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Gary Danko’s award winning Chef’s achievements include and are not limited to: James Beard Foundation “Best Chef-California and also Outstanding Chef of the Year; Three Mobil Travel Guide “Five Star” rating and also his restaurant was selected as a Relais and Chateau property, one of the only eighteen such dining venues in the continent.
Chef Gary Danko
Chef Danko’s cooking combines classical training, which mainly focuses on French, Mediterranean and regional American cooking. Danko is dedicated to locally grown and raised foods. He forged many relationships with cheese, meat and produce suppliers long before most chefs discovered this approach.
His passion for cooking was inspired by his mother, a Louisiana native who focused on simple seasonings and farm fresh ingredients.
Chef Danko attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. After graduating he moved to San Francisco and this started his quest to eventually open his own restaurant but first he had to make his name in other highly respected restaurants throughout the U.S.
Chef Danko’s achievements include: Chef at highly respected Tucker Hill Inn, Vermont; Executive Chef at The Dining Room, Ritz Carlton, S.F. It was at his time at the Ritz Carlton that he appeared as featured Chef on TV Food Network and on PBS Great Chef Series.
It was while Chef Danko was involved in launching a new restaurant, Viognier, San Mateo, CA, that he was approached by Michel Elkaim, owner of Chez Michel in S.F. to open his own restaurant in 1999. And the rest is history!
Q. What is your favorite meal to make at home for friends and family?
A. Thanksgiving is my favorite meal to cook and enjoy with friends, I keep it traditional the smell of turkey roasting, cranberry sauce, pumpkin Pie – I like simple clean familiar bold flavors. On an occasional basis would be breakfast or brunch on weekends. Buckwheat Pancakes with Caramelized Apples or Lemon Ricotta Pancakes with Lemon Butter are some favorites.
Q. Why San Francisco, what draws you to this city?
A. I moved to San Francisco in 1978 because of the open mindedness of the west. Although I enjoyed exploring California I missed my traditional values of the east so I returned east to study with Madeleine Kamman, I had an amazing experience living and cooking in Vermont and New England. Returning east answered many questions and it made me realize that although I prized my time east I had “been bitten with the California Life Style”. I returned to Napa and now live between Napa Valley and San Francisco – I consider them both home.
Q. What is your favorite protein and how would you prepare it?
A. It’s hard to choose just one but the most versatile is cheese. You can eat it out of hand; grate it to finish pasta or Gnocchi with, the variety and cheese making style also plays in the flavor from simple newly made goat cheeses, fresh mozzarella to ripened, soft cheeses with bloomy white or red ridged rinds, blue veined etc. American cheese have reached the level of many world class cheeses, although some cheeses can only be made in their own terroir there are many great cheeses made in trying to mimic them. Firm to hard cheeses taste better thinly sliced, or grating a small piece of hard grana type cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano can pack a lot more flavor than just biting into a big chunks. The more surface the touches the palate the more flavor – this saves on calories as well.
Q. Your most sublime food experience you have had and where was it?
A. I have enjoyed a lot of great meals in my life. Aside from restaurants would be Dinner at The Palace of Versailles, Whole Sea Bass Roasted in Salt on the Adriatic looking back at Istanbul! Eating Beluga Caviar out of original 2.2 lb. /1 kg. tins at a private officers club in St. Petersburg Russia. These flavors and memories remain in my mind!
Q. What is your latest food discovery and how is it prepared?
A. While in Mexico a chef friend gave me worm salt: dried ‘worm salt’ or sal de gusano, a mix of roasted (on the comal), powdered roasted gusano, chile pepper and salt. It’s quite tasty with fresh lime and goes equally well with tequila and lime. Mezcal is the drink with the worm, not Tequila. It is vividly reminiscent of tequila with its smoky character. This rimmed on a margarita or any tequila, rum lime cocktail is sublime.
Q. What keeps your interest sparked in your career as a famous chef and restaurateur?
A. Mostly I enjoy serving people and having happy guests, having been in the restaurant business for over 40 plus years and have experienced many things, like all busy professionals I try to strike a work life balance. I employ 75 dedicated service professionals; our business runs because our employee’s dedication from the front lines, to telephones to cooking and cleaning. Being involved in this process is amazing, there is so much that goes on a daily basis with employees and guests plus the daily demands of a restaurant. It’s a command performance every night.
Q. How do you select your pairings of wine and cheese?
A. Sommeliers and captains facilitate this process.
As a general rule cheese is friendlier to white wine than red but there are lovely red pairings.
Helpful guidelines to follow:
• Embrace your own taste there will always be new tastes, so experiment.
• Creamy cheeses require a wine with higher acidity.
• The whiter and fresher the cheese, the crisper and fruitier the wine.
• Heavy rich cheeses will partner with light reds and Chardonnay.
• Soft cheeses with bloomy white or red ridged rinds need full bodied whites or younger reds with lower tannins
• Orange-red rind soft cheeses pair well with full-bodied reds with lower tannins or heavy whites.
• Semi-soft cheeses with a pink-grey rind require strong powerful whites and aged whites.
• The harder the cheese the higher the degree of tannin a wine can have.
• Strong veined cheeses usually pairs well with a sweeter wine or a fortified wine.
Q. Do you prefer a certain style of wine glasses for your customers and also yourself?
A. Currently using lead free glasses. I believe in sticking to some basic shapes no matter what the trend.
· Champagne flute
· White burgundy glass
· Red burgundy glass
· Dessert wine glass
· Spirits glass
Q. What is your preference for cheese boards: natural stone, natural wood, bamboo, and acrylic?
A. Stone doesn’t hold the odor of the cheese that say, wood or bamboo do allowing smells to stay permanently on your cutting board. A stone cheese cutting board is easier to clean and maintain. It also doesn’t permit grease to saturate the surface. Marble and granite are more expensive, slate can be used for cheap chic.
Wood boards hold on to moisture. You also want to ensure that it doesn’t mold or disintegrate choose boards that are made from very strong woods. Hard woods with tight grains like maple help reduce cutting into the surface that will allow liquids and contaminants to seep into the board’s surface. Bamboo is technically a grass but cutting boards that are made from laminated bamboo strips are significantly harder than wood like maple. I like the ones made out of old oak wine barrels.
Plastic is softer than wood it often does not self-heal when cut into. Mildew and bacteria can get into the small crevices or cut marks and cause problems if the boards are not fully sanitized. Plastic or synthetic boards tend to stain more easily.
Ceramic, acrylic or glass boards may be elegant but they are hard on your knives. These surfaces tend to dull knives quickly when used. They are easy to clean up.
Q. What is in the future for Gary Danko?
A. Continue to run my restaurant in the style that I have for the past 14 years.
5-Star Dining @ Gary Danko