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Chef James Ormsby’s Favorite Local Food Spots

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James Ormsby making gluten-free flax crackers
James Ormsby making gluten-free flax crackers

Bay Area native James Ormsby has three decades of experience in the restaurant and hospitality world. Many of the restaurants he has worked for have garnered Top 100 mentions and notable write-ups by the San Francisco Chronicle. He is currently the Chef at Bluestem Brasserie, and has cooked at Auberge de Soleil, Aqua, Red Herring (owned by the Real Restaurant Group), the Lark Creek Inn, Bruno’s, and for various properties with the PlumpJack Group. He was named a Rising Star Chef by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996 and his first restaurant job was working as a dishwasher at a coffee shop in his home town, Pleasant Hill. Ormsby has also worked as a restaurant consultant and private chef. He is 47 and has traveled to 27 countries and 147 cities, and worked as a guest chef at the Asia Grand Hyatt hotels in Taipei, the Sheraton in Thailand and Park Lane in Hong Kong. Ormsby is single, has lived in San Francisco for eighteen years, and has spent the last four years calling the Castro District home.

What’s new at Bluestem? What was it like having MC Hammer eat there recently?
Bluestem opened in 2011. We’re looking for an Executive Chef and I will continue consulting here. I wasn’t here when he came in. Hammer stayed for awhile and enjoyed my Cookie Jar dessert.

Cookie Jar dessert
The Cookie Jar dessert at Bluestem.

You offer services like greening and organizing a home kitchen, as well as juicing programs for private clients. How did you get into juicing?
I was doing some fasting and juicing for myself, using a Vitamix, for two or three days a month. All the green juices I make are low in sugar. I do veggie smoothies to get that feeling of being a bit more full.

How would you describe your cooking style?
It’s elegant comfort food done with enough of a twist, so that it’s elevated.

banana cheesecakePate platter with pickled items, mustard, caper berries and cornichonsGrilled Bavette steak with Kennebec fries and Cafe de Paris butterHonolulu Hangover, chocolate layer cake with toasted coconut and marshmallow meringue

What are your favorite spots to shop for food?
I like to go to Bi-Rite for fruit, vegetables and meats.


Rainbow Grocery has great health food stuff and I always love their discounts on things. They have the biggest selection of supplements and grains and introduce me to new things that I can’t find somewhere else. It’s great that they always have boxes. I use a motorcycle for transportation, and can put the Rainbow box on the back of my silver Suzuki 650.

What are your favorite dining spots?
Chez Panisse is always good. I just visited State Bird Provisions. I try to go to all the new places and keep track of what’s going on. With the local food scene, there are so many new restaurants; you’re looking at least 25-40 spots opening every year. I try to finish my list but there’s only so much time to visit the new places and keep up with my favorites.

At La Ciccia, I adore anything and everything on their menu from sardines to calamari. I always get a plate of their salumi.

Saison has the cleanest food. You can eat there and never get fat because it’s so vegetable-centric.

Coi is a favorite place to blow lots of money and have a good time.

What is your favorite meal to have with your family?
My family moved to a farm on Washington State. The last time I visited, we killed a lamb. I broke the whole thing down and saved the heart, liver and kidneys. I mailed them to Chris Cosentino at Incanto and he cooked them up for me. I had to eat both kidneys and the whole heart. It’s great to visit my folks, because they get fresh eggs from chickens and I can go foraging on their property for herbs. [Ormsby admits he forages in the Bay Area but keeps his spots top secret.]

What is your guiltiest food pleasure?
Ice cream probably. Here at work, I eat and sample our vanilla, chocolate and espresso flavors.

Bi-Rite is a good ice cream spot.

You have been friends with the rock band the Scorpions and bring them sweet treats. How did that happen?
We met a gazillion years ago, in 1982. They’re friends of my pen pal in England. She took me backstage to meet them and I developed a friendship with them from there. I have a Devil’s Food Cake that I’ll take to them, with chocolate ganache frosting.

drawing - Ormsby is a big Scorpians fan
James Ormsby with Rudolf Schenker of the Scorpians. Drawing courtesy of James Ormsby

Who is your culinary mentor and where do you go for inspiration?
Mark Miller is someone I spend a lot of time with. When he’s in town, we eat and talk about food. Right now, he’s doing tequila production in New Mexico.

Ideas in Food is the main website I visit regularly. I’ve been friends with Alex Talbot, who runs it, for five years.

What do you have planned for 2012?
A friend of mine and I might do a cookbook for Chronicle Books on whimsical desserts and small plates. His name is Robert Birnbach, and he’s a professional photographer. I’ll do the food and recipes. It will be a fun take. We need to do the book proposal.

For travel, I’m going to New York and Los Angeles, and to see my family in Washington.


Recipe: Caramelized Butterscotch Tapioca Pudding
The Butterscotch Tapioca Pudding is one of the most popular desserts at Bluestem and is one of James' personal favorites.

Tapioca Mix

3/4 Cup small pearl Tapioca
1 Cup Milk

  1. Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl (glass or ceramic)
  2. Soak over night, and up to 3 days

Butterscotch Tapioca Pudding

2 1/2 Cup Milk
1 Cup Cream
1 1/2 Cup Butterscotch Caramel Sauce (see recipe below)
1 teaspoon Salt
1 1/2 teaspoon Vanilla Bean paste
6 Egg Yolks
Brown Sugar (to taste)
Salt (to taste)

  1. In a large pot add Tapioca Mix, Milk, Cream, Butterscotch Caramel, Salt, and Vanilla.
  2. Bring to a simmer stirring constantly and cook until tapioca is cooked through and has thickened -- about 20 minutes.
  3. Temper the egg yolks -- In a separate bowl -- Using about 1/2 a cup of the hot tapioca pudding mixture, whisk together 6 yolks into the 1/2 cup.
  4. Add the tempered mixture to the rest of the Tapioca Pudding Mix in the simmering pot
  5. If sweeter taste is desired add small amounts of brown sugar until desired sweetness is achieved.
  6. Continue to simmer to make sure egg is well cooked -- about 5 more minutes. DO NOT BOIL!!
  7. Pour mixture into a shallow bowl and set in an ice bath to cool.
  8. Once cooled, hold in refrigerator until ready to use.
  9. Before filling bowls -- whip in some of the Butterscotch Caramel Sauce (see recipe below).
  10. Fill appropriate sized serving bowls and smooth top.
  11. Cover and refrigerate again until ready to serve.
  12. These will keep for a few days.
  13. Just before serving -- generously cover the top with sugar and brulee with a torch -- achieving that burnt golden color.

Butterscotch Caramel Sauce


1/2 Cup Unsalted Butter
2 Cups packed Dark Brown Sugar
1 1/2 Cups Heavy Whipping Cream (not Ultra-Pasteurized)
2 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract
2 teaspoon Kosher Salt

  1. Before you begin, make sure you have everything ready to go -- the cream and the brown sugar next to the pan, measured and waiting. Making butterscotch is a fast process that cannot wait for hunting around for ingredients.
  2. In a heavy bottomed stainless steel 2 quart saucepan, melt butter over low to medium heat. Just before butter is melted, add all dark brown sugar and stir with wooden spoon until sugar is uniformly wet.
  3. Stir frequently until mixture goes from looking grainy to molten lava. Make sure to get into the corners of your pot, and watch closely to notice how the mixture changes. It will take about 3 to 5 minutes
  4. Right before you add the cream, the caramelizing brown sugar will begin to look and feel more like liquid and less like thick wet sand.
  5. Add all the cream at once. Lower heat a little and whisk cream into mixture. When liquid is uniform, turn heat back to medium and whisk every few minutes for a total of 10 minutes.
  6. After liquid has been boiling on the stove for 10 minutes, turn heat off and let rest for a minute or two before transferring into a heatproof storage vessel. (Stainless steel or glass bowl.) Cool to room temperature.
  7. When butterscotch liquid is room temperature, take a small taste. It’s important to know what cooked brown sugar and butter tastes like, and what happens when transforming that flat sweetness into real butterscotch flavor. Whisk in half the salt and vanilla extract. Taste again. Add more salt and vanilla extract until the taste of real butterscotch is achieved.

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