Industry Insiders: Hoss Zaré, Buzzing from the Fly Trap

Hoss Zaré, the Chef and Owner of Zaré at Fly Trap in San Francisco, dishes about his calling in the kitchen, positive aspects of the recession and the monotony of mixology.

Where do you go out? I love Kaygetsu Sushi in Menlo Park because the entire experience is immaculate. Slide is my favorite bar because it turns everyone into a kid in a playground, and I love the restaurant bar scene in San Francisco right now. I’ll hit Conduit, Beretta, Bix, or Aziza on any given night. When I moved to Napa, I just had a restaurant there, and I thought it was perfect. I love to cook, but I wanted to go out after a long day, and in Napa, after 8:30pm, everything shuts down, so when you want to go out, everything’s closed. So I’d drive to San Francisco, an hour each way. Always, on my day off, I’d make time to go to different restaurants there. You want to learn? Go out and eat another chef’s food. I recommend every chef who teaches me something.

What do you do? I’m a chef/owner of one of San Francisco’s best restaurants, Zaré at Fly Trap. I’m lucky enough to combine my personality with my passion and my profession, every day. Twenty or thirty years ago, the chef position wasn’t as prestigious as it is now, and I can remember when I came here from Iran 25 years ago, nobody knew the magician behind the curtain. Jim Hightower was the first chefs I’d ever heard of. Now, you follow the chef from venue to venue. Back in Persia, being a chef is another thing. It’s not a prestigious job, but as a cook, it’s a necessary one. Maybe it’s changing now. Then, it was a touchy subject. I was studying medicine when I found that my real calling was cooking.

Name two icons in your industry Joyce Goldstein, because she’s one of the pioneers in the San Francisco food world. She never lets her achievements get in the way of working hard. Roland Passot of La Folie is a constant big brother and friend to me. I’ve had the good fortune to know him for a long time. I had a five course Valentine’s menu in my restaurant, and he called me and said, “We’ve got to talk,” in that heavy French accent of his. He said, “What the hell are you doing? You give them two courses and they get the third course at home!” It was the biggest lesson I’ve learned. Make a New Years dinner last longer, but on Valentines Day they really want to go home.

What are positive trends you’ve noticed in the hospitality industry recently? I love watching the community feeling of restaurants grow. In the response to the economy more people are dining at communal tables and bars. The result is bringing everyone together and creating a home-away-from-home atmosphere at restaurants. Plus it’s easy to make reservations in places that were once too packed to get in.The economy is creating excellent price points and shorter lines.

Negative trends? I’m getting tired of the mixology trend. Let me be more specific: I’m getting tired of waiting 15 minutes for a $12 cocktail I’m supposed to make a big fuss about. I have my own mixology. The problem is that some restaurants are going too far. I went into a restaurant and it took 20 minutes to get a drink because they were making something exclusive for me. It’s not worth it to wait that long for a drink. I’m old fashioned, I want a light dirty martini. That’s my drink.

San Francisco: Top 10 Eggs Not for Breakfast

Absinthe (Hayes Valley) – While they’re only available at brunch, Absinthe’s deviled eggs are anything but traditional breakfast fare. Looking deceptively familiar with a dollop of egg yolk swirled into perfectly hard boiled whites, Top Chef alumna Jamie Lauren belies expectations by topping the potluck favorite with salty smoked trout, and as if that weren’t enough, a sprinkling of another kind of egg — osetra caviar. ● The Alembic (The Haight) – Known for its cocktails, Alembic divides its drink menu into “old school” classics and “new school” elixirs like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, which marries strawberry puree with whiskey, vermouth, and a dash of Tabasco. Libations like these require bold but not overpowering bar bites to accentuate the flavors of the fresh ingredients, and an order of pickled quail eggs fits the bill. These gorgeous pink orbs of briny lusciousness are smooth and rich, with the perfect amount of salty punch to whet your palate for another drink.

Sea Salt (Berkeley) – Sea Salt is known for using sustainable seafood in its fresh interpretations of old classics, with a menu that includes ahi tuna sliders and a vodka-laden oyster shooter. No devilled egg in this fish joint would be complete without an ocean delicacy involved, so Sea Salt has taken an oversized duck egg and topped it with a generous helping of Spanish anchovy, creating a happy marriage of land and sea. The little mermaid should be so lucky. ● Flour & Water (Mission) – Buzz continues to build around the crispy Neapolitan pies and housemade pastas at the uber-popular Flour & Water, but before launching into a carb fest, it’s always good to have a little salad. Lucky for the hedonistic among you, one of the best “salads” at F&W is a warm potato and lamb’s tongue salad, served with a poached egg and salsa verde. So feel no compunction about cutting into that perfectly cooked egg and allowing its runny yolk to spill onto the tender lamb and salty potatoes because after all, you’re being good and having salad first. ● MarketBar (Financial District) – Takes three of San Francisco’s most common culinary characteristics, swirls them all together, and stuffs them in a deviled egg. Representing the City by the Bay’s seafood savvy, a little Dungeness crab has been added into the mix. The area’s gastronomic French influence makes its appearance in the form of a rich aioli. And lest the emulsion have too strong a Francophile bent, it’s been seasoned with a nice helping of Mexican ancho chili. The three come together to form a truly San Franciscan take on a perfect eggy appetizer. ● Aziza (Richmond District) – Basteeya, a fragrant blend of minced chicken, almond and saffron stuffed into a flaky filo, is a destination dish at chef Mourad Lahlou’s temple to Moroccan flavors. But before biting into the tender puff pastry, try putting an end to the old chicken and egg question by beginning your meal with one of the best of Lahlou’s rich starters — a hen egg with the North African spice mix charmoula and a side of crispy beans. ● Samovar Tea Lounge (The Castro) – This bastion of relaxation pays homage to the tea rituals of many great chai-centric societies, including a classic English service, a Moorish medley, and a Chinese tea tasting. If your hot beverage mood is steering you to Russia with love, then the house-blend black tea goes brilliantly with Samovar’s devilled eggs, which takes the traditional Ruskie whole wheat blini topped with caviar and egg yolk and inverts it, instead stuffing the egg with caviar and serving alongside wheat crackers. ● Rose’s Café (Cow Hollow) – Given Rose’s rotating menu, you may or may not be able to begin your al fresco lunch at this California-Italian favorite with a bruschetta topped with a savory mushroom ragu and a poached egg. Pity. But not to worry, those in need of brain food can always add an organic egg to any of Rose’s thin crust pizzas. ● Bix (North Beach) – Fancy schmancy supper club Bix is so hip to the non-breakfast egg trend that it has ovum on offer for lunch and dinner. For the midday meal, prove that you’re a card-carrying member of the smart set by ordering the baby iceberg shrimp Louis (don’t you just love a salad with a first name), which comes with avocado, a farm egg, cherry tomatoes, and capers. In the evening, tap your toes to jazz while sampling the most elegant eggs in town — these little devils are stuffed with truffles. ● Chez Maman (Potrero Hill) – No list of eggs for dinner would be complete without mention of one of the dishes that started it all: the French classic, frisée salad with bacon, poached egg, and vinaigrette. The version at le tres petit café Chez Maman, is a perfect representation of this French salad and is a testament to the fact that the incredible edible egg was always meant for life after 11am.

Industry Insiders: Mourad Lahlou, Self-Made Iron Chef

Mourad Lahlou, chef and owner of Aziza in San Francisco, will make his debut on Iron Chef March 1st. He talks about learning the tricks of the trade, a genuine malice towards Dr. Atkins, and his love of fat.

Where are you when you’re out of the kitchen? There’s a restaurant in Napa called Ubuntu. They do wonderful things with vegetables, and they treat vegetables in a very mature way. I love the barbecued brussel sprouts. I also love Coi. Another favorite of mine is Nopa in San Francisco. Another one is Zuni Café. And then there’s A16.

How do you describe yourself? I’m self-taught. I never went to school for cooking. I never worked for anybody else in any kitchen whatsoever. My first restaurant was my first gig as a cook. I’m not classically trained. So, my style of cooking is such that I don’t have any barriers. I was never told how to make anything, so I’m never restricting myself in a way that certain things have to be done a certain way. I can’t get away from that. But, everything that I make, I make it in a way that it makes sense to me. Just to give you an example — I was never told how important it is to sear meat before you cook it, because you sear all the juices and the flavor inside. This is a popular myth on TV shows, in books, and chefs are always talking about it. You’ve probably heard this so many times. I find that to the most bogus thing in the world. If you take a piece of meat, and you weigh it before you sear it, and then you sear it again, you lose just as much juice as if you don’t sear it. So the trick is in knowing how to cook it.

Your style is trial and error? Yes, but sometimes I feel like I’m re-inventing the wheel. It works both ways. Sometimes it would take me almost a month to figure out how to do something

What’s a positive thing you’ve noticed in the hospitality industry recently? The first thing is the fact that the economy is so hard, and everybody is feeling the pinch. Even the places that are not slow, they feel like they need to up their game. I’m seeing people offer a lot more for a buck. They’re trying to keep customers, they’re trying to attract newer customers, but the bar is definitely being raised in these hard times. You would think it’s the opposite — that people are trying to cheat and cut corners, but from the good places that I frequent, and the good places where I know chefs, everybody is really trying to give customers more.

Any kitchen secrets?

What’s the worst diet out there? The Atkins. It’s the biggest crock of shit I’ve ever heard of. Look at the Italians — they’ve been eating pasta for thousands of years. The Northern Africans have been eating couscous for so many years, and the French eat baguettes in the morning, the afternoon, and night. They eat croissants, and they’re healthier than most people in America. They don’t go to the gym every day for three or four hours either, and they live longer. I don’t understand why people would want to give up that much substance in their lives, and their joy, just because somebody said, ‘Oh, if you don’t do that, then you’re not going to be fat’.

What’s on your radar right now? I’m really enjoying The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. It’s from a restaurant called The Fat Duck in England, and it’s by Heston Blumenthal.

What’s on the horizon for you for 2009? = I’ll be on an episode of Iron Chef that’s out on March 1. I’m in negotiations with Food Network to be the next Iron Chef. I’m also hoping to open another restaurant this year. And I’m working on a cookbook.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure? I have so many. I love fat. Anything that has fat in it is good for me. I love peanut butter with green olives. I take two slices of bread, and I smear the shit out of it with peanut butter. Then I slice green olives and lay that on there, and more peanut butter, and there’s the sandwich. I love Ice cream, and dates. There are a lot of calories per date. But they’re really good.