How well can you get to know a chef in 15 minutes?
I meet Matthew Accarrino, SPQR’s celebrated executive chef, late one Tuesday morning at the Filmore Street restaurant. He’s standing at the counter, drinking iced coffee, tapping on his laptop. “What do you think about this put-an-egg-on-it trend?” he asks, by way of greeting. “Well,” I start, wondering if this is a test, “Honestly, I’m a sucker for anything with an egg on it.”
“All food writers are!” he says, explaining that he’s working on something for Men’s Health and disagrees with their suggestion to add eggs for protein. Citing fat, he suggests quinoa instead.
We retire to a table where Accarrino proves both cerebral and capable of delivering a sound bite as smoothly as he can a bite of smoked fettuccini with urchin, bacon and (ahem) quail egg. We talk water, power, and the seven deadly sins.
If your decision to become a chef could be traced to one food memory, what is it?
My third grade birthday party. My grandmother, who was Puglian, came from Boston to New Jersey, where I grew up, to make Sicilian-style pizza. She worked all day, brought her pans, the whole nine yards, and I was upset because I wanted the same pizza as every other kid’s birthday party, which was crap… I’ve thought about that so much, what a huge thing that was; it was the best pizza I’d ever had, and I had no idea… I don’t know if in that moment I realized I wanted to be a chef, but looking back I realize how profound the gift of food can be. That’s been inspirational my whole life.
Did you ever tell her?
Okay. You have guests at home you want to impress; what’s the go-to meal?
Something like pot pie. Whether beef, black truffles and red wine; chicken, curry and vegetables; lamb and coconut. And a beautiful crust… Larger things look impressive, serve lots of people, you can assemble everything ahead. It’s always impressive to serve dinner without doing much while guests are there.
Artichoke agnolotti, photo by Ed Anderson
If someone could only eat at SPQR once, what should they order?
They should ask me to cook for them... For me, the purpose of being a chef is to define a style, quality and aesthetic people can count on. Do that, and the smartest people make the best use of that… If I know I’m only visiting a restaurant once, ordering off a menu is like picking lottery numbers. What are the chances you’ll win? I submit they’re not good enough!… People I’ve cooked for, for better or worse, that becomes the M.O. Most don’t even look at menus anymore.
Other than here, what’s the best dining experience in the Bay Area?
My mind goes to special occasions, places you’ll travel hours for things you won’t see anywhere else… Chris [Kostow] at Meadowood, Cory [Lee] at Benu, the French Laundry. We’re incredibly lucky to have a vibrant group of chefs constantly pushing the envelope, not competing against each other as much as with ourselves; that’s really evident in the food… The best dining experience to be had in the Bay Area could very well be the next one you have. You can’t say that everywhere.
True. What’s the most outrageous thing that’s gone down here?
One night the power went out ten minutes before we opened, everything’s ready, reservations booked, no power. No phone, no register, no OpenTable, no guest information... We call PG&E, call off reservations, put everything away upstairs, put everything on ice... I came back at 8 pm that night, and the power was on!
Ouch. You killed your sommelier—no, PG&E guy—and are on death row. Last meal?
Things I can’t seem to get. Wild caviar; now in California, foie gras... Things are luxurious for a reason, they should be eaten sparingly; too often we haven’t done that, and many of them no longer exist, or they exist, but not the way they once were. Being able to flash back to when those things were there would be my ideal way to experience life before the curtains close.
Speaking of. One ingredient you can’t live without?
Water. I always say to my cooks, we’re in the business of handling water. Transferring water from one place to another… Everything to do with deepening flavor almost always has to do with removing water. So water, while completely necessary, half the time we’re trying to remove it. Roasting vegetables, searing meat, reducing a sauce.
Photo by Ed Anderson
Interesting. Favorite food city?
I love San Francisco, but Chicago’s surprised me. I worked there briefly a long time ago and all I remembered was it was cold. I’ve been lucky to go back quite a few times—so many cool, great restaurants. The chef community is exploding and Chicago has its own food culture, which is nice to see… I’m from New York, New Jersey but via New York, so it has a special place in my heart but it’s more international… They’re both great, in addition to San Francisco, where I’m happy to call home.
Fill in the blank. People might be surprised to see me eating ___.
I eat the occasional Reese’s peanut butter cup, but the older I get, the healthier I eat... I’m the guy that’s roasting vegetables, eating quinoa, making snacks that are bound with date puree. Would that surprise people?
Perhaps. And finally, bacon. Awesome, or overrated?
All ingredients are awesome; they become overrated if they become a crutch. The best chefs can identify their own weaknesses and try and strengthen them. Not just chefs; that applies to everybody… Years ago, with some cooks, we all worked in fairly high-end restaurants and joked about the seven deadly sins. Foie, lobster, truffles, caviar, beef, potatoes…
Is putting an egg on top one of them?
Probably should be. If every dish uses them, the menu kind of writes itself. It’s that same notion—a crutch; you’re ignoring the other things… Moving here, my thinking was sort of, being closer to the source of all this product, it should be easier to do my job... Diversity of ingredients, diversifying your techniques and talents is important; every good chef recognizes that.