Mitch Rosenthal is the chef and owner of three of San Francisco's most beloved restaurants, Town Hall, Salt House, and Anchor & Hope, as well as Irving Street Kitchen in Portland, Oregon. Mitch hails from Edison, New Jersey, and was a chef at the Four Seasons in New York City, Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco, and Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s in New Orleans. Through the years and through many kitchens, Mitch developed an adventurous philosophy not bound to a single cuisine, blending Jewish deli roots with Southern-inspired comfort food, updated regional favorites and urban sophistication.
The recipes for many of his favorite dishes appear in his newly published cookbook, Cooking My Way Back Home (2011, Ten Speed Press), and reflect the Southern exuberance of Town Hall, the contemporary approach of Salt House, and the focus on fresh seafood of Anchor & Hope. The book draws upon Mitch’s 35 years of restaurant experience but is geared toward the home chef—he tested every single recipe in his own home kitchen. Readers can cook up one of the book’s recipes, the Cheesy Rosti Potato Cake, at the end of this piece. Mitch lives in Mill Valley with his wife, Mary, and two children, Eli and Athena.
What do you have planned for Thanksgiving?
We’re having 30 people over at our house, and the menu will probably be a little different this year. We’re thinking of doing the turkey porchetta style: boneless, rolled up with lots of traditional spices, and roasted. This way, we’ll have more time to do other things -- maybe a seafood paella. Both are untraditional for us, we’ve never done this before. Since we’re having a lot of people over and have a pretty small house, we can cook the paella outside over the grill and just roast the porchetta. The porchetta will take less time to cook and be much easier to carve than a traditional turkey. We’re still discussing sides, as the flavors from the fennel and other spices used on the porchetta will change what will go with it. For example, we’ll probably skip the cranberry sauce and use something like Italian mustard fruits instead. But my wife Mary will still make her apple-sausage stuffing, as she does every year.
Please tell the story of closing Salt House and using it for a special Thanksgiving...
It was a disaster. Fun, but a disaster. Originally it was supposed to be a dinner for close friends and family, but then we had people inviting others and suddenly there were about 70 people at dinner. We had to put all of our tables in the restaurant together to fit everyone. The menu was very traditional: roast turkey with all the trimmings, Mary’s apple-sausage stuffing, and cranberry sauce. We did have jambalaya, though, and my brother Steve made his chopped liver, which he does every year. We had a lot of wine. It was fun, but there’s a point when you’re cooking for a group where you start to feel like the hired help instead of the host. I never got to sit down. We had a good time, but it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Any dishes that have special meaning?
The chopped chicken liver that my brother makes every year is our grandmother’s recipe. It’s in the cookbook. And Mary cooks a lot of recipes that were handed down -- her apple-sausage stuffing is from her mother. We also serve latkes with smoked salmon at Thanksgiving as an hors d’oeuvre, which I learned from Tom Plajanis, the chef at the Jewish deli I worked at in New Jersey. The latke recipe is in the cookbook as well.
How is the book tour going?
The book tour really just started, but I’m always surprised by how many people show up. The biggest surprise so far was probably earlier this month at Powell’s Books in Portland, which was my first big talk during a book signing. I was really nervous, but it was great -- I was able to go on for over an hour talking and had to cut myself off. It’s so easy to talk about food and the stories around it. The other big surprise has been all of the emails I’m getting from long-lost friends, lots from the East Coast. Ever since the cookbook was published, I’m hearing from some great old friends that I haven’t talked to in years.
How did your cookbook come about?
Honestly, I was pushed into writing a cookbook. Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson of Tartine pushed me into it -- they’ve been bugging me for years. The funny thing is that’s how I got into the restaurant business: my mother pushed me into it.
One of the biggest surprises to me while writing the cookbook was how little it affected my marriage. With Mary being a chef, we got into very few fights while testing recipes at home -- basically I just let her be the boss. The big thing about testing recipes at home was that it brought me closer to the overall experience of cooking at home, which was a first. I’ve spent my life cooking in restaurant kitchens, and cooking out of my house brought me closer to the home cook. But I’m hoping that the book will do the opposite for the home chef, giving people the skills for more restaurant-level cooking.
What are you favorite off-night food & drink spots?
The reality is that I don’t go out that often, but when I do, I love R&G Lounge for their salt and pepper fried crab. Or the original Shalimar restaurant in the Tenderloin, for their lamb and spinach stew.
Favorite date night spots?
We like to visit Redd, a friend’s restaurant, in Yountville for special occasions, and have actually been to Aziza a few times in the last couple of months. They have these great vegetable spreads made with charred eggplant and yogurt dill. I had calamari with a saffron sauce that was amazing.
What is your favorite meal to have with friends and/or family?
When I go out to eat we usually go out with my family. We love Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. I always get the Jersey Original, and we always order the meatballs -- they’re amazing. Our new favorite place to eat out as a family is Super Duper burgers. I get the Double. We also love Yank Sing for any of their dumplings -- my kids go crazy there.
Guiltiest food pleasure?
I love it and it’s gross: a Jersey Taylor pork roll. The way they’re made is very specific. It’s pork on a Kaiser roll, topped with fried egg, ketchup and American cheese. You only ever see them in Jersey. They’re so bad for you that I rarely eat them anymore, but last time I was in Jersey I had one.
How did you and your wife meet?
Mary worked for me in the kitchen at Postrio. The longer story is that she went on to become chef at the Liberty Café, but we had a mutual friend, Robin, who cooked with us and stayed on in the kitchen after Mary left. Robin thought that Mary and I would make a great couple and told Mary that I kept asking about her, all the while telling me that Mary was asking about me. None of this was true, but she ended up setting us up on a date. True story.
Tell us about your kids? Do they have favorite foods?
My son Eli is 12 and my daughter Athena is 8. Eli’s favorite food is pizza. Athena is a big fan of any soup, especially brothy soup. When they come to Town Hall, Eli has the BBQ shrimp. Athena has a broader palate, and loves ribs, fried chicken and meatballs.
Any advice for cooks during the holidays?
Test dishes you’ve never made before. Like with the Thanksgiving turkey porchetta, which is something we’ve never done, I’m not going to wait until the day-of to figure out the details. Look through what you’re planning to cook and see what you can prepare a day or two early so you’re not cooking everything all at once. Start early, and have a cocktail. Or a beer. And invite people that you like.
Recipe: Cheesy Rösti Potato Cake with Roasted Garlic and Thyme
Serves 6 to 8
2 heads garlic
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
3 large russet potatoes
4 ounces fontina cheese, grated
1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350°F.
to roast the garlic, cut the top off of each head of garlic, about 1/8 of an inch to expose the cloves. Put in a shallow pan and drizzle a tablespoon of the olive oil over each, season with salt and pepper. Cover the pan with foil and roast in the oven until cloves are soft and creamy, about 45 minutes to an hour. When done, and cool enough to handle, squeeze the cloves from their papery skin and set aside.
to steam the potatoes, place a collapsible metal vegetable steamer basket in a large heavy-bottomed pot with an inch of water. Bring the water to a boil, add the whole, unpeeled potatoes and steam for 16 minutes. Set the potatoes aside to cool.
It is important that the potatoes are completely cool before continuing. When they are, peel the potatoes and grate on the largest hole of a box grater and season with salt and pepper.
In a bowl, toss together the grated fontina and Parmesan and set aside.
to make the rösti, heat one-half of the oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat. Add half of the grated potatoes and distribute them evenly, pushing them down with the spatula and shaping them to the form of the pan. Next layer the roasted garlic cloves evenly on top of the potatoes. Then, layer the grated cheese over the garlic and potatoes in an even circle, leaving about 1/4 inch from the edge of the pan. Pack the cheese down with the spatula, and then sprinkle with the chopped thyme, and cover with the remaining half of the grated potatoes, making sure to cover the garlic and cheese completely and evenly. Pack it down and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the potatoes are crispy and golden brown. When ready, turn the rösti over. This can be accomplished using either a spatula, a quick flick of the wrist, or by turning it out onto a plate, and then back into the pan. After it has been flipped, cook for 5 more minutes, then slip the pan into the oven for another 5 minutes. Slice and serve immediately.
“Reprinted with permission from Cooking My Way Back Home: Recipes from San Francisco’s Town Hall, Anchor & Hope, and Salt House by Mitchell Rosenthal, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.”