‘Cooking as therapy’: California’s top chefs on the recipes that got them through 2020 | Food

California’s Bay Area is home to some of the country’s best restaurants, and many global food trends – from the sourdough craze to the farm-to-table movement – can trace their roots back here.

But with the pandemic upending the restaurant world, Bay Area chefs have been doing what we’re all doing: cooking and eating more at home, and turning to food as a source of comfort, nostalgia and creative relief.

We caught up with our favorite chefs, some of whom have been driving the Bay Area’s scene for decades, and others who are shaping its future: Alice Waters, the doyenne of seasonal eating and founder of Chez Panisse; Gilbert Pilgram, the exuberant head chef of the longtime San Francisco favorite Zuni Cafe; Sarah Kirnon, the founder of Oakland’s beloved Caribbean restaurant Miss Ollie’s; Brandon Jew, the founder of the boundary-pushing Chinatown eatery Mister Jiu’s; and Reem Assil, whose California-inspired take on the traditional Arab bakery has won Reem’s national accolades.

We asked them to discuss the role that food is playing in their lives right now, and the dishes they’re turning to most often. And each have shared a recipe that readers can make in their kitchens at home.

Interviews have been condensed for length and clarity.

“Making jerk chicken triggered emotions I hadn’t addressed” Sarah Kirnon, Miss Ollie’s

“In my circle, I’ve always been the person that cooks for special occasions,” said chef Sarah Kirnon.

“In my circle, I’ve always been the person that cooks for special occasions,” said chef Sarah Kirnon. Photograph: Courtesy the chef

For me, this time has really been all about more outdoor cooking – lots and lots of grilling. Which is something I do anyway, but now it’s been more intentional, because I still love having people around.

In my circle of friends and family, I’ve always been the person that cooks for birthdays and special occasions, usually at my house in Oakland, and that feels like a safe way for us all to be together.

My partner and daughter are vegan, so we do veggie and meat grills. And a friend of mine recently gave me this really beautiful smoker/grill; she actually bought it with an ex-boyfriend and was convinced it had bad juju, so I inherited it.

On Labor Day, I marinated some jerk chicken and smoked it for four hours. We made the grill the centerpiece of the garden, we had music, it was just a really beautiful day.

The smoke, the smell of the allspice wood, it reminded me of home. Which was a bit sentimental, because this is the first year that I haven’t been back to Barbados to see my family. I wasn’t sad, but it was emotional. I thought I was dealing with Covid really well, but not being able to see my extended family – who all live in London, Barbados and other islands of the Caribbean – triggered in me emotions I don’t think I had addressed.

I was born in the late 60s, when dining out meant you supported a small, neighborhood joint, where you went for birthdays and family occasions. That’s changed a lot over the years. So, at the restaurant, it has been beautiful to see people slow down a bit, people being happy to wait, happy to engage with somebody outside their home. I hope that’s one of the things we hold onto when things go back to normalcy.

fish cakes

“My daughter and I love playing ‘restaurant’ at home”
Alice Waters, Chez Panisse

Chef Alice Waters: “My daughter and I are figuring out ways to be around each other, but we definitely come together around food.”

Chef Alice Waters: “My daughter and I are figuring out ways to be around each other, but we definitely come together around food.” Photograph: Courtesy the chef

The first thing I did was dig out my front garden and plant a victory garden, as I was worried we would run out of salads and herbs. I also have a plot in the backyard, it’s tiny, but we have an abundance of quinces, apples, persimmons, bay leaves and rosemary.

My daughter Fanny, wanted to come and live with me when the virus happened. And it’s just been a gigantic, huge gift. We’re figuring out ways to be around each other, which can be hard, but we definitely come together around food.

Sometimes we’ll even play “restaurant” – my daughter and her boyfriend will go out for a walk, then come back and knock on the front door of the house and say “we have a reservation!”. And I’ll say, “Oh, you know, I gave your table away, because you weren’t here on time. But we do have a place in the kitchen, and you’ll just have to accept what we have.”

Fanny has taken a great interest in preserving, and has been making quince jams, applesauce. She’s even dried and preserved plum blossoms using Japanese techniques, which create a wonderful aroma.

We can’t make enough beans – we have every conceivable variety and when we run out of the fresh ones, we move on to the dried. One of my favorite things to make has been hummus and then put it on a tortilla; just warm the tortilla over an open flame, spread it with hummus, perhaps some greens from last night’s dinner. I’ll eat that in about two minutes.

I also love making tomato confit; it’s one of my favorite things to prepare for the winter. You take the Early Girl tomatoes and cook them in olive oil, salt and herbs, and slip the skin off, then can or freeze them. We made the decision at Chez Panisse to eat completely seasonally, and with very few exceptions, that’s the way I think about food.

I think that’s even more important now – to fall in love with nature, and to live absolutely in the season we are in. Seasonal discipline rewards you in ways you could never expect. I’m feeling that even more strongly being in the house with my daughter, being together and cooking.

beans and greens

“I always have chicken stock. It keeps you and your relationship healthy”
Gilbert Pilgram, Zuni Café

“Eating at home is now our happy time,” said Gilbert Pilgram of his husband Richard.

“Eating at home is now our happy time,” said Gilbert Pilgram of his husband Richard. Photograph: Courtesy the chef

I have always used cooking as therapy. Many years ago, I was a successful law firm administrator. I hated my job; all I wanted to do was to cook. My husband, Richard, loved his job, and I was jealous. I took the plunge and with his help became the first intern at Chez Panisse. I learned to cook with Alice Waters. My husband, now of 39 years, stuck by me, and it all worked out.

He has Alzheimer’s, and it is advancing rapidly. Cooking has become a refuge for both of us. Richard never liked cooking, he loved going out to restaurants but with Covid, we cannot go out. The silver lining is that he does not remember going out. Eating at home is now our happy time.

I am cooking simple food. If it takes too long, Richard gets impatient. I always keep chicken stock in my freezer, which I recommend everybody to do. It will keep you and your relationship healthy.

Richard asks for pasta, which he never liked before. I think it’s because we’ve traveled around Italy a lot; something about having pasta seems to bring back memories of happy, irresponsible times in Rome or Capri, or the time we ate well, but were treated horribly, at a fancy hotel in Puglia, for being gay.

Throughout the lockdown, I’ve been making pastas with ingredients that keep Richard busy: peas to shuck, green beans to trim, shelling beans to shell, corn to shuck. I always add a small touch of chicken stock to the pan at the very end to make the sauce. The smell that comes with it, especially in the summer with basil, brings back lovely memories.

I am Mexican and guacamole is in my blood. I make it almost daily. We sit in our little garden and snack on it. I have to say that I make the very best margaritas – no need to be modest, a fact is a fact. I now make a virgin one for Richard while he devours the guacamole. Put some Chavela Vargas on your music player, and you’ll have an instant fiesta.

Zuni margarita

“I’ve been going back to the food of my roots, the things I grew up with”
Reem Assil, Reem’s

Chef Reem Assil signed a cookbook deal before the pandemic and has found solace in recipe testing.

Chef Reem Assil signed a cookbook deal before the pandemic and has found solace in recipe testing. Photograph: Luke Beard/Courtesy the chef

The lessened hours at my restaurants have pushed me to be at home more, and to be with my family. I’m cooking a lot for my son, Zain. He loves bread and cheese, and I’m always bringing home bread from the bakery. Another simple one we love is just boiled eggs with olive oil and za’atar, which reminds me of my grandmother, and is so easy to make. She used to make a 6-minute egg that fell cleanly out of the shell like a master.

I actually signed a cookbook deal right before the pandemic and, while it’s been hard to work on a book while dealing with the shock of being a business owner during Covid, I’m also finding a lot of solace in recipe testing, going back to the food of my roots and the things I grew up with.

One of the standouts that I’ve been making a lot of is maqluba. It’s a layered Palestinian rice dish often with a meat on top like chicken or lamb cooked in a pot. When you flip it over on a plate, it’s the moment of truth when everything comes out like a perfectly beautiful mosaic tower with billowing clouds of aromatic steam. There’s no one maqluba that’s alike. Every family has their own version, but it’s the one Palestinian dish that unites all Palestinians.

Another go-to has been this seven spice mix: it contains allspice, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cardamon, cloves, nutmeg. When I think of comfort, I think of those warming spices – we cook our rice with it, or it forms the base of our dark, deep rich soups and stews. At the height of the pandemic I was cooking a lot of freekeh, which is a thickened green cracked wheat soup, almost like porridge.

And I’m always eating at the bakery. I usually try and sometimes I forget about how good our classic signature dishes when focusing on new specials, but one I ultimately go to is the za’atar man’oushe – a flatbread slathered with thyme, sumac, sesame, olive oil and salt. It’s so simple and so good! I love to top it with fresh vegetables, herbs, and, a thickened yogurt.

Honestly at the start of the pandemic, I was hardly eating due to the stress; I worried about losing my businesses. Escaping to the kitchen to cook has been a way of healing. Because you have to stay inspired in this moment.

egg salad

“Having time for a meal with my wife has been eye opening”
Brandon Jew, Mister Jiu’s

Brandon Jew and Anna Lee own Mister Jiu’s restaurant in San Francisco.

Brandon Jew and Anna Lee own Mister Jiu’s restaurant in San Francisco. Photograph: Paola+Murray/Gallery Stock

My wife, Anna Lee, and I opened up the restaurant just six months after we got married, so most of our relationship has consisted of running it. In the past, we might have come home at 1am, eaten some cheese on toast and gone to bed. Wake up, go to work, come home, have a midnight snack, go to sleep.

This period has actually given us a bit of a break, and more time to spend at our own dinner table. It’s honestly been really nice – we’re getting home earlier and trying to put some effort into a meal together. We’ve always had a good relationship, but this has been an eye opening experience.

Luckily, Anna Lee has an amazing green thumb. I’m good at cooking things, but not at growing things. We have a garden that she’s spent time getting all set up.

We’ve been making a lot of soups. The other night we made a meal with a leftover stock made from chicken bones, a couple of loose carrots, some onions, a head of garlic. So all I had to do that night was cut a bunch of kale from the backyard, take some brown rice that was already cooked, add some herbs and a nice olive oil, some black pepper and parmesan.

That dish sums up the approach we’ve been taking: finding the time to make that thing which sets us up for the next meal. I’ll soak some chickpeas or cook some lentils, so maybe when it comes time to cook we’ll do something elaborate, or maybe we won’t. But having that special thing ready makes it much more satisfying.

Another thing we’ve been doing is supplementing a takeout meal with something made at home. Which is actually how Chinatown is set up – there are a lot of places, like BBQ spots, where you go and buy the meat, then buy your own veggies to prep. So maybe we’ll get a nice pork chop and then sear some eggplant, or roast some peppers, or put a sweet potato in the oven with some coconut oil and little maple syrup.

sweet potatoes