Chef David Lawrence

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February 1, 2016

How I See San Francisco: Chef David Lawrence

While high-end interpretations of comfort food have become more common in recent years — seemingly ubiquitous variations on chicken and waffles, for example — when Chef David Lawrence first started experimenting with chic versions of simple dishes in the late-1990s, it was a novel culinary concept. Trained in Michelin-starred establishments in Europe, and having called the Bay Area home for more than 25 years, he’s institutionalized some favorites on the menu of his restaurant 1300 on Fillmore. Here he shares some thoughts on his culinary evolution and some of his favorite spots in San Francisco. 

How does someone raised in England, who settles in California, come up with a menu full of Southern food references?
Basically, the reason is my wife. I’m married to an African-American whose family is from the South… And, it interests me. No matter where you are in the world or what culture you have, there’s some form of comfort food. And we have very similar ingredients that we use in West Indian cooking. Even though I was born in England, my parents were from Jamaica, and so we have the same kind of mentality about comfort food. Instead of grits we’ll have cornmeal porridge. We use okra, we use the same peppers... We didn’t do it quite the same way, but I recognized a lot of stuff that she was doing there. 

On one hand it totally makes sense to take a common dish and spice it up with these high-quality ingredients — but is it difficult to make that translation really effective? Is that a fun challenge for you?
Oh, it’s a lot of fun. Like I said, my upbringing is very West Indian in England. So, I had West Indian food that I was being taught to cook as a kid. And then British food, which you would have at school, so I had those two styles. Then I went and learned French food and the nouvelle cuisine. So I’m being bombarded by all these different cuisines that are coming at me. It’s something that I’ve always taken for granted, that I’m always changing styles and bringing my own touches to things… What was very important for me was I had a great foundation in technique. Especially learning to work with the Roux brothers and just doing it the right way all the time. Now it’s all about the ingredients, and especially in California, it’s about the ingredients and seasonality. 

So when you have out-of-town guests in San Francisco now, what’s your go-to place to take them to introduce them to the city?
My go-to place for out-of-town guests, I would say, is old standards like Boulevard. Or, I take them over to Waterbar, because it’s just one of those great places where you can see San Francisco, the water and the bridges and stop to get great food. Pete Sittnick, who is the general manager over there, runs a tight ship. I love what they do. Those are the kind of places that I kind of take my out-of-town guests. Or, I go up to Tiburon and take them to Sam’s up there on the water. Especially people from Europe who haven’t been here before, and I want to show off the city, that’s where I take them. 

Is sitting on the water and eating some seafood, is that an essential San Francisco experience? 
My out-of-town guests are people that are family and friends and come from Europe. I want them to understand why I came here and the beauty of San Francisco. To have them get across the Golden Gate Bridge, looking back at the city, I think that is essential for people to see that and feel that. Now, there’s tons of great restaurants within the city that don’t have views, and you can take them to numerous restaurants doing that. There’s neighborhood restaurants around here that I go to as well, like Nopa. But when people come out here, I love this city and want to show off the beauty of the city. Everyday I go out and I look at the city, which is my city now. I’ve actually lived here 27 years, as opposed to living in London for 25 years. I consider it to be my city, and I’m in awe. I can’t neglect that I live in such a beautiful city. 

How has Fillmore Street changed since you opened up 1300? 
It’s changed quite a bit. I first came to Fillmore Street back in the early ’80s just to get a haircut. And I used to go to Chicago Barber. So I was introduced to Fillmore pretty early on and, historically, it was an African-American neighborhood. With 1300 coming and being one of the cornerstones, we got to be invested in the neighborhood. We live right above the restaurant and we’re about to open another restaurant across the road… Then you see other restaurants come along… State Bird’s come in, Fat Angel’s, we are here, and we’re about to open up Black Bark across the road… We have the Fillmore Theatre, which has been here for decades. People still come here for music and stuff like that. And now with the help of good restaurants, people come to the neighborhood, not just for the music, they come here for the food as well. 

When it comes to your new BBQ restaurant (Black Bark), have you had a bit of experience with smoking meats, or is this a new endeavor for you?
I’ve been doing ribs [at 1300 Fillmore] for about four or five years… but they’re not on the menu, it’s one of those things if you know, you know. Come to the restaurant, you can eat my ribs. And the reason we opened up across the road is not just because of ribs, but the door where [Black Bark] actually is, it says ‘Kansas City Barbecue’ and it was a barbecue place that was here back in the ’50s and ’60s. And I looked up the road and was like ‘wow, there’s not one barbecue place along here.’ The last one that was here was Leon’s, and that closed in the ’90s. So I thought ‘well, let’s try and bring this back.’

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