By Shyla Batliwalla
If you pride yourself on being a seasoned SF diner, odds are you’ve feasted in at least one of Chef Mitchell Rosenthal’s three restaurants. He’s the creative genius behind Town Hall, Anchor & Hope and Salt House. His contagious passion for cooking, community and home-style American flavors has made him a pillar of the San Francisco culinary world.
In his forthcoming book "Cooking My Way Back Home" (on shelves this Fall), Chef Rosenthal serves his thirty years of cooking mastery to the tables of home cooks. We chatted with Chef Rosenthal (he prefers Mitch) about going from pan to paper, his life outside of the kitchen and the secret behind his legendary fried chicken.
What motivated you to write a book? The book started as a Town Hall cookbook and morphed into a book about all three of my restaurants. I wanted to write a book people can use. A lot of chef’s books have beautiful photos and beautifully plated food, but I don’t know how anybody’s going to use that at home. While I do hope chefs look at my book, the audience is really for the home cook.
The book is a collection of different parts of my history. The thing I love about cooking is how it’s passed on. I learn things from my chefs because they’ve had totally different experiences. That’s what the book is, its passing it on.
How long did the process take and what was it like? It was a two-year process and it was the first time since I started cooking that I took off some rather large blocks of time to work on something else. I’m not a writer at heart, I’d rather open a restaurant than write a novel. I knew I wanted it to be for a home cook and I knew I wanted to be involved in the whole process from testing to styling the food for the shots; it was a very interesting process. I think it helped me articulate more. We design our own restaurants, so it was sort of like finishing the circle.
I staged with K Paul of New Orleans for a little and I knew when he’d done his book, he’d made a test kitchen in his garage so it’d be like a home kitchen. So, I did that with my wife [also a chef] and tested these at home. My chefs didn’t keep good notes so I had to develop a lot of them for the book. I had to take what we do at the restaurant and interpret it for the home cook. It was an interesting process for me. I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years and I eat most of my meals in the restaurant so it amazed me that cooking at home actually worked.
When it comes to dining in the city, what are some of your favorite spots? On the rare occasion I do eat out, I eat a lot of ethnic food. I love R&G Lounge, when I’m craving Chinese and Shalimar when I’m in the mood for Indian. I tend to love restaurants like that. I haven’t been to a lot of new ones to tell you the truth. I do love Bar Tartine, they’re really pushing it there and it’s really fascinating they have a really strong point of view. I was really excited about the meal I had there.
You live in Mill Valley. What are some of your favorite places on that side of the bay? We love Tony Tutto pizza, it’s not really on the radar but I love his pizza. I have kids so they love pizza so we go there or Pizza Antica. Fish in Sausalito is also really good. It’s small, cash only and very simple with the freshest seafood.
How has writing a book changed your approach to cooking? Since doing the book, I really like cooking at home, before the book it meant just throwing a steak on the grill. A few weeks ago we bought a massive paella pan and made it for 25 people, and it was amazing. I find myself cooking a little more intricately at home, more than I did before the book and the truth is with the kids I like to take a little more time off.
As an East Coast dude, what brought you to the Bay Area? What bought me here in 1998 was the work I was doing for Wolfgang Puck. I worked for him on and off for 18 years and I fell in love with him. He’s the greatest guy. If I had to work for anyone, he’s the guy. I can’t imagine living anywhere else now, everyone who lives in this area is fortunate.
What’s the secret to your legendary slow cooked fried chicken? We cook it for a long time at a relatively low temperature. It’s a controversial way to cook chicken, but by cooking it the traditional way for a short time in high heat, it gets dark and crispy but it’s harsh on the meat. I wanted that great skin but I want the meat to be amazing too. The chicken itself is injected with clarified butter, onion, and garlic juice so the meat is so tender and flavorful and the skin stays crispy. It’s highly seasoned, but it’s also a delicious tasting meat. I like soak it in buttermilk, inject it and toss it into flower. Some people use batter but I don’t like that because it doesn’t benefit the meat. It all started with a conversation with Wolfgang about his mother’s fried chicken, she did it at a lower temperature than normal, lower than you’d normally fry it and the injection comes from a fried turkey recipe that was on the opening menu of town hall came on a year and a half later.
When you are not in the kitchen, where can we find you? I have a black belt in judo but I don’t do it as much now. I recently got really into road biking. I ride like 50–100 miles a week. I felt crappy every morning so I started about two years ago and I’ve never felt better. I ride at least four times a week before going to work and I truly feel better then ever. I’ve gotten everyone into it, all my chefs, half the staff; we have our own jerseys and it’s really fun. Cycling is like the new golf because it’s low impact but also a complete cardio workout.