Exploring Authentic Eats

A+variety+of+foods%2C+similar+to+the+variety+offered+in+San+Francisco.+Photo+courtesy+of+Viceroy+Hotels+and+Resorts.
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Exploring Authentic Eats

A variety of foods, similar to the variety offered in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Viceroy Hotels and Resorts.

A variety of foods, similar to the variety offered in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Viceroy Hotels and Resorts.

A variety of foods, similar to the variety offered in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Viceroy Hotels and Resorts.

A variety of foods, similar to the variety offered in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Viceroy Hotels and Resorts.

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Sprawled over a beach chair in Cancun, Mexico, a man trudges by, offering tourists the opportunity to take pictures in his vibrant sombrero. To the left, a woman hollers with gusto, enthusiastically handing out flashy brochures to passer-byers which reads – “Authentic Mexican Cuisine with a Traditional Mexican Folk Dance Show!” On the brochure, an ecstatic family sits at a front row table, simultaneously trying to devour the meal, cheer with bliss, and move to the tempo of the Mariachi music. As a teenage boy clenches a large burrito in one hand, “authentic” seemed like the last word to describe the scene. But then again, authenticity is a matter of perspective and cannot be so easily defined.

Questions of authenticity brought us to a busy San Francisco street, a crescendo of yellow illuminating the sidewalk. It appeared unlikely that a Vietnamese restaurant in the center of a trendy block would give us an inspiring interview, for after an unsuccessful lunch in Chinatown, our hopes of finding a quality and culturally authentic restaurant diminished. It was difficult to find Asian restaurants in San Francisco where anyone spoke English because of the dense Asian community in the area. Authentic food comes from authentic cultures where the main language rightfully wasn’t our own. But the yellow sign with the name “Saiwalks” printed on it in a bamboo-like font surprised both of our expectations.

A happy Victoria Le with her husband in Saiwalks, her Vietnamese restaurant on Steiner Street. Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Growing up in Vietnam, Victoria Le lived with her mother and five sisters, or as she puts it, six mothers. Food became a way for her to “build a cohesive unit” within her family. San Francisco has a similar dynamic with food being one of the core representatives of the cultural change and diversity in the city. Vietnamese food itself is a blend of Chinese and French cooking. Her restaurant, Saiwalks, has brought a Vietnamese flare to the streets of the Marina.

When we first mentioned the word “authentic” in a question, Victoria’s eyes widened and her eyebrows furrowed. She leaned in and said, “I hope you understand that authenticity doesn’t mean…” Victoria paused as if to gather her thoughts and truly try to give us her honest perspective on the matter. She explained to us the differences in the Vietnamese food of today and of the past, acknowledging in a neutral tone that “time changes taste” and this change requires some ingenuity that Victoria loves: “I like creative food, as well. I retain the basics, the fundamentals, you know, but where I see that I can change for the better than I will.”

For Victoria, food is supposed to grow with and adapt to the culture and people surrounding it. Authenticity is the essence of the food, like how Victoria cooks the pho broth from a clear stock, letting it simmer for more than 10 hours. Everything else adds, such as onions or garlic, is the creativity that adds to the authenticity. To make sure we really understood, Victoria presented us with a compelling metaphor:

“[If] you have a car, you need four wheels. You cannot say, ‘I’m going to do three wheels.’ However, you can go, ‘I can insert a cassette player, this is awesome!’ But you still have a four-wheel car, you still need a roof, you still need a window and door.”

After five years of business, Victoria’s view of authenticity is a culmination of change and originality has captured the stomachs of San Franciscans. But she still incorporates the traditional Vietnamese method, the anchor of her restaurant.

Sonali focusing while making some delicious pigs in a blanket on New Year’s Eve.

Tradition is something Sonali Jeffords, a connoisseur, and chef cherishes and admires very much. Her Indian heritage has taught her the importance of culture and its connection to food. Recounting her time spent in various restaurants, Sonali says, “what people do is bring flavors in and you can taste it in the way they prepare things.” Listening to Sonali speak is reminiscent of Victoria’s perspective on cooking the noodles and the importance of the preparation. Her authenticity lies in the tradition of creating food, similar to Victoria. It is the way in which you use the flavors, not the flavors you have.

Creating compelling flavors is difficult. Part of the taste lies in the perception of the food you eat. Food is such an opinionated topic that it can be hard to discern good food from authentic food. Chef Gerald Hirigoyen, the owner of the established Basque restaurant Piperade, eloquently embodies this perspective: “You do not necessarily do authentic the way you think authentic is, you know, you get the new authenticity and then you throw things in there because you have evolved and you do things a different way.” As someone who has grown up in the Basque-French Country and been cooking his entire life, Gerald still embraces the necessity to change authenticity into what will make his food the best that it can be.

 

Private area in Gerald’s Piperade, a Basque restaurant that has been around for around 20 years.

Even though it is a part of it, it is not just the cultural accuracy that makes food authentic. Sonali, being apart of the Indian culture, explains that they rely heavily on flavors and spices which make their food unique and delicious. She “look[s] a tastes and flavors that [she] remember[s].” But those intense flavors can trigger an emotional response: “There’s [restaurants] that I look to that bring home childhood memories that I remember. It just brings back things that come from traditions, old memories, you know, of places you’ve been. That’s what makes it authentic to me.”

 

When food grounds people and makes them remember moments beyond what they are eating then it has successfully done its job. Good food is good food, but great and authentic food leaves you satisfied in your heart as well. There is an emotional aspect that often gets overlooked. It’s the tradition that sparks memories and conversation. It’s the feeling of home with every bite. Armando Lacayo, the proud owner of Arsicault Bakery, tries to find his feeling of home through his pursuit of creating the perfect croissant.

Walking into his bakery on Saturday morning, it was nothing out of the ordinary that there was a line out the door. A busy staff electrically placing croissants onto ceramic plates tried to move customers through with ease, but choosing from the numerous masterly baked goods is a difficult decision before coffee, and can take time.

A man in a black chef’s jacket marched down the stairs, throwing his hand out to give a confident and strong handshake. Moments later, sitting upstairs with croissants and hot chocolate on the table which he so happily delivered, Armando Lacayo began to tell his story, one of an MIT graduate quitting his profitable job to bake croissants.

“In August of 2016, my life changed,” Armando elucidated, smiling as he looked down at the half-eaten chocolate croissant sitting on the table. “Bon Appetit bakery decided we were the best new bakery. That changed everything. From one day to the next there was a huge line.”

Still, why are people waiting 45 minutes in a line, in the rain, for a croissant, when there are many bakeries in the surrounding blocks? Simply put, the croissant is authentic.

Crispy and delicious croissants awaiting those standing in the long line at Arsicault. Photo courtesy of SFGate.

While exploring San Francisco, it is easy to find this classic French delicacy. From the numerous bakeries to Safeway, “French Croissant” is a word commonly thrown around, but it is done far too lightly.

Armando leaned back in his chair; “I have memories of croissants from twenty or thirty years ago… they are incredible. They are so good. I’m getting closer but I’m not there yet. Those croissants barely exist anymore,” he exclaimed, “Products evolve too much. If you go to the supermarket you can buy a croissant for 99 cents and its horrible. It isn’t being done the traditional or authentic way.”

But his croissant is not authentic just because he is a French man baking them. Armando illustrated how, “You find a lot of restaurants, bakeries, shop, and the owners are French, therefore, it’s supposed to be authentically French, but it’s not.” The art of creating a true croissant takes pounds of cold butter massaged into dough over and over to make elegant sheets with nearly invisible layering, then a detailed process with various temperatures for the croissant to properly proof and bake. Armando clarifies how the rawest and cleanest of ingredients must be used, and this often comes at a cost, but it is the cost of authenticity. Following a recipe is something that most individuals with attention to detail and patience can do, “Anyone (you don’t need to be French) can make a croissant. You just have to follow a recipe and take your time and don’t cut corners.”

After such enormous success, his humility was dazzling. His generosity was extensive; he sent six croissants and two kouign-amanns off with us and so lightly told us to skip the line in the future. Authenticity, he offered, cannot be categorized with evolution and fusion.

The Bay Area is a hub for people from all over the world each bringing their own recipes, new ideas, and unique ingredients, but there is a line drawn between what is authentic and what is modern. Both create a more well-rounded atmosphere and people, but authenticity cannot be thrown around lightly, for it is a word that is in danger of fading away if its true meaning is used lightly.

His product – the croissant – is not something that needs change: “The croissant has been around forever. Products evolve too much.” Unlike restaurant owners and many other food business owners, Armando feels the security of having an outstanding and everlasting product, for he sees weekly visitors as well as tourists from all over the world.

“There is room for everything – do you want something really authentic or do you want something to surprise you?” Armando questioned, “Being creative in food is great, as long as you say  ‘hey, I’m being creative’ and a person never sells something as authentic when it’s not.”

Despite similar training with restaurants in France, Armando and Gerald hold unique perspectives on the relationship between evolution and authenticity. This may lie in the fact that one works with a product that has already stood the test of time – the croissant – and he does not have to factor in what it takes to stay relevant for entice people to be returning customers. Victoria and Gerald both see the difficulties of staying relevant in the Bay Area, where people have so many cultural foods at their disposition and can eat food from a different country single night of the week.

Canadian chef Michael Lyons was trained in Paris before working all over the globe in the food business, and he learned that adding new and modern twists to food, even if chef instincts believe it would be an improvement, is not always acceptable.

A young and enthusiastic chef, Michael hustled into the kitchen of his French Culinary School, eager to get the day moving. His mentor would be showing him the true way to cook a perfect a Sole Meuniere, a beautiful white fish sauteed in lemon butter and served with parsley, a dish that exemplifies the beauty and simplicity of French Cuisine.

An ecstatic Michael with his prized slab of meat he cut himself.

Fish sizzling in the pan, Michael decided to get a little crafty and throw some lemongrass into the pan for a more complex, but light, summer flavor. He sniffed his work and mmmm, oh a beautiful creation. His mentor walked over and smelled the alluring fish steaming up into the stove fan. Immediate disdain washed over his face, “What is this horreur?” he interrogated, looking at Michael’s fish as if it were less than a fish carcass. On that day, Michael learned a very important lesson about French authenticity.

“He’s labeled it,” Michael explained, “He’s already made a menu and he has called it ‘Filet Meuniere.’” This recipe dates back many years and is a staple item in French food cuisine: “So, it’s basically, in his mind, it’s food fraud. He’s thinking that for the client, the customer, the end product is not going to be what they purchased.”

Authenticity is the flavor of your mom’s cooking, the same seasoning of your favorite restaurant, and the pungency of the flavors at one’s Thanksgiving table. Authenticity can also be objective when an exact recipe is named and has been carried out the same weight for a hundred years. This goes beyond the French culture, with Swedish Christmas cookies have an exact look, feel, and aroma, or a California roll needing exactly crab, cucumber, and avocado.

Today, Michael is more than just a successful chef. The rooster tattoo which sits upon his chest is one that he received after a long night out with the famous chef, Anthony Bourdain. He is one of the top chefs in Canada and has faced complications with the concept of authenticity as cooked to please individuals globally.

Some food, he believes, is just not authentic: “Creole, you know, it’s a prime example of throwing away all authenticity and using what you have,” claimed Michael. In Louisiana, traditional cuisine has formed into a blend of Spanish, French, African, German, Caribbean, Native American, and Portuguese. So I think that over time because we are in such a multicultural melting pot, our food tends to gravitate to what we want.” At this point, authenticity is a separate concept, and the food must be enjoyed as a cultural mix or a beautiful blend of ideas.

Michael’s concept that authenticity goes into history is extensive, with the T.V. show actor, father, and Food Innovation Officer, Chris Cornyn, expressing that authenticity entails a raw story.

Chris (far right) with his Supermarket Superstar team posing for a new season. Photo courtesy of Food Fanatic.

“Authentic means there is a story behind it, a meaning, a mission, or a purpose behind the food.” Stories are undefined, but the food is more than just a way to get energy, it is a way to connect through tales. From the adventures of how Chris’ six-year-old son went to the farmer’s market and tried a double chocolate cookie and needed to recreate it, to the legends of Viking’s eating pickled vegetables and cabbage in the middle of the harsh Scandinavian winters, it is the only food available. The story can be the simple tale of the creation of a new recipe, or the determination and perseverance of spending three months to perfect the lemon souffle.

“It is more than just something delicious you put in your mouth,” believes Chris. “Authenticity is a full package. It has a greater purpose.”

Armando foster’s the power of storytelling by creating tables for customer’s to meet new people at, while Sonali hosts big dinner parties for friends, planning every plate thoughtfully and in detail beforehand, so meals can last three hours on a beautiful summer evening and are constantly filled with laughter and pizzaz.

Exquisite authenticity lies in the eyes of the beholder. This comes with the beauty that in the Bay Area, any belief is welcome. Authenticity can entail an experience – walking into a French restaurant, dimly lit with a romantic air, and ordering an onion soup as the low chatter of those around you fills the charming room. Authenticity can entail the smell of the cherry blossom trees outside one’s house, as you walk in for a batch of mom’s empanadas. Authenticity can be the modern twist on an otherwise old-fashioned Italian pizza. Or maybe, an authentic meal is eating any takeout food with your siblings in front of the television.