Farina's World Pesto Champ
You may have heard a tidbit here or there about Danny Bowien, the 25-year-old chef at Farina, winning the Pesto World Championship in Genoa, Italy back in April. But in my humble opinion, none of us has heard enough about this accomplishment. So I headed over to Farina the other day to talk with Bowien and his mentor, Farina executive chef Paolo Laboa, a Genoese who taught his mother’s recipe to Bowien in Farina’s kitchen.
As we talked, Bowien brought out a plate of freshly made pasta sheets crowned with the award-winning sauce. The first thing you notice is the beautiful pea green color and the creamy consistency—there are no bits of garlic or pine nuts or chunks of basil to be seen. (And no food processors are allowed—just a marble mortar and pestle.) The second thing you notice is the multi-layered taste: all at once verdant, herbaceous, nutty, slightly cheesy, even silky, and clean. Yes, clean. No matter how much of it you eat, you don’t taste garlic or basil in your mouth afterward. The seven ingredients—basil, pine nuts, olive oil, sea salt, parmesan, pecorino and garlic—are perfectly balanced, to the extent that you can begin to imagine how a 25-year-old Korean-American kid with tattoo-covered arms won out over more than 100 other chefs, 80 percent of whom hail from Liguria, where the sauce was born.
How did you end up here at Farina cooking with Paolo?
Bowien: I went to cooking school when I was 19, then moved to New York for two years and cooked in lots of restaurants. After I moved back to SF, I was cooking in four places including Bar Crudo, Tsunami and Slow Club. I was learning about sushi, about fish, about all kinds of different preparations. When I came here, Paolo asked me why I was working in so many places and told me I should come here and just work one job.
What was the competition like?
Bowien: I didn’t know I’d be doing the sauce alone. I thought I was going to be helping Paolo. The night before, we were staying at Paolo’s mother-in-law’s house, and I started getting really nervous. It was my first time in Italy. Paolo was telling me, “Don’t worry, I’ll be right next to you. We’ll talk in English and I’ll talk you through it.” But the next day it turned out I was cooking alone; he was clear across the other side of the room.
Were you being purposefully sneaky, Paolo?
Laboa: I knew he was going to win. The morning of the competition, I told him, “You’re going to win.”
How did you know that?
Laboa: My mother.
Your [late] mother told you he’d win?
Laboa: No. It’s my mother’s sauce, passed down from my grandmother and great-grandmother. My mom taught me how to balance the ingredients. I knew it would win. But it’s not just the sauce. Danny has huge potential as a chef. Plus, Danny and I have the same fate. When I was 25, I was named Best Young Chef in Italy. I’m very ... como se dice? .... proud.
Bowien: I came to work for Paolo because I wanted to learn how to make real food from a real chef. Molecular gastronomy is cool; it has its place. But as things get more out there, you see that eventually they plateau and then come back to basics. People nowadays call themselves chefs but they can’t break down a whole animal, they can’t bake. Paolo is the real thing.