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Michael Tusk and His Influence on the Next Generation

December 11, 2013
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by Meesha Halm

Michael and Lindsay Tusk’s acclaimed restaurant Quince turned 10 this month, and to celebrate its decade in business, the couple recently hosted an 10-night dinner series that welcomed a star-studded lineup of guest chefs including Sean Brock, Jonathan Benno, Michael Cimarusti and April Bloomfield. But perhaps the most significant collaborative dinner of the week was the Protégé Dinner held this past Monday (see menu here), during which Tusk welcomed back into his kitchen some of his most notable Bay Area-based alums, all of whom have gone on to make a name for themselves on the local dining landscape. 

The vibe of the evening was part roast, part high-school reunion and part benefit dinner (a portion of the proceeds earmarked for a project dear to Tusk’s heart, the Bocuse d'Or USA Foundation) and was filled with collaboration, camaraderie and reflection. Michael credits much of his culinary philosophy to the time he spent under the tutelage of Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli. We caught up with his protégés and asked them to describe how they felt they were influenced by Tusk. Below is an edited excerpt of what the next generation of chefs had to say about their mentor’s relentless work ethic, persistence for the best ingredients and deep appreciation of art.

Evan Rich (Rich Table): Rich runs his own wildly successful restaurant along with his wife Sarah, but he got first job in the city working with chef Tusk at the original Quince after answering a blind ad for a cook’s job on Craigslist. “I came out to San Francisco thinking that I was some punk-ass chef and that I could take over. Mike set me straight real quick.” In fact, Rich admits, “He showed me everything. He taught me that 80% of your day is thinking on your feet. At first I didn’t get it. But when you open your own place, you gain a different vision of things. When I worked with Michael and Lindsay, they were just starting out and had a dream of what they wanted to achieve, just like where Sarah and I are now. Now, I’m constantly thinking about keeping things fresh and never allow myself to get content."

Thomas McNaughton (Flour + Water, Central Kitchen, Salumeria): The 2012 Zagat 30 Under 30 honoree knows a few things about pasta-making and admits he often gets typecast as the “pasta guy,” but he credits much of his knowledge to his time working with Tusk. McNaughton, who was the chef de cuisine at the original Pacific Heights restaurant (overlapping with Brandon Jew, Channan Kamen and Melissa Chou) recounts, “Quince had the most expensive pasta program that I’ve ever seen in a restaurant. There’s a mystery to pasta. It takes time, space, energy. Mike taught me all the classic dishes. He was one of the first guys in the United States to make the classic Piedmontese dish agnolotti en brodo and I learned it from him.” So it's no surprise that when McNaughton emailed Tusk to let him know that he was thinking about preparing angolotti en brodo for the dinner, he received a simple one-sentence reply: “Ango in my crib?”

Cortney Burns (Bar Tartine): “I’ve worked for many chefs over the past 13 years before running my own kitchen," says Burns, and "I have to say that I learned more from Mike Tusk than I did from any other single chef. I was a young, eager cook and Mike saw that. He taught me how to source from farmers and how to create relationships with them. I learned to make sausage, cured my first meats, make my first mortadella with Mike, and I still make pasta as he taught me. More than anything though, more than flavors, I learned how to work hard. Mike was there at 7 AM to put the stocks on, and still there at 1 AM to do the ordering. He taught me that if you want something you have to work for it, you do the dishes when the dishwasher calls in sick, you bleach the drains when they need it, and you strive to perfect your craft everyday. On the other side of the hard work, there was play. Mike insisted that you do something cultural on your day off, whether that was a trip to the museum to see art, a night out to hear music or to eat a great meal. He saw beauty everywhere and taught me to look elsewhere for inspiration.”

Brandon Jew (forthcoming Chino): Although the former Bar Agricole executive chef has trained his sights on two ambitious forthcoming Chinese ventures, Jew considers Michael and Lindsay Tusk as his “culinary parents” and credits much of his success to working with them. “I feel fortunate to have spent the first two years of Quince with them while they started to build their legacy. I learned what I think is most important to defining a chef, which is how to approach ingredients from start to finish. From relationships with farmers, to hunting down products through farmer's markets, to developing a dish and working as a team to make the final dish. Mike has an unrelenting passion that is infectious and his work ethic is something I try to live up to.”

Melissa Chou (Aziza): The 2012 30 under 30 pastry whiz landed a job with Michael Tusk in 2005, straight out of cooking school. “I couldn't believe I had been hired, since I was so entirely unexperienced. I was the pastry plater/cook - the lowliest position in the kitchen - and Mike still took the time to nurture me, discuss food and take me to the farmer's market. It fostered my appreciation for the best and most local bounty of the Bay Area. I think chef Tusk took a liking to me because we both studied art history in college so he could talk to me about all the art and beautiful things he saw. Since it was my first job, all of my kitchen habits were formed at Quince. That discipline, and demanding so much of myself, is something I continue to hold today.”

Chanan Kamen (Osteria Coppa): Kamen, now an executive chef himself, is not just a Michael Tusk protégé. He’s also his cousin. But that relationship hardly gave him a free pass while working at his restaurant. Kamen recalls, “In the five years that I worked at Quince, I don't think Mike ever took a day off. He was the first one there and the last one to leave - his stamina is unbelievable. His drive to be the best rubs off on everyone around him. Because of his ever-changing menu, I saw and got to cook thousands of different dishes. Through these dishes I got a great understanding of which ingredients pair well together. I also learned how important it is to get the best ingredients from local farms and to not do much to them, letting them speak for themselves.”

Danny Brooks (formerly of Lucques and El Racó d’en Freixa): Brooks, who trained at legendary restaurants in Spain as well the California icons Lucques and Chez Panisse, was introduced to Tusk by Suzanne Goin when he first moved from San Francisco from Barcelona. He considers Tusk a friend, confidant, mentor and colleague. “For some reason, Mike has taken me under his wing ever since our first meeting upstairs in the old Octavia restaurant,” shares Brooks. “He helped me acclimate to the city, showed me the best markets and farmers, and even gave my wife her first job here in the States long before she even spoke any English. Even after leaving Quince, Mike has always offered an open ear, an open mind, an open kitchen and open arms. Quince is a home away from home for me and my family.”

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