It’s a Monday night and Executive Chef Rogelio Garcia of The Commissary is greeting the evening’s visiting chefs who are preparing to take over his kitchen. The catch? All will be cooking using only one special ingredient.
This is the format for Garcia’s brilliant Open Kitchen Dinner Series; each dinner highlighting a special ingredient that forms the foundation of a prix-fixe menu that he develops with culinary luminaries.
Looking to bring another twist to the Spanish-California cuisine they typically prepare, Garcia had the idea to collaborate with some of the hardest-working farmers and chefs in California to highlight the bounty of Northern California produce and the Presidio’s Spanish history. With the blessing from his boss the series was born. “We’re inspired by local farmers who have small businesses and sell great produce. They grow beautiful stone fruit [for example] and pick their own mushroom and sell it to chefs—and this is how they pay for what they do! This is why we do these dinners, to highlight the farmers,” says Garcia.
On a monthly basis, Garcia emails his industry veterans to cook alongside each other and find inspiration from a seasonal fruit or single ingredient—encouraging them to get as creative as possible. “Our dinner is based on seasonality. Artichoke, asparagus—I go every Thursday to see what’s in season and whatever comes out and we create a menu based on those items,” Garcia says. “We think about the ingredient and break down the flavor. For example, the next one is artichoke—what are the different techniques you can do with artichoke? You can cook it, grill it, fry it, dehydrate it—artichoke really goes well with lemon, so we’re working on a dessert with artichoke and lemon and adding something sweet. So we go back to the base and build on that.” The creative process allows the chefs to really think outside-of-the-box and have fun with the menu and execution, giving them ownership over the process.
This inventive and laissez faire attitude is what has attracted collaborative dinners with chefs Garcia has long admired, like Chicago’s Matthias Merges Yusho and Charlie Trotter, who collaborated on a wild mushroom-focused dinner. Paul Liebrandt, chef-owner of New York’s two Michelin-starred New French restaurant Corton, was another participant, as well as collaborations with next generation leaders like other contestants on “Top Chef.” “We’ve done about 16 or 17 dinners so far and have each chef sign a blackboard to add their mark to the dinners,” says Garcia. “We’re up to about 50 signatures from visiting and local chefs.”If you’re thinking about attending the dinner, expect an interactive experience and a full immersion between the chefs and guests. “We want the dinners to be a shared experience,” says Garcia. “We don’t want the chefs to work the line, we want it to be a great experience for the chefs and relaxed and have everything highlighted the right way, between them, the farms and the produce as well.” To make sure chefs are able to have fun with the collaboration, the dinners are maxed out at 60 guests and take place the first Monday of each month, offering a true intimate experience for attendees.