Michael Rotondo spent eight years at Charlie Trotter's, three of them as chef de cuisine, and was executive chef during the restaurant's final year, making him a pivotal figure during the eight-month victory lap between Trotter's announced closing and the restaurant's final meal.
Now executive chef at Parallel 37, inside the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, Rotondo talked about cooking by the Bay, California foodies and an upcoming reunion with Trotter.
Q: So from Charlie Trotter's, you moved almost 2,000 miles away. Why here?
A: I always thought about living somewhere in California, and I've always followed this hotel because of Gary Danko (former executive chef, now award-winning chef at his eponymous San Francisco restaurant). So when (the Ritz-Carlton) told me that they had a newly renovated space, I thought this would be a good way to experience the West Coast in an exciting, creative atmosphere.
Q: What's fun about cooking in San Francisco?
A: You don't have to worry about travel time for product. You don't deal with FedEx or a plane traveling 1,000 miles. Everything is picked or caught the previous day, at maximum. You just don't find that anywhere else.
Q: How does your food differ from the cooking you did at Trotter's?
A: After doing fine dining my whole career, I wanted Parallel 37 to be a neighborhood-style restaurant. My menu has more shareable dishes; I wouldn't call them small plates, but the menu is designed so people can experience more dishes. I want to encourage people to come in multiple times, even if it's just for one bite and a drink. I do have a chef's tasting menu, but there are about 20 a la carte options, so it gives customers the power to create a tasting menu very casually.
It's not easy to compete out here. I did a Meals-On-Wheels event, asked people if they'd heard of Parallel 37, and 90 percent of them hadn't. But as long as I continue with market-driven, seasonal food, I think the message will be heard.
Q: So how does the San Francisco dining scene compare with Chicago? Does the clientele differ?
A: People are always asking me that; it's not like I get out enough to have a pinpoint answer. Since arriving five months ago, I've noticed that San Francisco's diners are very knowledgeable about seasonality and classic food and wine pairings, which isn't surprising given our proximity to the region's amazing farms and world-class wine growers. While I know a sense of adventure definitely exists in the Bay Area, in my years in Chicago I've noticed a bit more openness to culinary envelope-pushing and experimentation.
Q: Sunday, you reunite with Charlie Trotter at a charitable fundraising dinner at M.Y. China, Martin Yan's restaurant. What will you be cooking there?
A: I'm doing the reception dishes: chilled duck soup, steamed buns and crispy chicken feet, tomato-water dumpling with unfiltered sesame oil. M.Y. China has no ovens or stove tops, just woks, so it's definitely a challenge. It's going to be fun to reunite with Charlie; he and I have a great relationship. And Martin Yan is unbelievable; I was watching him on TV when I was 10.