t have these accolades yet are wonderful experiences. It’s great when that passion and commitment gets recognized and rewarded as it’s well deserved in the case of restaurants like Extebarri in a remote village in Spain, where even our taxi driver got lost getting us there. This is especially true when they don’t have the resources to get recognition or press while some which are not such great experiences yet are on those lists.


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