Everyone is replaceable, so they say. But the truth is, the departure of a star chef can sink a ship. So what a great relief it was during a recent dinner at San Francisco's celebrated A16 to see it humming. The place was packed, the service was sharp and the rustic Italian food was great. Not good. Great. Nate Appleman, this year's James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef, recently left A16 to conquer New York City, but not before leaving the kitchen in the able hands of Liza Shaw. The contemporary Italian restaurant has not skipped a beat. Shaw's been with A16 since it opened more than five years ago, and since January she's been a guiding force in the kitchen while Appleman, a 2007 Restaurant Hospitality Rising Star, was preparing for his departure.
Like Appleman, Shaw isn't Italian, but you'd never know it. In honor of the restaurant's annual celebration of Festa Della Donna, Shaw created a melt-in-your-mouth Ricotta gnocchi that would bring a tear to any Italian's eye (so I teared up a bit; gnocchi this special is almost impossible to find). It's now a mainstay on the menu.
An art history and environmental studies major at Middlebury College in Vermont, Shaw moved to San Francisco 10 years ago to work for an internet start-up, but the dot.com bubble burst and she enrolled in the California Culinary Academy. After graduation she quickly got a job at Acquerello under Suzette Gresham-Tognetti. There she refined her Itailan cooking technique until A16 (named for the Italian highway that runs between Naples and Canosa in Puglia) recruited her as part of the opening team.
Now, Appleman is gone and Shaw is moving diners to tears with starters such as caponata of tuna conserva, world-class stone oven-blistered pizzas, and roasted stuffed quail with pork belly spiedino and mosto (grape juice destined to become wine). Cooking like this will make you miss your grandmother, even if she's not Italian.