Q&A with Executive Chef Christopher Thompson
The mastermind behind A16 reveals the secrets to running the San Francisco hotspot to Wine Enthusiast.
The soulful flavors of southern Italy offred at San Francisco's A16 easily pair with the restaurant’s 500-plus-bottle wine list, which emphasizes Italy’s oft- overlooked regions like Puglia, Basilicata and Sardinia. Menu hits include Maccaronara Pasta with Ragu Napoletana and Housemade Ricotta Salata and Crispy Pork Belly With Fava Beans, Pea Tendrils and Salsa Verde (recipe below).
Wine Enthusiast caught up with Executive Chef and Salumaio Christopher Thompson to pick his masterful brain about running A16 so sucessfully.
Wine Enthusiast: A16 is known for handmade pastas and wood-fired pizzas. How does the season affect your creations? Which season’s bounty do you prefer cooking with the most?
Christopher Thompson: Seasonality doesn’t just affect my creations, it dictates them. If we have a shorter winter than usual (like this year, for example), we start seeing things like peas, fresh beans and lettuces much earlier than normal. I may have the perfect dish in mind, but if the weather is keeping a certain component from being ready…the dish does not happen. Spring is definitely my favorite time of year. After the cold, dark winter, I welcome longer days and glimpses of green in the warm summer months to come. Sacramento Delta asparagus, morels, pea shoots, agretti [a Mediterranean succulent], squash blossoms, Dirty Girl Strawberries and early-season stone fruits are some of my favorites.
W.E.: A16 revolves around Italy’s southern regions—what wine-and-food pairing do you find has the most soul?
C.T.: For us here at A16, our tripe (Trippa Napoletana) is a menu staple, and we still celebrate it every day. My favorite pairing is the Aglianico d’Irpinia,I Favati Cretarossa 2008 from Campania. The high acidity, volcanic minerality and spice make it a perfect contrast to the rustic-rich tripe.
W.E.: In what ways do you feel wine enhances the overall dining experience?
C.T.: Wine pairings are essential to everything we do here. The way food and wine play off each other, how each sip or bite prepares your palate for the next. I love to do multiple pairings with a dish (red and white, red and red, or white and white) and see how the different flavor profiles of each wine enhances your perception of different ingredients in the dish.
W.E.: What food staples do you think every home cook should always have on hand?
C.T.: Olive oil! I feel that having a good understanding of the character of your oil is of the utmost importance. No olive oil is created equal. You need specific oils for cooking, high quality but not first press; another for dressing greens and lettuces, bright and vibrant with a little earthiness; and another for finishing dishes, fruity and grassy and should never see any heat, let alone a sauté pan.
W.E.: Is there a specific wine-and-food pairing that’s still on your bucket list that you want to create or enjoy?
C.T.: Bucket list: Thomas Keller’s Oysters & Pearls with an amazing Riesling.
Crispy Pork Belly With Fava Beans, Pea Tendrils and Salsa Verde
Recipe courtesy A16, San Francisco, CA
For the pork belly
1 fresh Berkshire pork belly
8 cups brown sugar
4 cups kosher salt
1 cup black pepper
½ cup coriander
½ cup fennel seeds
½ cup chili flakes
¼ cup juniper berries
2 tablespoons cloves
2 cinnamon sticks, ground
1 red onion
2 garlic bulbs, split
2 bulbs fennel
1 bunch rosemary
1 cup fava beans
8–10 stemmed pea tendrils per plate
1 cup Olio di Corona, to finish
For the salsa verde
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, leaves only
1 tablespoon sea salt, plus additional to finish
1 red onion, minced
2 cups white vinegar
4 tablespoons salt-cured capers, rinsed and chopped
Rub the pork belly with the sugar, salt, pepper, coriander, fennel seeds, chili flakes, juniper berries, cloves and cinnamon and refrigerate for one week. After one week, rinse off the curing mixture and place in a braising pan. Surround the pork belly with the onion, carrots, garlic, fennel and rosemary and cover with water. Braise the pork belly at 200˚F for 10 hours.
Remove the pork belly and vegetables from the braising pan. Press the pork belly between two parchment-lined sheet trays, weigh down with approximately 10 pounds. Refrigerate until cool. Once cool, remove the skin and cut into 4-ounce portions, scoring the fat. Render the belly on low heat in a wood-fired oven (or a grill with wood chips) until it’s crispy and the fat is soft. Reserve the pork fat drippings.
Blanch and peel the fava beans, then gently warm them in the reserved pork fat. Season the pea tendrils with salt and add warmed fava beans. Gently toss them to slightly wilt the greens.
To make the salsa verde, crush the parsley leaves with the tablespoon of sea salt in a mortar and pestle. Cover the red onion with white vinegar and sea salt to taste. Combine both mixtures and the capers prior to serving.
To plate, place a small portion of the pea tendrils and fava beans on a plate. After removing excess fat from the pork belly with a towel, place the hot pork belly on top of the beans. Top with 2 tablespoons of salsa verde and finish with sea salt and Olio di Corona. Serves 18.