Building Community in the Kitchen
What I Learned from Chef Paul Canales
By Gabrielle Myers | Photography by Stacy Ventura
During the time I worked with Chef Paul Canales in the Oliveto kitchen, I noticed that he never came in with a predetermined idea for the day’s menu. It was all about the ingredients. Rather than demand that they behave as he wanted them to, he allowed each to reflect its true nature on the plate. He wanted the full essence of each item to shine forth in all of its glory as he paired it with companions ripening nearby in the field, whether in the sun and dense heat of summer or the fog shroud of winter.
For Paul, the farmers’ care and attention is present in each dish on the table. At Oliveto, Paul developed relationships with farmers like Laura Trent of Tip Top Produce, Rick and Kristie Knoll of Knoll Farms, Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm, and Joe Schirmer from Dirty Girl, not only because he respected them as farmers, but because he knew that without their investment in the work and sensitive culling in the fields, nothing we might do in the kitchen would make the dish right. Paul’s respect and awareness of the intelligence and knowledge of farming also applied to Don Watson’s lamb, Phillip Paine’s pigeons, and Paul Willis’s pigs. For Paul, how things taste matters. Who attends to the plants’ or animals’ needs and determines if they are ready to be consumed matters. The connections between seed, leaf, fruit, kitchen doorway, stove, hand, and mouth, matter.
When diners thank Paul for the best meal they have ever had, he turns to his kitchen crew and states that it was his team that made that meal happen, that he couldn’t do it without them. In many ways Paul works to debunk the myth of the superstar chef, whose hands alone make gold out of raw fillet and untamed greens. He points back to his community, to his crew, to the farmer, to the fishmonger, to the rancher, and acknowledges that without the chain of linked hands, the meal wouldn’t nourish in the same way.
Now the chef/owner of his own business, Duende Restaurant and Bodega, which opened at 468 19th Street in Downtown Oakland in 2013, Paul continues to cultivate talent in cooks and aspiring chefs. It’s this care that has led the restaurants under his helm to consistently be named as top places to dine by the likes of Marcella Hazan, Patricia Unterman, and San Francisco magazine. In addition to serving delicious food to countless customers, Paul has influenced a generation of culinarians who believe in the philosophy of the chef as mentor, teacher, and community builder, and who have taken this practice into other kitchens and classrooms across the country.
Following are voices of a few others who cooked with and learned from Paul Canales during his more than 15 years in the Oliveto kitchen.
AARON ROCCHINO, owner and head butcher at The Local Butcher Shop, Berkeley
I remember doing an exercise with Paul—many times—where I would take one ingredient and cook it several different ways and then discuss with him which cooking method worked best for that ingredient and how each technique would be best paired with something else on the plate.
I now use Paul’s methods for teaching and learning every day at The Local Butcher Shop to create a good environment for people who are serious about knowing as much as they can about animal husbandry, butchering, cooking, and utilizing all parts of the animals. We all get to learn from each other. This also keeps our crew really tight, and we all are like family.
PAUL BERGLUND, executive chef at The Bachelor Farmer, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Learning to admit mistakes is the one point in my worldview most shaped by Paul. I joined Oliveto right after the Navy, which had a culture of shielding your boss from your problems. Whatever you could fix without having to alert your boss, everyone would be the better for. So, I brought that mentality into Oliveto. The only time in my seven years at Oliveto that I really got in trouble with Paul—and boy, did I get in trouble—was when he called me out on a mistake that I just assumed was better swept under the rug. With Paul, you admit your mistake, process it with Paul, and then move on, hopefully having grown as a cook and person. This is now one of my foremost demands of my chefs and cooks. I tell them that we all make mistakes. When you make a mistake, you’re vulnerable. However, it’s only when you allow yourself to be vulnerable that you can grow as a person. So, even though I’m the boss now, I still always do my best to admit mistakes, learn from them, and hopefully use them as teaching tools for my cooks.
DARIUS SOMARY, head banquet chef at Jackson Rancheria in the Sierra Foothills, formerly head chef at the Sutter Hotel, and owner and head chef of SpringLoaf Catering
I was in my late 30s and had never had to work on Christmas Eve before. Being the new kid and an entry-level cook, there was, of course, no chance of getting the night off. The house was packed, two seatings with a long waitlist to boot. The line was primed and prepped, and everyone was ready for action. Chef Paul put me on sauté, and one of my dishes that night was chicken al mattone (chicken cooked under a brick). We were all in tune like a symphony orchestra. The timing was perfect, the seasoning on point, every cook playing their part perfectly, with Chef Paul at the helm. And then I burnt the chicken, then another, and then I burnt the third, almost bringing the whole line to a grinding halt. The tension in the kitchen was palpable, my shame even worse. Chef Paul calmly walked over to me, and whispered, “If you burn it again, you will leave my restaurant tonight.” Nothing else. Needless to say, I never burnt al mattone chicken again and all the shift beers were on me that night.
BRIAN MURPHY, executive chef, Nostrana, Portland
Paul demanded integrity from everyone on his team: that our motivations and actions match up on every level, that we put the same care into every task, from mincing garlic to roasting a whole pig, whether or not the boss is watching. He understood that he couldn’t control our every action. But he could instill in us the sense of satisfaction in being a good worker and member of the kitchen community.
Honesty was a big deal at Oliveto. Not just in the obvious sense of “don’t lie,” but honesty with oneself. Be the first to admit that you screwed up. At first I was terrified to admit I’d screwed up a fire, maybe overcooked a piece of salmon, just a bit. I wanted to look like I nailed it every time, and odds were the customer wouldn’t notice. But that’s precisely the kind of thinking that makes a great restaurant slump into an overrated one. Re-firing a dish could be a huge hassle, backing up the kitchen and pissing off the servers. But Paul would say, “You’re not doing anyone any favors serving it if it’s not right.” I eventually realized I wasn’t doing myself any favors either. As I matured in the kitchen, I took pride in pointing out my failures. It still resulted in hassle, but every time I owned up I gained some personal integrity points.
Now managing a crew of my own, I find Paul’s notion of integrity more valuable than ever. The cook who points out a pasta is overcooked before it hits the plate is the cook I can trust when I’m not there to catch it. And once a culture of integrity takes root, it attracts more like-minded cooks and rejects the lousy ones. People tend to rise (or sink) to the level of their peers. The tremendous energy Paul put into developing his cooks as whole human beings created a culture that remained strong and consistent through generations of cooks coming up at Oliveto.
Chef Paul Canales’s Fideuà with
Liberty Duck, Lacinato Kale, and Dried Figs
Chef Paul Canales describes his cuisine at Duende Restaurant and Bodega as “Spanish inspired.” But with family roots in Catalunya (the northeastern part of Spain), this master chef has a special interest in the traditions of that region. Thus, fideuà is often on the menu.
In Catalunya, this paella-like noodle dish is typically made with seafood, but at Duende, Canales turns fideuà into a creative space for showcasing the Bay Area’s best seasonal produce and meats (he loves the Liberty Duck from Sonoma). For instance, in summer, Duende staff might make fideuà with cherry tomatoes, and in early fall, fresh figs could be a feature. In this winter version, Canales uses dried figs.
The ingredients for this recipe (or reasonable substitutes) can be procured almost anywhere, but to test the dish in proper style, we visited The Spanish Table in Berkeley for a 30cm paella pan (the two-serving size). There we found the Spanish picual or arbequina olive oils Canales recommends, manzanillo olives, and fideos, the base ingredient for this dish. “Fideos” is the Castillian spelling for the Catalan “fideus,” but either way, it’s a very thin pasta that’s broken up into small bits (or the elbow fideos Canales used when we photographed). One might try instead capellini, angel hair pasta, or really, any pasta shape that appeals.
One of the many special touches in Canales’s duck version of fideuà is the cracklings, which are made from the skin of the duck pieces called for in the recipe. Like many enlightened East Bay chefs, Canales tries to use every part of the animal, so here he uses the duck skin and also the bones for stock. An intrepid home cook might emulate Canales by buying a whole duck, using the carcass and wings to make stock, and saving leftover components for subsequent meals or a repeat of this one.
Canales says the dish takes less than 20 minutes to assemble, but that assumes many parts are prepared before launching into the final effort. One do-ahead item is the allioli. This mayonnaise-like sauce is basically the same thing as aioli. (“Aioli” is the Provençal Occitan spelling, “allioli” is Catalan, and it’s “alioli” in Castillian.) More to the point, as Canales says, “The allioli should be noticeably garlicky.”
Yields 2 hearty servings
For the toasted fideus
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup fideo noodles
For the duck meat and cracklings
1 duck leg
1 duck breast
For the sofrito
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped (Including liquid, you should have ¼ cup.)
¼ teaspoon saffron threads, toasted and pounded to a powder
For the fideuà
3 cups homemade poultry broth, warmed to a simmer (or substitute half low-sodium canned chicken broth)
5 manzanillo olives, pitted and quartered
½ cup duck cracklings (from reserved skin, see method below)
2 cups lacinato kale, destemmed, sliced, and loosely packed
6 dried figs, halved
For the salad
1 cup radicchio, very thinly sliced
½ cup arugula
1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons allioli (see recipe at right for 1 cup)
To toast the fideus, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small sauté pan over high heat. Add fideos, and when the pasta begins to sizzle, lower heat to medium and cook, stirring continuously, until the noodles are deeply golden brown. Remove to a paper towel–lined plate and set aside.
To prepare the duck meat, remove the skin from the duck leg and breast and set aside for the moment. If the breast is bone-in, debone and use the bones for making stock. Simmer the duck leg in poultry stock until tender, cool, pick the meat off the bones, and set aside. Prepare the duck breast by boning and scoring and set aside separately.
To make the cracklings, place duck skin in a small saucepot, cover with water by 2 inches, and bring to the boil. Add a generous pinch of salt and reduce heat to low. Continue cooking skin until all water has evaporated and skin begins to sizzle. Continue cooking in the fat until crispy. Keep the heat low and stir regularly, scraping the pieces from the bottom of the pot with a spatula as necessary. With a slotted spoon, remove the cracklings to a plate lined with paper towels and reserve. Save the fat remaining in the pot for another use. (It can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks or in the freezer indefinitely.)
Preheat oven to 450°. If using a convection oven, preheat to 400°.
To make the sofrito, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a 30cm paella pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic with a generous pinch of salt and cook until translucent. Add the tomato and continue to cook until the tomato begins to dry out and form a residue. Add the saffron, lower the heat, and briefly stir to incorporate.
Add the toasted fideus to the pan and stir to coat thoroughly with the sofrito. Then raise the heat to high and add all of the stock. Fideuà is not stirred during cooking, so it is important to taste the liquid in the pan at this point in order to adjust the seasoning. It should taste very well-seasoned, but not over-salty, since the flavors will concentrate as the fideuà is baked.
Add the duck leg meat (not the breast), dried figs, and olives. When the contents of the pan have reached a boil, lower the heat and cook for 5 minutes. Then scatter the kale over the pan and carefully place pan in the preheated oven. Bake for approximately 10 minutes.
While the fideuà is baking, season the duck breast with salt and cook in a small sauté pan over medium heat for approximately 7 minutes. Flip and cook for 2 minutes more, and then remove from heat to a plate until ready for final assembly.
To prepare the salad, place radicchio and arugula in a small bowl, season with salt, toss with 1 teaspoon olive oil, and set aside.
When the fideuà is finished baking, return the pan to the stove and place over high heat to boil off any remaining liquid. When the contents of the pan begin to sizzle, lower heat to medium and let the fideuà develop the socarrat (characteristic crust). This will take approximately 2 minutes. While the socarrat is developing, slice the duck breast, reserving the juices.
To serve, scatter the cracklings over the fideuà in the pan and arrange the duck breast slices in a circular pattern, seasoning each slice with salt. Then place the radicchio and arugula salad in the center of the pan and add a generous dollop of the allioli. Bring the pan to the table immediately and serve directly onto warmed plates.
Makes 1 cup
2 cloves garlic, mortared with salt
1 egg yolk
¼ cup vegetable oil, such as grapeseed or safflower
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt to taste
Place the garlic and egg yolk in a medium mixing bowl and stabilize the bowl on the counter with a damp kitchen towel. Begin whisking in the vegetable oil drop by drop until an emulsion is formed, then drizzle in the remaining vegetable oil and all of the olive oil, stirring to combine. Stir in the lemon juice and season to taste with salt.
An associate professor of English and part-time culinary arts instructor at San Joaquin Delta College, Gabrielle Myers is the author of Hive-Mind, a memoir. She blogs about food at gabriellemyers.com
The work of Marin-based photographer Stacy Ventura has been featured in San Francisco Magazine, Food Arts, 7×7, Food & Wine, and several Edible Communities publications. She photographs regularly with Good Eggs in San Francisco. When not shooting, she can be found in the garden with her chef husband, Brian, or at the beach with her big white dog, Bianca.