F&W Star Chef
Matt Accarrino, chef at San Francisco’s phenomenal SPQR and co-author of the cookbook SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine talks to Food & Wine about his most requested recipe, why peeling fava beans is so important and the magic of xanthan gum.
What’s your most requested recipe?
That’s hard to say, because I’m one of those chefs who tries to defy having a signature dish. But I do a smoked fettuccini with bacon, sea urchin and quail eggs that’s very popular. The recipe is now in the cookbook; the fettuccini is smoked because I smoke the flour. I think it feels familiar to people because it reminds them of a carbonara, but the reality is, the sauce isn’t bound together by eggs—the quail egg is a garnish. The real binding is the sea urchin.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Probably Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. It came out in 1999, at the earlier part of my career, and it inspired me again when I put my own book together. When I went through it as a cook, I found so much information tucked into the recipes and headnotes, little techniques like peeling the favas before you blanch them, which I still do to this day. I was also cooking with people who had worked at the French Laundry, people who wore the blue apron, and I had heard of the French Laundry but had never been, so that blue apron became like the mark of Thomas, I was so curious about what went on there. People who trained me had told me to peel favas, but no one had ever explained why. In the book he explained that the peel traps gases that will brown the beans when they’re cooked, so peeling them helps them stay greener. Little things like that, from this absolute perfectionist who takes everything to the thousandth degree, all helped shape how I cook today. When I worked on our SPQR book, I wanted to get as many explanations behind our techniques into the recipes and headnotes as I could.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
How to use xanthan gum. It can add viscosity to just about anything that has water in it, without requiring any heat. It doesn’t taste like anything, either—it’s pretty magical. And it’s inexpensive. Asian markets tend to have it or you can find it easily online. It will thicken up a vinaigrette so that you don’t have to add as much oil. You usually mix it in with a blender, by adding it to the water-based parts of your sauce or vinaigrette (to thicken a vinaigrette, I would add the xanthan gum to the vinegar before adding the oil). You can also mix it in with a whisk, you just have to be careful you don’t clump it up. It’s something you literally use by the pinch. So if I wanted a cup of dressing, I’d blend a pinch of xanthan gum into about 1/3 cup of vinegar. But it can thicken anything. You can turn fresh cucumber juice or watermelon juice into a beautiful sauce without having to heat it.
Can you share a great entertaining tip?
Sometimes at dinner parties hosts stress out about plating their food. But a home is not a restaurant, so don’t treat it like one. Keep things simple by making family-style dishes and desserts that can be served straight from the oven, so you’re not stuck in the kitchen plating 15 desserts.
What are your top don’t-miss places on a trip to San Francisco?
- The Ferry Building Farmers’ Market. I love the cheeses at Andante Dairy; the owner and cheesemaker, Soyoung Scanlan, distributes them directly to chef customers, but they’re always the best when you get them right from her at the market.
- Muir Woods, just north of the city, is home to old-growth redwoods. It’s such a cool, tranquil place, I love to bring friends there from out of town. They have this wooden walking path through the trees; I always find that when I walk there, I tend to get wrapped into a good conversation about something. It’s so relaxing, it’s a great place to catch up with people. And it’s shady and cool.
- I love taking people up to the Napa Valley. I wouldn’t say to any particular tasting rooms because there are so many, but I just love the feel of going through the area. There are a lot of great restaurants: Redd Wood is a cool, low-key place where the food’s casual but so good, and made with great ingredients. I just found another little hidden gem of a restaurant in not-far Sonoma Valley called The Glen Ellen Star, owned by a husband and wife. The husband used to work for Thomas Keller, and in New York, too. He does great things with a wood-fired oven, particularly his vegetables.
- It’s nice to have a place to gather with friends for drinks. The bar program at Aziza is amazing. You talk about artisanal cocktails, Farnoush Deylamian has got all kinds of creative stuff going on. And Mourad Lahlou’s food is spectacular, too, so that’s a great place to go in terms of something completely unique. Bar Agricole is another inventive cocktail bar, with plenty of room for people to gather. Both of those places are fun.