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Ryan Scott Patricia Chang

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Welcome to the Ryan Scott Show

How a Top Chef contestant parlayed himself into a brand

Eight years after getting kicked off of Top Chef for committing a sin against tailgating and just three weeks before his latest restaurant endeavor Finn Town debuts in the Castro, flip-flop-clad local food personality Ryan Scott has a long day ahead of him. At 9 a.m., he’s already been up for hours working out (and Instagramming it) by the time we grab coffee at a neighborhood coffee spot in the Outer Sunset, preparing for a Saturday together full of whatever it is that Scott does to promote a new cookbook on the shelves and a restaurant on the way.

The coffee hasn’t quite kicked in yet when he tells me his entire food philosophy can be summed up with an old Carlos Santana quote about how “everyone needs three things: food, sex, and music.” “If I can provide one or two of those things,” Scott says with a laugh, “then I feel pretty good.”

Despite extensive Googling, I couldn’t find any record of Santana ever having said those words, but I think I see Scott’s point: He’s a man of the people with dreams of culinary rock stardom. A capital-C Chef with an impeccable San Francisco pedigree whose food often feels like an afterthought, overshadowed by a desire to see his name in lights (and preferably without the “former Top Chef contestant” moniker).

Like any respectable rockstar, Scott travels over 200 days per year, filming segments for Bar Rescue or making twice-monthly appearances on the Today Show. But on this particular Saturday, we’ll only be touring San Francisco as we take care of the business that comes with being Ryan Scott — the Modesto ex-patriot, former short order line cook, reality show contestant, restaurateur, radio host, cookbook author, Emmy award winner, and recurring morning talk show character.

The Sandwich Deal

The first post-coffee morning hours in Scott’s breakneck schedule have been blocked off for a top-secret side project: recipe testing an upcoming limited-time-only savory sandwich for a national fast food chain. To protect everyone involved, Eater agreed not to disclose the name of the chain or the ingredients in the sandwich, but suffice it to say this particular menu item is designed to capitalize on people’s love of a regional specialty by mass producing it for drive-through consumption — a play that will hopefully boost the Ryan Scott brand in the process, of course. A cynic might see it as a cheap marketing ploy, but Scott justifies it as a way to support the purveyors who will be getting an undeniably massive order.

“I’m from farm country, you know?” He says of his Central Valley hometown, where he cut his teeth cooking eggs at a franchise diner. “Ag [agriculture] was really big in my high school,” he continues, letting his blue collar work ethic shine through under the slick TV chef haircut. “My buddies couldn’t come to football practice because they had to milk cows with their dad.” And that connection is all he needs to defend a project that a more self-conscious chef might call selling out. “There’s a farmer out there that’s really happy about this sandwich.”

The Cookbook Deal

At Finn Town, everything from the Fresno hot sauce to the oyster crackers will be made from scratch and locally sourced, according to the new San Francisco culinary tradition. In Scott’s own modest, but well-equipped home kitchen, however, the pantry is stocked according to the principles laid out in his new cookbook One to Five: One Shortcut Recipe Transformed Into Five Easy Dishes. That means frozen, canned, or otherwise prepared ingredients aren’t shameful cop-outs, but timesaving lifehacks.

For a chef who has defined his focus as “clean flavors” for the better part of the past decade, this can lead to some brief moments of jocular self-doubt. “Am I going to be shunned because I have canned ingredients?” Scott wonders aloud while showing me the contents of his freezer (bagged mixed berries) and clicking on the gas range (provided by his sponsor BlueStar, naturally). “I don’t call my style of food lazy,” Scott concludes. “I call it efficient.” (They’re not just efficient recipes — they also, in true Ryan Scott fashion, make for great segments on Rachel Ray.)

On a book signing excursion to the massive confines of a local Costco, he seems genuinely delighted to be here. “I’m right back there next to Alton Brown and Barefoot Contessa,” he grins, nodding toward the stack of books on industrial-grade shelving a few aisles over. “It’s really kinda cool.” During our hour-long stay, Scott signs a dozen or so copies for the Ryan Scott faithful who have trickled in or otherwise just got talked into joining the ad hoc fan club during their weekend shopping trip. At least one passerby hollered “Food Rush!” (another of Scott’s many shows), but those fans apparently don’t buy cookbooks.

The Restaurant Deal

The Finn Town team

The Finn Town team

With a stack of hand-signed copies back on the shelves, we shift focus back to Finn Town’s impending opening. Scott has assembled a supercrew through his gravitational pull: general manager Michael Ploetz, formerly of José Andrés’ Think Food Group, relocated to SF to join the Finn Town lineup; chef de cuisine Jason Raffin, came over from Scotland Yard in the Marina; front-of-house extraordinaire Sean Niles was recently poached from Tosca after what Scott calls a lengthy courtship; and somewhat-silent partner/Castro emissary Rick Hamer, helped secure the all-important blessing of the local merchants’ association.

The management committee’s biggest single source of inspiration for Finn Town was Danny Meyer and Michael Anthony’s Gramercy Tavern in New York — the sort of place that feels like an instant classic and is revered by chefs and restaurateurs. Closer to home, Scott’s touchstones include the House of Prime Rib (which he affectionately refers to as “the Hopper”) and Tommy’s Joynt, two places beloved for their timeless character and working class decadence. It’s a tall order for a guy who has already attempted this thrice before, closing his former restaurants to focus more on his brand.

But, “Finn Town is everything I wanted to build,” Scott tells me. It’s a sports bar with caviar and champagne service. It’s a night out on the town or an old neighborhood watering hole. It’s a place for a boozy brunch or a late-night happy hour. “It’s me, dismantling every restaurant I go to,” he says.

The Radio Deal

Our last stop of the day took us to KGO Radio’s studios in downtown San Francisco, where Scott hosts an eponymous weekly program featuring a rotating cast of food and lifestyle guests, each with their own brand to promote. “I’m not gonna lie to you,” he says of this week’s lineup, which included a purveyor of organic frosting, a distiller of sweet potato liqueur, and a team working to bring lab-grown meats to market. “I look at it when we walk in.”

For the duration of his two-hour time slot (cut short this week due to NFL coverage), Scott puts on an impeccable radio voice as he lobs ad-libbed interview questions to his guests and dangles a free copy of One to Five in front of his listeners while taunting them with quirky trivia questions. As with everything he puts his name on, the show’s content seems to take a backseat to the man in charge.

The Real Deal

If Finn Town succeeds in San Francisco’s high-turnover climate, it will be more than just a “New American Tavern” in the Castro — it could also be the launchpad that breaks the Ryan Scott brand out of the Costco and Today Show circuit and into a future brick and mortar empire outside of the Bay Area. But at a time when the city is losing seemingly successful restaurants every week and local chefs are finding more creative ways to make a living outside the kitchen, is brand recognition enough to make one restaurant a success?

A few days after our bro date, a group of investors took a hard hat tour of Finn Town, along with a private meal catered by Scott himself. They wanted to know if the concept — minus the San Francisco kitsch, of course — can work elsewhere. Specifically, they wanted to know if Finn Town is a fit for the hotel and casino they are developing in Paso Robles. But they’re not necessarily interested in bringing the Castro with it. “They’re more interested in the Ryan Scott Show,” Scott says. So maybe it’s plenty.

Edited by Ellen Fort and Stefanie Tuder

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