Thomas McNaughton, a fellow New Jersey native, is a CIA graduate who’s helped create a sizable culinary footprint in San Francisco’s Mission District. He’s a chef and co-owner of pizza and pasta focused Flour + Water, the more upscale, California-inspired Central Kitchen, and a refined neighborhood sandwich shop and market called Salumeria. On April 6, McNaughton shared several culinary insights after preparing a knockout black cioppino for the second course at Pebble Beach Food & Wine Battle of the Coasts: WEST.
Was it a given that you would become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
No, I started at a very young age in kitchens, started working when I was 14 washing dishes, and it was just for a job. It was not necessarily the food at the very beginning, it was how dynamic a work experience it was. A kitchen is controlled chaos. It’s like being on a sports team. I never played that many sports, but if you do a really good job, you excel. It was more about the dynamic of the kitchen. As I got older, around 17 years old, I realized it was definitely the profession I wanted to pursue. At that point, I started taking it very, very seriously, head down, and really just worked for the next 11 years, head down.
Where was that very first restaurant?
I grew up in south Jersey and started working in country clubs there. I ended up going to school in upstate New York and moved out to San Francisco in 2002.
What was it about San Francisco?
I had to do an externship [at CIA], and I really wanted to do it at a restaurant called La Folie, a classic, classic French restaurant there, and I really wanted a classic French background. I actually left school to work there. A year later, I ended up going back to school and finishing up.
Now that you have three restaurants, how are you able to find balance, or are you even able to?
That’s the key. Honestly, I feel like I just found some sort of balance in my life. We started a really amazing rooftop garden where we have chickens, above Central Kitchen. That is really my balance right now. I can work 14 or 15 hours and then go up on the roof for another couple hours after service and work until 4 in the morning sometimes. That’s my balance. That’s like my little sanctuary. That’s my own little space where I can work and think or not think. I think that’s really the key to life, is balance. We’re very close to a year into the openings of the new ventures, and it only feels like a couple weeks ago that things started to feel great, from behind the scenes…Opening restaurants is a beast. It’s an animal.
What does a dish have to be to go on your menu, and would you say there are any common threads?
All of the dishes that we do are 100% collaborative. I’m not the type of person that locks myself in a room – we have a test kitchen in the restaurant, we use it as a private dining room at nighttime – if I go into the test kitchen to write menus, it takes me forever, and I feel very uninspired. I have to sit down with my staff, and it’s complete collaboration. Every different dish that hits the menu goes through a funnel. So it doesn’t matter if it’s my idea, a cook’s idea, whatever it is, it goes through a funnel, because it has to be structured towards that restaurant. There are things we do at Central Kitchen that wouldn’t make sense at Flour + Water or Salumeria, or vice versa. So it’s a collaborative effort and we edit and we buy small things from small farms. We constantly change our menus just because of the product that’s available. It’s certainly not consistent, but most of our dishes, and certainly at Central Kitchen, are kind of ongoing…We put a dish on and then we tweak it, and we tweak it, and we tweak it, and we tweak it, and then weeks later, if that dish is still on the menu, it’s actually a completely different dish, because we’ve tweaked it so much. I like that ongoing conversation.
The black cioppino, you call it cioppino, but most people in San Francisco wouldn’t recognize it as cioppino.
Yeah, we did that for here as a play on words. We don’t call it cioppino at the restaurant. It’s shellfish based, and it’s with fish, and we’re representing the West Coast.
Do you have such a thing as a best selling dish at either Flour + Water or Central Kitchen?
Everyone always asks, “What’s the signature dish?” And my whole thing is that there isn’t a signature dish because it’s the complete opposite of what I just said. I get incredibly bored. If you’re just doing the same dish, day in and day out – and a lot of restaurants do it and execute very well – but I feel the food becomes dull after a little while after I have the same thing on the menu. Maybe the cook finds the shortcuts to the dish, or they’re less inspired to produce that dish every single day. It’s really important to me to not have that signature. There are two dishes on the menu that have never left Flour + Water since day one. That’s the budino for dessert. It’s my nemesis now. We tried to take it away and people weren’t having it. And also the Margherita pizza, just because it’s a standard. It has to change. Signature is no signature.
Tell me about your most recent collaboration in the test kitchen. What was your inspiration and approach?
Our chef de cuisine, Ryan Pollnow, started the conversation of that dish [black cioppino]. It really started with the caldo negro, the paste that makes it that black, black color. He had an idea, and we all come together and talk about it, and it kind of evolves from there…A lot of our food starts with a tradition, kind of a classic, and we build upon that.
Coming from a classic French background, how did you become so synonymous with Italian food?