Insatiable curiosity and a thirst for knowledge have been integral to the renowned chef's success.
Suzette Gresham is no stranger to being the first. As a young chef, she was often the only woman in the kitchen. And while she was confident in her talent and drive, the deck often seemed stacked against her purely because of her sex. “I dreamed of being a chef and didn’t know if I could,” she recalls of the early days of her career. “It’s not like I was lacking anything. I just didn’t know if I could buck up under all the opposition.”
But giving up is not a phrase in Gresham’s vocabulary. “I had to realize, ‘What is my route around this? How do I get that experience? How do I make them believe that I can do it?’” she says. “You just persevere. You just push through and you just make them forget you’re a girl.”
Gresham’s formidable career has been made possible not only by this tenacity, but also by her total willingness to learn. Even today, helming the famed Michelin two-star restaurant Acquerello in San Francisco, the chef never stops exploring new ways to create dishes, connect with her diners, and better her craft.
She is also mindful that the simplest recipes or tasks form the backbone of a restaurant and should never be forgotten. “I tell young chefs, ‘Understand the fundamentals. Don’t look down your nose at anything that’s basic, because it’s basic for a reason.’ It’s usually a building block that’s a necessity,” she says.
It is this combination of returning to the roots of cooking, while still endeavoring to learn new ways of creating that makes Gresham’s cuisine so singular. Acquerello holds a unique position in San Francisco’s dining pantheon. While it celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and is, therefore, quite the definition of a classic, its menu is far from static.
“Standing the test of time does not allow you to stand still,” she says. “You can for a period of time but not in perpetuity. I would say that we are not trendy, but I believe we are very current.”
This ethos is reflected in the chef’s seasonal tasting menu, which offers classic Italian preparations that are updated for today’s farm-to-table-obsessed diner. A dry-aged squab breast may not be revolutionary, but when served with sour cherries, smoked honey, and elderflower, it becomes unlike any preparation before it. Similarly, a beloved and classic lemon-and-raspberry layer cake is made exciting by the addition of molecular gastronomy: a liquid lemon sphere.
“We’re still here. That means we’re doing something that somebody wants, and it can’t be the same somebody that was here 30 years ago—because they’re probably dead by now,” she jokes.
This year, Gresham’s thirst for knowledge has taken her outside the frenetic dining scene of her own city and into California territory that gets eclipsed by the lodestars of Los Angeles and San Francisco: Sacramento. While the city is known as the farm-to-fork capital of the country—it’s surrounded by 1.5 million acres of farmland—it has been chronically overlooked as one of the state’s dining destinations. But when Gresham was asked to helm the Farm-to-Fork Festival’s fundraising dinner on the city’s famed Tower Bridge this September, she began to not only explore the restaurants there, but the farms around it as well.
With local chef Allyson Harvie of Ella Dining Room and Bar as her guide, Gresham gained a new understanding of the importance of sourcing locally. “It’s made a change to my philosophy and mentality,” she says of spending time in Sacramento. “It’s driving to get something or trying to meet a new farmer. It all ends up on the plate, but it starts at a different level.”
And of course, everything Gresham learns does not stay in a vacuum, but rather is shared with all the chefs who work alongside her. What she studies as a student, she passes along as a teacher.
“I’m like a fricking dictionary,” she says with a laugh. “I’m like the bibliography of all bibliographies. I was thinking about what is good about being a book. A book is many things to many different people, but it’s true to itself.” And luckily for Gresham, the journey of learning is often the reward itself. She puts in the effort and does the research; she may not remember everything but finds the investigative process to be an adventure in its own right.
Gresham often challenges her chefs to learn something outside their comfort zone for the sake of expanding their talents. She asks them what specifically they’d like to learn and how they plan to pursue that educational opportunity—whether it be trying a new appliance or dining out to find inspiration at other restaurants.
At the end of the day, Gresham believes that fostering a sense of curiosity has big payoffs on the plate. “When you raise good people, you get good cooks. And when you get good cooks, you get good food that is truly built from love,” she says. “It sounds so trite when you say it but if you’re cooking numerically or robotically, you might be a great technician, but there could be something very much missing. As much as you need all of those doctrines, you still need a heart.”