Can vegans, vegetarians and carnivores really share a foodie-worthy meal at the same table? They certainly can at Gather in Berkeley. And that’s just the way Esquire Magazine’s 2010 Chef of the Year, and Gather’s Executive Chef, Sean Baker, likes it.
“We want to show the same enthusiasm for every dietary preference, whether it’s lactose intolerance, gluten-free, or veganism. We want to make sure they all get to have the same experience.”
Chef Baker may be a classically trained chef who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, but he’s always been personally interested in being meat-free, even becoming vegan for a time, before he went to culinary school. Now with his fiancee being vegan, he’s even more personally invested in making dishes everyone can enjoy.
“It’s frustrating,” he says. “We eat out a lot and sometimes she can’t have the same experience that I can. Veganism is not an eating style that is embraced by a lot of culinary folks.” Fortunately, Chef Baker says that thinking of a 50/50 vegan/meat menu comes to him quite naturally these days. Must be from his previous stints at Millennium Restaurant, San Francisco’s premier high-end vegan restaurant, and Gabriella Café in Santa Cruz, where he oversaw a meat-heavy menu that sometimes offered offal options.
Chef Baker says, “I read obsessively, eat out obsessively, and I cook obsessively. I love what I do. It’s never a struggle to come up with menus that appeal to everyone.”
But that doesn’t mean it requires less work.
He says, “Vegan food is much more labor intensive in the kitchen, but you can do a lot of great culinary techniques when preparing it. We spend hours and hours doing vegetable stocks. We smoke our tomatoes and caramelize our onions until they can’t be caramelized anymore. We blanch our cardoons and then sous vide them for six hours until they come out perfect. We’re always messing around with things to improve the flavor of food and improve our craft.”
Chef Baker believes in offering comfort food in unpretentious surroundings that are not only beautiful, but eco-friendly. For example, they filter all of the water in the restaurant themselves, used recycled pickle barrels to create the back bar and cabinetry in the open kitchen, and even re-used old leather belts to make the seat cushions in the banquettes.
But this is no tree-hugging, alfalfa-loving hippy eatery. The menu here is inventive, surprising, and worthy of a four-star chef.
On a recent visit for brunch with some friends, we had the Egg Sandwich with bacon and mushrooms; the Acme Walnut French Toast with blood orange confit, cranberries and walnut sauce; and the Burrata salad with chicories, walnuts, anchovy and bruschetta.
We loved the Egg Sandwich with its fresh torpedo Acme roll, smoky salty bacon and those fabulous braised Portobello mushrooms! Apparently they’d been cooked with red onions, smoked chopped tomatoes, their own veggie stock and something they call “tomato condiment” which is like a housemade ketchup. It’s the basis for many dishes and the Chef was nice enough to offer up the recipe below.
We also ordered two pizzas for the table, including the vegan Spicy Tomato with capers, olives, cashew garlic puree and herbs; and the Farm Egg Pizza with bacon and caramelized onions.
The vegan Spicy Tomato pie was the highlight of our entire meal, and I say that surprisingly because we were a table of hearty meat-eaters. We were skeptical that any vegan dish could satisfy, let alone surprise us, the way this pizza did. The flavor combination of the salty capers and olives with the zesty sauce and creamy nut puree made for a winning combination. And texturally, the crust on both pizzas was stellar. It was thin and crispy on the bottom, and the dough around the edges was soft and tender, like the perfect breadstick.
Each and every plate was fresh, bright and alive with flavor, thanks to all the fresh produce from the folks at Lindencroft Farms. And it’s not just high quality ingredients we tasted, it’s the obvious care in preparation.
“I don’t want the vegetarians to know they’re eating vegetarian food. I want you to feel like you’re eating something that tastes like steak,” says Chef Baker. “My goal when cooking is for people to try a whole new array of flavors every time they come in and make it fun for everyone at the table.”
(Yields 9 quarts so scale down!)
12 qts red onion (1/4 inch dice)
3 qt apple cider vinegar
6 cups tomato paste
5 cups Sucanat (or natural cane sugar)
2 Tbsp. dried thyme
3 Tbsp. ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. ground clove
2 Tbsp. ground allspice
1 Tbsp. cayenne
6 oz pure olive oil
1.5 cups Tamari/Dark Soy Sauce
3 qts Water
Caramelize the onions and then fry the tomato paste. Add all other ingredients and reduce to slightly looser than ketchup consistency.
You can use this as a basis for braising vegetables and meats or as a condiment.
*This piece is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.