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Food & Wine: Back Of The House

By Carolyn Jung

A quartet of savvy chefs brings new flavors and expertise to fine dining on the Peninsula, beginning with Madera’s new executive chef.

“Mother Nature is the best chef,” says Robert Sulatycky. “If we work in accordance with what she gives us and perfectly prepare [it], that’s all you need to do.”

Robert Sulatycky

Madera, Menlo Park

As Michelin-starred Madera’s new executive chef, Sulatycky strives for the “complexity of simplicity.” Take his roast chicken. In his hands, it is anything but ordinary.

Sulatycky, Team Canada’s highest finisher (placing fourth) in the Bocuse d’Or, and now head coach for Team USA, has spent decades perfecting his roast chicken. After all, this is a man who won the international culinary championship’s Prix Viande (“best meat’’ prize) for his way with squab. At Madera, he starts with free-range chickens from Pescadero’s Root Down Farm that get brined for 10 hours, then dry-aged for six days, so that when roasted, their skins crackle. The chicken is served with potatoes, peas and carrots — elevated, of course. The tubers are pureed to utter velvetiness. Wood hearth-roasted Nantes carrots are dappled with buttermilk-dill oil. And fresh-shucked peas star in a chilled salad with clouds of yuzu-tofu foam.

“I love very simple food,’’ says Sula tycky, 57. “But to do it well, to showcase the ingredient as well as technical prowess and artistry, it’s very challenging to get all that on the plate.’’

A dual citizen of both Canada and the United States, Sulatycky is a renaissance chef cut in the modern-day mold of Silicon Valley. He’s a partner in Mithra Winery, a boutique cabernet sauvignon producer in Mount Veeder in the Napa Valley whose wine is available at Madera. He’s also the co-founder of the technology company iQKitchen, which designs automated systems for kitchen operations and food safety used by restaurants in Canada and the United States.

Although trained in classic French cuisine, he prefers a lighter style, emphasizing restraint with cream and butter. In the coming months, he’ll revamp Madera’s menu completely. Will he manage to maintain the Michelin star that Madera received in 2010, then lost in 2015, only to regain swiftly the following year? Sulatycky says confidently, “If we all do our jobs right, the goal is to have that happen organically.”

“Nobody ever needs dessert,” says Emma Alden. “But I love giving people something they don’t need.”

Emma Alden

For the chocolate pretzel cookie, Alden toasts diced pretzels in brown butter before mixing them into a triplechocolate cookie dough.

Protégé, Palo Alto

If pastry chef Alden has her way, vanilla won’t ever appear among the ice cream selections at Michelinstarred Protégé. She favors more complex creations, such as butterscotch ice cream swirled with maple whiskey caramel and emboldened with chunks of house-made sticky toffee pudding. “All my desserts are designed around the ice creams, which is so backwards. If I have to make 16 things to go into that one dessert, I will.’’ Such is the fortitude of this 30-year-old native New Yorker, who as a teen saved up her babysitting money to buy a KitchenAid mixer (in chic black, naturally). The former pastry chef of Manhattan’s Michelin-starred Batard moved here during the pandemic but is already at home, tooling around in her first car, a tiny green Fiat nicknamed “Gumby,” and crafting winsome pretzels with a sourdough starter dubbed “Bready Mercury.”

Bryan Thuerk

Flea Street, Menlo Park

It’s remarkable enough that in his first head-chef job, Thuerk led the kitchen of one of the Bay Area’s most venerable restaurants through an unprecedented pandemic. But even more so, because he’s just 23. Raised in San Jose, Thuerk, who is half Taiwanese, has his father to thank for introducing him to the 41-yearold Flea Street. The restaurant is a favorite of the elder Thuerk, who purposefully took his son there for his 21st birthday to show him a pioneer in sustainable and organic practices. For the younger Thuerk, then a line cook at San Francisco’s Bohemian Club, it was a revelation. Founder Jesse Cool hired him as a sous chef, before promoting him a month later to executive chef. In thoughtful dishes such as bacon-and-guanciale carbonara done up gluten-free as risotto, he aims to cook food that “makes not only your face, but your brain, smile with great memories.”

“People here like simple, good food, which I believe in,” says Alex Oviedo, who is looking to fuse Italian and French flavors at Portola Kitchen.

Alex Oviedo

Portola Kitchen, Portola Valley

No disrespect to officers in blue, but when Oviedo was asked as a child why he wanted to grow up to be a policeman, he blurted: “Because I want to eat doughnuts all the time!’’ His appetite certainly shaped his eventual career, but in a whole different way. This summer, the 27-year-old Redwood City native became Portola Kitchen’s executive chef. It’s only his second head-chef job, having previously overseen the kitchen at Mersea on Treasure Island. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he gravitated to cooking, considering that even at age 5, he helped his grandmothers prepare Mexican and Filipino specialties. At Portola Kitchen, he cooks up kale-pesto gnocchi, Italian-ham-draped thin-crust pizzas, and mahimahi with browned butter Israeli couscous, and also juggles hiring and menu development for sister restaurant Mike’s Palo Alto. Luckily, he gets ample fuel from his favorite doughnut holes at San Bruno’s Royal Pin.

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