Last year during the Meals on Wheels Celebrity Chef Ball, Sepia's Andrew Zimmerman met and struck up a friendship with Matt Accarrino, the exec chef of acclaimed San Francisco Italian restaurant SPQR. The two kept in touch and this summer when Zimmerman hit the Cochon Heritage Fire in Napa, he popped by SPQR for a dinner where he said it was the "kind of food that I want to eat over and over."
During that trip, the two solidified plans to team for a dinner when Accarrino returns to Chicago this month for the Celeb Chef Ball. The dinner, being held on Oct. 13 at Sepia, will also help promote Accarrino's forthcoming cookbook, SPQR: Modern Italian Food & Wine, which he co-wrote with SPQR wine director and co-owner Shelley Lindgren; it comes out Oct. 16.
The dinner starts at 6 p.m. with passed apps in the Private Dining by Sepia space and then continues into a tag-team five-course paired meal. Tickets cost $125 a person and reservations can be made by calling 312-441-1920. While Zimmerman normally takes a more inventive approach to his American style of cooking, for this, he wanted to skew his courses more Italian to match Accarrino's style.
Accarrino, who hails from New Jersey and also did a stint at Charlie Trotter's in the '90s, said his cooking has been influenced by living in California and working closely with local farms as well as having a garden for his restaurant. "I'm inspired by traditional ideas and flavors but [can] change and innovate them with techniques and ingredients close at hand," he said. Eater recently chatted with the two chefs to find out more about the dinner, to see how these guys feel about each other's food and more.
What inspired this dinner?
Andrew Zimmerman: From my own end, I met Matt last year at Meals on Wheels and I thought the food he brought was really good—and he seemed like a nice normal sane person. We've had a few email interactions and I suggested some people check out SPQR. I went to San Francisco for the Cochon Heritage event and I didn't want to miss a chance to eat [at SPQR]. Matt said he was coming back [to Chicago] and that he was releasing his book and asked if I would be interested in doing a dinner.
Matt Accarrino: I went to his restaurant last year during Meals on Wheels and, with eating about seven meals that weekend, his was the best by far. There were others that were getting more hype but this was really just an amazing meal. We have similar thoughts about food that it should look and taste good and we have similar philosophies. I'm excited to come back and cook with him. I'm excited to see how he's going to pull off the bollito misto dish. I have my conception of how I would do that and it'll be interesting to see how he'll do it. When you work collaboratively, you both up walking away with something.
How long has this been in the planning?
AZ: Since about the end of August really. It came up as an offshoot of my trip to California.
What was the process like to pull it together?
MA: We emailed once about it and then spent some time when he was in for dinner and came up with stuff back and forth. It was pretty easy to put together. He's been a great host so far and they're handling all the reservations. We're targeting anyone from Chicago who comes in to SPQR to get them to come to the dinner.
SPQR seems more rustic where as Sepia is a bit more modern. How do your cooking styles differ ... or mesh?
MA: My restaurant started as a rustic Roman thing, but then I took it over and the evolution has become more progressive modern Italian.
AZ: Yeah, I didn't see anything as super rustic. But what I saw is so far ahead of what I think the restaurant started out as. The technique is great and the presentations are more contemporary than what I think of in a rustic restaurant. We have that one element in common. When you look at the menu, part of the goal is to highlight Matt's food and to get people excited about his book. The dishes I skewed more Italian, which I have some background in. I worked with a chef from Umbria for a while and I don't get to really do that as often as I'd like. This is a good opportunity for me to cook with more of an Italian direction than I do normally.
Andrew, what do you like about Matt's cooking and what was your favorite thing when you ate at SPQR?
AZ: On the professional side, there was such obvious craft and technique and precise cooking and work that went into the food, but never at the expense of flavor. You can go to restaurants and you get this really precisely manipulated food but at the end of the day, it doesn't do it in the service of flavor. More times than I can tell you my wife and I said that I would love to eat that again. This is the kind of food that I want to eat over and over. That's the personal answer. His food, from a chef's technique/geek side is really, really good. And it's just solid and delicious. And he gave me a lot of food. Some standouts: There was a surprisingly delicious carrot dish that had carrots worked into everything you can think of. The pastas—I think we had six dishes—were across the board delicious. I think maybe the carrots were the most surprising standout. There was guinea hen sausage stuffed into a guinea hen neck. But the most startlingly good dish was the carrots.
Matt, same question.
MA: The first thing that started out, was he brought us a sampling of housemade charcuterie. [Housemade] doesn't always mean that it's good and it was really amazing with stuff like pates and dried cured meats. Even though it's a rustic thing it didn't feel like that at all. Everything was in the service of flavor but the presentation was stunning. The restaurant was packed, but all the food that came out to us and around us was spot on and cooked perfectly. We looked at the menu, but Andrew cooked for us; we didn't know what was coming, but the progression was everything that you would want. The gnocchi was delicious. There was a scallop dish that was amazing. Every plate of food we had looked good [and] tasted goo. If I wasn't cooking with him, I'd be eating there again. You want a little bit of intrigue in a dish, but you want it to taste good. It's one thing to look at a piece of art that's beautiful but if it doesn't taste good...
So for your dinner at Sepia, you are switching off courses. Is there any friendly competition to see if diners like one chef's dishes more?
AZ: I was going to handicap myself because I want Matt to look good. I'm going to work only with interns [laughs]. No, as far as I'm concerned, there's no competition. I think it should just be fun. I'm excited to watch him put stuff together. Even nerdy stuff like what can I glean from his thought process. There's always details of things you can pick up from somebody. That's more exciting and interesting that one-upmanship.
M: When you're a leader in your own kitchen, everyone looks to you for the answers. And it's nice when someone comes into your kitchen and [you can] take a note from that and maybe it's something you want to fold into your repertoire, or not. You can learn a lot from that. I'm excited for it. I'm excited to hang out with Andrew.
Do you think dinners like these help promote intra-national culinary cohesiveness, bringing together different styles from different cities?
AZ: I didn't realize it was this complicated. I just though I was going to make dinner [laughs]. I think you're right that New York and San Francisco would be the two most-lauded culinary spots and Chicago has really started coming into its own in the last 10 years or so. Each one of those cities has its advantages of what it can turn to as why it's recognized as one of the country's great food cities.
MA: I cooked in New York most of my career and then came out to the West Coast the last five years. So from my point of view, people compare them differently. The thing I can look at the most is that I'm not from here. But if you go to New York when I started cooking there you would look at Daniel (Boulud), Jean-Georges (Vongerichten), they're not from there. Those people are cooking there and people move around. I was raised in New Jersy part of my life and I run into more people form New Jersey who are cooking in other places. That information moves around because those people move around. That's something that's worth remembering. It comes down to the indigenous thing; we're blessed [in California] to have long growing seasons and a lot of product all year, especially produce. That has played into the style of cooking out here. But I just cook the way that I feel and what I feel is the right thing to do. It's not related to a geographic disposition. Andrew can pick up and move to New York tomorrow and his food will taste just as good. I think dinners like this are good. The more collaboration amongst everyone is better anyway.
Just after the call, Accarrino got back in touch to offer a little more information on what he's planning to do for the dinner. So read on and then see the full menu for the night:
My cooking style has been influenced by living in California. I'm lucky enough to work closely with local farms and to have a garden for the restaurant. That's where the inspiration for the carrot dish that Andrew was talking about comes from. I'm taking a riff on that theme with more fall-friendly ingredients to make a cauliflower dish with cooking and texture variations accented with bottarga, caper and lemon. As is true to my style I'm inspired by traditional ideas and flavors, but feel free to change and innovate them with technique and ingredients close at hand. For the pasta I'm thinking to bring the earthy notes of cocoa into a pork ragu accented with a very well-aged mimolette cheese, which I love the intensity of—again an idea that has classic sort of roots, but that I bring together in my own way. The dessert is a fig leaf custard set with seaweed to keep the green coconut flavors in the custard fresh. Caramelized milk for sweetness and then bruleed figs and black pepper mascarpone ice cream (generously prepared by Andrew) to tilt back to the savory.