Chef Ron Siegel spent two decades making a name for himself at restaurant like Aqua, Masa’s, and the Dining Room at the Ritz before taking a job this fall as executive chef at his former Aqua boss’s restaurant, Michael Mina. Siegel’s now been on the job almost three months, and Grub Street spoke to him today after experiencing his new menu at the restaurant last week. Gone are some of Mina’s signatures, like his "Five Oceans" dish and truffle-stuffed Jidori chicken (though the lobster pot pie remains), and in their place are some equally artful, Japanese-inflected, and perfectly balanced dishes that reflect Siegel’s passion for great ingredients.
In dish after dish, one gets the sense that Siegel is back at the top of his game, and that the restaurant is bound to earn back its second Michelin star under his watch.
Siegel took a moment out between his busy lunch and dinner services to speak with us about a few dishes in specific, and the direction fine dining is going in general.
First off, tell us how your first couple of months have been back in the former Aqua kitchen. How have things been working with Chef Mina again?
It’s been quick. Time has gone by really fast. You know, I enjoy what I do, and it’s a nice opportunity to get back into something I enjoy doing. It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re in a class you hate, it could seem like it would take two weeks just to get through those fifty minutes. And here, it feels like I just started last week. I guess if it gets busy enough I sometimes feel like it takes a year to get out of here, but…
I’m super happy for the opportunity. Michael’s great. I look at him as an owner, and it’s a great opportunity to have a relationship with the owner directly. When he’s in town, we meet and make sure we’re both aligned in our thinking about different dishes. And you know, in a perfect world, if this was his only restaurant, he’d be here every day. But thankfully he can’t be, so I can have a job.
Are there any significant differences that you’ve seen so far between running this kitchen, and the one you ran at the Ritz?
It’s significantly busier here. That’s one thing. Service at night is relentless. It’s a full service, and you finish up pretty late, usually close to morning. But I’m trying to bring the thought process I had in the kitchen at the Dining Room — the care and the time we would take with ingredients, but a lot of the time, with the guys on my line, I’m like ‘speed the hell up.’ It’s a contradiction: You want them to go slow and treat the ingredients with as much care as possible, but you still want them to do it as fast as possible. But, no matter who the chef is here, we’re only as good as everyone else in the kitchen, and we have to give them all the tools they need to be successful. It was probably done a little differently here before, and everyone has to put up with my quirkiness. And a hotel is very different than a free-standing restaurant, that’s for sure.
We want to ask you about a few of the dishes on the new menu. Tell us first about this grated, dehydrated soy sauce you’re using on the kampachi sashimi. Have you used that before?
It’s something I used to use at the Dining Room a lot. It’s an interesting process. Japanese chefs wanted to be able to add that flavor without messing up the plate and actually putting soy all over the fish. So, this company created a salt, in a block, that can just be added as a finishing ingredient. When I first started using it I just wanted to eat it by itself. And I used to break off big chunks of it on dishes but people weren’t getting it and they were scared of eating it, so I started micro-planing it on top and basically forcing them to try it. I always love to use salts, and this is just so interesting and it tastes great on the fish.
Also, that black cod dish with the secret crab and rice underneath was pretty fantastic. How did that come about?
On the tasting menu at the Dining Room I used to do a two-part dish with a spot prawn ravioli hidden underneath a lobster bisque. When I saw that they had this custom-made, two-part dishware here with the little steam holes in the top plate I was inspired to do it again. Basically the piece of fish is small enough that you finish it quickly and the rice and crab underneath stay pretty warm after the big reveal. It’s a play on the Japanese custom of having a side of rice. The rice is cooked really slow with mirin, kombu, white soy, and rice vinegar, then we fold crab into it and add the sauce which changes a bit each night. It’s usually a lobster and crab shell reduction, sometimes with truffle added.
And the suckling pig. Has that been on the menu long? And what was that green vegetable on the dish?
Misome. It’s a cross between totsoi and bok choy, and it’s really good. I really love that ingredient. If I were really the man I should be, I’d be serving just misome and carrots alone on the plate, because it’s that good. We purée a little bit of it and serve it with a piece of raw leaf, with the pig, and then I make a sort of winter citrus salad with sweet limes, cara caras, whatever citrus I find, and fennel, and then some seared king trumpet mushrooms. That dish will probably come back on in a few days. I just got a couple of pigs in today. But will it be the same way? Maybe, maybe not. Things change a lot.
Basically I’m thinking through new dishes every day on my drive to work, speeding in here. It’s about a 45-minute drive when I do it but it should probably take longer. But that’s when I’m coming up with my ideas for the day.
After the Dining Room at the Ritz closed and became the more casual Parallel 37, your move to Michael Mina seemed to say that you wanted to remain a fine dining chef, with all the challenges that entails. Is that accurate?
I didn’t want to be a hotel chef anymore. And that was kind of the direction that was going. When I took the job it was totally a different time. I was coming from Masa’s, and our goals were aligned. Eventually their goals changed. Then this deal came along with Michael, and it was a great opportunity for me and my family to remain in the Bay Area and for me to work in a beautiful restaurant.
My style is different than what came before me here. I’m a little more ingredient-driven. My instinct is not to manipulate great ingredients too much. Like if I taste a great persimmon, I just want to eat that persimmon. And man, if you can’t be a chef in the Bay Area, with all this amazing stuff at your fingertips, then you’re in the wrong line of work.
What do you see in terms of the trends in fine dining over the last ten years. What are the most significant changes in, say, the attitudes or preferences of diners?
For me, I’ve always cooked the way I wanted to eat. I used to eat everything, whatever came in front of me, and it was really unhealthy. And now I’m 46 and I cook the way I want to eat, and it is more healthy. I think people now maybe want a lighter cuisine. They don’t want all that richness all the time. But maybe past a certain age that may have always been the case. I wasn’t 46 twenty years ago, so I don’t know what 46-year-olds wanted back then.
It’s hard to say if fine dining itself has really changed that much. There’s still a demand for great service and great food. Maybe some of the names of the restaurants have changed, and you have certain restaurants that offer what we do, at that level, and people still seek that out.
Things have become more casual, in a sense, but California has always been like that. People here, especially in San Francisco. don’t want to get dressed up all the time. But they still want great food and service, and we want to fill that niche. And this room is stunning for sure, and if we can do that justice, then we’re on the right track.