Situated in a prime piece of Embarcadero real estate, the months-old Coqueta, Michael Chiarello’s much-anticipated San Francisco/Spanish debut, boasts a phenomenal view (and front row seats for the... delightful? ridiculous? insert your adjective of choice America’s Cup), an inspired menu of pixtos (and equally inspired list of cocktails), and a 7x7 Next Culinary Star-nominated chef, Ryan McIlwraith. I met McIlwraith last Friday, the 5th of July, at three in the afternoon; we took seats at the corner of the bar that runs the length of the window, in the section of the resto being called Bar 5. And the place was going off. Whether this is attributable to the holiday, the location, the buzz, the view, the afore-adjectived America's Cup, or the food is anyone’s guess. But, I can objectively report that McIlwraith, tapped for Coqueta by Chiarello from his Yountville restaurant Bottega, was mellow, soft-spoken, inclined to take a minute to think before speaking, and unfazed by the occasional shatter of a glass.
Here, we talk vintage food trucks, who'd win in a fried chicken-foie gras face-off, and fear of the dark.
If your decision to become a chef could be traced to a single food memory, what would it be?
When I was young, I moved to the Caribbean. I was 8 years old, and we moved to St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, and there’d be all these trucks, these crazy food vendors, so like eating callaloo, meat patties, all these things I’d never had before, and I loved them. I remember them all, so I’d really trace it back to that crazy experience when I was young.
You have a guest at home you want to impress. What’s the go-to meal?
Ummm. [Takes a sip of water; it soon becomes clear that sipping is his stall tactic.] If I have a guest I want to impress at home, I’m mainly going to try not to make a mess. Because as a chef, you’ll just use every single pot and pan, so I’d try to do like a one-pan dish. Like roasted lamb rack, and then deglaze it for a sauce, so there’s only one pot that’s dirty.
Genius. If somebody could only eat here once, what should they order?
The sunny-side up egg with chorizo dressing, potatoes, and shrimp.
Also genius. What do you think is the best dining experience in the Bay Area other than here?
[Sip. Crash in the background… another sip] I eat out so little because with the restaurant I have real little time. I have this list, but haven’t eaten at many of them.
Any favorites so far?
I really like Mission Chinese; I like Thai food so Lers Ros is really good.
What’s the most outrageous thing that’s ever gone down here?
Here? Well we’ve only been open a couple of months, so…
So, TBD. Let’s try this instead: Is there a legendary, outrageous incident that happened at another restaurant sometime in your past?
[Sip, long pause.] I should have looked at the ten questions…[A cappuccino arrives. More sips; more pause.] Okay I got one! This one time I was the chef at Bottega and the power in the whole town of Yountville went out, and it was like 8 or 9 at night. Full restaurant, the power goes out, none of the generators came on, but we had this restaurant full of people and kind of gave them the option to stay or not, and then we went into emergency mode. We had burners, we had a grill set up out in the parking lot and we attached flashlights to people’s heads. After about 30 minutes some people decided to leave and we said okay. It was pitch black, people were like walking in groups and holding hands, it was really – it went back to the Stone Age… some people are scared of the dark. It was really just this odd feeling. We put candles on all of the tables, and the people who decided to stay still remember it.
I think we did forty or fifty dinners, people running back and forth, grabbing food, putting it on the grill, but that sticks out in my mind as something really outrageous.
Definitely. And a victory! Alright. Uh, less victorious: You kill your sommelier and you’re on death row. What is your final meal?
[Laughing. Then sip. Then silence.] Fried chicken. Fried chicken, waffles, collard greens. And a cold beer.
Sounds good. Did you do some time in the south?
No, although I want to do a barbecue vacation! But I love comfort food. I’d rather have fried chicken than foie gras any day.
And fried chicken is legal! One ingredient you could not live without?
Good olive oil.
Favorite food city?
Any places in particular?
God, there’s so many. There’s so many. For Italian, Marea; for Spanish, Tertulia, umm, I mean, so many.
Fair enough. Fill in the blank. People might be surprised to see me eating ___.
[Another crash; he remains impressively unfazed.] I eat pretty healthy when I’m at home; when I’m out not so much; when I’m at work not so much, so people might be surprised that it’s Kombucha at home.
And finally: bacon. Awesome, or overrated?
Awesome. [No hesitation on that one.] It’s a little overused, but it’s still awesome. See now, if I’d known what the ten questions were, I would have rehearsed.
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