Lunch with Chef Max MacKinnon of Mason Pacific, San Francisco

To Vermont, via Copenhagen and New York, back to his native California.
Chef Max Mackinnon is enjoying the variety of California’s produce while whipping up delicious, seasonal menu at the newly reopened Mason Pacific in San Francisco’s Nob Hill. We are happy he’s back!

Chef Max’s career stops included some very prominent restaurant names like Copenhagen’s cool, new Nordic, Restaurant Relae, Fish & Game in Hudson, NY, and most recently Rose’s Luxury in Washington DC before coming to SF. His own restaurant, Pistou in Burlington, Vermont brought him a Beard Foundation nomination in 2012 for “Best New Restaurant”. Note – back then he was only 26 ( now 30), so we can be sure to see more of his creations in the future. We met Chef Max at the Mason Pacific, which has been a neighborhood’s favorite since its opening, over lunch and got answers to what’s always in his spice cabinet, what to cook to impress and where he takes his out-of-town guests.

 

FROM CALIFORNIA TO VERMONT TO COPENHAGEN AND NEW YORK AND BACK TO SAN FRANCISCO. HOW DID YOU GET HERE? TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY.

This is the third time I’ve looked at making the move back to California, so it has always been at the back of my mind. Earlier this year, I was cooking a dinner in Burlington, VT, and Dustin [ Master Sommelier at Mason Pacific] was there. It was coincidence that he and Eric [Beverage Director at Mason Pacific] had started looking for someone to take over here, and I was in the middle of looking for a new project. Once Dustin talked to me about the job, it was an easy decision for me. I love SF, and this seemed like the right fit.

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HOW DOES A TYPICAL CHEF’S DAY LOOK LIKE, FROM AM TO PM?

A typical day is hard to come up with, as a lot of what we deal with everyday is up in the air. I’m an early riser, so I drink coffee and bake bread every morning. From late afternoon on, you’ll find me at MP overseeing service. Outside of that, I could be working with a purveyor on tracking down product, working through electrical and plumbing issues, or working with our sommelier and FOH team on how to best orchestrate service.

WHAT ARE THE MOST REWARDING ASPECTS OF YOUR WORK? WHAT’S NOT SO GREAT?

I love restaurants. The food and wine, setting, and how to create an experience are things that fascinate me. I also love being a host, so I feel lucky to be able to welcome people into a space everyday, and to be a part of making their evening as enjoyable as possible. As with anything worth doing, though, it’s not easy. There is so much that goes into this every day, a lot of it unexpected, therefore it’s sometimes hard to find time for yourself. Free time is a luxury, but in the end, it’s worth it.

 

WHEN YOU CREATE A MENU, WHERE DO YOU START?

For me, a menu always begins with product. Writing a menu in San Francisco will be so much different than writing one for a menu being served in New England, even in the same season. All the dishes on our menu at MP begin with something we want to highlight, and then we look to flavors that will enhance that ingredient. This comes through experimenting with ideas, working from intuition, and also from past experiences, both with cooking and eating. After that comes the technique and how to translate these flavors to the plate.

COOK TO IMPRESS. WHAT DISH IS SUPER SIMPLE TO MAKE BUT WILL ALWAYS WOW! THE GUESTS?

In this situation, I always look to a roast chicken, or a whole bird in general. Duck can be a great option too. If trussing a chicken is not something you’re interested in doing, you can simply tie the legs together, salt the outside of the bird liberally, let the bird come to room temperature before cooking it, and in 40 minutes, you’ve got something to present to your friends or family. Roast some vegetables in the same vessel, and you can very easily complete the meal.

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YOU HAVE 20 MIN TO WHIP UP A LUNCH. WHAT DO YOU DO?

I will probably make a sandwich. I always keep good bread around, so whether it’s a BLT, grilled cheese, or anything of the “breakfast” variety, a sandwich is a safe bet. 

THREE KITCHEN ESSENTIALS…

A sharp knife, a good saute pan, and a spoon.

SPICES THAT ARE ALWAYS IN YOUR CABINET?

Not too much of my cooking at the restaurant is heavily spiced, but at home, I like to keep a couple of curry mixes around, coriander, cumin, and dried chili. Having the spice mixes is an easy way to take a simple dish and add some complexity and a different flavor profile to it at home.

BEST FOOD SOUVENIR YOU EVER BROUGHT BACK HOME?

I am not one in life who collects a lot of stuff. I love to travel, but for me, I tend to think of the experiences as the most valuable. Being about to eat and drink your way through a city, you can learn so much. Whether it’s discovering something new, or just getting to know and love a city, these ideas are often what I find most valuable when I head home.

COOKBOOK, EVERY HOME COOK SHOULD OWN?

There are so many I feel like I am leaving out, but I “grew up” on The French Laundry Cookbook.

TELL US YOUR 5 FAVORITE FOOD SPOTS IN SF? (EXCEPT MASON PACIFIC, THAT ONE WE KNOW IS ALREADY GREAT.)

I’m still new in town, and my girlfriend and I keep a relatively long list of restaurants that we still need to check out, but I certainly have some favorites.
I have been to The Progress a few times already. The food is vibrant and delicious, the wine list is fun, and even if you don’t make plans to eat in the dining room, the bar is always worth stopping by for a drink and a bite.
The cafe at Chez Panisse always has a spot on here. There isn’t a place that feels more California to me than this, and it’s somewhere to go for simple food done well. Also doesn’t hurt that you can find some back vintage Burgundy from some of the best producers.
For something very extravagant, Saison takes the top spot for me. The food is inventive while hanging on to a certain level of simplicity that allows impeccable product to shine. Service can be very formal, but they also have an ability to read tables and make the experience fun if you allow it. It’s a one of a kind restaurant that leaves you wondering how they pull off what they do everyday.
Souvla is another favorite of mine. My girlfriend and I eat there on a weekly basis. As far as fast casual goes, it’s a tough one to beat.
Finally, Tartine is somewhere I have been countless times. I eat a lot of bread, and when I’m not baking my own, or it all goes to the restaurant, I’m here picking up a loaf or eating any of their great pastries.

AND 3 FAVORITE OUTDOOR SPOTS…

I am still discovering so much about California and San Francisco, and I hope to find more time soon to get outside and experience it all. At this point, I am part of a soccer league, and we play on Sunday mornings. No matter how late I get out Saturday or how tired I am, I try to make a point to get to these games. It’s a great way to get outside and to get a little time out of the restaurant.

Another spot where I’ve spent some time is Lake Merritt. My girlfriend lives in the East Bay, so it’s a great place for us to spend an afternoon with a picnic, or just take a walk.

The Ferry Building Farmers Market right as it opens is another favorite. Getting there before the crowds roll in, it’s usually a little chilly, and walking by all of the vendors and seeing the best of what California has to offer, it’s a weekly reminder of one of the things that makes California so great, and why I am here.

IF WE HAVE ONLY 12 HOURS IN SF, WHAT SHOULD WE DO? WHERE DO YOU TAKE OUT OF TOWN GUESTS?

I’d eat and drink my way through some true San Francisco spots. Start at Tartine, then head to Hayes Valley, grab a coffee at Ritual and sit outside if it’s nice. Stop at Arlequin and pick up a couple bottles of wine to enjoy on the patio, then head to Zuni Cafe and eat oysters, Caesar salad, and a roast chicken.

BEST KEPT CALIFORNIA SECRET…

Not sure I have one yet! Hopefully I start discovering some soon.

What do you love most about California?

I’ve really loved the community here so far. Both from the neighborhood and the restaurant community, it’s been a very welcoming place. It’s a community that makes you excited to be here, and I’m very appreciative of all of the support.

 

-as told to California Weekend
*all photography by Luke Beard

 

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