Mister Jiu's, chef Brandon Jew's large and ambitious Chinatown project, has been years in the making. Now it’s finally making its grand debut, joining the growing number of San Francisco restaurants that are exploring the food origins of its chefs.
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Most people struggle to remember the last time they wandered through the narrow streets of Chinatown, likely on their way to North Beach or Nob Hill, stopping to investigate the shops filled with tiny trinkets and trays of jade jewelry, but not seeking a meal. For many who didn't grow up in San Francisco, it's a side-effect of the unknown, the uncertainty of the best place to get xiao long bao, silky egg custards, noodles. That's something Jew wanted to change with the opening of Mister Jiu's, creating a gateway dining experience to an area that has long been a thriving city-within-a-city. Now, he and his talented crew have opened the first contemporary Chinese restaurant that the neighborhood has seen in a long time. Here's who they are, and how they're doing it.
The background: Both Chinese-American and a San Francisco native, Jew has been living and cooking in this city for a long time. This, however, is his first time cooking Chinese food, returning to a style of cooking that he grew up with, and to a place he frequented as a kid. Over the period of three years, Jew raised money through investors and a Kickstarter campaign, all the while chipping away at the mountain of structural work that had to be done to the space. Yet, time turned out to be on Jew's side: as the project's opening date was pushed again and again, key players started become available along the way.
Jew pulled together an impressive lineup of chefs from what seems like thin air, given San Francisco's current dearth of qualified back- and front-of-the-house staff. It's an accomplishment that is telling of Jew's pull in the kitchen, a result of a good nature and talent that is worth the support. Now, here is the supporting crew, from back of the house to front of the house.
Sous ChefPreviously: Huxley, Bar Agricole
Sara Hauman met Jew at Bar Agricole, when Jew was the head chef and Hauman was just entering the San Francisco dining scene as a line cook. Hauman's work ethic (which is notable, having almost solely run 26-seat Huxley for over a year) and talent as a chef quickly elevated her to sous status, before she left to open Huxley. Since then, she's been racking up the accolades first as an Eater Young Gun in 2015 and now as one of the Chron's Rising Star Chefs for 2016. As luck would have it, Hauman began to sense her time as executive chef of Huxley was coming to a close, just as Jew was beginning to assemble his team for Mister Jiu's. Now, the band is back together again, with Hauman backing up Jew in the kitchen as a sous chef once more.
"Finding someone that can understand what you're looking for, without necessarily having to say exactly what that is, is hard," said Jew. "I got lucky because it was just a timing thing with her. She's such a hard worker. It's really hard to find someone that has her work ethic these days, so she sets a really good example for a lot of young cooks."
On what attracted her to the project:Hauman says she was lured into Mister Jiu's because of the interesting nature of the project, but also because of the opportunity to work with Jew again. However, the main draw for Hauman is learning the nuts and bolts of opening a restaurant like this, as she casts an eye towards a project of her own. "For me it's not necessarily about the food but about opening something like this," said Hauman. "Learning what to do and what not to do, relationships with purveyors." Her next move likely won't incorporate the flavors of Chinese cuisine, but it will certainly be influenced by what she's learned during the process.
Previously: Flour + Water, Kin Khao
The background:When Goodman moved to the city four years ago, he started his San Francisco cooking career at Flour + Water, under chef Thomas McNaughton. "I was interested in making something out of nothing," said Goodman, referring to the restaurant's focus on pasta. However a growing interest in Asian food— Goodman grew up in Illinois and is the adopted Korean son of a Japanese mother and a Jewish father —started to influence the staff meals he prepared for the restaurant, eventually causing him to depart to Kin Khao to learn more. There he reconnected with Jew (though apparently they'd already met— Jew says he kicked the younger Goodman out of the kitchen during a stage at Bar Agricole, for some infraction no one can recall), whose upcoming project piqued his interest.
On changing his cooking style:
"We are that generation that went out and did Italian food, different classic cuisines, then realized what we really enjoyed eating most is Asian food. It's taking classic techniques and bringing them in and trying to infuse in them in the view of our generation. I found that to be very interesting."
Previously: Mourad, Aziza, Quince
The background:Like Jew, pastry chef Melissa Chou also grew up in San Francisco as a second generation Chinese-American, honing a palate that straddled the gap between Chinese food and Northern California cuisine. She started her career at Quince, just as Jew was headed off for an extended period of travel in China, for what would be the research for Mister Jiu's. Now, many years later, Chou has come full circle to create desserts that reflect her roots.
On cooking with Chinese flavors for the first time:"Growing up eating Chinese food, I have the palate. I understand where the flavors are coming from, and I understand where the textures are coming from. To me, it's really fun to think of Chinese food in this new way, but it's not completely foreign to me either.
I'm learning a lot about how to do stuff myself, as opposed to being taught that stuff from my family, because my grandmother came over from China, but she was working her whole life. She didn't have time to teach me anything, so I'm learning it myself. I think sometimes people want the narrative of, 'This recipe has been passed on from generations back, all the way to China.' Or, 'My grandmother showed me how to do this when I was four,' but it's really not the case because that's just not my experience."
On authenticity:"I think that everyone has had Chinese food. Everyone has a lot of experience with Chinese food, so there's certainly been the conversation of, 'How do we temper what people's experiences have been with what we want to achieve?' We don't want to give you classics, and we're not being the Chinese restaurant that has ... like all the other Chinese restaurants out there. We're trying to push it a little further than that, but you're always going to get traditionalists, and you're always going to get the people that want it to be something else, so this process has really been about solidifying our identity, and what our mission is."
Previously: AL's Place, Toro (NYC), Flour + Water
The background:"She's the hired assassin," joked Brandon Jew, referring to Liz Subauste's talent for laying down the foundation for some of San Francisco's best restaurant openings' success. Before Mister Jiu's, Subauste was the force behind AL's Place's grand opening, as well as NYC's Betony and Toro, and a manager at Flour + Water and Delfina.
On what sets Mister Jiu's apart from the SF dining scene:"I'm really into seeing the food and what the chefs are creating. I love San Francisco and I love the San Francisco food scene but a lot of times the food can be very similar, because they're all shopping at the same market and they all feed from the same ideas. We've been trying to do this whole California cuisine thing for a long time. And I think it's great and amazing—I love those flavors. But, it's good to have a different voice. I go to Bar Tartine because it's different than anywhere else, and I feel like with Brandon's food, I've never seen anything like that either. This is going to bring all the things that I love about California and the way we live together with Chinese flavors.
The team is such an all-star team. It scares me a little bit because I feel like with all the pressure, and because I feel like everyone is looking. I don't like having so much hype behind it but I'm really fortunate to be working with all these great people."
Previously: Chino, Alembic
The background:When diners walk into Mister Jiu's, their first encounter is with the bar, which leads up to the dining room's dramatic view of San Francisco. Presiding over the narrow space is Danny Louie, the San Franciscan in charge of the Chinese-influenced bar program. Louie grew up in the Richmond District, though he says he spent a large chunk of his teenage years loitering around in Chinatown with friends. In his adult life, he's spent time behind the bar at Alembic, Dosa and most recently Chino (now closed). The cocktails he's created for Mister Jiu's are a careful consideration of San Francisco drinking culture, but infused with flavors like jasmine, sesame and green tea, sporting names like "Prosperity" and "Wisdom." And returning to the bar of Chinatown's most glamorous restaurant is something almost predestined for Louie, considering that his father spent time behind the bar at Cecilia Chang's legendary restaurant The Mandarin, many years ago.
On returning to Chinatown:
"I never thought i would work in Chinatown. It's been this way for a very long time, but I knew this project was great because it is going to change the way we think about Chinatown, the way we eat and drink here. There are still very traditional restaurants in Chinatown that are great, but I think this restaurant will take it to something even greater, bringing back the quality Chinese ingredients that have been abused a lot."
Previously: Bi-Rite Market, Cheese Plus, Vintage Berkeley
The background:Front of house isn't for everyone, and the wine trade isn't always a breeze— reading customer's palate after a brief conversation, navigating price point, preference and the menu are all challenges sommeliers face along the way. Herbstritt, however, faces a different challenge, considering that this is his first time working the dining room circuit. Most of the newly-christened wine director's time has been spent working the retail side of wine, which, while brimming with its own challenges, does not have the same pressure of a tableside interaction. To prepare, he's staged around local restaurants, including Del Popolo, to get a feel for the flow of the dining room.
On choosing the right wines:
"The focus is wines that are going to taste great with Brandon's food. That eliminates bold tannic wines, because his flavors are so subtle— more specifically, it's mostly French wines and new California people who are doing new and exciting things nearby, with a little bit of Germany and Austria and gems from around Europe. Lower alcohol, aromatic white wines like riesling, chenin blanc, Loire Valley.
The most exciting part has been putting the list together. It's like a little puzzle, and I really dig that. But really I'm looking forward to opening bottles for people and seeing their reaction— that's one thing you miss in retail, you don't get to see people experience the wine you recommended and hopefully having a good experience."
Visit the crew: Mister Jiu's is now open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m.- 11 p.m.; the bar opens at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.