In any other region, the classic James Brown song “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” could describe restaurant culture. Not here, though. From Menlo Park to Sonoma, San Francisco to Oakland, female chefs and restaurateurs rank among the top culinary pioneers and are among the most successful in the business.
These women cook. And not only that, many of them know what pairs best with their menus, making them formidable all-around talents. I asked four of my favorite femmes of food and drink to talk about this, and let us in on their favorite sips for spring.
Photo by Erin Kunkel
Many know Joanne Weir for her cooking shows, which air on PBS. With an engaging, easy-going style, “Weir Cooking in the City” and “Joanne Weir’s Cooking Confidence,” along with more than a dozen cookbooks, confirm her as a culinary trailblazer.
Weir’s latest venture is the restaurant Copita Tequileria y Comida in Sausalito. Showcasing her passion for Mexico, Copita’s concept is inspired by her cookbook, “Tequila: A Guide to Types, Flights, Cocktails, and Bites” (Ten Speed Press, 2009). Focused on seasonal Mexican dishes (many inspired by the eatery’s own garden) and an amazing list of 80 premium tequilas and tequila cocktails, Copita is a shrine to south-of-the-border delicacies.
How did tequila become one of your passions?
Many years ago, I rented a house on the beach in a little fishing village in the Yucatan called Puerto Morelos. One beautiful warm night, a friend and I bought a bottle of Corralejo Reposado and sat on the beach with our feet in the sand, glass in hand, and sipped tequila. That night, I fell in love with tequila. Years later back in San Francisco, I went to the launch of a new tequila brand in a sexy square bottle called Corzo. My love for tequila was confirmed. I was surprised to see that there were mostly men at the launch and just a few women. I canvassed the women in the crowd, learning that women love tequila just as much as men. Immediately, I formed a group called Agave Girls, for women who appreciate tequila. [The group meets for tastings, social events, etc.]
Fresh Cherry Margarita
(served at Copita)
12 fresh cherries, pitted
1 ounce blanco 100 percent agave tequila
1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur
3/4 ounce agave nectar
3/4 ounce water
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
Fresh cherry with stem as a garnish
Put cherries in a shaker and mash them until pulverized, about one minute. Add other ingredients, then fill the shaker with ice. Cover and shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Garnish with the cherry.
The Best Weather. Photo by Phil Surkis.
Courtesy Tanya Holland
When I first met author, television personality and French-trained chef Tanya Holland, it was while eating crisp-yet-moist buttermilk fried chicken partnered with light-as-air cornmeal waffles. We were at her Brown Sugar Kitchen in West Oakland, an award-winning modern soul food restaurant that has been going strong for five years. Holland has been honored with her own “day” by the city of Oakland, recognizing her role in developing the area as a culinary mecca. She and partner Phil Surkis have just opened a new eatery, B-Side BBQ, a mile away from Brown Sugar. The menu includes pulled pork, spicy ribs, savory sides and signature cocktails made with the chef’s own fresh syrups. B-Side is the flipside to Holland’s restaurant record.
What inspired the cuisine at your restaurants?
It’s my heritage and the heritage of many residents in Oakland. There’s a history here that I found wasn’t being honored. We got it started, and then several operators followed with similar concepts. African-Americans came here to work the railroads, and West Oakland was where they lived. And then San Pablo later became a barbecue belt, but soon the family businesses closed, so we’re just taking over where history left off.
The Best Weather
(served at B-Side BBQ)
2 ounces Hangar One Mandarin Blossom Vodka
1/2 ounce Solerno Blood Orange liqueur
1/2 ounce Ginger Syrup
1/2 lime, juiced
4 to 5 torn, fresh basil leaves
Combine all ingredients and shake. Serve up in a coupe-style glass.
Hibiscus Mojito. Photo by Michael Biesemeyer.
Photo by Dan Honda
When I arrived in San Francisco after college, I remember a pivotal culinary experience at Jesse Cool’s Flea St. Café in Menlo Park. The food at this Peninsula landmark was simple yet amazingly complex with fresh-from-the-garden flavors. Little did I know at the time that Cool was, and is, an icon in the organic/sustainable food movement. She and contemporary Alice Waters pioneered the practice of using local ingredients and creating dishes from what you could grow and buy from artisan farmers.
A self-proclaimed hippie, Cool grew up in the Midwest with a family that owned a grocery store and raised its own vegetables. When she opened Flea Street in 1982, she wanted to share her passion by showcasing local, organically grown food and wine, something that was years ahead of its time. Cool also runs Cooleatz Catering and two Cool Cafés on the Peninsula, and has written several cookbooks, including “Simply Organic.”
How have you seen the food scene change in the past decade?
The most exciting development is that young diners are pushing the envelope. They want to know where their food comes from, who is growing and producing it, and how food affects their well-being as well as the local and global community. They don’t want to support food that’s grown and then destroys the environment. The “big, cheap” model of the past few decades doesn’t work. There is a wonderful return to the old ways: cooking for others, growing gardens, shopping at farmers markets, canning, pickling and curing foods like our grandmothers. There’s a sense now that this must be available to all and not just the privileged.
Favorite spring wine: Frog’s Leap Winery Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley — a classic California producer who has always focused on growing grapes organically and making character-driven wine such as this crisp sauvignon blanc.
(served at Flea Street Cafe)
2 ounces hibiscus-infused simple syrup
2 ounces white or silver rum
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
About 6 mint leaves
1/2 lime, cut
Put the syrup, rum, lime juice, lemon juice, a few leaves of mint and the half-cut lime into a glass; stir or swirl to release the flavors. Then shake in a shaker, repour into the glass, top with a splash of soda and garnish with extra mint leaves.