It’s a petite-sized spot, yet shows mighty potential. Maverick restaurant has spent the last seven years cranking out various forms of American food in the Mission -- at times high-brow and other times with more of a decidedly Southern and comfy bent. Owners Mike Pierce and executive chef Scott Youkilis brought on and promoted Emmanel Eng, 33, as executive chef in recent months. Eng’s artistic eye is clear in the refreshed menu and clean yet playfully creative plating style. He considers Nancy Oakes a big influencer and mentor in his culinary life and talked his way into a weekly stage that quickly led to full-time line cook work at Indigo restaurant. The Noe Valley resident cooked under Oakes at Boulevard, and has had stints at Sons & Daughters, Foreign Cinema, Quince and Aqua. Eng grew up in Portland, Oregon and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. One of the reasons he was drawn to the Bay Area was to work for dot-coms (more on that soon) but cooking, a long-term girlfriend, bicycling and designing high-end bicycles are why he stayed.
Bay Area Bites caught up with Eng via phone interview.
How did you get interested in cooking?
I went to the Rhode Island School of Design so it’s hard to say how one led to the other. In high school I was really into design and art. The correlation was working with my hands, which helped me get into cooking.
Becoming a cook as a career was more a product of moving to San Francisco. During college I went to Sweden and was a backpacker. I got a job at a cafeteria: washing lettuce, slicing tomatoes, and making things like a 50-pound pile of mashed potatoes. It was not glamorous but it was fun. That put me in the world of food production: mundane food but I had to serve it. I found a lot of satisfaction seeing people enjoy and eat the food and liked having the “Jewish mom/Asian grandma” syndrome of wanting to take care of people. When I moved to San Francisco, I was doing design for a dot-com and was laid off. Since I was always eating at a lot of nice places, a friend said “Why not do a stage?”
I walked into Indigo and said, “I will work for free if you teach me.”
Who is your mentor?
Nancy Oakes at Boulevard. I still stop by there to check in and see how she’s doing, how things are. That’s where I did most of my development. There’s that classic line cook mentality at other places of work your way up. Then you have that feeling that you’ve seen all you can see. I did that for a long time. When I got to Boulevard, I found it was a place that I really wanted to work, for five years. That’s not common for someone to stick around so long. After five years, it took me that long to say, ok, time for me to move away from line cook and Sous chef and take the leap to be chef de cuisine or open my own place.
Tell us more about doing your own place.
I have thoughts about it all the time. What it’s going to be changes all the time. I wrote the business plan as a concept of what I want. My five year plan is to hopefully be chef-owner of a place.
Do you have a significant other? How did you two meet?
My girlfriend Ann was a server at Boulevard. We didn’t get together until after she quit. We’ve been together five years.
What are your favorite spots for food & drink in the Bay Area?
Locanda: I was there on Tuesday night. David Chang and a lot of people were there and it was fun. We were all chatting and hanging out. I go there pretty often for the Bucatini. I really love that the bartenders let me sit down and they create something. I may request something light and refreshing and say, "It was hot in the kitchen today.”
I go to Koi Palace for dim sum.
Ritual Roasters is where I go for coffee.
Happy seventh birthday, Maverick. What’s new at the restaurant?
I’ve been using ash [for the dish: burrata ashed with fig leaf ash, baby beets, Chioggia beet chips, black mission figs, pine nut and pine nut butter, charred fig leaf oil with French breakfast radishes]. For our spring version, the dish had corn ash, fiddlehead ferns and ramps. The original idea was to toast cornhusks until they’re nice and golden brown. Then I was going to make a sauce or foam. I hadn’t figured out what I was doing at that point. It smelled amazing so I put in the blender and it tasted like cocoa powder. Not bitter or burnt, and by accident. I was thinking of ash rind -- since there’s that goat cheese with a layer of ash. It makes sense -- in connection with how cheese is made and an ash rind burrata.
That evolved into a version with beets and figs, which was a combination of how Daniel Patterson at Coi took fig leaves and grilled them and turned into an oil. I copied him, because it was amazing. If corn husks burn so well, I wondered if fig leaves would. I knew someone who worked there, and I said “One day I’ll do this.”
Halibut cheeks dusted in masa, saffron and zucchini bisque, castelvetrano olive "caviar" and heirloom tomato relish, Bloomsdale spinach, fried zucchini sticks and lemon marigold flowers. Photo courtesy of Maverick
One of my favorite dishes from the new menu is the halibut cheek dish. Fried chicken is a crowd pleaser and I love it but it’s the least challenging dish on the menu.
Things change a lot. I’m working on new dishes: roasted corn and ginger chowder, chicken agnolotti, and stuffed Italian frying peppers with house made fromage blanc. There’ll be a play on steak and eggs for the snack menu. We had a smoked egg, so I’m looking to do shredded beef jerky on top using the American technique of dried beef and then shredding it into a more Asian thing. I grew up eating shredded beef or shredded pork on my congee. It kind of melts and has a crunchy texture. It’s not like dog treat-style beef jerky.
What is your guilty food pleasure?
Crab rangoon. That’s lowbrow American Chinese food.