Paolo Lucchesi guides San Franciscans through the complex restaurant scene
Paolo Lucchesi led the panel discussion last November at SI of alumni who owned restaurants and catering companies.
In a strange, circuitous way, Paolo Lucchesi ’00 likens his journey to Dante’s in The Divine Comedy.
Lucchesi writes The San Francisco Chronicle’s “The Inside Scoop” column, which appears weekly in the newspaper and more frequently on sfgate.com. He covers “the zeitgeist of the Bay Area’s restaurant scene” including restaurant openings and closings, chefs moving from one restaurant to another and current trends in dining.
Just as Dante followed Virgil on his journey, so too has Lucchesi followed his own guides that took him across the country and back and exposed him to the best food writers and critics so that he could craft his own style and hone his keen eye to discern what makes a successful restaurant.
Lucchesi recently ventured beyond his blog and Chronicle column to co-author the Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream Book, a cookbook inspired by the Mission shop, and to SI to moderate a panel discussion last November of SI alumni who own local restaurants. He also served as founding editor of Eater San Francisco and Eater National, blogs dealing with trends in the restaurant business.
The Dante connection is an important one for Lucchesi, who wrote his English master’s thesis at Columbia comparing Dante to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. “I know it sounds crazy, but I swear it makes sense,” he said.
Both works, he claims also have much in common with jazz, which Ellison loved. “In the jazz world, you have an apprentice who follows the master for a while musically and then branches off to innovate and create on his own. Dante followed Virgil before leaving him behind for a new guide as did the protagonist in The Invisible Man.”
After finishing his master’s degree, Lucchesi ran into his own set of Virgil-like guides, ones that continued the lessons he first learned at SI from English teachers such as Bobby Gavin, Jim Dekker ’68 and Rev. Anthony P. Sauer, S.J. “Those great teachers gave me my earliest positive reinforcement,” said Lucchesi, as did baseball coaches Jim Bjorkquist ’65 and John Grealish ’79, who praised Lucchesi with SI baseball’s highest honor, the James Keating Award. “I’m friends to this day with my teammates, and we still see each other all the time. That team meant the most to me.”
Lucchesi’s first food mentors included his parents, John and Pirkko Lucchesi. “Food was a priority for both of them, even though they were architects by trade. My mother is from Finland, and holidays were always big food days with multi-course meals for 30 people. Both parents bought into the whole California cuisine philosophy, with local, in-season fresh food.”
After leaving SI, Lucchesi studied both English literature and Italian at UCLA and spent a semester in Florence, where he first fell in love with Dante and Chaucer. He applied to graduate school at Columbia “on a whim,” he noted. “While reading Kerouac, I learned that he had briefly attended Columbia. I had already applied to a few other schools and then saw Columbia’s application deadline was in three days. I hustled to apply in time, and somehow I got in.”
He finished his master’s degree and found that “New York is like quicksand for an aspiring writer. It can suck you in and seduce you.”
After finishing his master’s degree, he found a job as the San Francisco editor at MenuPages, where he covered the San Francisco restaurant scene from afar for two years before moving back to San Francisco to launch Eater in 2007.In 2010, The Chronicle hired him to take over Inside Scoop, a column originally written by GraceAnn Walden, who now leads culinary walking tours throughout the city..
“It feels as if I’m carrying on an important tradition,” said Lucchesi, who works alongside food writers like Michael Bauer, Amanda Gold, Janny Hu, Stacy Finz, Jon Bonne and Miriam Morgan.. “I’m honored and humbled by the experience of working for people who have been in the food writing world for decades.”
Among Lucchesi’s favorite food establishments in San Francisco are those owned by SI grads, including Nopa, co-owned by Jeff Hanak ’85, and Bi-Rite Market, owned by Sam Mogannam ’86. “Those two places embody San Francisco cuisine as much as any place I can think of.”
They also represent for Lucchesi what makes San Francisco’s restaurant world both unique and excellent. “There are so many good neighborhood restaurants – ones that captures the spirit of a neighborhood. Nopa, for instance, nailed it. It opened at the perfect time for the area north of the Panhandle. It’s still one of the hottest tickets in town.”
The best restaurants, he adds, “have soul, and that’s something hard to define. They give thought both to the food and to the whole package of what a restaurant offers. They offer innovation, and they think outside the box. They create community and pay attention to the ambience of the dining experience.”
These restaurants, as well as home cooks, have access to some of the best produce in the world; they also have chefs that have come up through the ranks. Lucchesi says that many great chefs are those that paid their dues, who began as apprentices to masters and who spent time as line cooks: “Cooking is like writing. You need that base. You need to appreciate what has come before you.”
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