Co-written by Saralynn White, sustainability champion, foodie storyteller, and creative director at Salty Dog. Photography by Julie Ann Fineman.
Wander the steep streets of Bernal Heights in San Francisco and you're bound to stumble on a gem called the Hillside Supperclub. Bernal Heights was recently named the hottest neighborhood in the country and it's no coincidence that this Supperclub is right here because the chef/owners say their eatery is about much more than food - it's about the neighborhood.
When we heard a couple of 20-something-year-olds were running a supperclub in the funky blue building, we assumed the duo scarcely works and are likely hungover most days. We were wrong. Downright. Categorically. Wrong.
The two chefs we're referring to - Tony Ferrari and Jonathan Sutton - met at culinary school in Miami, then found themselves cooking side-by-side for four-star chef Christian Delouvrier at La Goulue. It was a very professional restaurant. A very traditional, very old school, very French restaurant - down to the brigade system kitchen: "How much time on vegetables? How long on sauce?" Everyone worked a station to cook part of a dish they eventually brought together. At the time, Tony was on fish; Jonathan was on meat; and neither was long on patience when the other cooks were a no-show for their shift.
Two explicit things forge this pair's palpable bond: Italian families and downright doggedness about food. The chefs eventually went their separate ways. And though their ensuing journeys entailed pedigreed chefs, renowned eateries, and even bits in far-away places, they always stayed in touch.
Jonathan was working for Michael Mina's restaurant in Washington, DC when Tony earned a James Beard scholarship to work with farmers in the San Francisco area. Tony embarked on the gig and was constantly raving about the food, the farms, and all the fun he as having. Jonathan, who grew up in Washington, says the idea of returning to the West Coast kept sounding better until he finally took the plunge, packed up, and got a gig at Mina's flagship SF restaurant.
Tony's James Beard junket (which was awarded based on a recommendation by a mentor chef) was pure gold. It was his first time on the West coast and he worked with farmers and purveyors, one after the other. One week it was ducks. One week it was cheese. Another week was foraging mushrooms. Yet another week was working at a vineyard. "It made me appreciate the products chefs work with so much more," says Tony. "We don't truly grasp where products come from or how they're grown - or how much WORK (he says the word with emphasis and a huge groan) goes into it."
When the two got together in San Francisco, they hung around the underground supper clubs with a bunch of chef friends. They'd each create courses at different events. "We weren't talking about opening a restaurant together," says Jonathan, "Or at least not yet (a restaurant is every chef's dream) but the people who ate our food kept encouraging us to do our own pop-ups and the enthusiasm was just incredible." Tony adds, "It made sense, so we figured let's give it a try."
If you've eaten at HSC you know the food is inspired. What inspires us as much as the fare, though, is their commitment to sustainability. First and foremost, the duo is so smart about ordering food there's rarely any waste. "We order what we need based on business and the market. We're solid," Tony says frankly. If there is an overage, they bring out the old-world traditions: curing, smoking, making sausages and stocks. Nothing - absolutely nothing - is thrown away. "First it's money down the drain," says Tony, "It also disrespects the work of the farmers. Every little piece goes to use. We smoke trout. We make pickles. We do Charcuterie (the French term for dry-cured meats like prosciutto, capocollo, and salame)."
Here's the kicker: if they ever have leftovers or something that just wasn't a hit (hard to believe), they wrap up goodie bags and send food home with guests. Sometimes they sit down and have a staff family meal. Focaccia isn't going stale here and pate is never thrown in the trash. "If there's something that just doesn't work in a recipe, like an onion root, it's composted," Tony adds.
If you're not convinced HSC is a neighborly place, this will clinch it: when the chefs take a vacation or a week off at Christmas, they call the neighborhood and tell everyone to come take what they want. "Our neighbors eat like kings!"
HSC is in a great foodie town, so we had to ask about abundant peak-of-harvest food from farmers and purveyors who have too much and need to move it quick. Do they get calls from farmers or cheesemakers very often? "We get calls, but we also reach out to them a lot and say something like 'we're doing a special dinner and want to use a new product'," Tony explains. "It works out for us and them: they have an abundance so it's usually a little cheaper; we use it while it's peak of flavor and nutrients; there's no waste; and we get to be creative."
All patrons aren't foodies who will try almost anything though, right? "That's the beauty of San Francisco," says Jonathan. "People here understand food, they go out to eat a lot, and they want to try new things. We don't have to cook the same old, same old. We play with the menu constantly and there's always something new."
Tony jumps in, "You can't use offal cuts just anywhere. We're a neighborhood spot and we have a lot of regulars, so we switch stuff up a lot and everyone loves that. People know us, so they ask about the story behind new dishes like 'What farm? What was your inspiration?' We explain every detail to our staff and we tell the stories to our guests. The food becomes an experience."
Everything, and we mean everything at HSC is made from scratch - from the renowned lamb potpies to the duck pate - and they are determined to source locally. "Sustainability goes without saying. Farmers need us and we need them so it's not our philosophy, it's our way of life."
The pair sources sustainable-fish from San Francisco purveyors and friends at TwoXSea, including their branded McFarland Springs Trout. They praise Jim Reichardt at Liberty Farms in Sonoma County for his duck. Lisa Gottreich at Bohemian Creamery gets a nod to her one-woman show for beautiful cheeses created naturally from bacteria in the air. Their signature HSC lamb pie (which you really must see in person) features American lamb from Superior Farms. Weirauch Farm & Creamery is the blessed cheesemaker for numerous HSC dishes. And the list goes on.
That beautiful octopus posing with Tony came from Water2Table and was as tasty as it was photogenic. It was also Spanish, which chefs Tony and Jonathan say simply can't be beat. "It's the Mediterranean waters," Tony explains. "The octopus is so consistent and flavorful - naturally briny. They catch it and flash freeze them onsite. There's nothing better."
The duo says they fell head-over-heels in love with the San Francisco Bay area, so just like their neighbors (that's how they refer to their patrons) they love to play around - they happen to do it with food. "We're just two guys working hard, cooking good food, and we want people to come meet us in person," Jonathan says. "We love making new friends - that's what a supper club is - a way to meet your neighbors and have a social experience." The chefs even offered up their recipes for octopus, lamb pot pie, asparagus, and spinach farfalle with ham.
"We want families and friends to come enjoy this great atmosphere and not be afraid to try new things. It's important for us to have relationships. In fact, we love creating relationships as much as we love creating food," Tony says. "HSC is so much bigger than just food."