Monday, February 9, 2009

A San Franciscan-trained chef is creating a culinary stir in Palm Springs with...square tomatoes!

Yellow, red, orange, green and sometimes purple, these stellar tomatoes take diners by surprise in the restaurant at the La Quinta Resort and Club. After all, have you ever

eaten square tomatoes before?

I must confess we hadn't, and neither had our colleagues.

But there they sat in a petite, rectangular dish, glowing with an equally esoteric 'dandelion infusion'.

It needs to be mentioned, just casually, that the tomatoes weren't actually square on the vine; they were crafted by the hand of Chef de Cuisine, Sean Webber, into beautiful bite-sized cubes.

But the sight of this gastronomic artistry makes an excellent dinner starter in more ways than one!

What gave 31-year-old Sean his idea of square tomatoes?

'I don't remember exactly,' he says, seated a few mornings later in the sushi bar area of his restaurant, Twenty6.

'I wanted the food to be artistic but at the same time easy to eat.'

And the dish helped.

'I saw that dish....and I loved it. I said, "Okay! I want to place my Caprese on that dish!"

And everything fell into place!'

Not that square tomatoes are the sole accomplishment of this award-winning chef.

Trained in San Francisco at the California Culinary Academy, one of three top cordon bleu schools in the country, Sean's first professional post was at the Ritz Carlton hotel near Union Square. But not for long, in fact, less than a year.

'I had longings for warmer weather. Wearing a sweatshirt at three in the afternoon in July wasn't a southern Californian boy's heart!' he said. 'But,' he added, 'it was the only thing in the city that wasn't completely to my liking. I loved San Francisco and I had quite a bit of family up there.'

Ousted, though, by the fog and cool summer temperatures, Sean said goodbye to San Francisco on Sept 1, 2001, setting out for a two-week holiday designed to be followed by a search for new work.

'But in the middle was Sept 11,' he said drily, 'which made it very interesting to try to find a good position given that the economy slowed down so much!'

Despite the terrorist trauma gripping America, however, four restaurants in sunny southern California cast eyes at him. One was the celebrated Cuistot Restaurant with chef Bernard Dervieux who had been running 'one of the most successful restaurants in this valley for 20 years,' said Sean.

Bernard himself trained under French Master Chefs Paul Bocuse and Roger Verge. Bocuse, according to Wikipedia, is considered to be one of the finest chefs of the 20th century. Together with Verge and a few others, he is counted as the father of nouvelle cuisine, was one of the chefs for Concorde's maiden flight, devised a famous truffle soup for a presidential dinner at the Elysee Palace, and inaugurated the Bocuse d'Or award, a competition likened in a Reuters report to a 'culinary Olympics' that has chefs sweating in training for months!

The Cuistot Restaurant was the obvious choice.

Over the next four years, imbibing this rich culinary inheritance and the hot Californian sun, Sean rose to glory. The accolade of Southern Californian Restaurants Pastry Chef of the Year was laid upon him by the Southern Californian Restaurant Writers' Association.

And he created a strawberry cake with a cream filling, called Fraisier, that Bernard praised as 'one of the best he had had in the US, and one of the best he had ever had!'

In the middle of his time there, Bernard commissioned a new restaurant 'from the ground up', which gave Sean invaluable experience in opening a new restaurant.

But such outstanding success with pastries meant that professionally he was being 'pigeon-holed' with desserts when his sights were set on broader gastronomic horizons.

'My whole career from school has always been the duality of pastry and cooking, with the exception of the Ritz Carlton where I was pastry only', he said, - and until now when he has stepped away from pastry to concentrate on cooking.

On a mission therefore to 'reinvent myself', he bade adieu to Bernard and slipped, still beneath the southern Californian sun, to San Diego to the Manchester Grand Hyatt. After about 18 months, he got a phone call from a good friend who was Chef de Cuisine at Azur, then the fine-dining restaurant at the La Quinta resort.

He accepted the offer of a menu tasting, and was back two weeks later as Sous Chef and Pastry Chef, settling into the beautiful Coachella Valley at the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Within a short time he was innovating French style: he changed the bar into a wine and cheese bar - 'cheese is a very big passion of mine!' - rounding out the season with about 40 cheeses, and put two crepe stones on the bar to serve freshly made crepes. 'I miss that. That was very fun!' he said, reminiscing.

Because it all came abruptly to an end.

One night last August he was woken at 2 am by a phone call from his Executive Chef: the restaurant was on fire. So badly burned was it, it now sits barricaded and under reconstruction at the entrance to the resort. The only good news being that the dining room in the lobby from when the resort was founded in 1926, survived.

For Sean there was a cloud with a silver lining, though, because he had been scheduled to work at Twenty6 - named after the founding of the resort - the day after the fire, 'so then I was just here permanently,' he said.

Now, as Chef de Cuisine, he is making gradual changes.

'I'm doing it in slow stages so we don't upset our local clientele too much. I also want to make sure that both the kitchen and service staff have an easy transition,' he began. 'Of some of the changes that I have made so far, the most popular has been my new Caprese Salad!'

We were back to square one, or rather square tomatoes - 'McGrath Farms heirloom tomatoes' according to the menu, to be precise.

'When I have good local farmers, I want to make sure I promote them as well,' he said.

The dandelion, it turns out, is an unusual German vinegar with sugar and spices.

'So you're not crushing dandelions!' I quipped.

'They would be difficult to find here!' he countered, 'but my mother used to find dandelion leaves for a salad.'

'Mother' is second-generation Italian-American, and the other side of Sean's family is Irish - hence his name. He was born and raised in Riverside, about an hour away from Palm Springs,

When did he first know that he wanted to cook?

With a wide grin, he held up three fingers.


On the Italian side of the family he was surrounded by mammas: a great-grandmother, a grandmother and her sisters, and a mother. And he was the only male allowed in the mammas' kitchen!

'All that family cooking, and I was put up on the counter and allowed to watch this,' he recalled. ''It was my two grandmothers who really made me realise I wanted to cook.'

But could that small boy ever have dreamt that he would one day outcook his mammas!

Of the entrees at our dinner that night, I had braised beef short ribs with thyme jus, creamy polenta, and kabocha squash-fennel ragout. The meat was beautifully tender and the overall result extremely tasty. As, I'm told, were the other dishes on the table: a grilled opah with a miso yaki glaze, wasabi whipped potatoes and a daikon radish slaw - 'I really like that sauce. I love that dish,' said Sean - and a striped bass with bacon-shitake mushroom risotto, English peas and caperberry jus.

But while he produces his own creations of fish and meat dishes daily for both the lunch and dinner menus, essentially he has inherited a menu.

'I just made it a little more appetizing, increasing the flavours of everything, properly seasoned food with a good depth of flavour,' he said, and for me that nailed it. I told him there was something about the richness and balance of flavours that makes the food stand out.

'That was my absolute first goal, to make sure the food was memorable,' he said.

He also makes the occasion memorable. Towards the end of lunch or dinner, diners can suddenly find their chef greeting them at their table with confidence and sociability.

What are Sean's favourite foods?

'If I have one weakness, it's potatoes and bread - Irish roots!' he said, and then paused to reflect. 'But bread and cheese - that's another story!'

The paradox of 'too much of a good thing' rings true, though. 'I don't really eat desserts because I spent so many years creating and tasting them.'

But as Chef de Cuisine, does he have any in-put in the desserts?

'We talk things over,' he said of Executive Pastry Chef, David Nelson, and went on to announce a new creation that they were finalizing, a chocolate basil cake. Basil is from the mint family, he explained. 'It's (the cake) so good. If you didn't tell anyone it had basil in it, you wouldn't know. It's minty, but not quite! David had the original idea and I tested it once and fell in love with it and we're talking back and forth about what we want to put with it.'

Sean's influence is not just with food but extends to the next generation of up-and-coming chefs. He maintains links with his school in San Francisco, offering internships to them, the other cordon bleu schools and in New York.

The Food and Beverage Manager for Twenty6, Will Senza, was also with us during the interview. Only in post for one-and-a-half-months, he was already very much enjoying his job.

Like good dishes, Will and Sean appear to complement each other.

'I think Sean and I both have a passion for this business and our product,' said Will. 'And when you care as much as we do, you have a tendency to want to get it right...everytime!

We want Twenty6 to be the place to go in the valley. Not just a resort restaurant but a destination restaurant.'

For a man born to cook...consider it a fait accompli!

Pics show: Sean by the open part of his kitchen; Will Senza and Sean; one of Sean's lunchtime creations

1 comment:

Richy Cooke said...

That looks delicious!!