10 Questions with Chef... Elizabeth Falkner
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
Elizabeth Falkner’s path was always creative – she graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute wanting to pursue a job in the film industry. But her passion for pastry led her a different direction. She began her career at some of the City’s most acclaimed restaurants – Masa’s, Elka, Rubicon – which set the stage for her to open an acclaimed eatery of her own, Citizen Cake (a clever riff on the title of Orson Welles’s 1941 classic, Citizen Kane). Along with running the kitchens at Citizen Cake and her South of Market restaurant, Orson (keeping with the theme), Falkner works at the Center for Culinary Development creating prototypes for companies from Kraft to McDonald’s to Pillsbury.
Falkner has been featured in a multitude of magazines (Food & Wine, Gourmet, and W) and has received numerous awards for her work, including a prestigious nomination for the James Beard Pastry Chef award in 2005 and Bon Appétit’s Pastry Chef of the Year in 2006. On June 10, she will be one of 24 world-renowned chefs competing on Top Chef Masters, a spin-off of the popular Bravo TV series, cooking alongside the likes of Rick Bayless, John Besh, Michael Chiarello, Wylie Dufresne, and Hubert Keller.
Fun Fact: Falkner once cooked for someone who was allergic to everything. For dessert, she created a pudding from steamed potatoes pureed with vanilla, chocolate oil and water.
What is the last thing you cooked for yourself?
I made a little piece of rib eye steak and a chicory salad with Pt. Reyes blue cheese, walnuts and apple balsamic. I don’t cook every night, but I enjoy it – it helps me decompress.
What is your favorite food from your childhood?
Chocolate chip cookies – I started making them in junior high school; I was always trying to perfect other peoples’ recipes.
If you retired tomorrow, what dish would you be remembered for?
Hopefully a few things! [Laughs.] I’m still constantly making up stuff. I like the concept of making food based on a gesture. Once I had this playful fight with another chef and I made a dessert based on the concept of “I’m going to slap you!” with numbing spices in a pineapple puree – it was refreshing but it snuck up on you, like a slap.
What is your favorite offal and how is it prepared?
Sweetbreads, and I love monkfish liver. At Prune in New York City they do a whole-roasted version served with warm buttered toast.
What dish would you recommend to someone who has never eaten at your restaurant?
Red wine-braised short ribs with beet-ricotta gnudi [“naked ravioli”]. I glaze the gnudi with the beets so they come out as two red balls.
What and where would we find you eating on your day off?
On Sundays I do kickboxing, and I go to Zuni a lot afterward.
What and where is your favorite burger?
I like the one here at Orson – we take burgers seriously! It’s killer. We make our own Parmesan buns and steak sauce, we ground our own sirloin, we make a “cobb” relish of blue cheese, bacon and shaved hardboiled egg and spread it on with truffled mayo.
What is your favorite knife?
I like the Wusthof 10-inch chef or the 12-inch Shun. For baking it’s totally different – I use offset spatulas and serrated knives.
What is your favorite pot or pan?
We have Mauviel at Orson, but I really like my grandma’s cast iron pan. You get more iron in your food by cooking with it.
What is your ultimate fantasy meal (where, what, who would be there)?
It really depends on the season, doesn’t it? I like stuff that surprises me. I had a meal at Alenia in Chicago that was deeply rooted culinary-wise but fun and captivating, with so much depth, but not pretentious. I couldn’t eat like that every night, but people shouldn’t shun the sensory experience. I would also be happy at Chez Pannise Café. It’s fun to make things that have a fantasy element, too – like for Valentine’s Day, we did a “bleeding heart” cake and we made it look like a real heart. We used a buche de Noel mold with chocolate elements that looked like a caricature of a heart with purple and red gelee for the veins.
Citizen Cake: 399 Grove Street (at Gough); lunch Tue.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., dinner Tue.– Sat. 5–10 p.m., brunch Sat.–Sun. 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; 415-861-2228, www.citizencake.com
Orson: 508 4th Street (at Bryant), dinner Tue.–Sat. 5–10 p.m., 415-777-1508, www.orsonsf.com
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