Saturday, August 14, 2010

Chef Interview: Daniel Scherotter

"To get girls." That was the answer to my first question to Chef Daniel Scherotter, owner and head chef of Italian restaurant Palio D'Asti. I had asked him, "Why Italian?" After all, his is not an Italian last name and he had been studying philosophy at William & Mary in Virginia. But as a young man his thoughts were on girls and he figured that learning Italian and cooking were good lures. During a semester in Italy he started bartering his time. He would translate restaurant menus to English while learning proper Italian cooking in their kitchens.

So much for philosophy. After years of training in Bologna, Italy he returned to the U.S. and went to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. He then continued learning under the guidance of Gary Danko, Craig Stoll, Bruce Hill and others. Eventually he ended up buying out his partners at Palio D'Asti to become sole owner.

We were at the William Sonoma store at Union Square.  Scherotter was there to do a cooking demonstration for SF Chefs Week.  As he prepped we talked about Italian cooking.  Did he favor a certain region?  That was “a mood question”, he replied, as well as seasonal. Northern cooking, in which he was trained, is more of a winter style with more meats, truffles, nuts, and richer foods. Southern is more summer and vibrant with its fresher produce like eggplant and zucchini. Northern fresh pasta uses egg and durum while Southern dried pasta uses water and semolina. He said each region could be wildly different as well. Most Americans know Tuscan, which he considered the worst region to relate Italian cooking to. But travel just 60 miles to the north and they are using different meats, cheeses, and oils to cook.

Scherotter was making a Sicilian caponata (recipe below). What he loved about Sicily was that it had so many influences from over the centuries: Moorish, Jewish, Greek. He pointed out the ingredients and explained that a trait of Sicilian cooking was pairing ingredients. Capers are with olives, pine nuts with raisins, anchovies with garlic. Someone asked about crushed versus sliced garlic and Sherotter explained that the Italians infuse the oil with the garlic by putting the garlic and oil in the skillet and then heating them together. Soon the dish was complete and samples were passed around. I’ll admit. I passed on it. After all, it had two things I really dislike, eggplant and olives.

We continued our conversation after the others left. What were his dining pet peeves? As a chef, he said, he was baffled by the way diners want to change the menu items. Although he’ll cater to the guest with such things as dressing on the side or remove olives due to an allergy, he, like all chefs, gets annoyed with a demand to change a dish in such a way that destroys its integrity. And as a diner? The chef in him still comes out in the diner. He hates when a server gives an opinion on a dish. He’d rather they stick to the facts. Explain that a dish is chicken in a spicy sauce of peppers and capers instead of saying they are a vegetarian and it was too spicy for them.

We talked as well about his participation in the Golden Gate Restaurant Association where he has been a past president. He talked about the importance of the Association representing restaurants as a group when talking about working with suppliers or dealing with city regulations. As my readers know, I have an interest in food trucks. I had read an article that made Scherotter appear anti-food truck and had to ask him about it. He said he understands the interest in food trucks and some of the interesting and unique foods they bring to the public. But as a small business owner, he explained that it’s the brick and mortars that employ more people and supply the city with more tax revenue. So why is it that the City Council tries to make it easier for the street vendors to operate, who generate no real tax revenue, while they constantly add more restrictions to the brick and mortars? I appreciated his viewpoint.

I thanked the Chef for his time. I found him charming and laid back. It seemed to me his personality was just fine for attracting the girls.

640 Sacramento Street
Features a prix fixe menu where you can choose to have 2 courses ($29), 3 courses ($37) or 4 courses ($45) and select anything from the menu. Wines are retail plus corkage.


6 eggplants, diced and fried golden

½ red onion, julienned

4 stalks of celery, sliced half moon, blanched and shocked

1 T chopped garlic

2 oz anchovy filets

2 oz Sicilian olives, quartered

2 oz capers

2 oz toasted pine nuts

2 oz sultana raisins, plumped in Marsala wine

3 oz red wine vinegar

Pinch of dry mint and oregano

Bunch of mint, chiffonnade

1-2 pts tomato sauce

2 T Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Saute onions, garlic, and anchovies in olive oil. Do not overheat the pan. You want to cook the vegetables, not brown them. Deglaze with vinegar and bring to a boil. Reduce a bit. Add tomato sauce, dry mint, and oregano. Simmer until thicker. Season to taste. Cool and combine with remaining ingredients, folding together. Add fresh mint when serving (on crostini) or it will lose its aroma and color.
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