Gary Danko, age 49, opened Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco in 1999; today it is one of the city's top 10 restaurants, as rated in Wine Spectator's Oct. 15, 2006, issue. A native of Massena, in upstate New York, Danko initially learned to cook alongside his Louisiana-born mother, and began his first restaurant job at the age of 14. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and was executive chef at Chateau Souverain in Sonoma County, the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco and Viognier in San Mateo, Calif., before hanging up his own shingle. In 2001, Restaurant Gary Danko earned Wine Spectator's Grand Award, which it has held since. Danko recently took some time out of the kitchen to talk to Wine Spectator Online about "foodies," wine and his adopted city.
Wine Spectator: What are some of the trends that define Bay-area fine dining right now?
Gary Danko: San Francisco is the most European of American cities. It is really defined by its distinct neighborhoods, and by the diversity in ethnic and small restaurant dining, which lends itself well to the casual attitude and dress of our city. The average San Franciscan will likely know more about food and wine than [people in] any other city in America, and we host a bunch of self-appointed "foodies" who will challenge even the chef's best efforts.
WS: What would you like to see less or more of, on menus or in the dining room?
GD: I tend to like either familiar flavors, or flavors that have been refined and not just created at the moment of writing the menu. I would definitely like to see less liquid nitrogen and molecular theatrics on menus.
WS: How has the fine-dining scene evolved in the Bay-area in the last 10 years? Have the cycles of economic boom and recessions in the last decade had a noticeable impact on the way people are cooking and eating?
GD: Fine dining has definitely improved over the years. The twenty- and thirty-somethings are back…. There is a renaissance happening in San Francisco with its new building boom, PacBell Park and a complete revamping of all the museums. As with any economy, the surge and recesses are reflected in the cooking. In the fat years, there's more decadence, and more labor to produce elaborate dishes. When the economy sags, food tends to go more along the lines of comfort, the labor is less and the food leans even more toward the casual, with more substantial portions.
WS: Tell us about the wine program at Restaurant Gary Danko. What are its strengths or particular areas of focus, and how does the wine relate to your food?
GD: Our wine program contains over 1,800 selections, from the classified growths and legendary vineyards of France, to high-acid, mineral-driven white wines from Burgundy, Germany and Austria, to small-production Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County and Napa Valley. My food tends to pair well with white and red Burgundy and German Rieslings, as well as Sancerre. My food is bold in flavor but delicate in nature. Since I like my food to be salted appropriately, it tends to balance with the acids in the wines.
WS: What's a dream wine that you would love to have on your list?
GD: 1947 Château Ausone, a singular and distinctive wine with sublime elegance and poetic, minerally, almost steely, aromatics. Its superb length and elegance belie impressive concentration and intensity.
WS: What's your favorite wine to drink, and why?
GD: Rosé Champagne. The copper and salmon-pink tones are gorgeous to look at. It's dry, crisp and flavorful, intense to drink and refreshing going down. Champagne also has the added "cranial tinge" that adds dimension and pleasure to the experience of drinking it. It goes well with salty foods, making it perfect for aperitifs and through the entire meal.
WS: What's in your personal cellar?
GD: I keep a very limited cellar, predominantly driven by white and red Burgundy and German Riesling. Coche-Dury, Raveneau, Dujac and Rouget are some of my favorites from Burgundy, and I like German Rieslings from Dr. Loosen and Joh. Jos. Prüm. For entertaining and home consumption, I look for lesser-known and up-and-coming regions from around the world like Rueda, Bierzo, Greece, South Africa and Argentina. I never see a reason to drink the same wine twice, because there are so many incredible wines being produced all over the world.
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