Chef Mari Vega, who grew up in Dalton, Georgia, spent about four weeks in the Bay Area in the spring of 2018. She’s the owner and founder of Chico (formerly Chicomecóatl), an Indigenous food organization, and former executive chef of 8ARM in Atlanta. She also grew up as the child of farmers from Guanajuato, Mexico, in a town with a residential plurality of Mexican Americans. Vega was struck by the Bay’s rich history of foodways and was excited about the various paths toward food production, citing La Cocina as a remarkable organization. “I love learning from folks like that,” Vega says.
Now the chef and agroecology scholar is back in San Francisco to learn, yes, but also to hold down the kitchen at Polk Street’s Turntable by Lord Stanley. Starting October 5, the ancestrally-driven cook will take over Rupert and Carrie Blease’s Michelin-starred restaurant for the duration of the month. The Blease’s restaurant closed in the traditional sense in August 2021 to become a pop-up program called Turntable by Lord Stanley where guest chefs prepare a multi-course menu and operate a takeout window, all with their own recipes.
Vega is serving her spin on clay fish, which she’s been working on for a few months. She wraps two centimeters of clay around a trout, creating a steamed texture in the fish due to the heat-trapping technique. The clay is brought in from North Carolina, but as she gets settled she’ll incorporate clay from the Bay Area. “I try to dive into what is available that relates to the research I’ve done on Mesoamerican cooking,” Vega says. The chef will also serve oysters, but with a flair Vega learned from the years she’s spent in the Yucatan Peninsula. The cook uses ginger and turmeric harvested near Atlanta, which gets lacto-fermented for a year, to bring a sharp acidity to play off of shaved butter and goat cheese atop the oyster.
For the takeout window, Vega will offer her Mexico City-style torta, more like a pambazo in her opinion. The sauce-drenched sandwich bread gets seared, leaving a crisp and flavorful bun; there will be a potato and chorizo rendition for the meat lovers and a vegan eggplant iteration, too. NorCal ingredients Vega rarely uses, such as California’s famous avocado, will be scattered throughout the various dishes. “I think the whole menu, constructed around what’s available in California, is extra exciting,” Vega says.
When it comes to the city’s dining scene, Vega says there is so much history in the Latino foodways that piques her interest. Mexican cuisine is important to Vega, especially as she feels Georgia lacks as robust a scene as the Bay Area. She learned from chefs including Dominica Rice-Cisneros at Bombera and Ofelia and Reyna Maldonado at La Guerrera, folks who hustled their tortilla shops into permanent locations. “They produce excellent masa and dishes,” Vega says. “And they all come from various culinary trainings.” The chef would like to run a similar playbook: work hard to get a food business with clout under her belt, then pivot into a permanent location. For now, she’s happy to hold court at Lord Stanley. “I can’t wait to share the menu with diners,” Vega says.
Lord Stanley is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., and for takeout Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 9 p.m. Reservations can be made through Tock and Vega will cook as the featured chef from October 5 through October 29.