As executive chef at Cafe Majestic, Ian Begg quickly gained raves from food critics and diners alike for his sophisticated but approachable food and extraordinary culinary skills that seemed far beyond his 26 years. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise – Begg had already worked in restaurant kitchens nearly half his life. As a result, he received multistarred reviews and was named one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s“Rising Star Chefs” in 2008. But after Begg and Majestic sommelier Ryan Maxey had differences with the management, they left the restaurant to eat their way through the Basque country for research and inspiration in the hopes of opening their own Basque gastropub.
In 2010, Begg and Maxey landed at the annex of Enrico’s (504 Broadway Street at Kearny) and opened a pop-up lunch spot they called Naked Lunch (a wink and a nod to the novel by William S. Burroughs and the beat heritage of North Beach). Still, the Basque gastropub was always on their minds. When Enrico’s closed, the owner approached the pair, said he loved what they were doing at Naked Lunch, and suggested they make him an offer for the space. They did, and at the end of May, their much-anticipated restaurant Txoko (which translates to “small space” and is also a name for Basque gastronomical societies) opened. Several other Majestic alums, including sous chef Sarn Saechao (who joined Begg and Maxey on that Basque country excursion), and bar manager Jason Brown (Michael Mina), whom Begg has known since his days at Hawthorne Lane, are part of the crew.
For Txoko, Begg is taking full advantage of the wood oven – specialties include roasted suckling pig with a bacon-cognac-cider sauce. He’ll have a couple of big plates each night, but the majority of the menu is small plates and pintxos (bar bites) including a wild mushroom empanada with Manchego, spring onions and thyme; and crispy sweetbreads with chorizo and potato coulis. (See “The Tablehopper” on page 13 for more sample dishes.)
I sat down with Begg just days before Txoko opened its doors – he was remarkably calm considering construction was still going on, and incredibly excited about seeing his dreams come to fruition.
Food Style: A native of East Bay’s Pleasant Hill, Begg says he loves and respects both the local ingredients of the Bay Area and Old-World style. He loves incorporating wild foods like ramps, fiddlehead ferns, mushrooms, rabbit, and venison into his dishes.
Fun Fact:Thanks to his worldly travels, Begg speaks fluent Spanish.
What is the last thing you cooked for yourself?
I made a Shanghai noodle dish with fresh-made noodles from Chinatown with mushrooms, snow peas and asparagus for my girlfriend and me.
A meal or a dish that was an inspiration or a revelation?
When I worked at Hawthorne Lane with Bridget Batson, she made this dish with handmade angel hair pasta, olive oil, garlic, and uni [sea urchin] before uni was “in.”
Last restaurant where you dined and the best thing you ate there?
Fang, the second restaurant from Peter Fang, the owner of House of Nanking – he’s French-trained, and he’s a great chef. I love the pork belly buns.
A favorite restaurant in North Beach?
I really like The House on Grant Avenue.
What was your favorite childhood food?
I knew I wanted to be a chef when I had good, fresh pasta for the first time. I was really into Italian food.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people?
A bag of frozen steak fries.
A favorite dish at someone else’s restaurant?
I love the lamb tongue salad at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville.
Worst kitchen nightmare?
On my birthday 10 years ago, I dumped [hot] oil on the back of my hand and my entire hand bubbled up.
If you retired tomorrow, what dish would you be remembered for?
The wild mushroom soup en croûte I did at Cafe Majestic.
Your favorite sandwich anywhere other than Naked Lunch?
The unagi-avocado sandwich at The House – it’s small but it’s the perfect size – it always leaves you wanting a couple more bites.
What do you love about the Basque country?
It’s similar to the Bay Area, minus hundreds of years, of course – it’s on the coast, there’s wine country – and food is really important to the culture. If you are a man there and you don’t cook, it’s considered a huge embarrassment.
For more information on Naked Lunch, visit www.nakedlunchsf.com, and for more information on Txoko, visit www.txokosf.com. E-mail: email@example.com
Chef Ian Begg
Chef Ian Begg