Chefs as Willing Cooks, at The Commissary

The Commissary’s Open Kitchen Series corrals various chefs into collaborating once a month on a meal centered one one ingredient.

The chalkboard that visiting chefs sign. (The Commissary)

When Executive Chef Rogelio Garcia took over at The Commissary, housed in an 1895 building along Infantry Row on the Presidio’s Main Post, he saw that the restaurant had not only an open kitchen but what he calls a “display kitchen.” It’s almost like a television set, minus the audiovisual equipment, and it gave him an idea.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, if we’re going to get chefs in here, collaborating with other chefs and focus on their backgrounds and bring them up to the Presidio — because the Presidio is real beautiful — it just made sense,” he says.

His boss, the award-winning Traci des Jardins, gave Garcia her blessing, and the Commissary’s Open Kitchen series was born. Once each month as of last November, Garcia puts together a team of five chefs — frequently three guests, Garcia himself, and Andrew Marcus, the Commissary’s own pastry chef — for a five-course meal focused on one ingredient. March’s was peas, and April’s was wild mushrooms. In May, it will be strawberries. Compared to what’s been featured on various episodes of Iron Chef — barrimundi, black wax beans, “dry ligament” — they’re versatile for the chefs and approachable for the diners.

“It’s been progressing as a dinner,” Garcia says, “which is really exciting for myself and the staff. For the kitchen, it’s like they’re doing a mini-stage.”

That would be stage as in “stahj,” the trial-by-fire that kitchens use to suss out a prospective hire’s chops. But if you’re expecting a lot of scrambling line cooks panting, “Yes, chef!” or an atmosphere thick with competitive tension, guess again. The pace is easy, allowing chefs to interact with diners ringing three sides of the work space. The Commissary’s main dining room remains open for service in the meantime.

Originally conceived as a locals-only affair, Garcia quickly started looking to Wine Country. (Born in Mexico City, he came up at restaurants in Yountville and Healdsburg before becoming chef de partie at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.)

After sending “about 50 emails” to chefs who he worked for personally or who are simply well-respected, “all of a sudden, it snowballed,” Garcia says. Now, the idea is to get “one chef who is big-time in America, and pair them with chefs who are younger. That’s the way I choose.”

Paul Liebrandt, chef-owner of New York’s two-Michelin-starred New French restaurant Corton, will participate in July. For April’s wild-mushroom dinner, Matthias Merges of Chicago’s Yusho — and Charlie Trotter before that — prepared a dish of grilled Pacific yellowtail with fermented garlic, black trumpet mushrooms, and beef cheek (paired with a Pinot Noir from the Central Coast).

The overall idea is to throw different chefs with different techniques together. Alongside Merges, for example, were Ari Weiswasser of Glen Ellen Star (who made liberty duck with salt-baked beet, black trumpets, and hibiscus) and Aaron Meneghelli from FARM at Carneros (who made an urbani truffle burrata with mushroom conserva, ramps, and rye). Garcia, for his part, put together asparagus-wrapped Alaskan halibut with morels, pickled spring onions, and lobster essence.

While not quite a party, the vibe feels like pop stars forming a one-day supergroup to record a charity single. Everyone arrives at 1 p.m., with lineup at 3 p.m., and the visiting chefs sign a board on the wall before taking photos outside. Technique-driven types and rustic, farm-to-table people collaborate, and ideally, everyone learns something. Beyond his own course in a given dinner, Garcia’s responsibility as overseer is mostly organizational — which is to say, heavy email duties — but he helps expedite plates, too. Rather than puff up anyone’s ego, everyone does what their assistants would normally do if they were back at home.

“The chefs are doing the course, Garcia says, “but they jump in as far as plating the other chefs’ courses, as well. Everybody’s working together to get the dinner out.”

“It’s kind of like we turn into cooks again,” he adds, ”jumping from station to station, helping the chef whose course is going to be out next.”

Open Kitchen Series, first Monday of each month, $105 per person or $150 with wine pairing; at the Commissary, 101 Montgomery St., on the Presidio’s Main Post, 415-561-3600 or thecommissarysf.com

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