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Friday, March 19, 2010

Marlowe Chef Jennifer Puccio: The SFoodie Interview

Posted By on Fri, Mar 19, 2010 at 1:36 PM

click to enlarge Jennifer Puccio. - MARLOWE
  • Marlowe
  • Jennifer Puccio.
In a city passionate about the small, five-week-old Marlowe feels about as right as morning fog. South, its predecessor in the sunlight-challenged space near Caltrain, had the glow of international celebrity talent. For Marlowe, owner Anna Weinberg (ex-partner in South) went modest, with a dark-on-white décor recalling a butcher's stall in some early 20th century food hall, and an edited bistro menu that skews part French, part Northern Cali. (Check out Puccio's recipe for baked oysters, a Marlowe signature.)

The woman behind the menu? Chef Jennifer Puccio, who grew up in New Hampshire, went to the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, and worked under Ana Sortun of Oleana in Cambridge, Mass., a chef she regards as one of her biggest mentors. Puccio, 35, produced elegant farm-to-table food at the now-shuttered Cortez, learned the importance of cooking for your audience as head chef of budget-conscious Ramblas on Valencia, got the neighborhood bistro experience at Rivoli in the East Bay, and dug deep into vegetable cooking under Jeremy Fox at Ubuntu. Puccio spoke with SFoodie earlier this week about her past, and the joys and challenges of creating a new restaurant.

SFoodie: You've worked in some really varied kitchens. How have they influenced what you're doing now at Marlowe?

Puccio: Well, at Ubuntu, I started by just helping out, running food and doing stuff like that. My husband [Edward Puccio] was the opening GM. Once [former Ubuntu chef] Jeremy [Fox] realized I could cook, he grabbed me for the kitchen. I ended up really falling in love with the food that Jeremy was doing, and the biodynamic gardens he could take from. He's a supertalented chef ― it was really lovely. I would say the most inspiring thing was working with all the produce. Everything we were getting was from the farm ― it was amazing being that close to so much beautiful product, as well as working with a talented chef. It was a place where you could rediscover the joy of what you're doing.

By the time I got to Cortez, I had been the chef of Ramblas. It was interesting: Our clientele was very young and hip, and didn't want to spend a ton of money on food. It was fun. And a challenge ― I was dealing with people who could easily fill up on a $5 burrito rather than come in and taste what we were doing at Ramblas.

It must have been an exercise in really giving your customers what they wanted. Exactly. And that's partly ― when Anna [Weinberg] and I were developing the concept for Marlowe, we kept coming back, at least for me, to the places I want to go on my days off.

What are your favorite off-night places? One of the places that I like to eat at the most is up in Napa, the French place in Yountville, Bistro Jeanty. At any time of the day you can create your own dining experience, throw in lighter options if you feel like it.

We wanted Marlowe to have that same feel. Sometimes when I go out, I'm torn between a place that's great but where I can't afford to eat very often, or a place that's less expensive but not as interesting. You feel like you're sacrificing a foodie experience. That's what we tried to avoid at Marlowe. We tried to come up with a really reasonably priced menu. I'm very cost conscious.

Plus the kitchen at Marlowe is really small ― you don't even have a walk-in [refrigerator], right? Right. It's challenging but great, because we really can't sit on product. We're bringing it in, breaking it down, and cooking it. And as far as service goes, we can't fit more than three people in the kitchen, doing a hundred-plus customers. It reminds me of working at Rivoli in the East Bay!

Where are you sourcing stuff from? When I was at Cortez I made quite a few relationships with farmers who go the Marin Farmers' Market on Thursdays and Sundays. In such a small restaurant, I can really hand-pick the things I want.

What are the things you're drawn to right now? Oh, Zuckerman's asparagus, and I love Shelly Arrowsmith's flats of microgreens. She gets amazing things. When figs are around she'll go get them from these two amazing trees up in Sonoma. DeSantis Farms has some great citrus and fruits.

What's been the hardest thing about getting Marlowe off the ground? It's hard to say, aside from the standard ones for any new kitchen: It's stressful, and it's long days. Aside from exhaustion, everything is good. And it helps when you hear from people in the neighborhood who say they're so glad we're here.

Follow us on Twitter: @SFoodie

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