Jetset Times Interview with Gary Danko: A Balancing Act

BY WENDY HUNG

Even he said it himself, “roast lobster – if we took that off the menu, people would revolt.” He chuckles delightfully, “People want certain dishes, so what we try to do is keep the lobster but rotate through seasonal garnishes.” Fans become attached to his cooking, because every plate contains the quintessence of balance. His food is made in contented care to deliver a familiar solace of home-cooking splendor, with graceful dash of artistic flair and elegance. His menus shift through seasons but always maintain an equilibrium between international influence (derived from the French and Mediterranean regions) that well compliments produce and ingredients of American soil. His restaurant is an unquestionable symmetry of comfort and fine-dining. The setting isn’t intimidating, as opposed to a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, but the immaculate service staff makes every client feel incredibly royal. As a man, Gary Danko exudes generosity with his playful laughs, which harmoniously offset his reputation as one of the highest praised chefs in our country.

Back in Massena, New York on the Canadian River, Gary grew up in a large family with seven siblings. His father built houses, and always took the two elder sons to work. Gary often stayed home, learned how to cook and clean the house. When his father was restoring The Village Inn, Gary went along but disappeared in the kitchen and never came out. He started out as a “hat check boy,” then moved up to be a dishwasher two years later. In high school, he convinced the faculty, who permitted him to work at the restaurant from 11:30am then received credits for it.

Gary attended and graduated from CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, New York. In 1974, he went home for a year and helped a gentleman open a country inn where he created a dinner service. “I always thought it was unique to my career that the first restaurant I’ve ever opened was in a bowling alley,” he laughs. In 1978, he left home and arrived in San Francisco, where he had two jobs: a lunch chef at a bookstore, in addition to waiting at the Waterfront Restaurant.  Continuing his quest to study under Madeleine Kamman, Gary moved back to Vermont to be closer to his idol, who repetitively rejected him. “At the time,” Gary remembers, “I thought I was rejected because I was a male since Madeleine was considered as one of the first feminists in the cooking world. Because she was French during a time when cooking was considered as a man’s industry and that a woman’s cooking really belonged in the home.”

gary danko san franciscoWhen Madeleine finally allowed Gary in her class at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School in 1983, he profusely proved himself as a bright and rising star, despite initial mockery from his mentor. By utilizing a wide variety of natural organic produce from Vermont, Gary brought to class: duck, geese, lamb, guinea hen, home churn butter, Vermont cheeses. In three days, he became Madeleine’s class pet, and a beautiful friendship was forged. “What I wanted to learn was what Madeleine was teaching – cooking from the heart.” Gary recalls, “her book also explained a lot of chemistry when there weren’t many books on chemistry in cooking back then. Her new thinking of lighten up the sauces, or she didn’t make 25 pounds of puff pastries, she would make one little pound block, sort of like how a housewife would. But I understood what would happen when I made it that way, and applied it to larger portions of butter and made larger things.”

Gary’s career after Madeleine proved to be full of accolades, with periods of sundry yet extraordinary opportunities that would later reflect in his composition of balanced menus. With Madeleine’s reference, Gary stayed at Beringer Vineyards in California during six years as executive chef, a position that allowed him to travel internationally and throughout the country. He recounts experiences in Japan, “I learned that you can never have authentic Japanese cooking outside of Japan. You can have a close proximity to it, and thus, I call nothing authentic.” In 1991, he moved on to The Ritz-Carlton’s “The Dining Room” and helped open the restaurant in San Francisco. As more awards honored his work and talent, Gary left corporate setting at The Ritz-Carlton in 1995 and opened Viognier, a white-tablecloth restaurant within Draeger’s supermarket in San Mateo, California. Gary taught classes, began the process of his own book then received a phone call that would change the course of his path. It was from Michel Elkaim, owner of Chez Michel in San Francisco.

“When I bought my first home, I walked into it and thought ‘I have to buy this.’” Gary refers to his initial intuition of creating his own restaurant, “it needs to feel like home, or it feels right. A lot of people don’t have intuition, because they’ve breaded out of them. It’s like survival tactics, we don’t have them like we used to. But we do need to be in touch with our intuition.  Something feels like me, then it feels like the right decision. When I first walked into Chez Michel and thought ‘I love this place.’ And it felt like home to me.”

In August 1999, he opened Gary Danko – the restaurant. He didn’t want to name the restaurant after a mushroom, a tropical fruit, nor a street address. When his lawyer told him to just call it “Gary Danko,” it stuck around. Every corner in the restaurant, every cookware within its kitchen, every listed item on the menu, ooze of Gary’s concept of openness. “We had developed a concept, basically the open format of the menu. I developed my restaurant based on things that I felt, things I wanted. I needed to do everything in my power to control any of the hurdles that guests may have.” From making the reservation at the restaurant, pulling up to the valet, feeling welcomed, ordering favorite dishes, conversing with sommeliers about choices of wines, presentation and tastes of each bite…all aspects of “The Gary Danko Experience” is easy, effortless, and intended to be hurdle-free.

gary danko san franciscoIt took him awhile to familiarize that, his name was his business. The separation between personal versus professional took time, his ego needed to be neutralized between the two spheres. “When you open a restaurant, you have one goal: that first newspaper review, which is golden.” He notes, “it really sets your birth right for that restaurant. Because if you get a really low rating, it’s hard to rebuild.  As silly as it seems, some people really believe what they read. They’re not filter feeders. You can’t believe everything you read.  People have their own ideas and opinions, and you have to let them have them. You have to mellow yourself out internally.  Take what works for you.”

Clearly, he took what worked for him and established one of the best fine-dining experiences, if not in the world, certainly in the country. His brilliance is the defiance toward reproducing dishes that he had in India or Japan, because he understands that Americans have different palates. He creates food that tastes good, fully satiates the palate, meaning: the tongue and the stomach. Furthermore, he prefers food that is familiar to people rather than constant experiments with little dishes. At Gary Danko, the expectation is not limited to well seasoned food, but also well served.

From his model standpoint, Gary Danko isn’t just about food in a restaurant. The hospitality aspect plays an enormous role in the restaurant business. His idea is that, service doesn’t simply exist in a black suit. It exists in: a white chef’s jacket, the dishwasher, the phone person. It is every employee who works for the brand with seamless service, each making the guests’ meals memorable, full of anticipation.

Gary Danko is a manifestation of what he has done in his whole life, truly, who he is. Gary’s life is about balance, he knows who he is, he knows what he’s capable of. He has opened and sustained many restaurants in his career and now working on opening another in Ghirardelli Square. “I’ve spent a lot of time making people happy, and myself as well. A job well done makes me happy, people that enjoy themselves in the restaurant makes me happy.” He says with an infectious laugh. Simple yet equalized. It’s hard not to be attached to his balancing act, let alone the infamous lobster roast.

To make a reservation at Gary Danko, visit here

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