Interview: Chef Michael Tusk of Quince + Cotogna discusses Going Pro, Spit-Roasted Pork, Finding Balance + More

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Chef San Francisco

Even in the Bay Area, which touts dozens of compelling Italian options, Michael Tusk still manages to stand out. The Chez Panisse, Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli protegee has forged his own market-driven identity in San Francisco’s city center. He and wife Lindsay own a pair of restaurants in Jackson Square: high end Quince and the adjacent, more rustic Cotogna. We met Chef Tusk at Alex’s Lemonade Stand in Los Angeles, and the New Jersey native better explained his connection to restaurants and cooking.

What is the biggest challenge in operating multiple restaurants?

You just have more employees. Luckily, having multiple restaurants, they’re in the same building, so it’s basically a hallway, so I can wander back and forth between the two kitchens. Larger staffing capacities, and just more action, all the time.

How is it different, the criteria for a dish that would go on your menu at Quince versus Cotogna?

Since Quince is tasting menus – we have a new lounge we’re rolling out with a new lounge menu – Quince just kind of veers between French and Italian flavor profiles. The food’s definitely more refined over there, whereas Cotogna, I want to be more bold and straightforward. There are not a lot of surprises, just a lot of very of-the-moment, usually market-driven food coming from the market, cooking with wood in the rotisserie from Italy – from Florence – that I have. We have a wood-burning oven. We still do the same pasta program for the two restaurants, but just more straightforward.

What was your very first night like working in a professional restaurant kitchen, and where was it?

I was going to Tulane and I worked in a restaurant whose name I won’t mention, in New Orleans – it’s probably not around any longer – with some of my other friends. We were all finishing up school and working together. It was just pretty straightforward food from that area. We kind of rotated. It was action. You either liked the feeling of being in the kitchen for the first time, or it’s not for you. It kind of gets in your blood, and you just continue.

Was there a moment when you knew you’d become a professional chef for a living?

I think I knew it from an earlier age. I grew up not too far from Manhattan, and my cousins owned a catering company, so I used to go every now and then and would work with the prep cook. That was probably in eighth or ninth grade. I always liked going to restaurants. Any type of restaurant, I liked going to, and I always liked the odder things on the menu. I think my family had an inkling when I was gravitating to frogs legs and snails at an early age that I wasn’t your normal 10-year-old.

What is it that you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens?

Somebody who’s just passionate about food and the culture of working in a restaurant, and really wants to do it for the right reasons. It’s about the guest at the end of the day, and not themselves, though they really have to fight up the chain of command. To make a living in the restaurant business isn’t very easy, but it’s great for that younger person to have that challenge and to be as passionate at that age as you were. I love when they want to work hard, and they’re prepared to work longer hours. It’s just kind of a different kitchen culture here in the United States. When I grew up, chefs were trained from an early age, and you really want to get those younger cooks who were like you when you were at that age. They didn’t care how long they had to cook that day. They wanted to be there and knew that they were eventually going to run their own restaurant. That’s what I want to see from everybody who walks through that door, that they actually want to run their own restaurant and run their own kitchen and be the owner at the end of the day, I think is always something that I’m looking for in other people.

Do you have a top selling dish at each restaurant?

The menu changes a lot at both of them. Right now, well, at Cotogna, we do a lot of spit-roasted meats over there, and a lot of the pork dishes from the spit are really, really well received. The Paine Farm squab on the other side – [Quince] – that I’m doing with a smoked squab, two preparations, that’s been pretty popular.

Why do you think those two dishes are so popular?

There’s something about it. I’ve been buying squab from the same gentleman for 16 years. I think it’s probably the best squab in the United States. There’s something about it. I think when you enjoy working with a product that much, it’s usually translated over to the guest. Because you like it so much, you try to get them to have that same passion.

Then the spit-roasted pork, for the same reason?

I think anything that comes off a spit is just nice to eat. Just a totally different product with the slow spit-roasting. That’s probably something. A lot of the pasta preparations, we still do a lot of the older pastas we did at the old restaurant, but we may do them over at the new restaurant and try to refine the pastas over on the Quince side. [Customers] always gravitate towards those courses.

On my way out the door, last time at Cotogna, I saw an entire porchetta pass by.

People really love the porchetta too. That’s really well received. It’s very dramatic. It’s had a lot of guests come in, just for that.

What’s the last dish that you cooked at home?

I don’t even remember. I haven’t cooked at home in such a long time. I have the equivalent of a Manhattan studio kind of kitchen at my house. I may reheat something, but I don’t even try to attempt to cook there any longer. I’m in the restaurant all the time anyway.

How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to do that?

I definitely have other interests outside of cooking. Art. It’s kind of like all your passions outside of being a chef, you can incorporate them into your restaurant, such as a lot of the art that we collect – photography – at the restaurant. That’s a passion of mine, so I just try to stay balanced, and when I have time off, I may not directly be doing something for the restaurant, but it’s always in the background. Even if I’m looking at art, it may be for my own collection, but it may end up in the restaurant one day.

Who’s a person that you’ve never cooked with before that you would most like to cook with, and how come?

That’s a great question. Well, you know, there are so many people, I can’t even pinpoint. It would be nice to spend a day with someone like Gualtiero Marchese in Italy and the great legends of French cuisine. There are so many of them. There are so many great chefs out there. That’s the great thing about this business, that there’s great food all around.

One last question. If you could only cook with one more protein, what would it be and how come?

I would say if I could cook one thing on a daily basis, I love cooking the Silvia’s sweetbreads, and also I really like any of her veal. That’s pretty amazing too. It’s kind of like the other question. There are so many great products to work with on a daily basis. That’s what makes it fun. If you had it all the time, then it wouldn’t be as exciting to wait around. Like right now, capon comes to mind. Goose. I really love goose. That’s one of my favorite things to cook. Maybe goose. There’s something about goose I find very great, very interesting to cook. To use the whole animal, to pay homage, there’s just so many things you can do with geese. It’d be a toss-up.

Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?

I love Champagne. I’m a big fan of Champagne in general. To start a meal, I always like to maybe have a glass of Champagne, but I’m a big digestif fan, and I love the world of different Grappas too. Moscato in particular from Paolo Saracco, I like his grappa a lot. But any of the digestifs. Grappa, I try to collect as much grappa as possible when I go to Italy, or the grappas that are imported into the United States.

And you have it at home typically?

Yeah, I try not to drink too much grappa at the restaurant after work, but occasionally I’ll sit down with a guest. If they want to have a drink, I’ll usually have some grappa at the end of the evening.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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