The Casual Vegetarian By Madeleine Ignon
Baker & Banker is a neighborhood restaurant and bakery in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. It is set off on its own, away from the busy upper Fillmore district in a distinctly San Francisco building built in 1882 that was originally an apothecary. Husband and wife Lori Baker and Jeff Banker started the restaurant together in 2009 with a commitment to sustainability and an emphasis on creating a warm, inviting environment for diners. It is technically fine dining, with a menu of sophisticated and inventive California dishes and an extensive wine list, but when you walk in, you feel like you have come into someone’s home.
I interviewed Head Chef Jeff Banker about running a restaurant and how he approaches cooking for a city known for its huge population of vegetarians.
When and how did you become a chef?
I realized I wanted to be a chef when I was 12 or 13. I used to cook for my parents a lot; my mom was a really good cook and we used to watch cooking shows together. I realized that I loved watching chefs and cooking and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I took my first restaurant job when I was 16, pulling vegetables. I was really young. I just started working though good restaurants. I decided to move to San Francisco when I was 23 to really pursue it-that was 12 years ago.
What was your philosophy going into starting a restaurant?
We wanted a neighborhood restaurant, something that wasn’t super formal. Something that was very approachable for people, that they could come to often, not just for special occasions. We were committed to using seasonal and local produce and ingredients.
As a non-vegetarian, how do you approach making food for vegetarians, especially in a city where there are so many vegetarians and vegans? Is thinking of vegetarian entrees harder?
I always like keeping in minds vegetarians, as they are definitely a demographic. My wife was a vegetarian when I met her. The key is great produce-it’s not hard. It’s not hard to make things that center on the vegetables and highlight the vegetables. It’s not hard to cook vegetarian at all, actually.
Do your prefer cooking non-vegetarian?
I like doing a mix; I think it’s a challenge. It’s exciting to do both.
Your proudest dish of late?
The cod dish [soy and mirin braised black cod, foie gras-shitake sticky rice, charred bok choy]; it has been very well received.
What do you find is the hardest thing about running a restaurant?
Dealing with people. Customers and staff.
Do you cook differently at home and at the restaurant?
I cook more simply at home, things that people can do themselves. I definitely try to cook at home very simple and easy with the fewest dishes possible.
Are you cooking differently now that you guys have a son?
I don’t cook enough at home anymore, but when I do I really like going to the farmers’ market and getting vegetables. I want to get him involved with cooking as soon as he’s old enough. I definitely want him to gain an appreciation for food. I have already seen him start to get an appreciation for food and noticing us being happy when were around it.