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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Q&A with Bar Bambino Chef Lizzie Binder: Part 1

Posted By on Wed, Aug 31, 2011 at 10:45 AM

Lizzie Binder - PHOTOS BY ALANNA HALE
  • Photos by Alanna Hale
  • Lizzie Binder

Lizzie Binder is all emphatic hand gestures, wild grins and infectious enthusiasm. The executive chef of Bar Bambino in the Mission District, Binder is clearly at home running a restaurant kitchen.

Born in South Africa, Binder arrived in the States via London and a three-year stint in Sydney. She initially came to San Francisco based on a promise. 

"My cousin said I couldn't settle in New York without coming here first," she says. "He knew that I would fall in love with San Francisco and I did."

Now married and rooted here with two children, she says, "I completely fell in love with this city and it's just perfect for me. The food scene is awesome, the growing seasons are amazing, and we get to be so spoiled with everything we have."

Such logic sums up her approach in the kitchen. 

Fresh ceci beans fried with paprika salt
  • Fresh ceci beans fried with paprika salt

As Bar Bambino moves from more traditional, "pan-regional" Italian food to the lesser-known cuisine of Italy's northeastern borders, Binder lets the produce dictate her menu while being "inspired and guided by what those areas would serve."

And as plans to open a café in the coming months unfold, we learn there's room for all of Bar Bambino's ideas, past and present -- including those eggplant meatballs San Francisco diners mourned when they were removed from the menu.

How did you come to open Bar Bambino?

I was introduced to Christopher [Losa, owner] just after I had my first son, through some mutual friends. We hit it off immediately. We think very similarly, we both love the same kind of food, and we just get each other. It's been a great match.

Have either of you owned or run restaurants before?

I have been an executive chef before, but not in a fully Italian scene. When we first opened Bar Bambino it was kind of pan-regional Italian. We were following somewhat traditional recipes throughout Italy and using ingredients from all over the country. But now we're focusing more towards the northeastern corner of Italy, which is very interesting.

What inspired the regional shift in focus?

In 2008 Christopher was in Trieste taking a break, his first since opening the restaurant. He's always loved that area, and when he came back he was like, "We should focus more towards this area."

Long-rolled Tyrolean gnocchi
  • Long-rolled Tyrolean gnocchi

Were you familiar with the food from there?

I wasn't. When Christopher initially made the suggestion it was summer and all I could think was, "Whoa, this is heavy stuff!" Things like cabbage, dumplings and starch, and not a lot of fresh, beautiful, light ingredients. I struggled in the beginning, unsure of how it would fit in San Francisco in the summer. And then I started delving deeper and doing loads of research, really looking at all the countries that surround those areas and following not only the culinary history but the political history, too.

What did you learn?

If you follow the whole Hapsburg empire -- Austria, Alto Adige, Tyrol, Germany, Friuli, and Slovenia -- there are lots of vinegars, cucumbers, beets and turnips. The use of vinegars was the place I found where everything started to lighten up. And so we use a lot of vinegar. A great example is the beet and cucumber salad on the menu right now. It's dressed with champagne and red wine vinegar and then finished with pumpkin seed oil. The oil is so rich and thick that you actually need all that acid to cut through it, and when you eat it all together, it's so nice and balanced.

What resources did you turn to for research?

The library at first. There are people who have been prominent, like Fred Plotkin and Silvena Rowe. Plotkin's writing on Friuli, particularly his book "La Terra Fortunata," is a fabulous look at the food and wine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, though unfortunately now out of print. Silvena Rowe is an English chef/author who's just awesome, very inspirational. She opened an Ottoman Empire-style restaurant in London at about the same time that we started doing this here, which is fascinating as the opposite to our Hapsburg Empire inspiration.

But some of my favorite cookbooks for this area are just funny little books that I picked up while we were traveling there. I bought a dictionary and translate them myself. And then when we started changing things at the restaurant, the Slovenian Women Union of America sent me a cookbook that they had put together called "More Pots and Pans." It's an unsophisticated look at typical Slovenian house-wife recipes, and I use that every now and again. Such random places you find things! It's all a matter of taking traditional ideas, elevating and refining by putting our signature on them, and creating something classic but contemporary at the same time.

Tomorrow: How that library research turns into bacon-wrapped quail.

Alanna Hale is a writer and photographer whose work can be found at alannahale.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.

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