Too Many Cooks?
Not at This Table
Eight East Bay Culinary Divas Stir Things Up
When eight East Bay culinary divas stir the pot and spill the beans, what you get is a sizzling stir fry of raucous musings, candidness, collaboration, ebullience and deliciousness.
Women in the kitchen are in the spotlight, thanks to Nora Ephron’s movie, Julie and Julia. For a feminine perspective, we invited eight super-successful women entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and chefs for their take on running their East Bay restaurants.
They met around three tables pulled into a rough circle at Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland. There were traffic and train noises — and lots of laughter. One might have expected there would be competition among these women who own and operate top restaurants in relatively close proximity. On the contrary, many of them have worked together. They’ve shared chefs and waitstaff, and they’ve eaten at each other’s restaurants. In some cases they were each other’s biggest fans.
During the roundtable discussion, the women talked together, talked over each other and talked totally off-topic — more like being at a good dinner party where wine and conversation flow freely. But there was no wine, just coffee beforehand and slices of carrot cake with walnut at the end.
Please introduce yourself and tell us what you do.
Dona Savitsky: I’m Dona Savitsky, and my restaurants are Doña Tomás, Tacubaya and Flora. I’m a chef by profession. Now I run the front of house for all my restaurants but remain involved, with my [business] partner [Thomas Schnetz], on the food side, because it’s still my interest.
Wendy Brucker: I’m Wendy Brucker, and I own Rivoli Restaurant and Trattoria Corso with my ex-husband and business partner [Roscoe Skipper], and I’m the chef at Rivoli, not at Corso, but I work a lot with the chef at Corso, Rodrigo da Silva, who used to work for Rebekah.
Rebekah Wood: I’m Rebekah Wood, and I own Wood Tavern with my husband, Rich Wood. I’m not a chef; I’m a restaurateur. My first job, at a very young age, was working in a restaurant, and it’s what I’ve always done, although I didn’t always think I’d own a restaurant.”
Marsha McBride: I’m Marsha McBride, and I’m the chef-owner of only one restaurant, Café Rouge. We’ve been open nearly 13 years. I originally was going to open a meat market. I love meat. Anything to do with meat. Cooking it, curing it, eating it. But I ended up opening the restaurant as it is.
Barbara Mulas: I’m Barbara Mulas, and I’m the chef and owner of Sidebar with my husband and partner Mark Drazek [also a chef]. I met him at the California Culinary Academy, where I went in 1986. Our first restaurant, which we opened in 1993, was ZAX in San Francisco. After nine years we went to Berkeley and opened ZAX Tavern. After five years there, we split with our partners and opened Sidebar. I’ve never had another job except for cooking. And that’s the way it is.
Maggie Pond: I’m Maggie Pond, one of the partners and the chef at César. We have a César in Berkeley that we opened 11 years ago and a César in Oakland that we opened three years ago.
Cindy Lalime Krikorian: I’m Cindy Lalime Krikorian. I’m not a chef but my husband [Haig Krikorian] is. We opened our first restaurant, Lalime’s, 25 year ago. Then we opened Jimmy Bean’s, a really simple cafe. The next one was Fonda, which wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. [‘They’re like babies, right? You say no more, then there’s another one,’ Savitsky interjects amidst laughter and nodding heads.] Then we opened Sea Salt and T-Rex, both in the same year. Sea Salt wasn’t meant to happen either [more laughter]. I’m very much front-of-the-house and bookkeeping. Now I’m doing more bookkeeping and less front-of-the-house, which I miss, because I love the customers.
Tanya Holland: I’m Tanya Holland and this is my restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen. It’s the first restaurant I’ve owned. We’ve been open 19 months, but I’ve been in the food/hospitality industry for 25 years, and in April 2010, I’ll be opening my second restaurant, Roux 66, in Jack London Square.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
Savitsky: I went briefly to a regular college but quickly chucked it for a city college culinary program. I started cooking in San Francisco and fell in love [with cooking and the business]. I got to travel [and cook] all over Mexico with [British–born Mexican cooking doyen] Diane Kennedy and then, in 1999, opened Doña Tomás. The other two restaurants followed. And that’s my story in a nutshell.
Brucker: I got into cooking when I was 19. I’d dropped out of Berkeley High not knowing what I wanted to do. I’d been in Europe a lot as a kid because my dad was a professor at Cal [Gene Brucker, a history professor who specialized in Renaissance Florence]. I loved food and cooking, and at some point my brother, who I think thought I was going to end up working at a 7-Eleven, took me to see the California Culinary Academy. I thought, ‘This is magic,’ and applied. Afterwards, I worked at a lot of restaurants in San Francisco. I ended up meeting my husband, who is now my ex-husband but still my business partner, and we ended up opening Rivoli [in 1994], and 15 years later we opened Corso, and that’s it.
McBride: I didn’t have a direct route like Dona, Wendy or Barbara. I went to UC Berkeley and graduated in criminology. After college I ran a home for young ex-offenders for seven years. One day I realized that I was the director of the home, but all I did was cook. So when I was 29, I went back to school [California Culinary Academy]. When I graduated, I went to work at the Union Hotel in Benicia with [Zuni Café co-owner and chef] Judy Rodgers. When she left to go to Zuni, I went there too, and worked for her for about nine years. Then I opened Café Rouge.
Wood: I started working at restaurants to support myself and got caught up in the passion I saw around food, wine and service. About 14 years ago I met Rich. He started saying, ‘one day we’ll have our own restaurant,’ and I thought it was a pipe dream. And then one day, Frascati restaurant [in San Francisco] just fell in our laps. It was turnkey, and we ended up owning a restaurant overnight. I love the whole experience — the food, the wine, the service and the guest experience. We wanted to be close to home, so we opened Wood Tavern, and here we are, in Oakland.
Pond: I had this kind of unique opportunity at Mount Tam[alpais] High School in Mill Valley where the teacher realized home economics was no longer cool in the ’70s, so she created a little mock restaurant and kind of introduced us to this world that’s, you know, beyond home cooking. I went straight on to a cooking school in the Sierra foothills but got homesick so transferred to the City College in San Francisco. My internship was at a Spanish restaurant in Mill Valley. I then worked at other restaurants [including] Bay Wolf, which is where I met Barbara and her husband, Mark. We worked there together. I kept thinking, I want to get back to Spanish food. About 17 years ago, I started traveling in Spain and set up some mini-internships. Then I heard these guys were opening this place in Berkeley, and I thought, my, god, that would be great, and we opened César, and it’s been this great match.
Krikorian: I never intended to get into the restaurant business. I always wanted to be a teacher. I have a special ed credential. But we have the restaurants, and we have children, and I didn’t become a teacher. I’ve been writing the Lalime’s newsletter for a few years. I grew up in a family business. My dad had a pharmacy and a little soda fountain, and I guess I thought, a family business is what I’m slated for; forget the teaching. So, it’s been 25 years. We’ve survived 25 years in the business with all the changes. Whew.
Holland: “When I was 7, my parents — both of them were from the South — started this gourmet cooking club. They met at different homes each month for four- and five-course meals, which was nuts. I was the only child at these parties, so was exposed to a lot of flavors early on. I didn’t really appreciate it until I was older and realized: That was pretty cool. Another cool thing, there were three black couples and three white couples, which was pretty progressive in suburban Rochester, New York, in the ’70s. It was then that I learned how well anyone can get along over a plate of food and a glass of wine.
When I was in college, my friends were eating, like, Ramen noodles and mac and cheese, and I was throwing dinner parties. I started off in engineering school, which is what my dad wanted for me, but I ended up graduating with a degree in Russian literature, which offered very limited opportunities [laughter]. I moved to Manhattan and got a job in advertising. Then a friend and I took some cooking classes with Peter Kump at what is now the Institute of Culinary Education. All the instructors had gone to this cooking school, La Varenne, in France. I’d studied French at school and wanted to spend time in France, so I went and did the program. By then I knew I wanted to be a restaurateur. I didn’t really want to be a chef, as I didn’t see myself just being in the kitchen. But now I’m a chef, and I love the open kitchen, which lets me interact with the customers. It’s been a journey, and I’m having fun with this avocation.
Something you all have in common is a focus on local, seasonal and organic produce. Does this say anything about the East Bay?
McBride: I worked in San Francisco for nine years, and coming over to the East Bay, I think we’re really lucky. I mean, if I don’t order enough fish or run out of bread, I have Monterey Fish is up the street; the bread’s right there; then there’s my neighbors, the Pasta Shop and Tacubaya [pointing at Savitsky]. We’re always borrowing. Then there’s the farmers markets, three a week in Berkeley [“Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday,” several voices chime in], then Saturday and Sunday in Oakland. Whereas in San Francisco you could go to Alemany [south San Francisco] or the fancy dancy Ferry Building. Very much more limited.
Brucker: That’s especially true if you go outside the Bay Area. You go to New York, you go to Chicago, you go to LA and the quality of the food — is not even a patch compared what you get right here in little Berkeley and Oakland. You’ll see things on menus in Chicago — I was just in Chicago — and they came from here. First, we get the best. Then, for those other cities, it has to be transported, and there are middlemen. I think the consciousness of everyone in restaurants here is so high that, with everything, you get the best. Even when you go to Europe now, the quality has gone down. As that way of life is disappearing there, it’s becoming more important here and not just to restaurateurs, but to the people.
Pond: And our purveyors, I think are doing the work for us, too. Since I’ve been cooking, I’ve noticed that they’ve become more conscious, and they’re saving us a step. You used to have to be a lot more careful. Part of it is that we’re asking. With Monterey Fish, for example, there’s no question that what you get there is going to be the best quality and the best fish. You didn’t know that before.
McBride: And breeding. When I first started cooking 25 years ago, there was ‘a pig’and there was ‘pork.’ Now we know what kind of breed it is, how they’re fed. And beef, I’ve been working with ranchers and farmers for years now and it’s what the public want. To know where the meat is from; how the animals were raised. That’s something that’s remarkable you don’t get anywhere else. I was doing some work in Uruguay last year, and they’re supposed to have great meat down there and I ate a lot of it, and they have nothing like we’re doing here.
Savitsky: I want good Mexican food, which to me is meat that’s sustainably raised and produce that’s organic, because that’s what I eat at home, and that’s what I feed my kids, and that’s what I want to serve in my restaurant, and that’s what I want to eat when I go out. It’s getting easier to get ethnic food that’s prepared this way in the Bay Area, particularly in Oakland and Berkeley. In other parts of the country, it’s not so easy. I’d say that here, it comes from asking for it, and I know that friends, not just people in the business, are having more of a consciousness about food. And I really love taco trucks, and yes, they have the best flavor, but I wish they were more sustainable. There are some young, innovative chefs trying — the new mavericks, I call them.
Holland: A couple of years ago, I was in New York cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my in-laws. They live in Brooklyn and were all excited and said, ‘Oh, we’ve got a Fairway [Market] now.’ I remembered Fairway, so I said, ‘OK, lets go to Fairway.’ And, like, they had one type of sweet potato, and the garlic was dry. I mean, to reiterate, we are just spoiled here. New York is the other progressive part of the country, and they are doing great things there. But out here, the average person knows more about food and cares more about it. And parents are teaching their kids about these things.
McBride: Yes, even the kids here are becoming much more aware and sophisticated. Like, I’ve been selling these hot dogs, and the other day, this mom brings her daughter in, she’s probably 4 or 5 years old, and her mom said, ‘Do you want a hot dog?’ And the kid says, ‘No, I want an empanada’ [laughter]. And she walks right into Tacubaya.
Krikorian: Our focus is organic, and the farmers markets are really important to us. We do all three farmers markets in Berkeley: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. At Sea Salt, we’re working with Baia Nicchia [a farm and nursery located at the Sunol AgPark], and they’ll grow unusual things for us, as will regular farmers. We’ve been working with some of our farmers for years. They want to grow for restaurants because they know they can grow different things, and we’ll be there. But to go back to the New York thing. My son was living there about a year ago, and so I got to go and was actually seeing some progress. They don’t have the climate, but they’re trying to create farmers markets and be there for the restaurants. And what I want to say is, we’re the model for the rest of the country. What we’ve established here is important. It’s changed things and set standards.
Wood: I would have a different type of answer. I know our vendors, but I don’t spend time in the kitchen, and don’t know where they source every ingredient. But for us at Wood Tavern, we get a lot of our supplies from around the neighborhood. We use La Farine baguettes for all our sandwiches. If we’re out, and they’re out, I call the Berkeley La Farine and take a drive. And Meadows on the corner does all our flowers. And Cole Coffee ’round the corner supplies all of our coffee, so it’s the communal experience we have on the block and in the neighborhood. It’s also nice because the area is kind of small so we all run into everyone.”
Several of you have had restaurants in San Francisco but now you’ve all made the choice to be here. What’s to like about it?
Brucker: Something I feel about working in the East Bay compared with working in The City is we’re all in this together. We’re not in competition. We want to share resources. That’s what I think I enjoy most about being here.
Wood: I’ve even gone down to Garibaldi’s and borrowed tablecloths. The kinds of experience, people’s expectations; what I find is people in Oakland are really appreciative of a wonderful dining experience. I think they’re less jaded. And they have a sense of pride when I tell them what local vendors we’re using, and they feel they’re supporting their community as well.
Savitsky: If someone said to me, let’s open a restaurant in San Francisco, I would never do it. I want to be here. I want to be close to my restaurants and Oakland is great. There’s a sense of being in it together, and I don’t believe you get in San Francisco. Pizzaiolo opened next to Doña Tomás, and then there’s Bakesale Betty, and we share stuff, if we run out of linens, for example. And we share staff [lots of laughter and head nods]. It’s been great. Pizzaiolo is super busy and super popular, but I don’t look at it as a threat. It just brings more people to the neighborhood. If they have a long wait, people come over to us. If we have a long wait, people go over to them. It’s only been beneficial. When the Dopo people opened their second place [Adesso], it’s like, yeah, another good place to go eat. So it’s neat.
Holland: I feel for me, if I’d opened up in any other location, I wouldn’t be so involved in the community or so aware of what’s happening. I think in downtown San Francisco, you close the door at the end of the day and go home. But here, this is so much more integrated in your life. Like, who’s your councilperson, because you might need them for something important. Or how can I get that vacant developed into a community resource? Being involved is kind of a requirement.
Mulas: I wouldn’t go back to The City. We had our restaurant [in San Francisco] for almost 10 years. It’s totally different. Everyone’s in competition there, and you’re just, like, another restaurant. Over here, we had to work really hard at first to get to know everyone who came in, to make them feel good. Here, you really want to meet your customers, and then they support you. [Unidentified voice on tape: ‘Didn’t you buy your produce here when you were in San Francisco?’] Oh, yeah, we were taking everything from the East Bay. We’d never shop there [huge laughter].
Wood: It is different, it’s so true. Since we’ve been over here, I get involved in neighborhood issues like I never did in The City. The Safeway remodel, for example, across the street from the Tavern, had everybody up in arms. They’re trying to do this massive Safeway, two levels, double parking and underground and retail space. And that’s such a charming block [a blast of supportive comments]. And Safeway wants to have this flower market and bakery and so forth, and we already have those. It’s going to be bigger than Market Hall. And the block is so congested. I was hoping the city wouldn’t pass the plans, but I got a sniff they might, and we don’t want that.”
I’ve heard firsthand accounts of woman chefs burning out. You’re all entrepreneurs and bosses, and most of you are in the kitchen. Do women face any special challenges in your profession?
Savitsky: All the chefs I love working with are women because they’re the ones with the balls.
Mulas: And they’re the self-starters and they’re the multi-taskers.
McBride: When I started out, there were a lot more women in the kitchen and coming into the business, and I think many of us were mothers. And it was really difficult. I think fewer women want to do it now. My two sons [24 and 36] are grown and out of the house, but it was hard. The reason I managed is, I have a tremendous husband. He’s sort of a househusband. He always worked a 9-to-5 job, but he’s domestic. Mind you, he can’t cook. It’s horrible [laughter]. The kids always told me horror stories about his cooking.
Savitsky: I have to say, because I’m a mom, and I have three kids, and I have restaurants, I think the biggest difference between men and women in restaurants is that women still, I think for the most part, primarily take care of the kids. I think for men in restaurants, even when they help with the children — and I’m not saying this is negative — but I think men are conditioned to disengage, have careers and be away from the kids and the house, and not feel guilty about it. I’d say guilt is perhaps the biggest difference. Lucky for me, my kids’ dad was a schoolteacher, so he was home a lot of the time. We structured it, the first few years, so that I only worked at night for the most part. But I think women still carry the biggest burden. I think emotionally we work harder, because I still think we carry the burden of child rearing and that kind of thing. But I didn’t just want to be a mom. And I didn’t just want to be a restaurateur. I want to be everything. I want to be able to enjoy my life and own restaurants, which everyone knows is impossible, but it’s not [laughter], especially if you enjoy it.
Krikorian: Trying to be a restaurateur with kids is really hard. I only managed because I married into an Armenian family where my mother-in-law lived with us and raised my kids. She just passed away a couple of months ago, and my kids are devastated. I don’t know how other people do it. You’re just there all the time when you’re in a restaurant; from morning till night. Having your husband as your partner in a restaurant is really helpful, I think.”
So what’s it like laying down the law? What’s your kitchen style?
Brucker: The kitchen is a dictatorship. A benign dictatorship.
Wood: Because if it’s not that way, people get confused. It has to be that way. It goes back to that, ‘you’re the parent.’
Savitsky: There’s no ‘maybe it’s like this or maybe like that’ in the kitchen. You have to be firm, consistent.
Mulas: I would say I’m the boss, yeah, but I don’t like to say that out loud [laughter] .
Wood: Don’t print that [more laughter]!
Mulas: But, I mean, everyone has a role, and everyone is expected to do whatever they’re supposed to do, and everyone is supposed to act like an adult when they do it. So I have certain expectations and they know that. They know that I’m the [whisper] boss. But I try to play that down. Sometimes, I’ll call someone else, like one of the guys, and get them to push the s*** from me.
Wood: You’ve got to put your ego aside. If it requires a man being a little more direct to get the task done, that’s what you do.
Brucker: I find sometimes they just don’t hear a woman’s voice. I find I’m trying to find a nice way to say, like, ‘Could you do this, please?’ And a guy just says: Do it [laughter]! I sometimes find I seem to need to coax people into doing their jobs and then make them think they’re doing it on their own.
Wood: Does your staff ever think it’s a democracy when you’ll tell them it’s a specific way? Some of my staff have been doing this even longer than I have. They’re more seasoned. They’ve worked in a few more restaurants. And they look at me, like, ‘That’s not how it’s done,’ and it’s like, ‘What do you mean? This is my restaurant. This is how its done.’ But you don’t want to push it and be a jackass.
Savitsky: I was eating at Flora the other night with my daughters, and I ordered a Campari and soda, and it came out in the wrong glass. The bartenders get all fired up about who makes the best drinks, but we have very specific recipes and glassware. It turned out one of the bartenders prefers to send out this drink in this particular glass — and it’s not optional. It’s not up for debate and it’s like, ‘I’m so happy that you know how to run restaurants, and one day I’ll be really stoked to come and eat in your restaurant, but I want it done this way, even if you think it’s wrong. In fact it doesn’t matter what you think. I’m not asking you what you think.’ And sometimes it gets a little rough. Luckily, I have a great manager who knows exactly how I want things done. She’s worked for me for 10 years, and she’s my best friend, and she’s the hard-ass. She’s very firm. She’s not a jerk. She just says, ‘I’m doing my job. That’s how Dona wants it.’
McBride: My husband doesn’t get the restaurant business; never has. But I bring him in to mediate. That’s what he good at. I was out of town recently and I get this call that one of my butchers tried to strangle the other butcher [laughter]. So I called my husband, and he sat them both down. He worked for the courts. He’s a good mediator. He’s the guns and the terminator — and people love him because he’s so nice. But he’s firm and he understands the issues.
Holland: It’s a wonderful skill to have. My husband’s a good mediator. He’s been in the business.
Pond: I’ve been in kitchens where there were tons of women and that was crazy. A balance is good.
What about gender differences in the kitchen? I mean, it’s mainly women who do the cooking but most of the “celebrity” chefs are men. Any obvious sex differences?
Holland: I feel you can go into a restaurant and tell if there’s women involved. You can just sense when there’s not a woman’s touch. Attention to detail, I think, and also energy. And how the food looks and how it tastes. There’s definitely less ego on the plate. It cracks me up sometimes these male chefs. Like, ‘What is that and how does it relate to the flavor? And why is it shaped like that? And what is that superfluous ingredient?’ It’s definitely different food. It’s hard to put a finger on it.
Brucker: And all that micro ... What’s it called?
Brucker: No, no, no. Ingredients ... What’s it called? [A hubbub ensues until someone comes up with the name.] Molecular gastronomy, that’s it. That’s very male. Like weird scents and weird foams and chemically altered. They do it at Chicago at Alinea. I went there last week. [Chorus: ‘You did?’) They’d taken the traditional dish, tomato, basil and olive oil — one of the greatest dishes of all time when done with good mozzarella, good olive oil, salt and pepper, and you’re fine. They’d taken the mozzarella and somehow made it into a balloon and then filled it with a tomato-basil water so you pop it in your mouth and it goes, boom, and it’s like plastic. It does taste like tomato and basil but why not just do the tomato-basil with olive oil? Like, why take a dish and completely reconstruct it chemically when it was so much better how it started out? What’s the point? And a lot of it has to do with all these special gizmos.
Unidentified voice: Expensive toys?
Brucker: Yes. So I got this piece of bacon that came on this little, like, trapeze [howls of laughter] and by the end of the meal, my boyfriend and I were laughing so hard. And this is the other great thing. They came up, and the service was super serious, and they said: ‘We don’t recommend bread with the meal, because we don’t want it to interfere with the flavors, but if you insist, we have it available.’ And we were, like, OK, we would like some. So, this is the big thing, right? They say, ‘We don’t want the bread to get in the way of the flavors of this delicate fine food.’ Then the two flavors of bread they bring are rosemary and olive, two of the strongest flavors you can possibly come up with, instead of some very light baguette that actually wouldn’t get in the way. I mean, who thought of that one?
Pond: So much of that [molecular cuisine] started at El Bulli [in Spain]. The chef there has a sense of humor about it. To me, it’s fascinating to eat, and I appreciate it when it’s done well. But it’s not something I’d ever want to cook myself. I have no interest.
McBride: But why don’t you want to cook it?
Pond: I think it’s what Wendy said. I want to use the ingredients, and they’re so good on their own. Like we were saying earlier, we get such amazing ingredients, so why mess with them? Even what I’m drawn to with Spanish food is what’s happening in moms’ kitchens — and the old tapas bars. Now I have to go to Cadiz [on trips to Spain], because the food there hasn’t got messed with yet. It’s still the old bars and its still traditional, simple, great food drawing on the ingredients.
Brucker: I did have a meal once that was molecular, and it was really brilliant. But it was a little earthier. Like, it wasn’t only the weird stuff and it made sense. They did a weird ice-cream cone that sounds so strange but it was so good. It was sea urchin ice cream with pine resin caramel and we’re going, like, ‘What?’ But it was actually delicious. So it can be done well if it’s got a little bit of soul to it and if people don’t get too in their heads. I think a lot of it is head cooking, instead of from your heart.
McBride: When I sit down to write a menu, and we change our menu every two weeks, I think about what I want to eat. That’s the starting point. Or you go back. Like, I had this great meal. What did I like about it? You’re always stealing from other people. Trading ideas. You know?
Pond: Yes, and we’re all going to do it differently. Like I’m going to think that’s how you did it, and I’m going to do it my way.
Holland: And yes, that’s another thing. Women will admit that. Men will say, ‘I came up with this great [idea] — I invented it. Right [huge laughter]?’
Krikorian: We think differently, but we need each other. I hate separating the genders that much. It’s not so important how different or better we are, but we need each other. We complement each other. I have women with a masculine side and men with a feminine side. You need both. But I do see my women chefs having to prove themselves by working harder. They really do.”
Well, Julia Child worked pretty hard — even while, it seemed, having a grand old time. Anyone seen the movie? Anyone relate to Julia. What about her use of butter?
Wood: The flavor you’re tasting when you eat something really good in a restaurant? That usually comes from the butter. But thinking about the movie, just a few days before I saw it I was taking a walk with a neighbor who works all day in a cubicle, and she says that when she gets home, she just wants to go into the kitchen by herself — no husband there. She says that’s the one time of day she’s in complete control. You know, with that onion, with the sauce, with that dish. She doesn’t want anyone to bother her. And I saw the movie a couple of days later, and the Julie character was saying that.”
Pond: The movie made me want to cook. You know, you do it every day, but sometimes things just remind you, like, why you love to do this. How much you love this business and love cooking and — Meryl Streep was amazing. I just walked out and wanting to cook. It’s actually playing up the street from us, and I’ve noticed a jump in business. People are coming out of the movie hungry.
Holland: I first met Julia Child in 1992 in France. She came to La Varenne, my cooking school. It was really cool hearing that distinctive trill live. She was very gracious and kind and complimented us on our chef’s pants. I met her again two years later when I cooked at Hamersley’s Bistro in Boston. She says she remembered meeting me in France, but again, I think she was just being gracious.
Krikorian: Julia Child was the first TV cook I saw as a child. I know she changed the way my mother cooked.
McBride: I grew up in the Bay Area, and Julia Child was on PBS and the following day, the Chronicle would publish the recipe. It was the early 60s, I guess. I remember the first recipe I cooked was from Julia Child — coq au vin — and I remember asking my mother for brandy. My mother was a wretched cook. I remember years later when I was working at Zuni, Julia Child came in. The kitchen is pretty open and she made a point of coming to each of us to say thank you for the meal, and she asked us all where we learned to cook. I said, ‘You taught me how to cook,’ which was pretty accurate. She was my inspiration. I remember those whacky shows of hers and one of my first cookbooks was her first book. This morning I was looking, and it’s a 1970 edition.
So what is it that’s so satisfying about cooking? And cooking in restaurants? What grabs you and keeps you there?
Savitsky: I think that cooking is creative and artistic, but it’s also technical. I got burned out on cooking professionally. Sometimes I feel for chefs because you have to do it all the time and work the line, and it’s work, work, work. It’s harder to enjoy it. I enjoy cooking at a different level now, because I don’t have to do it in my restaurants. But I also miss having it be my job because, well, there’s nothing better than slicing mushrooms. Certain tasks are just so wonderful to do, and you can lose yourself in them, and it’s really satisfying, because you do it really well, and then you have this product that everyone gets to eat and enjoy. You can’t really beat that, you know.
McBride: My sister is very sick with breast cancer. It’s been going on a long time. She’s at home in Half Moon Bay now, and the other day went down and cooked for her. She can’t eat, but my father was there and the family was around. Burned out as I am — because I’ve been working the line a lot, trying to save money — but just creating something simple for family, especially when I’m really upset about something, and serving it and cleaning up, is really cathartic. It takes care of a lot of things.
Holland: The appreciation is the reward. It’s so satisfying seeing people’s response to food and flavors. That’s the real fun about the open kitchen. I’m passionate about cooking. I feel like all of us, our generation, had lots of options. We could have done many things. But you do this because you’re passionate about it.
Mulas: I love to cook. I enjoy the restaurant business. I enjoy everything about it. It’s exciting. It’s fast. It’s great to have the skill to make something perfect, just like that. I love that. It’s also really unpredictable, and I like that. It’s a huge challenge every minute, every day, to make everything come together and to have everything come out perfect, especially when you’re really busy. It’s exciting. It’s great.
Brucker: It’s like being on stage. Like doing a play or something. It has that same charge.
Wood: Every night the same characters show up, but it’s always different.
Mulas: It’s a challenge to make it all perfect and to send it all out and everyone’s eating it and they’re liking it and that’s great. That’s the deal. That’s why you’re there.
Brucker: My ex-husband and I often talk about how it seems like, in a restaurant, everything is working against you. It’s so hard to get everything right.
Savitsky: And every time.
Brucker: Yes. To seat the guests at the table they want. To get the water, and the bread, and the order, and the food out, all just at the right time. To get things into the dishwasher to make sure you get the plates washed.
Wood: And everyone wants to dine at 7 o’clock.
Savitsky: And every table you put them at is not the right table.
Brucker: It’s Herculean. Who’s the guy that’s always pushing the rock up the mountain? Sisyphus. You’re like Sisyphus every night. You get the rock up to the top and then it rolls back down [big laughter and nods]. And then you have to start all over again. When it go right, it’s like, wow, we pulled this off somehow, against all odds. Everybody feels good, and everybody’s high. And then the opposite is true. You have those nights that don’t go well, and everybody is really bummed. It happens.
Holland: A friend of mine was saying it must be kind of challenging and a bit frustrating. We’re all like visionaries, you know, and we’re all entrepreneurs — that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing — but we have to depend on so many people for the final outcome of our product. That’s one of the challenges.
Brucker: I think for all of us. I just came back from a trip. I was away for a week, eating in restaurants every night, and I came back tired, but the first thing I did when I got home was go shopping and make dinner because, one, I’d been at restaurants and wanted to try things myself, and two, I missed my own food. I think everybody likes their own food best. And it was such a comfort. ‘Oh, I’m home. I’m in my kitchen and I’m cooking, and everything is where I want it to be, and I’ve got the great tomatoes, and I’ve got great lamb chops, and I made this great dinner’ and I thought, it’s so nice to be able to do this. It’s such a good feeling.
Brucker: When I first started cooking, it was like at the end of continental cuisine where nothing had changed forever, and then nouvelle cuisine came along, and then the California movement came along and everything changed. So it’s always changing. You know, it never ends. And now the green thing. And the whatever — the chemical thing — I look at it, and it’s weird, but you know, without change you stagnate. You’ve always got to have change. And sometimes things will be around, like when fusion was huge. And then you get the abominations. And now it’s not really happening any more, at least not in the same way. So you can never stop, or stop improving. That’s what makes it fun. That’s what makes it so amazing.
The Divas’ Kitchens
Fonda, 1501 Solano Ave., (510) 559-9006, fondasolana.com
Café Rouge, 1782 Fourth St., (510) 525-1440, caferouge.net
César, 1515 Shattuck Ave., (510) 883-0222, barcesar.com
Jimmy Bean’s, 1290 Sixth St., (510) 528-3435, jimmybeans.com
Lalime’s, 1329 Gilman St., (510) 527-9838, lalimes.com
Rivoli Restaurant, 1539 Solano Ave., (510) 526-2542, rivolirestaurant.com
Sea Salt, 2512 San Pablo Ave., (510) 883-1720, seasaltrestaurant.com
Tacubaya, 1788 Fourth St., (510) 525-5160, tacubaya.net
Trattoria Corso, 1788 Shattuck Ave., (510) 704-8004, trattoriacorso.com
T-Rex Barbeque, 1300 10th St., (510) 527-0099, t-rex-bbq.com
Brown Sugar Kitchen, 2534 Mandela Parkway, (510) 839-7685, brownsugarkitchen.com
César, 4039 Piedmont Ave., (510) 985-1200, barcesar.com
Doña Tomás, 5004 Telegraph Ave., (510) 450-0522, donatomas.com
Flora, 1900 Telegraph Ave, (510) 286-0100, floraoakland.com
Sidebar, 542 Grand Ave., (510) 452-9500, sidebar-oakland.com
Wood Tavern, 6317 College Ave., (510) 654-6607, woodtavern.net