Mike Cooks at Kuleto’s

[written by Mike, 07-03-10]

On the occasion of our 30th anniversary, Lisa thought it appropriate to do something a little different. We both have enough stuff, so following a tradition of unconventional gifts between us, she made a donation to the San Francisco Food Bank and in return secured an invitation for me to be “Chef for a Day” at Kuleto’s restaurant.

Located in San Francisco’s Union Square, adjacent to the Villa Florence Hotel, Kuleto’s has a long history of serving superior Northern Italian cuisine, emphasizing fresh, seasonal, locally produced California ingredients. While Lisa was certain this was a fantasy arrangement for me, in fact I was pretty nervous. Though I have been a cook for more than 30 years, a high-end commercial kitchen was a bit intimidating.

We took BART and walked a quick 3 blocks from the Powell Street station to the restaurant. Inside we were met by Executive Sous Chef John Kallmeyer. Lisa left to go shopping and John showed me me around. The dining room seats about 160. Its showpiece is the beautiful English bar — 40 feet of carved wood, glass and mirrors that pre-dates the 1906 earthquake. Also on the dining level are the display kitchen and a separate wine bar. Everything served in the restaurant is finished and delivered from the display kitchen. The kitchen also is the source for hotel room service, Caffe Kuleto’s (a sandwich/coffee shop nearby), and private dining. Preparation is done in various rooms downstairs. Operations are organized and managed by Executive Chef Bob Helstrom, and Chef John. All is overseen by general manager Katherine Riley.

The prep areas are on two different floors. Meat is on the second floor. Pastries, bread and pasta are on the lowest level along with the restaurant office. The rooms are not large, but are efficiently laid out. There are several walk-in refrigerators and a freezer. Each area is staffed by a team of specialists who are amazingly adept at their crafts. Kuleto’s makes all their own bread, almost all of their pasta (they use purchased, dried for a few shapes) fresh every day, Ricotta and Goat cheese, and charcuterie (cured meats, i.e., salami).

I started off chopping strawberries in the pastry area. James Irby is the head pastry chef and bread maker, assisted by “J”, a culinary school graduate who, among other things, learned to make pastry at Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco. She and James were making various desserts and we talked while working. Two or three others were making various breads. Most of the breads are served in a selection in a basket with the meals, and are one of things diners rave about.

After finishing the strawberries I went upstairs to the main dining room where Katherine covered some restaurant business (they are hiring) and Chef John briefed the wait staff on the daily specials. In addition to detailed descriptions, the waiters also got to taste the dishes so that they would be intimately aware of what they were recommending (a penne with tiger prawns and a pizza-like appetizer topped with prosciutto and other tasty things — both were excellent).

Then it was back downstairs to make pasta with Ariel Fabian who produces all of the pasta for the restaurant and has done so for the past 3 years. Our task was to make tortellini. Pasta squares were laid out, then given a dollop of cheese filling from a pastry bag, folded into triangles sealed with egg and then formed into the tortellini shape. Ariel showed me (many times, he was very patient) in slow motion how to form the tortellini, wrapping it in his fingers, bringing the points of the triangle together and sealing with a bit of egg. I would say he could do one in maybe 5 seconds. We did maybe 150 while I was there and by the end, I still didn’t have the hang of it. I was all thumbs. He made it look impossibly easy.

I spent the rest of the time in the kitchen upstairs with the line supervisor, Andy. The kitchen is organized by area, grill, deep fryer, stove and also has a bar for diners who want to watch and maybe converse with the staff. There are dozens of drawers. The prep is such that these drawers have everything needed to make anything on the menu in roughly 5 minutes or less. I made a batch of calamari, but mostly I stood and chopped stuff and visited with Andy. Let’s just say that what one does at home cannot compare with the actions of professional line cooks. And by then, I was tired.

Lisa returned shortly before 2:00, got a quick tour with John and she and I sat down at a table for lunch. I had the Salumi Misti, a sampler of the house-cured meats These are really excellent and represent a personal triumph for Chef John who has been perfecting his methods for the past few years. Lisa had a house specialty, the grilled radicchio. Heads of radicchio are halved, and 3 to a skewer, are dunked in a mixture of balsamic vinegar, olive oil and oregano and grilled. The result is a sweet/bitter combination that is really excellent.

For the main dish I had the veal scaloppini served on a bed of fresh, lightly cooked baby spinach with a lemon, butter, wine capers sauce. Lisa had the saffron risotto with shrimp and scallops. And we each had a glass of champagne. It was a great, memorable meal.

John gave me a copy of Bob’s book, “Contemporary Italian, Favorite Recipes from Kuleto’s Italian Restaurant”. I gave John several posters of various space vehicles built by Lockheed Martin. I also resolved to visit Kuleto’s more often.

The food, the staff, and the experience at Kuleto’s were exceptional. The staff is amazing. John was an enthusiastic and passionate host. I was pleasantly surprised by how accepting everyone was to have a guest in their kitchen. The look behind the curtain revealed not wizards, but hardworking, talented pros dedicated to producing a superb dining experience 7 days a week.