Chef Matthew Accarrino has racked up quite the resume for a young chef: he was a Star Chefs "Rising Star" in 2010; has had three James Beard semi-finalist nominations; grabbed Michelin Stars in 2013 and 2014; and, most recently, was named a Food and Wine "Best New Chef" this year. He doesn't seem to have let it go to his head, though—"It's not an affirmation that I don't kneed to work hard anymore; it's an affirmation that I need to work harder," he says. At SPQR in San Francisco, Accarrino combines flavors from his Italian-American upbringing on the East Coast with the ingredients of the West to create a distinct and exciting menu. It all starts and ends, of course, in his kitchen.
Irreplaceable small tool or gadget
A small, offset spatula with a wooden handle from Ateco. I keep a container of spoons in front of me, but the other thing inside that container is that little spatula. It looks like an icing spatula, but it's about four inches long, and I use it for everything from plating to saucing to moving stuff around. It allows you to take a purée of something and push it across for presentation, or lift something delicate onto a plate. You use it like a spoon, but it gives you a little better dexterity and a flat surface, whereas as spoon is concave. Every single one of my cooks has one now.
Item worth saving from a kitchen fire
If I'm not saving people, I'd say my All Clad pans. I have fifty or sixty, and without them I can't cook anything. I've had them for years, and we take care of them so they're shiny and still look like new—they're well-made so they just hold up, and I've used them my entire career and never had an issue with them.
As a chef you get used to working with certain things—I'm used to the handle, it's comfortable for me. At your best you're able to do things that look effortless because you're practiced, and so it comes down to how things work. We're basically in the business of making the same thing over and over again. There will be a cook that will work a station effortlessly and another that will cook the same station like they're in trouble. The difference is that the first person has a routine — picking something up, using it, and putting it back in the same place—I emphasize that to my cooks a lot. That effortless organization builds speed and efficiency, and that's what you need to be a good cook.
My Berkel slicer. It's a red hand slicer that originated in Europe. An electric slicer spins really fast under the power of a motor, so for delicate things like our beef heart pastrami, the blade on this moves much slower and doesn't create heat or too much friction when you're cutting. It's a beautiful piece of equipment—my cooks call it the Lamborghini. Every time I see it, it makes me think of my family, and the significance of being an American chef cooking Italian (or Italian-American) food.
Sugar! I find myself seasoning things with sugar the way I do with salt. It's not about putting a ton in there, but good food is about balance. We do a mushroom stew with tomatoes and coriander, and I season it with sherry vinegar for acidity, but also a little sugar for sweetness. I love caramel and butterscotch—caramelized sugar is a good thing, so even caramelizing onions to bring out the sweetness in food gives it a balance that I think makes it taste good.
Also, sea urchin. We have a massive abundance of sea urchin on the West Coast, and the guy I buy it from the most says the only people who buy more sea urchin than I do are really busy sushi restaurants. For me, it's a delicious ingredient that's local and gives me a sense of where I am. As a chef, it's about using the best of what you have on hand.
My Food and Wine "Best New Chef" coat that's in a frame. It just came the other day, and we hung it above our Michelin star. It makes you realize that the efforts you put into something have impact. It's not so much about the award, but understanding that you're reaching people. What cooking is really about is trying to share a very personal part of yourself with other people. When you do that successfully, people enjoy it, and those awards do come. I try to share that with my staff constantly.
The secret weapon, if anything, is adaptability—to be able to make it work in any situation. At Pebble Beach Food and Wine Fest, I was going to serve a canapé with sturgeon skins and caviar. We dehydrate the skins and fry them so that they puff up like a pork rind, and that's the vehicle for the caviar. But when we showed up in the kitchen, they only had flat white plates, so everything would slide off onto the floor. So we ran down to the beach, grabbed these black rocks that had been polished by the ocean, had them run through the dishwasher, put one on the plates and then nested the skin perfectly in them. That kind of ingenuity and adaptability is the secret ingredient, because that is the essential element—being able to come up with a new plan when the plan you had doesn't work.
I want my chefs to have professional work habits—cleanliness, efficiency in movement, skills to complete their tasks—as their basic foundation. It's interesting to watch a chef plate food because some cooks are more organized than others—five components of a plate are ready, and then they pull out the plate to plate them. If you want to serve food hot you need to plate in thirty seconds, not three minutes. For something to taste good is not good enough, and taking those extra steps—to roast bones properly or reduce a stock to the best possible flavor—is important. You can get it 90% there, or 100%; to take that time requires patience, to get things to where they're perfect versus rushing. I encourage the people working for me to take that extra step. It makes a difference.