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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Q&A with SPQR's Matthew Accarrino, Part 1: Is California All That?

Posted By on Tue, Oct 18, 2011 at 2:19 PM

SPQR's chef, Matthew Accarrino. - ALANNA HALE
  • Alanna Hale
  • SPQR's chef, Matthew Accarrino.

It's been two years since Matthew Accarrino moved to San Francisco and took over the kitchen at Fillmore's SQPR, boosting an already popular eatery into one of the city's defining Italian restaurants. It seems that Accarrino - both as a chef and as a deliberate, thinking man - is constantly pushing himself to reexamine how the influence of his Italian heritage relates to the bounty of seasonal ingredients around him here in San Francisco. These two factors guide his modern, technique-driven cooking, but a career in the kitchen was not his original plan.

"I wanted to be a bicycle racer," Accarrino recalls. "Actually, I got into cooking because I had a tumor in my right leg that I didn't know was a birth defect. As I got older and taller, that tumor got longer and eventually was unstable enough to break my leg while I was playing Frisbee." Laid up in the hospital for three months, it was a full year before Accarrino could walk without crutches, and two years before he got back on the bike.

"I was never really able to get back into racing," says Accarrino. "Suddenly I was 18 and wondering what I was going to do to do with my life." He began cooking in restaurants around New Jersey and New York, and with enough encouragement from those he worked for, applied to the CIA in Hyde Park. Since graduating, Accarrino has worked in a slew of high profile restaurants, most notably Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York and several of Tom Collichio's Craft restaurants in Los Angeles. Now running his own kitchen for the first time as executive chef, Accarrino reflects on stepping out from under American chefs and realizing his own "Italian sort of perspective."

SFoodie recently spoke to Accarrino. Here were just the highlights of a one-hour conversation:

SFoodie: How did you end up in San Francisco?

Accarrino: When I worked for Thomas Keller, everyone that came from the French Laundry to open Per Se would talk about the produce in California. They would say, "Oh, this artichoke is good, but it's not as good as..." or "This cucumber is good but it's not as good as..." Everything was related back to either the Bay Area or California in general and it got to be a little annoying to hear over and over again. I kept thinking, "Can this really be true? Can the difference really be that profound?" It certainly piqued my interest, so when the opportunity came to come out to California, that was one of the reasons that I took it-sort of to see.

Did it live up to your expectations?

Totally. Here I can be at one of my purveyor's farms in 15 minutes. You can't even be out of the Lincoln Tunnel in 10 minutes.

Do you have close relationships with your purveyors here?

Yeah, of course. I mean, I don't think you can cook in San Francisco and not. I talk to these people every single week. I can physically go and see somebody's crop of carrots go from small to bigger and bigger-while we're sleeping these things are growing. It's not just calling something into a produce company that doesn't know or care where something is from, because here so many farms deliver. I think that that sort of communion with the ingredients begins to change you a little bit. I'm far more interested in cooking vegetables than five years ago.

What is one of your favorite ingredients right now?

I'm one of those masochistic chefs, so I always try to figure out wherever my weak points are, and then improve them. I've kind of figured out this year that cucumbers are a weak point for me.

Is it because you don't like cucumbers?

No, I do, but it always occurs to me that there's the traditional preparation-cucumber raw-and nothing more. The challenge is to sit back and think about all the transformations: pickling, frying, and all these different things, and then try to develop a dish around them. Maybe that's part of me being on the West Coast, too. Instead of developing dishes around proteins I develop dishes around vegetables. And proteins, equally, but sometimes the vegetable is really more the focus.

In part 2 of the Q&A, Accarrino talks about SPQR's new cookbook, and in part 3 he'll give SFoodie a favorite recipe.

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

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie.

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Alanna Hale

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