San Francisco has long been a bastion of fine dining, glittering with Michelin stars since 2007. The booming tech industry, robust regional agriculture and a diverse, progressive dining public have all fuelled the city’s culinary landscape over the past couple decades.
Now a new generation of young San Francisco chefs are approaching fine dining with a more creative and sustainable mindset. Cuisines like Japanese-American home cooking, New Nordic, modern Chinese and a nose-to-tail wagyu omakase are being elevated to haute cuisine, offering a more experimental and memorable alternative to predictable French and Italian fare.
Meet four passionate chefs representing this new generation of boundary-breaking culinary excellence.
Chef de Cuisine, Gozu
Singaporean chef Peggy Tan transitioned from working in a food science lab to cooking in the kitchen when she realised she’d rather put fresh tomatoes on a plate than into a can. Her first overseas cooking opportunity was an externship at Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco, where she worked her way up to sous chef under chef Marc Zimmerman. Now the 31-year-old chef is once more working with Zimmerman at a restaurant that’s more of a wagyu omakase than a traditional American steakhouse, with an emphasis on whole-animal butchery.
At Gozu, a stone’s throw from San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building, diners sit at counter seats surrounding the hearth of the restaurant, where chefs cook over live fire and directly serve guests for a uniquely intimate and interactive experience. “Many of our conceptualised dishes started as conversations with farmers and foragers, and capturing the best ingredients of the season,” Tan says. The ohitashi course is a prime example, a medley of seasonal vegetables steeped in dashi, served with a side of wagyu mousse to be spread on nori Hokkaido-style milk rolls.
Compared to her hometown Singapore, where most ingredients are imported year-round, Tan says that the menus in Northern California are much more influenced by the seasons and sustainability. “In San Francisco, there is a much deeper connection to earth through the produce that we use,” she says. “This connection is a constant reminder for us to not take food for granted.”
Chef de Cuisine, Eight Tables
This aptly-named restaurant has only eight tables, an elegant jewel-box space hidden away on the second floor of bustling China Live, a Chinese food emporium in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s here that chef de cuisine Floyd Nunn is defying expectations of Chinese food in more ways than one.
I am proving to people that a chef does not have to be Chinese to cook Chinese-inspired food
“Many diners have an unfair stereotype that Chinese food is cheap and not worth our price tag,” Nunn says. Under executive chef and owner George Chen’s mentorship, Nunn has been able to push himself to new heights, working with Chinese delicacies like fish maw and sea cucumber and conceptualising dishes outside the rules of a Western kitchen. “Cooking is such a sensual task, and when I approach a product I see it, feel it, smell it, taste it – all prior to cooking it,” he says. Dishes like the jiu gong ge appetiser educate diners about the nine essential flavours of Chinese cuisine, each presented as a delightful bite in a colourful porcelain bowl.
“I am proving to people that a chef does not have to be Chinese to cook Chinese-inspired food,” he says. Every night, Nunn says diners are surprised when he introduces himself as the chef. “These are not your grandmother’s recipes. We are being creative and innovative, mixing Eastern flavours with a Western style of dining.”
In December 2022, Nisei earned its first Michelin star for David Yoshimura’s new approach to Japanese-American Washoku home cooking. “The world of fine dining is oversaturated with culinary trends and similar restaurants, so at Nisei I want to give guests something new to enjoy through the lens of my heritage,” he says. The 33-year-old chef is the sole owner of Nisei, and has worked at many Michelin-starred restaurants, including most recently Californios, before opening his own restaurant.
Yoshimura is an only child and grew up cooking a lot at home for himself while his parents worked. He remembers botching a sushi dinner for his family as a kid when he forgot to add sugar to the sushi rice. “I made the most inedible, acidic sushi and ruined dinner,” he recalls. “But I learned two valuable lessons – always taste your food and never, ever waste rice.”
Now he’s serving perfectly seasoned bamboo rice in an unagi bento with charcoal grilled not-too-sweet unagi alongside crunchy fried eel spine, grated daikon and tsukemono daikon pickles. And that jet black curry? That’s Japanese curry finished with squid ink, Yoshimura’s more refined twist on a katsu curry boxed lunch.
Executive Chef, Sons & Daughters
This up-and-coming British chef has completely upended the menu at a tiny Nob Hill institution that’s held a Michelin star for more than a decade. Previously the chef de cuisine at Gastrologik in Stockholm, 29-year-old Harrison Cheney takes his minimalist New Nordic style of cooking to Sons & Daughters, and mixes it with fresh inspiration from California’s bounty of produce.
Dishes like grilled diver scallop with caramelised cream and roasted potatoes, or sprouted buckwheat with pickled hedgehog mushrooms and raw walnuts exemplify how just a few ingredients on the plate can burst with flavour. Caviar d’Aquitaine Perlita served with leeks and buttermilk represents his ingredient-driven, zero-waste cooking ethos. Cheney makes his own buttermilk and repurposes the whey for this dish. He makes use of the entire leek stalk too.
“I prioritised work over everything at such a young age,” he says. “I am really starting to feel all my hard work come to fruition now that I have my own menu and vision.”
Sons & Daughters feels like a brand new restaurant under his leadership, with fewer ingredients on each plate and more fermentation, and his lofty goals include achieving a Michelin Green Star and second Michelin star.