At events like SF Chefs, we've noticed again and again that chef David Lawrence has culinary offerings that stand out. His "Soulful American" bites with roots in England and Jamaica include such dishes as shrimp grits and white grits with pesto, and organic skillet fried chicken, with an upscale twist. Lawrence's plates tend to demonstrate how the deep South can cozy up with fresh California produce, using classic French technique.
Since opening in 2007, Lawrence’s restaurant, 1300 on Fillmore, remains a draw for Sunday gospel brunch crowds, as well as those looking for a group dinner or bar snack--the fried chicken or skillet catfish; meaty ribeye; variety of grits and even warm chocolate beignets with coffee soda are almost begging to be shared. Lawrence, a London native, is 1300 on Fillmore’s executive chef and managing partner. He has cooked for royalty and was formally trained in the culinary arts at Westminster College. In 1982, Lawrence joined England's most celebrated and honored culinarians, Albert and Michel Roux, who were definitely considered "celeb chefs" there and were the chef-proprietors of the world-renowned Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn (at that time, both three-star Michelin restaurants). Lawrence cooked his way through five of their famous restaurants and became a sous chef, in four short years. In 1986, Lawrence became chef de cuisine at Interlude Restaurant in London, which gave him the sweet chance to make meals for none other than the Prince and Princess of Wales; Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon; and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
He left for the U.S. in 1988 in a kismet vacation moment that led to chef de cuisine work with a former Le Gavroche chef named Kurt Graising who was opening 231 Ellsworth Restaurant in San Mateo. Lawrence next landed at the (ornate and beautiful) Carnelian Room and Cityscape restaurants in San Francisco, respectively. While at Cityscape, he created the Chefs for Kids program, which raised thousands of dollars for the Tenderloin After School program. Lawrence is also generous with his time for various local charity events. We caught up in person recently to find out more about his culinary style and career. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Bay Area Bites: Can you tell us about your successes & goals?
Lawrence: The restaurant just celebrated five years of business last October. When we opened the restaurant, it was all fanfare and then the economy crashed. We survived but had to cut back and there was no sous chef, and no general manager. My wife Monetta White and I did all that. We we’re able to do so with the support of the city and the people who came in. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. Now I’m looking at expanding.
Our gospel brunch is on Sunday. For Easter, we decided to try something different, and keep our hours to the daytime and not open at night. I saw hordes of people walking back up to Pacific Heights as they left brunch. Then when I went to Safeway, I saw a line of people, and there were families and kids walking down here. I remember when we first came here and Monetta lived at Bush and Fillmore. Back then, no one went below Bush Street.
Bay Area Bites: What are your best selling menu items...and your favorites?
Lawrence: For the best seller, it’s always the fried chicken. When I walk around and go out, people say that fried chicken is the bestseller. It is so funny because I come from Europe and have worked with Michelin-starred chefs. I have no complaints but my claim to fame is chicken. I just turned 50 in February, and it’s, “Wow, I’m 50 and known for fried chicken.”
I am the most proud of dishes like shrimp and grits and fried chicken. The shrimp and grits dishes really got me to look at this cuisine and what we do. Monetta is from Mississippi and we’ve been together for 19 years. We have a similar thing in England where I am from that is cornmeal porridge: sugar, nutmeg, and spice to make it nice and creamy. I cooked the grits more or less the same way and decided to do it without the sugar. Slowly but surely, people became interested and back then, no one was doing this.
Bay Area Bites: As a chef and businessman, what would you like to be known for?
Lawrence: It’s a fine line doing both. I’ve seen many amazing chefs open restaurants and crash. I’ve seen many mediocre chefs succeed because of their business acumen. As a chef, you have to cook what your customers want instead of what your ego wants. It’s about getting that balance. With the restaurant’s earlier days, I had foie gras, lamb, and rabbit and it was great for me but I couldn’t sell it. I never wanted a hamburger but I put one on the menu because people want it. It’s about finding the fine line between your own ego and what makes sense and sells. That way, you can hopefully still enjoy what you do.
Bay Area Bites: Guilty pleasure?
Lawrence: My thing is chocolate HobNobs. You call them cookies, and I call them biscuits. I don’t buy them because I can’t eat just one.
Bay Area Bites: Where do you live?
Lawrence: We live right above the restaurant. The commute is awesome. I love it. If I get five minutes for myself, I can go upstairs. It gives me just enough time to recharge my batteries. I can pop down if someone is here and wants to say hello, which is the least I can do if they have come all this way to eat at my restaurant. 1300 is my love and will be my love for the rest of my life.
1300 on Fillmore was featured on KQED's Check, Please! Bay Area in 2012.
Watch the restaurant segment from the show: