How Tosca Cafe’s Josh Even emerged from the shadow of April Bloomfield.
“Good chefs are confident but insecure enough to feel pain and hurt when people don’t like something,” Josh Even says.
He is — as his business card reads, scare quotes included — the “Head Chef” at Tosca Cafe, the 96-year-old restaurant in North Beach nominally overseen by April Bloomfield, who also runs several kitchens in New York. Bloomfield is known industry-wide for her exactitude, and the shadow she casts is long. Yet under Even, Tosca has become a late-night destination held in high esteem by industry insiders.
Twelve years ago, Even was bouncing around various kitchens and eventually did a stage — as in “stahj,” kitchen jargon for cooking alongside an established chef to determine your worth — making shepherd’s pie with Bloomfield at her restaurant The Spotted Pig, which had just gotten its Michelin star. They bonded quickly.
“She has this superhuman palate,” Even says. “My palate’s gotten very strong, but you try to put one by her and she says, ‘I don’t know, it tastes like it’s missing this.’ And you’re like, ‘Shit. Caught.’ “
At The Spotted Pig — as at Tosca, the which Bloomfield and her partner Ken Friedman took over in 2013 — a table might wait an hour for its food if the chef was not pleased with how her cooks prepared it.
“If you put something up that was wrong in just the smallest way, you’d have to redo it, and if you did it it wrong again, you’d have to redo it,” Even says.
Bloomfield’s aesthetic is rustic, which makes her food approachable to diners but risks getting lost in the ocean of the “merely good” if something her restaurant puts out isn’t the best it can be. Even says that he cooks “very much in her image, always,” and together with his chef de cuisine, checks everything that goes out. Take something as mundane as a market salad.
“I take a piece of lettuce, I eat it, I say more lemon, more olive oil,” Even says. “It always needs something. Or I say ‘Serve it,’ and maybe I move a leaf here or there. We don’t let anything through without a taste.”
The same goes for potatoes.
“We do crispy potatoes, and if they’re not super crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside, you’ve got to redo that whole batch,” Even says. “If that’s all we have, we’re 86’ing it. Maybe 99 percent of people wouldn’t notice their potatoes were undercooked when they were boiled earlier in the day, but I can tell, then we’re just not going to do it.”
He adds that “we’re not saving lives here,” which initially sounds like he’s undermined his own point — until I realize he’s not dismissing his craft but rather noting that cooking is not about resuscitating the patient with whatever’s at hand. It’s food; lavishing the time to get it right is crucial.
Even’s reward for upholding these standards is that Tosca Cafe is now effectively his baby now.
“I came out here with the April-Ken machine behind us,” he says. “For me, it was sneaking in anonymously behind the name and trying to build the reputation. It was like, ‘Yeah, actually April’s not here, let’s find out who this is.’ I like that.”
Running dinner service night after night means precious little time to see what other chefs are doing, but Even expresses admiration for Leo’s Oyster Bar, Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club, and for the Cotogna and Quince teams under Michael Tusk. When he has a spare daytime moment, he’ll even do a bit of foraging, sometimes for nasturtiums in Golden Gate Park, which he swears someone told him is legal.
“I pick them high up,” he says. “You don’t want someone peeing on your produce.”
This emphasis on perfection every single time doesn’t mean his preferences are objective standards, and many people have found Tosca’s food salty. Even chalks this up to San Francisco’s drier climate, vis-a-vis New York’s — an armchair hypothesis, he freely concedes, but the underlying phenomenon is real. He brings his food “right up to the edge,” he says — and Tosca’s reputation is as an industry spot seems to be growing. One key reason is that the kitchen stays until 1 a.m., a rarity in North Beach, and something that attracts other industry professionals who’ve just gotten off their shifts.
“Late night is tough,” Even says. “Especially if you live in Oakland, but I tell people we get to cook for our peers and colleagues every night. Every night, there’s somebody here. In some ways, it’s a service to the industry, a way we can show our appreciation for the hard work that everyone puts in. This is a business of sacrifice.”
To Even’s immense satisfaction, Many chefs are now regulars. Still, when Bloomfield visits San Francisco, she invariably eats at Tosca, and Even knows that feedback is coming. Recently, she took apart a stone fruit salad with prosciutto and pancetta that Even assumed would be a hit, but which she concluded lacked acid to balance the sweet produce against the fattiness of the meat and the sunflower dressing. So he added lemon.
“Salt, lemon, and olive oil — that’s very April,” Even says. “The holy trinity. It’s pretty much on everything I do and everything she does.”
Tosca Cafe, 242 Columbus Ave., 415-986-9651 or toscacafesf.com