San Francisco chef Kim Alter has made a name for herself over the years, working her way through various illustrious kitchens from Charlie Trotter's and Gary Danko to Manresa and Acquerello. For the last few years, Alter has been part of Daniel Patterson's growing restaurant group, helming the kitchen at Haven in Oakland before moving to the smaller Plum earlier this Fall.
In the following interview, Alter talks about working for and learning from some of the country's most well-respected chefs, and why she decided to move over to Plum after serving as Haven's opening chef. She also discusses the advantages of traveling to culinary events such as Peru's annual Mistura, and why she hopes young cooks will continue to value mentorship in their careers.
How did you get into cooking?
I was definitely on the path to straight As, advanced classes, editor of the yearbook, all to go to college and then something clicked. I couldn't imagine sitting in front of a desk all day. I just wanted to be more creative and work with my hands. Right when I graduated, I moved up to San Francisco, and I've been here cooking ever since.
I wouldn't say I lived in the Dark Ages, but I never read blogs.
And you have built up a pretty pedigreed resume with stints at Charlie Trotter's and Gary Danko and Manresa. How did you strategize those moves?
When I was younger, I wouldn't say I lived in the Dark Ages, but I never read blogs. You just kind of went by what the Chronicle said and places your chef friends would tell you to go. A classmate told me about Acquerello and I went [there] and I staged. I got offered a job and everything kind of grew from there. I just started going from restaurant to restaurant that I thought I would learn something and that was renowned. I went to Chicago and staged for the first few months at Trotter's and Blackbird and I ended up staying at NoMI. Then I came back to San Francisco. By luck I'd never even really heard of Manresa, but someone was like, "Ooh Manresa is hiring." So I sent my resume down there, rented a car, staged, and [Manresa chef David Kinch] hired me. That opened my eyes and changed how I thought about food.
I mean, Gary Danko and La Folie, all the places that I worked in the city were very, "This is how you plate" and everything is like, "Get a ruler out and measure it perfectly." That's just kind of the thought process. Kinch is a little bit more organic. Things can be more rough chopped. I wouldn't say [you could] plate however you wanted, but he gave you a little more creative freedom. Then you start opening your mind, you start thinking about, well what would I want to put on this plate, what would I want to do here? The crew, when I was there, was very mature. We were all in our late 20s and had all been managers in the past, but all decided to cook at Manresa. I just think it opened our eyes, or at least it opened mine.
And then going to Ubuntu with Jeremy [Fox] and helping out there and again going to the garden. Then I got the opportunity to go to Plate Shop and I worked on a farm for a year while that place was opening. It just kind of changes the way you think. You're like, wow that radish took a lot of care to grow so let's really highlight it and make sure that it's perfect and not throw anything away because it takes so long to grow these things.
Had you spent much time on a farm before?
Not so much. I hate spiders and things like that. Going to Love Apple and seeing what [Cynthia Sandberg] was doing and then going to Ubuntu and seeing what they had done, it was really interesting so I started working on a farm in Santa Cruz. That's what inspired me to have a garden of my own at Plate Shop, which was small. We grow our own microgreens here. Daniel [Patterson]'s always talking about taking over space to have a farm, which would be awesome. It just opens opportunity to grow what you want, how much you need, and it's more sustainable.
How did you hook up with Daniel Patterson?
I had staged at Elizabeth Daniel when I was 19 and met him. Then I went through my career cooking and after Manresa, I went to Aqua where Ron Boyd was the chef. We had met also at Elizabeth Daniel. He was Daniel's chef de cuisine back then, in the late '90s, early 2000s. He brought me to Aqua as executive sous. Then [Boyd] went to work for Daniel as his director of operations. [Boyd] kind of re-introduced me and Daniel. We met at a farmers market when Haven was going to be opening. We talked for two hours not even really about anything. We talked about how we feel about the ocean situation and my take on potatoes, things like that. He didn't offer me the job there. He was like, well, why don't we kind of work together and see what happens.
So I went and I was at Coi for awhile. My friend Charlie Parker was at Plum and [Patterson] was like, "Why don't you go help Charlie?" So I came to Plum for maybe four months and in that time decided that it would be a good move for me to go to Haven. So that's kind of how the progression happened. Actually, [Patterson had] even talked, "What if Charlie went to Haven and you stayed at Plum because it seems like more your style?" And I was like, "No, I really want to do the whole restaurant opening, I want it to be my own, I don't want to take over a restaurant where my friend is already the chef." And it's ironic that I'm now back at Plum.
What did he mean by that? Why was Plum more your style?
Well, it's smaller. Haven, we could do 220 people. Plum, it kind of maxes out at 90. I worked in the front of the house as well back at Acquerello when I was younger to be able to afford my commute to Manresa. So I have an eye in the front of the house as well. I guess I'm kind of controlling. At Plum, I can see every single seat in the restaurant. At Haven, I'd have to walk from behind the pass, walk around, look what's going on at the bar, look what's going on at the seats in the lounge, and go outside and see what's going on out there. I'm one of those people who wants to see what's going on to make sure that the guest has a good experience, make sure that I'm firing correctly. Just to make sure that everything runs smoothly.
Makes sense. And what's your style in terms of the menu? How did you approach the new menu at Plum?
We wanted it to be not that much different from Haven, but just a little bit more refined and a little bit more focused. I have less cooks, but less people to cook for, so you can take a little bit more time on each plate, maybe have one more component that you wouldn't have had when we're doing 200 covers. And then make the menu a little bit smaller. At Haven, I'd have 20 to 30 items on the menu because I had my tasting menu and my regular menu so you're spread thin. Here, I've got five apps, five entrees, and a five-course tasting, then three desserts. So it makes it a little bit easier to be a little bit more focused. We try to have a couple items that are a little more approachable and then a couple items that are a little bit more interesting, so people can find things on the menu that they like even though it's so small.
The menu creation process comes from me and my sous chefs and even my cooks.
And what is your process with everyone in the group when you are planning menus? Do you and Daniel talk about it and work together, do you coordinate with chefs at the other restaurants at all?
I definitely look at the other chefs' menus and make sure that we aren't similar in a sense. But since we do use a whole animal program, Haven will get the leg cuts of the cow and I get the center cuts. We'll get whole lambs and whole pigs and split 'em up between. So we always have the same proteins on the menu, but not necessarily the same cuts.
Daniel always offers his support about discussing the menu and things along those lines, but pretty much Daniel will just come in and eat and then tell me what he thinks. The menu creation process comes from me and my sous chefs and even my cooks. But I'll call Daniel if I have technical questions or if I'm looking for a particular product from a farmer. I'll ask him, "How do you feel if I add something like this on the menu?" But the physical dishes are me. He's got enough going on with Coi.
That's fair, yeah. And you seem to get to travel quite a bit. I saw you were at Mistura along with him. What do those experiences at events mean for you as a cook?
That event in particular was really eye-opening because I was cooking next to Magnus Nilsson and René Redzepi and Alex Atala and all those people that have amazing books, have amazing restaurants, and are really inspirational. It was just really interesting watching their process, watching them interact with each other, and just realizing that they're just dudes cooking. I was really nervous going into it, being like, "Oh my god, I hope my dish is okay. What if it doesn't live up to what they're doing?" Just my own self-doubt. And then having one of them come and ask me, "How do you cook the octopus that way? It's amazing." I'm like, "I can't believe blank is asking me how to cook octopus." It was kind of cool to be in that situation and talk about how we do different things and what it's like at Plum.
There was a GM there who had taken over a restaurant. I was just about to take over Plum, and I was really concerned about how the public was going to take it and he was like, "You know what? You're going to have people who hate it and you just have to be strong because you know what you want to do." And I think about that when I hear negativity about someone wanting an old chef back here or an old dish or they want the burger on the menu. And I stand my ground and I'm like, "No, if you want the burger you can go next door in the bar, but this is the food we're doing here." You lose a couple people in the process, but I think about those conversations I had with people who have been through all the same things that I'm going through now. It's really nice to have a reference point of how they deal with it and use that to help me professionally and emotionally get through what I'm going through at this restaurant right now.
And it was just really cool seeing their dishes and seeing how they think. Gelinaz, the event that we did, was really unique. You pick a song or a performance artist or something with your dish to represent what you're talking about. Seeing how their thought process went that way was crazy. Just how open they are. It's not just about food. It's about their soul and their life. That sounds really cheesy, but that's how it came across.
How was that event? The pictures looked so crazy and I know the first one was controversial, but it seems intentionally that way, right?
Oh, for sure. Andrea Petrini is like Andy Warhol or something. He just wants to do so many crazy things. We all were in this play that no one practiced, so we just went up on stage and started talking. It was insane. Gelinaz was an eight-hour event where people ate 25 courses of octopus. It just turned into a party, people going around talking with the chefs. It was really cool.
I'm becoming my own person through my food, learning to manage better, learning to cook better, and understanding what the guests want.
That is cool. And I've heard a lot about you, you've really made a reputation of your own while working under Daniel. How has that been for you?
Everything has its positives and its negatives. I find a lot of positives working with Daniel because he has given me a platform to do what I want to do and he is very open when I have an issue. He throws out advice, tells me what to do, we have meetings. He tries to put me in the spotlight. He brings chefs to the restaurant and introduces me to them. He brought me to Mistura. He gives me opportunities that I probably wouldn't have if I didn't work with him. It's an honor. Again, it sounds cheesy, but it's really nice to be in that kind of presence and be surrounded by people like Ron Boyd and others in the company. I consider Haven and Plum my first real chef jobs. I'm really opening up. I'm becoming my own person through my food, learning to manage better, learning to cook better, and understanding what the guests want. I'm getting that opportunity by working with him.
Sounds like you've got a pretty strong mentorship culture then in the company. Do you think that is the case more now or at all elsewhere? What's your experience with that?
When I hear people say that they have no mentors and they're self-trained or self-taught, that makes no sense to me. Because you learn something from the cook who you work next to every night at every restaurant you work at, whether it's good or bad. You are constantly learning and working with people. Most chefs are mentors, at least in the career path that I've chosen. I could consider each one in a mentor. They have taught me something and brought something to the table that made me change as a person and as a chef.
You learn something from the cook who you work next to every night at every restaurant you work at, whether it's good or bad.
I think that is changing because with the introduction and the aggressiveness of the internet, you can Google any recipe, any chef. Some people will say they don't need to go and work under someone like Daniel Patterson because they can just open his cookbook. To me, that makes absolutely no sense. I hope it doesn't go in that direction where young cooks don't feel like they need someone to train them and mentor them because there's so much you cannot learn by Googling it. So I hope that it doesn't go away from the path that I chose because I think that's really how you're going to grow as a chef and as a person. Just one conversation with someone who has been cooking for 40 years will change your entire mindset and thought process.