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TBD's Mark Liberman Talks About the First Week

Last week marked the opening of TBD, the casual AQ spinoff that's got a blazing hearth at its centerpiece. Chef Mark Liberman moved over from his post as executive chef at AQ to helm the fire-centric menu, and we caught up with him to chat challenges, favorite dishes, and his nemesis (hint: it's a cake).

It's one week in at TBD. How are you feeling? I'm a little tired, but otherwise good. It's been really busy, and it's been an adjustment working with live fire. It's a completely different approach to your day. You have to come in in the morning and start the fire fairly early. When the cooks arrive, we need to start doing mise en place for dinner service, and everything gets cooked on the hearth, so we have to make sure we get in pretty early to get it going. We're doing a lot of roast pumpkins and things that take a while.

How are you dealing with the heat of the open fire all day? I don't think it's any different from working in a big restaurant in New York City, where it's all French tops. It's hot, it's definitely hotter than an average restaurant, but from a cook's standpoint, it's almost the same as having, say, five French tops together. We have a pretty big hood, so it does pull a lot of that heat up. The only difference is you go home smelling a little campfire-y.

Have there been any particular dishes that people can't get enough of? There's definitely a few dishes that have already become really popular. There's an arepa dish that we're doing with maitake mushrooms, aged jack cheese, and smoked tofu, and that's probably our most popular dish right now. We're doing a rye waffle with cured salmon and dill that's also been very popular. We bought a vintage cast-iron waffle iron that we throw on the grill.

And what's your personal favorite that you eat at the end of the night? There's a potato dish with sea urchin and jalapeños that's really good. There's also a cabbage dish I like a lot; we take the cabbage and we roast it whole, then we inject it with dashi, and serve it with clams and fermented hot chiles.

What are some challenges with cooking everything over the live fire? Not everything's on the fire—there are some dishes that are just sort of raw or preserved—but the challenge is that everything has to come out in a timely manner, so there are dishes that are really simple, and some that are more composed. It's about trying to find a nice medium, because we can't have guests waiting for something coming off the grill. When we wrote the menu, we were definitely thinking as if we had a stove, but for one or two dishes now, there's just too much on that plate. In a regular kitchen it wouldn't be that bad of a pick-up, but when you have to have cast-iron on the grill, all of a sudden that dish has way too many elements.

Have you had any surprises since opening? Well, we had a fire. Our wall caught on fire behind the hearth. We fixed it all, we put in concrete slabs, so it's almost good that it already happened and that it didn't happen during business hours. But I think the biggest surprise is just how laborious the restaurant is to run. Between the wood, and everything being cast-iron, so it's very heavy. You go home and you're like, 'Whoa, I'm really sore.' Every sauté pan is a cast-iron pan, so it's not like aluminum or stainless steel, and then you're constantly moving wood back and forth. It's just a lot of manual labor that goes into manning the stove.

Any other big hurdles this week, besides that wall catching on fire? It's just a matter of getting a feel for it. I think we've found really good cooks, but they've never worked on a piece of equipment like this, so it's been a hurdle for everybody. We wanted to find cooks that had a fine-dining background, because we wanted people who could be spontaneous and think on their toes, but at the same time, most of them have never worked on a wood-fire grill like this. Neither have I, so it's been a learning curve for everyone. The first service was really busy, and there were a lot of things that we did wrong, but last night was really smooth. So it's just going to take some time to learn the pockets where the wood sits best, and how to keep a good bed of coals going.

Did you ever expect you'd be in this position of part chef, part woodsman? I never did, but I've always loved cooking with fire. I never thought I would be in a restaurant totally devoted to it, but I think it's pretty awesome.

What do the next few months hold for TBD? I think the menu is going to evolve a lot. We designed the opening menu to be straightforward and simple, in my eyes at least. But in two or three months, it's going to evolve a lot more as we get into a routine. The biggest hurdle right now is pastries. We're doing a s'mores dessert, and we're doing a parsnip cake that we're baking over the hearth. Right now I'm doing pastries, and the parsnip cake is kind of my nemesis. I'm very comfortable doing pastries, but baking something on that hearth has been a challenge.

What's your hope for what TBD will become? First and foremost, I'd like it to be a neighborhood restaurant. I want it to be our style, AQ style. It's not super-conventional, but there will eventually be a burger on the menu. So you can have a burger, or you can have some ham and pickles, but there will also be dishes that challenge and kind of make you think outside the box at the same time.

· Inside TBD, AQ's Casual, Fire-Driven Sequel [~ ESF ~]
· SF's 10 Most Anticipated Fall Restaurants [~ ESF ~]


1077 Mission St., San Francisco CA