This month we’re excited to feature Sean Baker, Executive Chef at Gather in Berkeley, California. Baker has gained recognition for his unique use of vegetables in the Gather kitchen, where he’s created a menu starring heritage animal breeds, heirloom plant varietals and foraged mushrooms. Here, he tells us all about his cooking philosophy, working with farmers, and how to eat more vegetables at home.
Describe your cooking style.
My cooking style is hard to explain, but it’s vegetable focused. I have this dream of having a restaurant menu that just says “turnip” — there could be meat in the dish, but it’s always about the turnip. I try to extract as much flavor as I can from vegetables. I really enjoy the different flavor profiles, depth, richness — everything that’s involved in vegetable cookery. I also think they aren’t given the respect they deserve. But here in the Bay Area there are lots of chefs doing great things with vegetables.
What drew you to a cooking career?
I’ve always enjoyed making people happy with food. That’s where I get a lot of my satisfaction, and from an early age I realized that was one way you could interact with people and express yourself. My folks were always in the food business, so I was always around food. In our family, food was central; we were always cooking together.
What did you learn from your time cooking at Millenium, a vegetarian restaurant? How has it influenced your food at Gather?
Chef Eric Tucker is a very talented chef, who mentored me quite well. I started as an intern and left as a sous chef. He molded me and my work ethic; he gave me an understanding that to do well in this business you have to give everything every day, washing dishes, cleaning every corner, and doing whatever it takes for the restaurant to run at a high level.
He’s also very creative, which rolled off on me. He effortlessly layers flavors, which has inspired me. Here, I do most of the creative stuff, working on new flavor combinations and execution of those dishes. I learned to seek out the best produce I could get my hands on; if one carrot is going to taste five times better than another, I’m definitely going to buy the more expensive carrot, no questions asked.
The Gather menu focuses on sustainable ingredients. How did you become interested in sustainability, and how has it influenced your cooking?
I use sustainable ingredients because that’s what I know. It’s just what we do; we buy whole animals from ranches that we’ve been to, we break those animals down and treat them the best we know how, using every part of the animal.
Tell us about your partnership with Lindencroft Farm and other farmers and food producers. What do you look for in a partner?
I met Linda Butler, the farmer at Lindencroft, about six years ago when I was cooking at Gabriella, a small restaurant in Santa Cruz. She was farming on one acre, and I had never seen anything like it. She started exclusively growing for me at Gabriella, and when I opened Cellar Door, the Bonny Doon vineyards restaurant, she grew for me there, too. When I opened Gather, we discussed an exclusive relationship again, and I said, “I’ll buy everything.” Now we go through seed catalogs together. We get seeds from Europe you can’t buy in America — different broccoli and a lot of different rare heirlooms to make the restaurant more personal. We’re both very passionate about the same things. We love peppers. She grows over 60 varieties of peppers, 160 types of tomatoes, and many other species not common in our markets in the states.
I like the way she farms, and she likes the way I cook; we have a similar vision. We want to achieve the same goal, which is to serve delicious food. We’re very particular. Linda brings a high level of attention to detail to her work, which I have a great deal of respect for.
What’s the most important thing people should know about sourcing their food?
We’re blessed with farmers’ markets and food festivals. If you have relationships with the people who make your food – from winemakers to vegetable growers to ranchers – you get to know them and you can talk to them about what you’re making for your family. You will be more educated and cook better. It all comes down to relationships.
You’re known for balancing vegan and meat dishes on your menus. Any tips for people wanting to make vegetables the main event?
Making large plates of vegetables is not the easiest thing to do. To really celebrate a vegetable and make it the main event, you have to complement it without overpowering its natural beauty and flavor. Keep it simple but interesting. My advice is if you’re going to cook a carrot, cook it with things that go well with it. Slow cook it in a pan for hours on low heat; poach it in carrot juice; roast it in a 500-degree oven for a short time; take the tops off of the carrot and make a salsa verde. A vegetable has many different expressions. If you cook it many different ways and put it all together, that’s a nice way to make the vegetable the main event.
One of the things I like to think about is: how many ways can you cook an onion? Charred, slow roasted, confited. With the peel, without the peel. Vegetables are incredible in that way.
What have you learned from cooking with heritage meats and heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables?
There are lots of old breeds and old seeds that are worth saving. We have all these heirlooms on brink of extinction, so we’ve come to be educated on the different flavors they bring to the table. The easiest is heritage pork and beef — put side-to-side with commodity pork, it’s a game-changer for sure. Or seeds from old tomato and pepper plants put next to an organic but hothouse-grown tomato — an heirloom’s going to destroy it. When you use heirlooms and they’re in season and you taste them, there are goosebumps involved. It’s that good.
Are there any easy-to-find varieties people should try at home?
If you have a relationship with a producer and say you’re to find a particular heirloom or variety, some may plant it for you. A lot of farmers are pretty free-willed people.
One of the most famous items on your menu is “vegan charcuterie.” How did that idea come about, and how would you describe it? How have customers reacted to it?
Upon opening Gather, my business partners’ concept was to have a restaurant with a menu that’s half omnivore, a quarter vegan, and a quarter just vegetarian. I was really into nose-to-tail cooking, so I’d been curing meat, making salumi and prosciutto. I knew I wanted to do a meat plate at Gather, but if we did that we’d have to do something comparable for vegetarians and vegans. I wish I’d never named it vegan charcuterie; it doesn’t even make sense. It was a joke! Now it’s our signature dish.
I put a lot of thought into it. I’m always trying to make it better. It’s a celebratory plate of vegetables, tweaked daily.
Do you cook at home? If so, what’s a go-to meal?
I do. My wife does a lot of the cooking, but we do vegetable stews and bean ragus. We love corona beans braised with greens and braised artichokes. We cook the same way at home as we would in a restaurant, using whatever’s in season. She’s a personal chef. Right now we have lots of asparagus at home and English peas and favas. We eat a lot of quinoa.
What’s the best cooking advice you ever received?
And the best you’ve ever given?
I wasn’t sure, so I asked my sous chefs. They said the best advice I gave them was, “It’s just cooking.” We’re working on projects all the time, the prep lists are huge, and I’ll see in their eyes that they’re overwhelmed. I’ll say in a calm voice, “It’s just cooking — it’s all going to get done.”
Another one said that I frequently talk about how, no matter how much is on the list, make sure everything is done well. We don’t want to make errors. If you decide to make a cut, be committed to that cut; an animal died for us to eat it. When you make decisions, follow through with those decisions.
What’s a typical family meal in your restaurant kitchen?
Family meal is very important to me. It helps the morale of the restaurant and gives everybody a chance for creativity. If you create something super delicious, people are moved by it. I’m guilty of talking in the middle of the day about family meal. I get it in their heads to make something delicious. Recently we had horseradish meatballs in a house-made rutabaga red cabbage sauerkraut broth; broccoli roasted in bone marrow fat; a salad of shaved raw root vegetables; and chicories with anchovy vinaigrette. It elevates the whole restaurant, and everyone walks around happy.
Gather has been described as a “Michael Pollan book come to life.” What was your reaction to that?
I think it’s nice. He’s an educated man with good intentions – that’s great. It’s a high compliment.