About an hour before meeting Chef Mark Hopper, I get an email from his publicist. “FYI,” it says, “Chef HATES the last meal question”—referring, of course, to the one of my ten questions wherein I suggest the chef in question has killed his or her sommelier, found his or herself on death row, and must decide on a final meal.
Hopper, the storied (just google "Grant Achatz’s memoir Life on the Line" for details) French Laundry/TKRG alum is currently Executive Chef of Farmshop, Jeffrey Cerciello’s months-old Larkspur Landing spot whose artichoke-burrata dish has already earned a legion of followers, and whose arrival seems destined to make the marketplace a culinary destination.
Despite the frightening prelude, chef Hopper proved down to earth and thoughtful, with a taste not just for the finer things—but for the simple things, done well. Here, we talk the French Laundry, the Ferry Building, and donuts.
If your decision to become a chef could be traced to a single food memory, what would it be?
As cliché as it sounds, making people happy. My grandmother’s house was always the favorite place to go, because my grandfather made his own pasta, made his own wine, grew his own vegetables, went to the well for water. As a kid, we didn’t get toys for presents; we got homemade pasta in homemade wicker baskets and that was our gift… I’d always look forward to going there.
That’s so great. Okay. You have a guest at home you want to impress. What’s the go-to meal?
Cacio e pepe, which is spaghetti with pepper and pecorino. It’s just a great dish that actually Chef Jeff [Cerciello] and I had… one time many years ago. He’s like, you gotta try this. It’s the best dish. So simple. You can’t even tell there’s three ingredients in there; it looks like it’s plain, but the flavor is amazing and it just makes a really great impression.
Yum. If somebody could only eat here once, what should they order?
Ha! Okay, barring that: what’s your favorite?
For me, it’s pizza because it’s a new addition as far as what we offer, but it’s also the artichoke, and the avocado hummus that kind of has the hook in our guests as far as the Farmshop history and what our guests have come to like us for.
What do you think is the best dining experience in the Bay Area, other than here?
It depends who you’re with, why you’re there, and your mindset going in. I’d have to say Una Pizza Napoletana; that’s where my wife and I love to go because he’s the best—he’s set the benchmark for pizza so high and his integrity and respect and approach to his craft, the attention to detail is something that correlates very well with what we do here.
What’s the most outrageous thing that has ever gone down here, or any restaurant where you’ve worked?
Can’t tell you that. I don’t know about outrageous. Um, again it depends on who you’re with, why you’re there, what the goal is.
I, uh, I can’t remember.
I hear you really hate the last meal question so I’ll spare you. Instead, let’s re-live the best meal you’ve ever had in glorious, explicit detail.
The best meal I ever had was my first experience at the French Laundry. Sometime in ’95. I was cooking for some time up to that point, but I realized during that experience that I was only cooking; I wasn’t really thinking at the level that others were thinking at. Every course that came out, I was just blown away. It was very evident that every single detail was thought of. That’s where Chef Jeff and I met in ‘96, and here we are today years later…. One of the dishes was venison with rice, I think it was ramps, and rhubarb. Everything was just perfect. It was a real awakening of what is possible if you do the work and embrace it full force you know, obviously, as still happens every day over there.
For sure. One ingredient you couldn’t live without?
Favorite food city?
That’s a tie—a three-way tie. New York, Chicago and San Francisco... I had the fortune to work with a lot of great chefs. In Chicago there’s Next and Alinea from Grant [Achatz]; in San Francisco, Una Pizza from Anthony [Mangieri]. New York, I used to go to Yakitori Totto every time I went. Everything is grilled on skewers there, chicken neck, skirt steak, grilled tofu, it all comes on these little wooden blocks and it’s two, three dollars a skewer, so you can have like 30 of them.
Then it becomes an issue of stomach space...
It’s the epitome of New York. No reservations, you can barely find it if you don’t know where it is, it’s way high up a staircase—you have to wait outside, and if you get in, you feel so lucky—you haven’t even had anything yet, but you feel so lucky that you’re there.
Alright. Fill in the blank: People might be surprised to see me eating___.
And finally. Bacon: Awesome or overrated?
Awesome but you know, everything in moderation.
Well alright. That’s all I got for ya.
So the question I didn’t answer? The answer’s pizza.
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