Chefs, Three Ways

Culinary Personalities

Marc Zimmerman of Alexander’s Steakhouse

DiningOut: You got your start in cooking in an Italian restaurant. Did that influence your career path? Was there anything particularly impactful about that experience?

Marc Zimmerman: I started cooking in a little Italian spot in Indianapolis when I was in high school. The restaurant put me on the line when one of the cooks didn’t show up to work. After a few months, I found myself really enjoying the pace of the restaurant environment. Eventually, I decided to get serious and was pointed in the direction of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.

DO: When you left the CIA in New York, did you know what kind of food you wanted to cook for a living?

MZ: I only knew I wanted to be somewhere where things were happening. I wanted to work for one of the big chefs. I was so picky that I became unsure I would even find anything. I was so desperately looking for the complete package in a restaurant that I really missed some great opportunities.

DO: And yet, you landed at Alexander's. What dishes here are you most excited about now?

MZ: I’m always jazzed about beef, but I’m particularly focused on a pork dish we’re offering for fall and winter. We’ve purchased a whole 225-pound hog from Winkler Farm up in Windsor. The pig is a Mangalitsa-Tamworth cross, raised on a feral diet. We’ll be working our way through the animal and applying various cooking techniques to each cut. We’re putting it on the plate with a toasted hay cream, “red hot” candied parsnips, and mustard-miso.

DO: Because it's such a trend, we're curious: How do you feel about culinary fusion?

MZ: “Fusion” has long been a dirty word for me. When I hear the word fusion I think of sesame-crusted ahi tuna with wasabi-mashed potatoes. Sometimes chefs will play with flavors and ingredients before they have a full grasp of a culture or cuisine and too often it results in what I like to call “con-fusion.” [Laughs] Combining cultures and ingredients is a delicate process. I think fusion should be more of a philosophy. I’ve grown to appreciate the Japanese culture and cuisine, and I try to look through that lens of balance and harmony when we create dishes in the restaurant.

DO: Does the San Francisco dining crowd have high expectations of a chef? Is this challenging for you?

MZ: The SF crowd certainly carries high expectations—and they should. We are always pushing ourselves, and having guests with high expectations helps us to grow and improve. If this business were free from challenges, it would get boring pretty quick.

Yumin Lin of The Sea by Alexander’s Steakhouse

DiningOut: Of all the restaurants at which you’ve worked, which was the most challenging?

Yu Min Lin: The Sea. I was invited aboard to be the executive chef just 12 days before the opening. I came straight from Los Angeles, so I didn’t know anybody here. I had to find out where to buy the best fish and the best produce, and I had to work with 19 cooks under me that I had never worked with before. We had to make the entire menu in just 12 days, which required experimenting and trying out dishes that didn’t always work out. I was working from 8am to 4am every single day.

DO: Was The Sea also the most exciting?

YML: No, that would probably be Providence. That was in 2005. I was working as a line cook at Water Grill when Michael Cimarusti at Providence invited me to be his sous chef. This is a two-star Michelin restaurant, mind you, and I said I didn’t think I could handle it. He replied, “Yes, you can.” And he was right. I worked there for six years. It was a great experience.

DO: You’ve trained in both French and Japanese cooking methods. How has your Asian culinary history been most useful?

YML: It taught me very specific skills that I wouldn’t have mastered in America. For 10 years, I worked in Taiwan and Japan. They had me cutting vegetables and nothing else for three years. I never touched a fish in that time. It took me three months alone just to learn to shave a radish. When I was good enough, they moved me on, and for three years I cooked rice—the same thing every day. Eventually, I learned to prepare fish. That’s how you learn the basics in Japan and Taiwan, and once you know you never forget.

DO: Do these skills remain important at The Sea?

YML: Everything I learned in my past I use now, and I find that French and Japanese cooking methods meld together well.

DO: What’s an example or two of this combination?

YML: I make sauces for a lot of my dishes, and these are made in French style. For the Smoked Salmon with matsutake mushrooms, I make a sauce using butter and shaved bonito flakes, which is very rich and savory. Also, my Black Cod and Miso is a great example. For this one, I make a sauce by reducing sake in a hot pan to about one-quarter the volume, and I use this to make the miso glaze for the fish. I serve it with lobster mushrooms and lobster mushroom purée.

DO: What ingredients do you enjoy working with in the fall and winter?

YML: About this time, you start to see lots of pumpkin, kabocha squash, parsnips, and beets. We will have yellowfin tuna from Hawaii soon, too, and some great scallops from Maine.

DO: What is one of your top dishes during the colder months?

YML: My Scallops with barley risotto dish is just great. People love it. I reduce beet juice, then add vinegar and butter to make a sauce for the seared scallops. On the side, I serve roasted parsnips and fried parsnips with a parsnip purée. Ninety-five percent of people who have the risotto leave nothing on the plate. They use a baguette and completely clean off their plates.

Chef Gerardo Naranjo of Alexander’s Steakhouse

DiningOut: What do you like most about your job?

Gerardo Naranjo: I enjoy the pressure to get things done in a timely manner. It’s a very exciting challenge to meet, and to make the job look effortless. When you succeed, and when a dish is finished and well-executed, everybody is happy.

DO: Was there a particular experience that attracted you to the idea of being a professional chef?

GN: I was working as a line cook once upon a time, and I was always trying to do better, but there’s only so much you can grow in that position. Finally, I decided to take things up a step and go to a professional culinary training school in Menlo Park. After that, I got my first opportunity as a sous chef, which I found to be a very satisfying job. I really enjoyed the creative process of imagining a dish and bringing it to life.

DO: What styles of cuisine have influenced your career as a chef?

GN: The style and flavors of my food are definitely results of my background experiences in Michoacán. But I’ve gained my education, and my cooking style, through other jobs in the United States. I have worked in a produce market, worked for a Korean family restaurant, and worked with great chefs around the Bay area. This all comes to the table at Alexander’s Steakhouse.

DO: What is your signature dish at Alexander's?

GN: I don’t think I would say I have a signature dish. Most dishes are seasonal and change throughout the year. As with the chef himself, there should be a constant evolution in the food at a restaurant, and I like to see that process happen at Alexander’s. But I do have some favorite fall and winter dishes coming up, like the Black Cod with soy-braised gobo; the Kabocha-Lobster Soup; and the Quinoa with duck breast, cranberry, and orange.