Ron Siegel, chef of Parallel 37 in the Ritz-Carlton, began his career in the butcher shops of Palo Alto. Upon graduation from culinary school in 1991, he worked as part of the opening team at Aqua, subsequently moving to New York and back to work at restaurants like Daniel, French Laundry, and Masa. After making his name as the chef of Charles Nob Hill, he moved to the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, where he has been chef since 2004.
Given the closure of the Dining Room in September of 2011 in order to reopen as "a less formal, more approachable restaurant experience" called Parallel 37, SFoodie caught up with Siegel to discuss the challenges and changes of the newly opened operation. Tomorrow SFoodie will continue the second part of the interview, and on Wednesday we'll publish one of Chef Siegel's recipes.
SFoodie: Where did the idea come from to transition from fine dining to a more casual approach?
Siegel: It was ownership decision, for sure. [The Ritz-Carlton] wanted to change the restaurant, and this seemed like a really good option for them. For me, personally, it's something I wanted to do about three years ago at another place: be a little more accessible to a lot more people.
Do you feel like that's being accomplished?
I think it is, but I also think it's hard because we're still a restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, and so people immediately think "fine dining" or "expensive." But in a lot of ways I think we're really very reasonable. I have nothing over $30 on the menu, and I think there's a lot of value here. I know you could nitpick and say $30 is a lot for an entrée, but you're in San Francisco and I would beg to differ. We're still buying excellent ingredients and still trying to provide the best service we can.
How has the space changed?
The room is significantly, shockingly different. You would never even be able to know the other place existed unless you had seen it before. It's all stone and glass and tile and wood, and it's a much louder environment. The bar is the center the restaurant, and it's big, with a large lounge area. I think people want that in the city. It's lively, and has a more timeless feel to it than what was here before.
Why were you personally interested in making a similar shift three years ago?
I just didn't want to do all the [prix-fixe] menus all the time - to always be nine-course this, or salt-and-pepper-truffle-menu that, including all the canapés that would go with all that stuff. I just want [a restaurant to] be like, "Come, order what you want, and we'll cook it for you hot."
Would you say that that's the way you like to dine?
The way I like to dine varies, depending on the occasion. But I think that that was part of the problem: We were a mostly special-occasion restaurant. If you came on a Saturday and we had 100 covers, 84 of those were anniversaries or birthdays or something. I want people to feel like this is the kind of place you can come once, twice, or even three times a month as opposed to only three times a year.
Have you noticed that some people miss the Dining Room the way it was?
Everybody has something to say when things change. A lot of the previous customers who've come back say they like it but that it's a lot noisier. A few miss it, because I think some people really enjoy dressing up and going out to eat - and I mean really dressing up, not wearing a new pair of jeans. The truth is, I don't really think that happens in California as much anymore, so for those people I think it's a little bit of a sad departure. We were one of the last bastions of hope. But there's also a lot of people who just don't want to dress up anymore.