When Craft Los Angeles' opening chef de cuisine Matt Accarrino and pastry chef Catherine Schimenti departed the restaurant back in May, owner Tom Colicchio promptly replaced the dynamic agnoletti-gelato duo with Anthony Zappola and Shannon Swindle, the chef de cuisine and pastry chef, respectively, at his Craft Dallas branch (the Dallas sous chef and assistant pastry chef were promoted to fill those spots – neat trick, huh?).
The ease of swapping out chefs that comes from a high-dollar dining empire is part of what convinced Accarrino and Schimenti it was time to move on. “For any chef you can only go so far in someone else's restaurant, especially if you're a cook or sous chef at a large restaurant. Craft is great, Tom is great, but Craft had changed… When I started working there [in New York] it was before Top Chef – things are a little different now.”
“I couldn't go back to East coast snow after being in L.A.,” says Accarrino, who filled more than a few of his summer days behind the stoves at Animal. “They were short some cooks, so I was helping them out. Working at Animal, I knew I wanted to get back to a small 50-seat restaurant.”
A vacation to San Francisco convinced Accarrino and Schimenti (the two are also a couple outside the kitchen) that Northern California would be the next stop. “While I was cooking in L.A., I realized how much product I was bringing down from farmers and suppliers up north. What if I had a small restaurant that served really good food, nothing too expensive, and could be the kind of stuff I'd want to eat?”
As fate would have it, Nate Appleman, who won the 2009 Rising Star Chef of the Year Award from the James Beard Foundation, had recently left SPQR, a small modern Italian bistro with a devoted following… and a 50-seat dining room.
“SPQR fits my philosophy of fine dining that has stripped away anything that's really pretentious. I have the ability to make food that really tastes good, but nothing on my menu is over $20.”
Accarrino says all of those fresh pastas he made at Craft should give you a clue about the style of his debut SPQR menu: goat cheese agnolotti with braised artichokes, spaghetti with Dungeness crab, squash and prune tortellini with almonds and brown butter.
As for Schimenti, Accarrino says she's enjoying exploring San Francisco before she gets back into full-on tart mode (the couple's professional relationship is on hold for now; SPQR is so small it doesn't have a pastry chef). “I feel like a bakery is inevitably in Cat's future at some point…maybe another restaurant pastry chef job for a while…but I think days of huge restaurants and $30 to $40 main courses are gone.”