The son of two restaurateurs, Sean Baker grew up around food, traveling with his family, and developing a varied palate from a young age. Like many native Northern Californians, eating fresh, local produce was a part of daily life. These early experiences, along with time spent helping his parents in their restaurants, led him to an education at Portland’s Western Culinary Institute.
After culinary school, Baker landed his first job at San Francisco's foremost vegan eatery, Millennium Restaurant. Baker spent four years working at Millennium, studying the art of layering vegetable flavors under the tutelage of Chef Eric Tucker. He then worked at Zibibbo and Google. An executive chef position brought him to Santa Cruz’s Gabriella Café, where he focused on whole animal cookery and developed a penchant for charcuterie. Baker brought those charcuterie skills and his experience to Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Cellar Door, where he served as consultant executive chef.
Baker combines these diverse talents—vegetarian finesse and meat technique—at Berkeley’s Gather, where he offers a menu focused equally on delicious vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore presentations. His close relationship with Linda Butler of Lindencroft Farms brings sustainable ingredients and heirloom varietals into Gather’s pantry, and he also works with producers to source whole heritage animal breeds.
Why: They serve farmers and ranchers by protecting agricultural land from industrial development.
About: Yolo Land Trust was founded in 1988 to preserve Yolo County’s agricultural and natural resource heritage.
Interview with 2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Chef Sean Baker
Katherine Sacks: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Sean Baker: There is no one reason. A lot of it had to do with personal expression; I was really into art when I was younger, and I felt like this was a good way to express myself. I’ve always loved food, the art and the craftsmanship behind it. My folks were in the food business and we travelled all the time, and so my life kind of evolved around food. I remember having tortilla in El Centro near border of Mexico, I can remember the Baracoa coming out the oven. All of those experiences when I was younger travelling with my parents centered around food. A lot of the flavors I do today are based off my memory, I was always around it.
KS: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
SB: Well my parents are definitely mentors, they taught me a lot about compassion and being sensitive to different things. They taught me work ethic, they taught me about life. Eric Tucker, the chef at Millennium, taught me about creativity and many things about vegetable cooking, and also work ethic. That has been a driving thing in all my mentors. And a mentor-slash-friend, Linda Butler. She’s showed me what goes into farming; I’ve always known it was hard but she’s shown and taught me a lot about different vegetables and also life.
KS: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
SB: Well I try to make it a personal and unique experience, and also again going back to my childhood memories with flavors. Honestly we cook everything from here so there is a lot of food that represents where we are, but mostly the goal is to create a personal experience and that’s what goes into how Linda and I work. There are a lot of conversations that happen on the farm or ranch and we try and bring that whole conversation into the dining room. It’s educating staff; talking to them about the conversations I’ve been having and techniques that we apply to our cooking and how these things evolve over time and how it makes up the dish we are serving. It naturally becomes a story.
KS: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
SB: When I look back on how did I, when I reflect, I think that when I tasted food I would always think. When I see a young cook taste and move onto the next thing, that’s wrong. The best advice is to taste something and think about it. Technique is important but to actually think about flavor—acidity and brightness, complexities and nuances, all these things you have when you taste food—to taste and think, it’s important. I also think eat what you cook. On a $9 wage I would be broke all the time so I could go out and eat at restaurants. It helps you get a great understanding of cooking.
KS: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized?
SB: This is kind of a hard question; four years ago were people giving as much attention to vegetables as they do now? No. But one thing is cardoons. Whenever I am eating them I think, ‘Why do people not cook cardoons more?’ I love their bitter flavor, I love chicory the way Italians adore it. Cardoons can change your dish; I love it because it’s bitter, and I love bitterness.
KS: What's your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
SB: I don’t think one is more important than the other. A Vitamix is hard to replace— how will you get to that consistency without it. We often cook things in a Thermomix and then run it through the Vitamix. But my Moleskin is my most indispensable tool. There are so many things going on in my brain, I’m managing so many people, that I have to write things down when they are in my head. If I don’t write things down it is in one ear out the other, so a Moleskin is very important.
KS: Where would you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
SB: Sardinia. It’s an isolated island that’s centered around unique cooking tradition, old cooking tradition. I would love to learn about the wine, the people, and experience the culture.
KS: Where will we find you in 5 years?
SB: Cooking in a restaurant. I just want to keep working, evolving as a chef, everyday getting better, being a better cook. I don’t know where that will be but my goal is to just to keep learning.