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Best New Chefs

Sean O'Brien

2007 Best New Chef Award Profile
Sean O'Brien

Why he won Because he uses global ingredients to create dishes that are unfussy but wonderfully nuanced, like shrimp poke with edamame and seaweed.

Born Plattsburgh, NY; 1968.

Education Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA; City College of San Francisco Culinary Arts & Hospitality Studies.

Experience The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco; Viognier, San Mateo, CA; Gary Danko, San Francisco.

How he got into cooking “I studied business and marketing in college. I’m not sure if you’d call it a career change, because I never really had a career in marketing, but I was watching a lot of Jacques Pépin and Julia Child reruns and reading magazines like Food & Wine, and I decided it was time to look into being a chef. I wasn’t doing haute cooking in college, though—it was more the days of ramen noodle soup.”

Does he miss the suit and tie he wore during a Bank of America internship? “Not at all.”

Benefits of cooking school “It’s a good basic foundation, but cooking is really about what you do in your downtime and days off. That determines how you’ll do.”

Most memorable cooking experience “After Myth opened and the buzz started, a lot of the local chefs started coming into the restaurant—Ron Siegel (an F&W Best New Chef 1999), Laurent Gras (an F&W Best New Chef 2002), Daniel Patterson (an F&W Best New Chef 1997), Gérald Hirigoyen (an F&W Best New Chef 1994). It was so flattering.”

On customers’ special requests “Clint Eastwood came in and wanted a romaine salad. We don’t have one on the menu. I had to run next door to get the lettuce.”

Biggest influences “Sylvan Portay and obviously Gary Danko [an F&W Best New Chef 1989]; I was with him for a number of years.”

Kitchen manner “We’re moving away from the era of the ‘terror chef.’ I’ve been yelled at in the kitchen by a lot of people; I’m more lenient and accepting of mistakes. I don’t like to insult people.”

Pet peeve Lack of attention to detail. “When I see people just walk by stuff that’s on the floor of our kitchen walk-in refrigerator, I wonder what kinds of things they’re not seeing when they’re cooking.”

What keeps him going “I work less now than I did with Gary Danko. Besides, 12-hour days are almost common—they’re shorter than some people in other jobs work. Are 12-hour days considered long in the world now?”

Latest cooking obsession Braising. “It cooks the food and makes a sauce at the same time; it kills two birds with one stone.”

Favorite childhood dish “My grandmother would go crazy around Dungeness crab season. She’d buy tons of crabs and serve them family-style—a bowl of simple cracked crab and some olive oil. It was very rustic and very messy, with the TV on in the background.”

Favorite kitchen tool A chinois. “It gives sauces purity and clarity, and makes them nice and clean for presentation.”

Favorite cheap eat Dim sum at Joy Luck Place in San Mateo, CA. “My wife and I go there every Sunday. I stay with the chicken feet and more authentic dishes, and we get the pork shumai every time we go.”

Second-favorite cheap eat Pork broth with curry and pork belly at a Japanese place called Santa, also in San Mateo. “It’s just a hole-in-the-wall with noodles and ramen, and we’re usually the only non-Asians in the restaurant. You have to get there right when it opens or know when the second seating happens, because otherwise, there will be a line.”

Favorite cookbook Culinary Artistry, by Andrew Dornenberg and Karen Page. “It’s been out for about 10 years. I use it as a guide to find classic combinations—when I’m designing a new menu and I want to figure out what pairs well with plums, it’s a good reference.”

What he’d be if he weren’t a chef A deejay or a gardener. “My wife and I grow 12 kinds of tomatoes, plus I have a satsuma [mandarin orange] tree, a plum tree, a peach tree and a fig tree.”

Food trend he most dislikes “I don’t wish anything to go away; it’s interesting to see what people are doing and what catches on. Personally, I haven’t gotten into foams.”

Advice to future cooks “Understand the concept of multitasking.”

1 recipes by Sean O'Brien

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