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Central Kitchen's Thomas McNaughton Talks About The First Week

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One Week In is a series wherein we talk to chefs and restaurateurs after their first week in business at a brand new restaurant.

[Photo: Molly DeCoudreaux]

Yesterday afternoon, executive chef Thomas McNaughton stopped for a talk with Eater just minutes before he went into the seventh night of service at Central Kitchen. He was candid about a lot of things, like how little sleep he's been getting, his "ridiculous deal" of a tasting menu, and how he really wants to help define NorCal cuisine, and create a distinct terroir at his restaurants. Then there's the great news that neighboring lunch-spot and market Salumeria has a finite opening date.

How's it been? This is a completely different beast from Flour + Water in every way possible. Flour + Water was me and [co-owner] David [White] swinging hammers. Now we've got so much support. We've been shit busy with no days off and three hours of sleep every night, but we're opening up Salumeria on the 31st and it's all very exciting. We recently redid the office infrastructure above Flour + Water. There's a test kitchen there, and we're writing a cookbook.

Wow, sleep doesn't sound like an option. Above Flour + Water are two apartments, one where I live. But the other night I fell asleep at the desk in the office, when my place is right there.

So, Salumeria on the 31st? We could have done it at the same time as Central Kitchen, but we wanted to build the systems here first. Now my day-to-day is being there for my new chef de cuisine at Flour + Water, chef de cuisine Michael Gaines at Central Kitchen and Matt Sigler at Salumeria.

How are you adjusting to your enormous, new, state-of-the-art kitchen at Central Kitchen? Central Kitchen is more my background. It's more refined food, and the service is a little more refined. Flour + Water is a controlled chaos every night, meaning it's packed and pizzas are zinging by your face. It's nice to have a slower pace, and a place to be a little more creative and explore more refined plating styles.

So now you have both. Yeah tonight is service seven. We've had so much support in the kitchen. [Pastry chef] Lisa Lu's friends are helping. JP [Carmona], the old chef de cuisine from Manresa is here helping. We've got built-in circulators, planchas, coals for coal cookery, and an awesome wood-fired hearth with a spit roast. Everyone wants to jump in.

Any surprises? For a restaurant opening, day one the service was pretty damn good. I've had a bad taste in my mouth because we're surrounded by construction sites at Trick Dog and Salumeria. I think it's confusing people a little. But it's just like when we opened at Flour + Water. We did 136 covers the first night there, and it hasn't dipped much below that, but it was still a construction site for like nine months. My mise en place would get messed up by the construction team. Here we're pushing the workers out of the bathrooms at 5:15. Telling them to clean up so we can start service.

Ha, amazing. I also think we built too comfortable of a restaurant. The bar we built faces the kitchen and people don't want to leave. They love the show. We've even had a single diner stick around for three hours. The patio has a water feature and it's heated from the ground up, and from above. There's plant life, it's temperature controlled, people are lounging there.

Is there room for walk-ins? Tonight is the first night we're opening up all of our reservations. The bar is "the wall" and that's eight seats for walk-ins, then we have a ten-seat low top outside for walk-ins too.

What are people responding to on the menu? We have a very talented team, and I was extremely surprised at how good the food was on the first day. Bob Pryt, a huge wine collector has been in six times. I dont care about bad Yelp reviews. If Bob Pryt is here that much, we must be doing something right.

Any particular item people are ordering the most? We've had lots of industry in here ordering the tasting menu. It's $83 and I think it's the most ridiculous value. I don't know if we can keep it at this price. There are three to four different interactive canapes, like shooters and spoons; four savory courses, a pre-dessert, a dessert, mignardises and then a take-home for breakfast the next day. The portions are not small. It'll be interesting to see our first P and L statement. But we do have a vision and we want to stick to it.

Our furniture is made my a local artisan, our ingredients come from within 150 miles, and our service style includes a lot of table-side presentations that aren't stuffy. We want to create our own terroir here, and continue the conversation about what NorCal cuisine really is.

What are you eating? You know they say the gardener has the worst landscape. [Laughing] People just bring me food because they feel bad for me. I came down with the flu and someone stole my iPhone right about the time we opened. It was a zinger, but kind of a nice vacation from my phone in a way. It should get easier every day. You go into zombie mode, but it's a good mode.

What's still on the way? a) Salumeria will create a lot of crossover because this courtyard is open for lunch there during the day. You'll be able to get a spit-roasted meat sandwich, simple rustic food, a glass of wine or a beer. That's what I want for lunch. b) We're trying to spruce up the bathrooms. c) The wine program is definitely going to evolve. We have wines and beers on tap from local producers. Feedback from everyone is the source of constant change.

Any parting statements? For me, the number one thing getting lost in the restaurant world today is trying to mentor and be an educator. I don't want Flour + Water to feel neglected. We've got a very low turnover rate, and I want our cooks to grow and learn. The new test kitchen has a library for all the cooks. One of our guys wants to open an arepas bar. They can go read books and get ideas. I want to get a master spice rack for everyone to use. I want it to be an educational center. We're going to start doing events up there. We'll experiment with a guest chef series and different collaborations.

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Central Kitchen

3000 20th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110 415 826 7004

Central Kitchen

782 Florida St., San Francisco, CA