From dinner theaters to fine dining, and from dishwasher to executive chef, Alicia Jenish-McCarron has seen the kitchen from many vantage points. Now the executive chef at Black Cat, a swanky jazz- and supper-club in the Tenderloin, Jenish-McCarron’s resume includes working under Loretta Keller (Seaglass) and Charles Phan (The Slanted Door), opening the Academy Café in the Academy of Sciences, and training personal chefs to make in-home meals with the now-defunct startup Kitchit.
“I’ve been cooking in a restaurant since I was 15,” says Jenish-McCarron, who grew up in Tucson. “I fell in love with it young. It’s the only job I’ve ever had.”
On the heels of a high school cooking internship, Jenish-McCarron applied to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. She came to San Francisco sight unseen, and has been in the Bay Area ever since. She’ll be representing Black Cat on Aug. 25 at the Friday night Grand Tasting of this weekend’s food festival at Fort Mason, Eat Drink SF. Her nosh of choice is a riff on a pavlova, a meringue-based dessert named for the ballet dancer Anna Pavlova.
“I do the desserts here and it’s one of those whimsical dishes I put on the menu,” says Jenish-McCarron, who describes the fare at Black Cat as classic but whimsical. “I did [the pavlova] for New Year’s Eve. Most people weren’t familiar, and those who were hadn’t seen it in years.”
Jenish-McCarron tops the dish with boozy cream and fresh berries. “It’s a good representation for sure,” she says.
Her cooking hasn’t always been so playful. After leaving New York and C.I.A., her first California gig was in the kitchen of Loretta Keller’s now-shuttered Bizou.
“I thought I wanted to go fine dining,” Jenish-McCarron says. “But [Keller] was doing very rustic, southern French out of a wood oven. I realized that doing really good food doesn’t have to be so refined.”
Though she may have let the refinement slip, French influence is something she’s never gotten away from, having honed her charcuterie skills as a butcher at Café Rouge and put in time with Robert Cubberly at Le Petite Robert in Russian Hill before joining Charles Phan and The Slanted Door Group.
“My career has been dominated by France,” Jenish-McCarron says. “No matter what I’d do, Charles would say, ‘It still tastes like Provence!’ ”
After serving as executive chef at The Grande Cafe, Jenish-McCarron took a break from restaurants and joined Kitchit. “I had worked myself into a hole and needed a little refreshing,” she says. “The startup definitely did that for me.”
When Kitchit closed last year, Jenish-McCarron was contacted by a headhunter about the opening at Black Cat.
“She said, ‘Keep an open mind. It’s a jazz club,’ ” Jenish recalls. “But I really fell in love with it. Being two stories and having live music every night really changes the dynamic. It’s almost like a different restaurant every night.”
Black Cat had been open less than six months when she took the helm. “The opening chef didn’t turn out to be the right fit and kind of biffed it, so people weren’t coming for food,” she says. “They were coming for drinks — which is too bad, because it’s a really cool space.”
Taking her cue from the ’50s-inspired jazz club, Jenish-McCarron has created a menu that puts playful twists on more traditional classics, like Moroccan lamb meatballs served with cucumber, zaatar, and mint. There’s also the kitten burger — which is not made of kittens. Rather, it’s a patty made from braised short rib and burger, Roquefort cream, a house pimiento cheese, and pickled mushrooms.
“I kind of have a pickling problem,” says Jenish-McCarron. “I’m an avid pickler.”
You’ll also see a lot of French inspiration in both the entrees and their execution.
“I have a chickpea panisse with chermoula and feta, which is very classic French,” Jenish-McCarron says. “And even if it translates to California cuisine, the methodology still has southern French roots. If I’m making mac ’n’ cheese, I’m definitely making a bechamel,” she says. “And I always have a charcuterie board.”
It all seems appropriate for the neighborhood, which was once referred to as “The Paris of the West.”
“It’s a real tricky spot,” Jenish-McCarron says of her corner of the Tenderloin. “A lot of places are going in that are pretty swanky. We try to make ourselves inclusive and have little snacks like popcorn and fries.”
Jenish-McCarron mentions a local guy, Ricky, who’s essentially the boss of the neighborhood. He is upward of 50 and walks with a cane.
“The Ricky special is popcorn and fries,” she says. “He sings here and drinks a few gin and tonics every night. If we have any issues, he’ll just talk to people in the neighborhood, so it’s a very convenient relationship and the crowd loves him.”
Though you won’t be able to order a “Ricky special” at Eat Drink SF, you will be able to meet Jenish-McCarron and indulge in one of her decadent pavlovas alongside hundreds of other festival-goers at Friday night’s Grand tasting event. Eat Drink SF features more than three dozen San Francisco restaurants and twice that many beverage partners, so even if you do end up waiting in line you’ll have plenty of options to lift your spirits as you do.
Eat Drink SF, Thursday to Sunday, Aug. 24-27, at the Festival Pavilion in Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture; eatdrink-sf.com.