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Food for Thought

Two local foodies dish on the East Bay’s unique food scene, what today’s diners want, and the future of dining out in the 925


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With the arrival of more and more new restaurants—Incontro Ristorante, Uncle Yu’s at the Vineyard, Forbes Mill Steakhouse—the East Bay culinary scene keeps moving in exciting new directions. To discuss all the developments and just what makes our local scene tick, Diablo sat down with two prominent food experts, KGO Radio’s Dining Around host Gene Burns and Walnut Creek’s Prima Ristorante co-owner and chef Peter Chastain.

Diablo: How did each of you land in the Bay Area, and what do you think is special about our food scene?

Burns: I’m an East Coast guy and worked most of my career on the East Coast, but I came out [west] in 1995. I say, and I think I say this without fear of contradiction, that Northern California is the capital of American gastronomy. My good friends in New York City hate it when I say that, but we have Wine Country, we have the produce of the valleys, we have the fishery of the Pacific Ocean and the Sacramento Delta. No other food center in America, however good the restaurants are, has the depth and feeder system that we have.

Chastain: I was born in Berkeley. According to my mother, I was aged there, not raised there. I started in the restaurant business really young; I think I was 13. [It was at] Café Romano [in Berkeley]. A Greek man who was brought up in Germany owned it. It was part hofbrau and part pizzeria. I think at one point they had a flaming pizza.

Diablo: We all hear the terms seasonal, organic, and local like a mantra these days. Do you think the sustainable food movement is the definitive theory of our era?

Burns: When I first moved out to San Francisco eleven years ago, I [went] to Whole Foods and inadvertently bought organic eggs. But whatever they were, I made my eggs that day, and I took the first forkful and remembered my grandparents’ lake cottage and my grandmother cooking eggs in lard, poaching them in lard. Why? Because the eggs I ate then, they bought from the local egg farmer, and because they had a particular taste that you don’t get from factory-produced eggs.

We’ve gone back to the future, happily. We tried industrialization. It made a lot of economic sense. It didn’t, however, make a lot of culinary sense.

Chastain: Jumping on the bandwagon of industrialization was done without great consciousness of what the repercussions would be. When it was discovered what the repercussions were, actually fairly early—[when] Masanobu Fukuoka wrote The One-Straw Revolution in [1975], and the Cal Berkeley gardens began to do organic garden experiments—there was such massive economic investment in [industrial agriculture] that it took literally decades to get where we are now: to get agribusiness on board with the fact that we will destroy the environment and we will destroy our own food chain if we don’t reverse this kind of monster we’ve created. Culturally, now I think it has been broadly accepted.

I have to remind myself constantly that I am a cook and not a polemicist. But the whole subject of organics, of sourceability, is one of the big subjects of our time.

Diablo: What do you think diners are looking for today?Chastain: There seems to be some kind of a desire, a cultural desire, for different levels of cuisine—haute cuisine and more moderate cuisine—to blend. There is a desire to get upscale preparations at a more moderate price and the other way, too: to get more country or more rustic or local or simple food in a more upscale venue and with a more upscale presentation.

We do a little of that swinging from vine to vine here at Prima, but it’s really a challenge, because doing the upscale thing, it’s hard to go down, because of the cost.

Burns: I remember when I went to Alsace, we went to the L’Auberge de l’Ill for lunch. Lunch for two was 400 bucks. I remember later interviewing [the chef, Paul Haeberlin]. I said, “I was sort of sad, in that, I was in Alsace, which is a sort of a country setting, and I was thinking maybe I would get pot-au-feu or something like that.” And he said, “Well, we cook that. We eat it in the kitchen, but we can’t put that on the menu. We’re a three-star Michelin [restaurant].” And, as Peter just suggested, if they did put pot-au-feu on the menu, given the staff they have to support, the haute cuisine—which they do—they’d have to charge you $50 for it. And people won’t pay $50. So Paul Haeberlin was sort of wistful about it.

Diablo: What do you see as the challenges of running a fine-dining restaurant in Walnut Creek?

Chastain: When I came here seven years ago, everybody I knew said, “You’re out of your mind.” I knew I was onto something that I could do well. And I don’t believe, really, in the idea that one clientele is better than another. But the conventional wisdom is that the clientele is more sophisticated, the venues are more sophisticated, and so on, in San Francisco. And you can’t deny that; to some degree, there’s some truth to that. There continues to be a challenge for me here at Prima: to make this a bona fide big city–feeling restaurant.

Burns: But less so now than seven years ago?

Chastain: Way less.

Burns: So you’re saying there’s a significant development of new restaurants, new restaurant concepts, and refining what was here?

Chastain: That, population growth, income growth, and the growth of the dining-out scene in general—nationally, not only in the Bay Area—have given us a boost.

I have to say that one of the most common comments that I receive at Prima is, “We never thought we’d find something like this here. We’re so glad this is here.” I always receive that with a sense of pride on the one hand and a twinge of sadness on the other. Because I think that, actually, this community really is growing, and I think that people are going to be very shocked 10 years from now to find a level of quality here that’s every bit as high as any big city.

Diablo: Is it possible to foster real food and quality cooking even in suburban settings, such as strip malls?

Chastain: Remember that you can have the swankiest and most sophisticated-looking context, and have awful meals.

What we’re faced with in communities where we want to raise the bar is just not being afraid to cook well. To put it out there.

When I serve aged aceto balsamico here, it’s 12 to 30 years old. It’s $100 a bottle. And we do it every night. And people like it.

Burns: This is where there is a certain degree of magic. Talking about developing new communities and will the new food scene develop—it can. It’ll take two indispensable ingredients: a creative cook who serves good food and a loyal clientele that keeps coming back. You can’t beat that combination. You could put that in a cave, and it’ll succeed.

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