Chef Maximilian DiMare has come a long way from breading chicken cutlets in his grandmother's kitchen. But he's never forgotten the lessons he learned from his granny about preparing a meal: take care in what you are doing, make each dish as though it is for you, and pay attention to flavor.
Born and raised in Boston, DiMare’s career started in a fish market in 1993, and he has worked in the restaurant industry ever since. Although he has no formal training, his schooling has never been an obstacle for DiMare. He trained with a French Master early in his career and spent time honing his skills alongside classically trained chefs in the hotel industrygetting paid to learn all the way. DiMare moved to the Bay Area in 1997 and made a name for himself working in several San Francisco kitchens. In 2004, DiMare was named executive chef of Frascati
on Russian Hill. When owners Rich and Rebekah Wood decided to sell Frascati
and open Wood Tavern
in Berkeley, they asked DiMare to come with them. Soon after opening, Wood Tavern
was named one of the Top 10 New Restaurants in 2007 by the San Francisco Chronicle
. In 2010, DiMare was named a StarChefs.com Rising Star for his clean flavors and unassuming approach.
DiMare’s curiosity for fresh, local ingredients, balance, contrast, and pairing of flavor continuously expands. His current focus is salumi-making and he recently traveled to Italy to learn traditional curing techniques. Rumor has it that this will be the focus of his next venture with the Woods.
Rising Stars Interview with Maximilian DiMare of Wood Tavern – Oakland, CA
Katherine Martinelli: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Maximilian DiMare: I’ve always wanted to cook, I guess. My family is Italian and we’ve always been into food. I was always inspired by my grandfather, grandmother, and father. I thought I’d go for it. Eventually I got a job when I was 15 and I’ve been working in a kitchen ever since.
KM: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
MD: I don’t recommend it because of what it costs these days. I believe in some sort of training, but you can get the same kind of training if you go get a job in a hotel or something and learn the basics. Get a job anywhere and say you want to learn. If you have patience, it’s way better than spending $40,000 on school. It’s just too expensive these days.
KM: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
MD: Before Wood Tavern I was at Frascati in the city. It’s a quaint little Italian restaurant in Russian Hill, a quintessential neighborhood restaurant: really nice, romantic, very homey type of place. It was really cool, I liked being there. I really enjoy Italian food, and I got to play around with it a lot, with some of my family’s recipes and stuff like that.
KM: Who are some of your mentors?
MD: The two chefs who I worked under. I worked at Scala’s Bistro when I moved to San Francisco when I was 20 and that’s where I got introduced to high-end cuisine. Stefan Terje and Spencer O'Meara, who’s the chef of the Paragon Restaurant now.
KM: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
MD: Just start young and be patient I guess. The earlier you get into it, just realize it takes a little while to work your way up. That’s what worked for me. It just takes a little while, you have to be patient and roll with the punches for a while. Read and eat a lot.
KM: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
MD: On cooking, my philosophy is just to use good ingredients, keep it simple, and remember that a good dish is all about balance of flavor and textures.
KM: What goes into creating a new dish?
MD: Just using seasonal ingredients and starting with how I want to cook that certain ingredient. Asparagus just came into local season here, so I wonder “How do I want to cook this best?” Now, I have this asparagus that’s cooked perfectly. What will go with it? It needs some texture. I could do a sauce or add a fresh salad. But it’s all about starting with the ingredients and working from there.
KM: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized?
MD: It changes all the time. I’ve been into celery lately; I can’t stop using celery. I think it’s one of the underused ingredients for sure. It has great flavor and texture and adds good balance to dishes, salads, garnishes, and slaws. It’s kind of cool. Going back to older cookbooks there’s a reason there’s mirepoix. Like the bouillabaisse, it’s pretty much a mirepoix sauce. If you take those three ingredients and cook them really well, you have a pretty incredible sauce. I’ve been using a lot of mirepoix lately.
KM: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations right now?
MD: You know, what I did yesterday and will throw on the menu tomorrow, balsamic roasted flatiron steak, seared in cast iron then finished with straight balsamic vinegar and butter, and then pulled off the flame to slow cook and reduce so it’s super glazed and reduced and buttery. Serve that with simple arugula and parmesan salad. It’s really good. The saltiness of the parmesan, the sweet and sour of the balsamic—it’s pretty killer.
KM: If there was one thing you could do over again in your career what would it be?
MD: I’m glad I didn’t move around from restaurant to restaurant; I gave each place a couple of years before taking off. It helped me out a lot. You can learn whatever you want where you’re at. The thing with me and why I was successful was that I networked here and I had the opportunity to keep working with other people and learned a lot. I moved up while I stayed here. I was able to keep moving up and staying in same area. If I had moved around too much I wouldn’t have been able to. I gained trust with people. I’ve stayed in the Bay Area for the last 12 or 13 years.
KM: What has been your proudest accomplishment to date?
MD: I guess the Wood Tavern. It’s got a lot of good recognition. It’s getting recognized a lot more. I really loved Frascati too. I kind of like that I didn’t get as much recognition at Frascati—it was cool just a dinner place. We had a nice following without the press and all that.
KM: How did the restaurant grow in the community? Word of mouth?
MD: It just evolved with the community. When we opened we wanted to do an American brasserie type place, serve really good food in a comfortable, casual atmosphere. When we opened, we noticed what people liked and just evolved with it. The menu when we opened is a lot different now. It’s just working with the community. The front of the house staff is amazing and they’re just so welcoming to our guests. People feel super comfortable when they come here, they treat it like their living room. Some regulars come every day, a couple times a day. We have a lot of repeat customers.
KM: Who sets the tone of service in the restaurant?
MD: The front of the house, they’re definitely following the leader. Richie and Rebecca, the owners, they’re around a lot and they’re always in there. People are following by example. I don’t know too much about the front of house, but if I was going to do it, I would do it like them. Instead of nitpicking, I would always be around and show people how it’s done.
KM: You’ve been there since the beginning?
MD: The owners own Frascati and sold it in spring 2006 and by October or January 2007 I got a call from Rich saying he was looking into some stuff and he had bought Wood Tavern. We opened up February of 2007; it was fast.
KM: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
MD: I guess I’m not too much. Richie does a lot of charities; it seems like a few times a year we’re going to some event, Make A Wish Foundation or a fundraiser wine tasting. We definitely do charity events a few times a year. Farmers markets for sure—it’s a great way to get inspired. First thing in the morning, you go and grab a coffee, you’re wired and get the juices flowing, seeing the fruits and veggies out in the sun and you know what to do with them instead of being in the kitchen or office. I haven’t hung out with other chefs in a long time, not too much.
KM: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
MD: I’ve always thought for the past five years that I should come up with a five-year plan, but I haven’t. I recently took up surfing so I really want to be somewhere close to the beach in five years where I can surf every day. Either own my own place or be a chef some place, I’m not sure right now. I just want it to be next to the beach.