The Tech Effect
In San Francisco slow food meets fast tech. And sometimes clashes. On the plus side, tech has provided investment for some restaurants. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey is an investor in Chef Joshua Skenes’ Saison. Tech has also fueled the feeding frenzy by creating a moneyed class that gives disposable income new meaning. Techie largesse helps finance the creative urges of chefs in the Michelin star firmament—such as Josh Skenes and Dominique Crenn—whose restaurants offer rarefied multi-course tasting menus that can set a couple back $1,000 for a dinner. A diner might enjoy a tiny but tasty morsel such as Skenes’ signature sea urchin on lightly grilled sesame sourdough. “The audience for that stuff is small, and none of those restaurants are that big,” says restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. However, the top-tier chefs set the gold standard, and a trickle-down effect raises the bar at all levels.
What San Francisco excels at, in Wolf’s opinion, is “the delicious middle.” Stuart Brioza, chef/owner of State Bird Provisions, where small plates—such as a Hog Island oyster with kohlrabi kraut and sesame—are served dim sum–style, concurs. “What plays a huge role in the mid-range restaurant is the personality attached to the cuisine,” says Brioza, whose own style was influenced by growing up in California with many Asian friends. When we spoke, he had just finished a pork broth flavored with seaweed and clams that he intended to serve in a Japanese clay pot. In other words, this is a city of talented chefs marching to their own drummer and creating imaginative dishes that are still relatively affordable. (Apps tend to be priced in the teens; mains usually hover in the high $20s to low $30s.) While prices might be a little steeper than in some other cities, San Francisco enjoys a sizable dining public with well-educated palates and wallets to support them. “People in San Francisco are used to spending more of their disposable income on food,” Wolf says.
Not only are they willing to spend generously, “the dining public here is really open to trying anything,” says Sarah Rich, who, with her husband, Evan, owns Rich Table, where a signature potato chip–encased sardine continues to enchant. “There is overwhelming support from the community.”
On the downside, tech money has led to the stratospheric rents that make it impossible to live in the city itself on a cook’s wages and therefore increasingly difficult to staff restaurants. Tech giants such as Twitter, Apple, Google, and Air BnB that boast vast foodservice programs are also enticing cooks away from traditional restaurant jobs. “They’re offering our cooks a 9-to-5 gig during the week, plus a lot more benefits than a small restaurant can provide,” Jossel says.
“I’m glad I’m not in the restaurant business today,” Goldstein says. “When I opened Square One in 1984, if I needed a cook I would get 20 applicants. Now if they walk in and stand and breathe and can hold a knife, they hire them.”
Ambitious young cooks, some even from Europe or Asia, still want to build their résumés by working in prestigious San Francisco restaurants, but they may not stay for the long term. “Rents have gone through the roof, and wages have not kept up,” says Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlou. “People from somewhere else will spend six months to a year here and go back.”
“We used to think ‘Oh man, I should go to France,’” recalls SPQR’s executive chef Matt Accarrino. “But now I have cooks from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and a lesser number from Europe, who want to build their résumés here and then they go home. I just had a cook from Taiwan, but when her visa was up, she left.”
Operators are struggling to retain staff and keep the doors open,” says Jason Berthold, executive chef of Monsieur Benjamin.
Goldstein notes that 62 restaurants closed last year. The most recent casualty was the much loved North Beach fixture Rose Pistola, whose website says: “After 21 years we have decided that due to rising costs it is no longer feasible to continue to operate.”
Berthold points out the effect on kitchens: “It has meant that chefs have to nurture their staffs differently and become more of a teacher in their kitchens.”
Brandon Jew, of the recently opened Mister Jiu’s, “sees the kitchen more and more as a place of education” and has devised new systems to motivate his cooks. “I created a spreadsheet of every single skill you could learn, from butchering a whole pig to wrapping wontons and dumplings. For every new skill, you come in on your own the first two times and the third time I pay you. When you get through half the skills, I will automatically give you a raise. When you finish all of them, you will get another raise. I have one cook who’s close to finishing. It’s exciting that he’s gone through the list.”