Born and bred Bay Area boy Brad Lev knows how to dig deep into the psyche of celebrated San Francisco chefs. He does just that as host of Studio Gourmet, a monthly food talk show involving three ingredients – a live cooking demo, an intimate Q&A, and a tasting.
The most recent Studio Gourmet featured Lori Baker, pastry chef, and Jeff Banker, chef de cuisine, married owners and operators of the Pacific Heights hot spot Baker & Banker. Circolo provided an industrial (though drafty) backdrop for the episode with its open kitchen, strong cocktails, and accommodating space. Before the show, there was ample opportunity to mingle with Baker and Banker, who first met 12 years ago while working in Postrio in the Prescott Hotel (and they ironically had their first date at Circolo).
After growing up in the peninsula, host Brad Lev headed south, where he operated an event catering business in a 5,000-square foot space in Atlanta for 14 years. The space was ideal for his side project “Lit Kitchen,” an occasion to learn innovative techniques in the kitchen. Lev hosted theme nights like Get Lit at Sunset and Tango & Tapas. Now back home in the Bay, the events director at 1300 Fillmore dons his burgundy blazer once a month to host his version of Inside the Actor’s Studio, spotlighting local chefs as the stars.
The cooking demo began and silence filled the room as Jeff chopped chives for a salsa verde, and melted butter, sweat onions, and toasted grains for a farro risotto. I wondered how Banker could produce a risotto in demo cooking time. Admittedly, he pointed out, “it takes awhile, 45 minutes to an hour – but it’s totally worth it. Farro is an underutilized grain.”
After about 30 minutes, the cooking demo portion was over; everyone took a break to refresh their drinks, and eventually migrated to an adjacent room. Jeff and Lori sat up front under a spotlight while an animated Lev dove into questions about family background, childhoods, and first jobs. Their answers painted the setting for the eventual paths of Lori’s pastry career and Jeff’s rise from sous to executive chef. Banker recalled the smell of prime rib cooking in his house on Fridays and Baker mused over writing countless sugary messages on heaps of birthday cakes.
Not only did the audience learn about the chefs and owners, but Baker and Banker also gave us insider knowledge on the restaurant itself. What was once Robert and then the Meeting House, Baker & Banker’s wine room was one of the biggest cocaine dens in San Francisco in the ‘80s (and was predictably busted).
Lev leaves no topic off limits as he inquires about their take on culinary school, the trials and tribulations of opening a restaurant in San Francisco, their influences in cooking (of course mom came up), and their favored restaurants in the city (Delfina and Flour+Water). Jeff Banker divulged that he religiously attends the weekly Chef’s Market in Marin; he “maybe missed three weeks in the last eight years.” We even heard which celebrities they would go gaga for if they walked in (Oprah and Mick Jagger). Lev effortlessly extracts answers to fun and often tough questions - best day at the restaurant, worst day at the restaurant, salt or pepper, and (more pastry chef appropriate) vanilla or hazelnut (Baker prefers vanilla). The audience also gets a chance at Q&A at the end of Lev’s gentle grilling.
An evening at the Studio Gourmet concludes with a tasting of a signature dish from the chef de cuisine. Banker’s farro risotto tasted earthy and creamy with its mushroom stock base and drizzle of fresh salsa verde. Baker dished up a decadent and rich (without feeling overly heavy) pumpkin cobbler. Old friends caught up, new friends networked and exchanged info, and Lev and the chefs fused with the crowd.
Check out Studio Gourmet’s website, sign up for its newsletter, follow it on Twitter, or fan it on Facebook to keep tabs on the next events in December and January. Studio Gourmet also has a channel on UStream.com.