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Acquerello's Owners on Female Chefs, Changing Times, and the New Face of Italian Food

Giancarlo Paterlini and Suzette Gresham.
Giancarlo Paterlini and Suzette Gresham.
Photos: Patricia Chang

In 1989, Suzette Gresham and Giancarlo Paterlini decided to leave high-end Italian restaurant Donatello to open their own restaurant, Acquerello, in Nob Hill. With Gresham running the kitchen and Paterlini in charge of the front-of-house, Acquerello has become a local institution, earning a Michelin star annually since the guide debuted in the Bay Area, as well as a loyal crowd of regulars. This month, Acquerello turns 25 years old, and we sat down with the duo (who opened their first expansion, 1760, just last year) to discuss how diners' tastes have changed over time, the promise and problems of today's young cooks, and where they go in SF to eat authentic Italian food.

Let's start at the beginning. How did you two originally meet?

Suzette Gresham: Giancarlo hired me, at the Donatello Hotel, here in San Francisco. He'd been there for at least eight years...

Giancarlo Paterlini: Nine and a half, actually. It was towards the end of my time there.

SG: The owner, Mr. Rossi, had wanted to find a chef, and Giancarlo had several interviews. I was the dark horse, frankly—I was surprised that I actually was hired. I think the kitchen crew was even more surprised, because when I walked in, they thought I was the new pantry girl. So it was a big shock when they found out I was the new executive chef. Luckily, I was shocked too, because as soon as I got in and started working side-by-side with them, they were really respectful. It was the first executive chef position for me, and it was really scary. I was coming from United Airlines, which isn't exactly known for its great food.

And Giancarlo, you were on your way out? Were you already thinking about opening your own restaurant?

GP: It was 1988, the year before we opened Acquerello, but no, I wasn't thinking about it at the time. It really came about because Mr. Rossi, the Donatello's owner, had several hotels and restaurants, and his business wasn't doing too well. He lost all his properties, one by one. It was the year of the American savings scandal, so his financing was shut off, and he had to fund himself. There was no way we could have kept it going.

So you both found yourselves out of a job.

GP: Well, we left before it happened. It was very hard to operate under those conditions.

SG: I have to jump in, because Giancarlo doesn't boast about himself at all. But I like to. He had a vision. The top of the Donatello had residences. He could see that people would come to stay at the residences and weren't dining internally, with us. We were offering fine-dining Italian, which was considered glamorous, and few and far between, at the time, but no one ate with us. The hotel was shrinking, and more and more residences were coming in. Those people wanted to leave and dine out elsewhere, to explore the city. And he saw that the opportunities for us weren't going to be where they should be.

Giancarlo is driven by food. He's passionate about wine, wine knowledge, and food. Remember, 25 years ago, there wasn't as much known about Italian cuisine in the U.S. His vision was to keep educating, and have a place where people could go that would give them a real experience of service, wine and food. And where we were working, that was being curtailed.

GP: They were having real financial problems.

SG: I couldn't get my orders!

GP: No matter how packed the restaurant was, we wouldn't have succeeded. So I started thinking about it. The previous owners, Catherine and Larry Bain, were looking to expand their restaurant here, Zola's. They took a space in Hayes Valley, so this space became available. So we decided to move in. We reopened in two weeks.

That's hardly any time at all.

GP: We painted, we brought in our china, silverware, and menus, we trained the staff, and in two weeks, we opened. Back then, the Health Department was not as concerned as they are nowadays. So they just signed off, and we were in business.

SG: It was a very different time.

SG: When Larry Bain talked to us about the space, we walked out and looked at each other and said, "I think we just bought that restaurant." And we were thinking, what do we do about Mr. Rossi? We gave him a month's notice, but he was furious. He wouldn't speak to me, because he thought I had stolen Giancarlo, who was someone he had discovered. We came into the space with no money. We didn't know what it was going to take, we put our houses at risk. We had heard all the things about how you should be cautious, so we tried not to spend money. So we cleaned up, put tablecloths down, hired staff, and opened up.

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An original Acquerello menu from 1989, handwritten by Gresham. Click to expand. [Photo: Courtesy of Acquerello]

Looking at your first menu, it's very different from what you serve today.

SG: Absolutely. We didn't originally plan to be anywhere near as fancy as Donatello. But when you go out and you're looking at china, and it's Syracuse or Wedgwood, you pick the Wedgwood. You're looking at glasses, and it's Libby or Riedel: you pick the Riedel. You look at the silverware and it's stainless steel or Reed & Barton; you pick the Reed & Barton. So it kind of began to take on a life of its own. Even choosing the name, we had so many different options. We chose Acquerello, which means "watercolor." And it had a really weird spelling, for the time. Cab drivers would end up taking our guests elsewhere, to Arguello, to Aqua, but not Acquerello. It got to be iconic in its own right, because no one could spell the name.

At that time, there was such a lack of understanding of Italian regions, of the fundamentals of Italian cuisine. Giancarlo would have me make a risotto, and he'd have to go to the table and explain why it wasn't Uncle Ben's, why it didn't have tons of butter and cheese, why it was al dente. Times were so different.

GP: Balsamic vinegar, carpaccio, they were really exotic. No restaurant had carpaccio on a menu. Pork wasn't widely accepted as an ingredient, and it was kind of a tough sell, unless it was in a salumi.

SG: People came asking for alfredo and marinara, and those were never on our menu. We were always trying to highlight ingredients and regions that were lesser-known, and wines that were lesser-known as well. Everyone told Giancarlo he was crazy, because 85% of our wine list was Italian from the get-go. People said, "That's blasphemy, how could you do that in California, of all places?" It was because we wanted the guests to have an Italian experience, and these were the wines that go with these foods. We stuck to it, and everyone thought we were nuts to do that. We were doing food that was seasonally and regionally correct, which wasn't the cool thing to do back then.

Was there a particular moment, or tipping point, when you started to feel customers accepting, or even seeking out, that authenticity? When did tastes start to shift?

SG: It was a gradual progression over time. I think our presence, us being there consistently, helped. Giancarlo was always in the dining room, I was always in the kitchen. Before our remodel, you had to walk through the kitchen to go to the bathroom, and I would wave and say hi as they came through. We were tiny! We had to do it that way.

GP: We wanted to prepare good, soulful food, and be regional, but not devoted to one single region. The idea was that we'd push people a little, give them a little education, but not overwhelm them.

So at what point did you switch to the tasting-menu format?

SG: You've jumped way, way far forward.

Sorry! It's a long history.

SG: No, I understand. Honestly, looking at some of the menus we pulled out from the beginning, they're almost primitive. I hand-wrote the menus; we didn't even have a computer! We were hand-writing the wine list, and it was 4-6 pages.

GP: We were doing a la carte for the first 10 years, certainly.

SG: Our 10th anniversary was a real milestone. If you ask me about a turning point, that was an indicator. We invited all our favorite guests, and that was 91 people.

GP: I said "Let's have a party!"

SG: And I said, "Great, who's going to cook?" And he said, "You are." I was like, "That's not a party, Giancarlo." But we pulled it off. 91 people do not fit into this dining room, as you can see. But somehow, Giancarlo cleverly placed the tables, and there was not an inch of space, but it worked. It was just amazing. It was almost like a roast. People were getting up to tell stories about us, and experiences they'd had, people who'd been engaged or gotten married here. It was the best, most wonderful experience ever. 10 years was already such a huge milestone. The concept of a restaurant lasting for 10 years was pie-in-the-sky. We had been through the 1989 earthquake, when we had to shut down and lost all our food and had no power.

That was your fourth month in business?

GP: Yes. Hard to believe. But we survived it.

Do you still have regulars from that anniversary dinner who come in?

SG: Oh yeah. We're lucky, we have such a loyal clientele.

GP: Some of them are no longer with us, I'm sad to say.

SG: The reason why I bring that anniversary up is that we've had to constantly keep asking ourselves, "What is Italian?" As the things that were unusual in the U.S. in 1989 become everyday, like pasta and pizza, they've Americanized. So that 10th anniversary was really when we stepped back and thought, what's the future here? And we started to change. We moved away from monthly dinners, and strict regional technique, and adherence to a certain chef's recipe. We started to figure out what our version of the cuisine was.

GP: The first 10-15 years, everything moved so slowly. Then the Internet arrived, and everything began to speed up. The last five years have been so fast. It's amazing, how everything travels these days, compared to 20 years ago.

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Acquerello's all-offal "Not For Everyone" menu from March 1992. [Photo: Courtesy of Acquerello]

Is that why you think these ingredients and techniques that were once so unusual are now so commonplace? Because of the Web?

SG: That's part of it, absolutely. And people travel more now, too. They have experiences that they want to duplicate here, and they couldn't find the really great egg yolks, the great cheese, or whatever compelled them. So they started to seek out people here who could provide those experiences. And we have some customers who came for that, and now they don't even ask to see a menu. "Giancarlo, we'd like five courses, don't forget a foie, you pick the rest." He'll tailor it to the customer, their tastes, the wines they like. And we'll work around whatever we have.

GP: Regionality was restrictive to our growth. I think there's only one truly authentic Italian restaurant in SF, and that's La Ciccia. It's very authentic to what you'd eat in Sardinia. But that menu doesn't change, and for our restaurant, we find that to be boring. We don't want to do the same thing over and over.

SG: I'm not Italian, and I had always fought to establish my Italianness, in a sea of people who were born into it. I had to earn my way into it. I knew I was able to embody the heart and soul of Italy, but it took me a while to realize how far I'd come. It was when a Wine Spectator writer came here that something changed for me. He asked me, "What cuisine is this? It's not Italian." and I panicked, trying to come up with an erudite answer. But he answered it for me. "It doesn't matter, because it's delicious. It's your version of Italy." And that almost gave me permission, and freedom, to let go. I had never thought that was OK, previously. I still haven't entirely let go of that pillar of Italianness. I think, "If I was an Italian chef and I came to California, is this what I'd do?" And if I think, "OK, yes, it is," then I do it. That's my measurement.

Once you gave yourself that permission, how did the food begin to evolve?

SG: We've evolved four distinctly different times, in my recollection. I mean, in the beginning, you'd come here and you'd get a plate with a protein on it and the same vegetable setup, no matter what you'd ordered. Chicken, lamb, beef, pork, and the vegetables. We had no space, and we did what we had to do. Form follows function. My grill was a cast-iron grill pan on the stove.

Then we evolved into autonomous plates, and each plate had its own garnish. That was the way cuisine was changing at that time. That meant more hands-on, more ingredients, more attention to detail. From there, it was, don't do things that have already been done, what can you do with what you know? Which is another style change. And then it became modern and interpretive, which is our style today. Futuristic is the next stage.

Has that been a gratifying process, or a stressful one? Do you enjoy evolving with all these changes and trends, or do you sometimes feel like, "This is too much, I don't know if I can stretch any further?"

SG: My fear is that food is no longer flavor-forward. That we've forsaken our flavors. And that's not in line with Italian food, which is all about flavor and ingredient quality. There's an elegant simplicity that's hard to translate here. Because of our price point, people expect a little theater on the plate. It commands that you do more than sometimes you even want to do. There's been such a shift in philosophy in the industry itself. Do you want to be a purist? Do you want to be into molecular gastronomy? Are you a bastion or a pillar, or do you take a risk and try? For us, it's the latter. We have to. We feel like that's what you have to do. We're not a trendsetter, but we need to set a forward-looking tone.

GP: For this anniversary, people suggested bringing back some of the old dishes, showing the progression. And we said no. We don't want to go back, we're moving forward.

SG: We'd rather show you what we think Italian food's going to be, not what we think it was.

What do you see as comprising that future?

SG: I'm not letting the cat out of the bag! [Laughs.] Not yet. It's a huge question.

GP: And it's different in Italy, versus abroad.

How is it changing in Italy, in your opinion?

GP: In Italy, you used to eat very well in families, and you probably still do. There's a mother or grandmother who's very passionate about food, and she maybe only knows how to make five dishes, but they're the best you're ever going to have. When you go out to a restaurant, you don't want that same food. You want unusual things, avocado or yuzu. So the food you find in some of Italy's top-rated restaurants now is the kind of food we do, more interpretive.

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You guys took a long time to decide to expand with 1760. Why did you make that shift after 24 years?

SG: Well, to be fair, we did expand 3-4 times within these walls. We kept making the restaurant bigger and taking over the neighboring spots. There were four other businesses when we first moved in, and as they left, we expanded into them. There was a beauty salon, a rental office. We needed to add banquet capacity, expand our wine list, make the room a little more elegant, expand the kitchen. Those were huge revolutions internally, even before 1760 came along. Because 1760 is such a different restaurant.

Given all that, what was the moment that you said, "OK, we've hit all the heights within this building, time to move beyond it?"

SG: We still haven't hit it. We're still growing. We're not there yet. You probably see us, at this age, and think, "What are they thinking?" But Giancarlo and I are young at heart. He's modern in his mindset, and I work all the time with people half my age—I've graduated 61 externs through this restaurant. I want to push the envelope, and ask questions. I let them try things I've never done before.

GP: It's been rewarding to see several past employees who worked hard, and may not have been paid very well, but learned a lot. And they take that year or two or three, and use it to get better jobs. They come back and say, "If it wasn't for those two or three years, I wouldn't be where I am now."

How have those young cooks changed over time, as they first come in to work with you? Has their approach to food shifted?

SG: If you want to talk about generational change, we could fill another recorder with just that topic. But just in terms of people who've graduated from here, there's nothing more rewarding than to see someone succeed, even if it's on their own terms. Charcuterie, a wine store, fine dining—they're all useful parts of this community. We have children we're immensely proud of; his are in the industry, mine are not. We had two families each: one in the business, and one outside of it.

GP: I had my daughter the year the restaurant opened.

SG: His wife was breastfeeding while we were painting, and getting the kitchen in order. Gianpaolo [Paterlini, Giancarlo's son] was three at the time. He'd come into the kitchen and snoop around and taste things. Now he's running 1760, and so is [his sister] Isabella. That was the thrust behind that restaurant, really.

GP: We wanted to provide something for them. It wasn't for us, it was for them.

SG: They had a vision. They saw the activity on Polk Street, and they wanted to be on the crest of that wave. They were right, we agreed, and we helped them finance and design it, and they're running it.

GP: They know that our kind of dining is fading into the sunset. We lost Masa's, and many other places like it. The new restaurants coming out tend to be more casual. But we're still succeeding. A lot of people still do like this type of dining, and not all of them are old—we get young diners, too.

SG: As the newer, more casual, louder places become the norm, we're starting to offer a niche. People will come here, they'll book a month out. We'll be one of the five places they choose to dine in San Francisco when they're here on a trip, which is something we're very proud of. There are so many fantastic restaurants here. So to have made it for 25 years is incredible. I really can't believe it's been that long.

GP: And we're always thinking about how to make it better.

SG: Even when we're not supposed to. I can tell when he's working on weekends, because I get a lot of phone messages. On vacation, I'm in the kitchen, I'm going to the farmer's market in a town 300 miles away because I've just gotta see the food. You can't turn it off. It becomes who you are. And that may be why we never opened a second restaurant for ourselves, because there's no way to keep that spirit across multiple places unless you split yourself into seven pieces. I haven't discovered a way to do that one yet.

Giancarlo, when you advise your son and daughter on how to run their restaurant, what are the major lessons you've imparted to them?

GP: If anything, I think they've given us lessons.

What have they taught you?

SG: Not to do what we've done, I guess? [Both laugh.]

GP: Isabella came in at the last minute, Gianpaolo was more involved from the beginning. He told me that he didn't want to be who I am now, someone who's held captive by his restaurant. I do it because I love it, because I want to, not because I feel I have to be here. We work five days a week; we're closed Sundays and Mondays.

SG: That's a huge part of our success and longevity, having two days off.

GP: I sometimes spend four or five hours here on a Monday, but it's still enough time to disconnect, and come back here and be excited again about another week. But Gianpaolo didn't want to be as captive as he feels I am. And once he opened 1760, he found out that he had to be. The first couple of months, he came in and said, "That restaurant works by itself! It runs by itself."

SG: We stood there and stared at him.

GP: But he's had his wake-up call. It takes hard work, it takes being there. Isabella is a good balance for him. He's a technical guy, with a great knowledge of wine, and she's more friendly and bubbly.

SG: Gianpaolo has an affinity for systems, and he thought we had misstepped in that arena. But even when we put the systems in place, it still took the personal touch. He wasn't wrong, the systems were correct, but he still had to adjust to that learning curve of dealing with guests and employees and vendors. It's people, no matter how you slice it. Gianpaolo's a serious guy, he's always been that way, and wine is a system he understands; he even makes wine with our Acquerello label. His palate is phenomenal, and he's great at pairing. But the people part was hard for him. And what technical parts we missed, we probably overcompensated on being friendly to people, on giving them a good experience at whatever cost. You have to find a balance between those two places.

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What do you like most and least about the way the SF restaurant scene has changed in your time as restaurateurs?

SG: I'll let him do least.

GP: I find a lot of restaurants to be the same now, there's a certain sameness to them. Obviously, trends come and go. Right now, it's a Japanese moment; everything Japanese is influencing other cuisines, whether French, Italian, American, Californian. I worry that sometimes flavors are forgotten, in place of presentation. Chefs are more visually driven now. And one thing that's become normal is to serve food cold now. It used to be that hot food was hot, and cold food was cold.

SG: Tepid is the new hot.

GP: The plates are so much more elaborate, with so many people placing little elements. So by the time it makes it to the guest, the food is lukewarm.

SG: The hardship of being around too long is that you've seen it all. "Farm-to-table"? Hello, where else do you think the food comes from? I've been trying to source that stuff, make those contacts, since time immemorial. Canning and preserving? That was a way of life for me as a kid, it was how we survived, and we weren't proud of it. Now it's huge. It's amazing to me, every time someone thinks of something new, we look at each other and go, "Yup, been here before." Really fresh ingredients aren't new. Italians call it materia prima for a reason. You don't have to be rich: if someone wants the best porcini mushrooms, they drive for an hour to get them, and they only eat them in season, or they dry and reconstitute them. Seasonality is still so new and confusing to Americans, but it's a return to the past. A time when you didn't have a choice.

Did you meet resistance to your initial insistence on seasonality?

SG: Oh yeah, we'd get grief. If we had dessert in December and there were no strawberries, people would want them. They're out of season, they're inferior, they're not good!

GP: Or tomatoes in April.

SG: You can stand behind that more because your guests know more. And I hate seeing these food shows, like Hell's Kitchen, that spread false knowledge. That's not how kitchens run. You don't berate your employees. If you make a mistake, you're going to hear about it, but not so you feel like a dog—just so you don't do it again. If you don't find out why, you're going to just make the same mistake again. I'm much more maternal in some respects, but like the worst mother, because I do nag. I'll be down your throat three more times if you don't get it right.

The gap has never been smaller. You can buy all the equipment I can get, go to the farmer's market and get the same ingredients I do. So all that's left is the perspective and technique that I bring to the food. Hopefully I have something you don't, or show you something you've never had before. Molecular gastronomy gave us the mezzanine, but you still have to know how to cook. What I don't like about the industry is that cooks don't know their fundamentals anymore, and that's considered OK. I'm here to say it's not. It's not OK.

"You're not allowed to play with hydrocolloids until you can do a proper braise or make a good vinaigrette."

SG: If you can't make that thicken the right way, at least the first time, don't you dare go get a pinch of xanthan gum. That's a cop-out, a Band-Aid. I want people to cook. That's my grievance. Molecular isn't worth anything without the fundamentals. It's jumping through hoops, it's spinning through the air, but does it taste good? That's all that actually matters.

One thing that I've noticed is that we have a generation of female chefs in SF who've been running restaurants for the past 15-25 years, but I'm not seeing as many women chefs who are up and coming. Is that something you've been feeling? Why do you think that's the case? Did you expect to see more women running kitchens by this point in time?

SG: Well, this group of women, we're dinosaurs, we're dying out. There's a force coming behind us. There's lots of women in the industry now, and I'm immensely proud of that. But don't ask me if they can have a family, though.

Why was it possible for you, but might not be for them?

SG: Because I was an owner. And because Giancarlo was unwilling to sacrifice his own family—they're a primary part of his life. He didn't make me feel badly when I said I wanted to have a kid. He didn't make me leave, we found a way. And that's a foreign concept to most Americans. We don't provide that to a female workforce. Though it's changing, and for men, too. There was no paternity leave when I was coming up. People just used to leave the workforce. The lifestyle is tough. I've sacrificed. My kids have sacrificed.

GP: It's tough for the partner who stays at home, too.

SG: I didn't stop being Mommy because I was at work. I was always Mommy. So there's the additional guilt of "Why aren't you here, why didn't you do this or that?" My kids didn't see what I did. The accolades for the restaurant meant nothing to them. There was always a tradeoff. At some points, the restaurant suffered. At some, my family did. I tried to mitigate the damage as best I could, and just keep things going.

Now that they're older, do they see things differently?

SG: They're immensely proud. Immensely proud. And I'm grateful.

What excites you about the future? What makes you want to come into work every day?

SG: I talked to three different guys in three different states on my way into work today. They want to be externs or they wanted to stage. I think I get as much joy now growing cooks as I do making the food. I've handed over more of the grind, the nuts and bolts of making the food. Giancarlo and I sit in counsel. Nothing goes out there without our approval, and I'm in the kitchen every night to check and see. Maybe I should have been a savvier businessperson, and written three books by now. Or had a cooking school. But I'm still learning, and with my kids going off to college, opportunities are more available now. My dream is to go to Italy for at least three months, to get a better vision of all of the country. I've been to Piemonte, but not the south. I want to do a book. I want to grow more cooks. 61's a good number, but I'm not done yet. The industry needs people who teach, who bring up the standards, and keep raising the bar.

GP: It's more exciting than ever, being surrounded by younger people.

SG: It's awesome.

GP: To see their excitement, their exuberance, new ideas, failures. It's so nice to not have to do it all ourselves. We watch them, of course, because sometimes they get a bit too excited about certain things.

SG: But even when they make a mistake, they might stumble on something that you wouldn't have thought of before. And it only happened because they dared to push the envelope. And then you're like, "Wow."

GP: And you feel that excitement again.

· The Michelin Guide 2014, Mapped! [~ ESF ~]
· San Francisco's 20 Most Underrated Restaurants [~ ESF ~]
· Acquerello's Approachable Spinoff 1760 Debuts on Polk [~ ESF ~]

Acquerello

Polk Street, , CA 94109 (415) 567-5432 Visit Website

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