“I’ve never taken a job I felt confident in or at ease with,” admits Thomas McNaughton, the tow-headed San Francisco chef behind Flour + Water, Central Kitchen, and Salumeria. “Pushing myself has always been a big thing for me.”
That ambitious mindset developed early for the New Jersey native, who got his first taste of the restaurant world washing dishes at Medford Lakes Country Club. It was there that the teenager became “enamored of the kitchen dynamic and the idea of creating something in such a crazy atmosphere.” McNaughton was enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America when acclaimed San Francisco chef Roland Passot came calling with a job at La Folie. Eager to get behind the stove professionally, McNaughton ditched school and moved “3,000 miles across the country to see food in a new light.”
After finishing his degree in New York, McNaughton’s career rapidly unfolded both in Europe and back in California. In Bologna, he spent his days learning to make pasta in the Bruno e Franco “laboratory,” under the tutelage of a dozen women; in San Francisco, he worked at Quince and Gary Danko. It was at Quince where he met David White, who hired him as the executive chef for his new Italian project, Flour + Water. McNaughton was just 26.
Pushing myself has always been a big thing for me.
Flour + Water was an instant hit, luring in diners night after night to the Mission’s then sleepy 20th Street for a taste of McNaughton’s rustic-modern food. The James Beard-nominated chef was so focused on cooking, however, it took him a year to appreciate the restaurant’s success. “It was my first executive chef role and I had no idea what to expect. It was so crazy in the beginning that it wasn’t until later I picked up my head and was like, ‘Wait, what are we doing here?’” he recalls.
One thing he’s never changed is his commitment to intriguing handmade pastas, which are the subject of his new book, Flour + Water: Pasta (Ten Speed Press), with Paolo Lucchesi. “Writing it was a massive undertaking, so different from running a restaurant,” McNaughton says. “We built a test kitchen above Flour + Water just to develop the recipes.”
But the book’s long-awaited release hasn’t given McNaughton reason to pause. This winter, he plans to unveil two projects in the historic Swedish American Hall. On the ground level, chef-partner Ryan Pollnow will helm a restaurant that imagines “California cuisine through the lens of Spain,” while downstairs, in partnership with cocktail gurus the Bon Vivants, a transformed circa-1907 Café du Nord will become a 1930s-inspired hot spot. “It will be rowdy in the front and quiet in back,” says McNaughton. “Café du Nord has so many amazing Prohibition stories. We’ll serve Miller High Life next to champagne and see if we can get away with recreating that feeling.”
Know doubt they will—it’s just another one of McNaughton’s self-imposed challenges. From revelatory mayo to an unforgettable San Fran crustacean, here are 10 classic dishes that keep this hard-working chef continually inspired.
Growing up in South Jersey, my experience of mayonnaise was Hellmann’s. I started working at the Medford Lakes Country Club when I was about 15, and I was so interested in cooking I bought all these books. When I asked the chef, Thomas Hickey, about aioli he showed me how to make it with a mortar and pestle. It was simple and homemade, but the taste of the real thing, savory and garlicky, was shocking. (Photo: Food52)
Frog’s-Leg Soup at La Folie
I was still very young—19—when I moved to San Francisco to work at La Folie. The idea of frog’s-leg soup sounded so foreign to me. It was out of my comfort zone and I couldn’t wrap my head around such a weird dish. When I tasted it, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. The flavors were so complex and so good, and I couldn’t fathom how they all came together. It made me stop in my tracks. (Photo: Yelp)
Quail Roti at La Folie
I was so perplexed by this dish. I didn’t realize how technique driven and complicated it was to make until I took it over. It was stuffed with mushroom ragu and there were potato strings finely interlaced around it. I remember being bewildered by the complexity of it—and by Roland’s mind for having put it together. (Photo: Yogurtsoda)
Michael Mina’s Ahi Tuna Tartare
I did a stage at Michael Mina and watched the kitchen make his classic Ahi tuna tartare. All those different cultures coming together on the plate—the fish, the jalapeños, the pears, the sesame oil—and it was like shit, this is San Francisco food. It is a light, fresh dish, but I was blown away by the technique and how much showmanship went into its creation. (Photo: Chefsfeed)
Foie Gras at Masa’s
Richard Reddington had taken over the kitchen of Masa’s for a couple of weeks when I did a three-day stage there. One thing I’ll never forget was their preparations of foie gras. Each dish they plated was a different style—one was a torchon, one was hot seared, one was rillettes. As a young chef, I was taken by how everyone had such an artistic eye while having so much fun. (Photo: Masa’s)
Agnolotti dal Plin at Quince
This pasta with rabbit, pork, and hen is a classic from Emilia-Romagna. Making it at Quince showed me how much culture plays into food and how a dish’s history can evolve. (Photo: Foodspotting)
Roasted Lobster at Gary Danko
This is one of his signatures. The lobster is basted and roasted in the shell and served on what is essentially mashed potatoes, so it’s a homey dish. It’s an example of a great chef using great ingredients, but it’s also about taking the familiar and introducing layers of flavor that make it taste more intensely like lobster than the fish itself. (Photo: Yelp)
French picnic in Avignon
With a couple of bottles of rosé, salumi from the local market, fresh vegetables, and an amazing baguette, I ate lunch—and fell asleep—on the wall of Avignon overlooking the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Everything came together for a perfect meal. (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Bone Marrow Pizza at Flour + Water
Creating this was the realization that we could treat our pizza just like any other dish by layering it with different flavors. The bone marrow with the rapini and freshly grated horseradish proved we didn’t have to make pizza in a classic way. (Photo courtesy Flour + Water)
Chocolate Budino with Espresso Cream and Sea Salt at Flour + Water
The budino is my nemesis. It’s always been there and I’m sick of looking at it. As a chef I always want to flex my creative muscles and experience different things, and the budino is so simple. But we’re in the service industry and it’s our priority to give people what they want. I just can’t take it off the menu. (Photo courtesy Flour + Water)