For Sharon Nahm, switching from cooking Western food to Asian cuisines wasn’t much of a stretch. Then again, she had experience moving between sweet and savory, too.
Nahm grew up in Southern California and moved to San Francisco to study at the California Culinary Academy, and soon became entrenched in the Bay Area dining scene. While she was a student, she had a pastry stint at Stars and a savory gig on the line at Splendido. After graduation, she started as a line cook at the Walnut Creek, Calif., location of Lark Creek. Then she became the pastry chef there, and shortly thereafter was promoted back to the savory side as sous chef.
She returned to San Francisco and was executive sous chef at Kuleto’s Italian Restaurant in Union Square. After four years there, she began looking across the square to E&O Kitchen & Bar.
E&O Kitchen & Bar, San Francisco
Nahm grew up eating the Korean food her parents and grandparents made. But E&O focused on Southeast Asian cuisines, mostly Indonesian and Thai, so it didn’t stand to reason that Nahm would take naturally to it. It would be like expecting someone from Russia to be a natural at cooking Italian food.
But Nahm is from California — the part of the Great American Melting Pot, with the exception of Hawaii — that is most spiced with the many flavors of Asia.
“I knew that I really loved Asian food, and it’s what I would eat all the time outside of work,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to go in that direction.”
As luck would have it, E&O, at the time a five-unit chain, was looking for a chef de cuisine for its Union Square location just as Nahm was ready to leave Kuleto’s, and she was hired.
“I didn’t have a professional background in Asian cuisine until I started at E&O,” she said, but “the core of it — the basics — are still the same, no matter what you cook.”
Not that she didn’t need to do research. Visits to Asian restaurants that used to be for fun were now for work, “to capture those flavors,” she said. And she also read up on the cuisines’ histories, flavor profiles, spices, “and how it all sort of comes together.”
That was 12 years ago. Since then, management and ownership changes resulted in the four other E&O locations becoming different concepts, and Nahm became executive chef and director of operations for the one left standing in Union Square.
Chow Mein Noodles (roasted chicken, mushrooms, cabbage, bean sprouts, garlic chives, fresh egg noodles); Green Papaya & Cucumber (pickled apples, chilies, herbs, peanuts); Jasmin Tea Panna Cotta (mandarin orange glaze, tea-infused shortbread); and Matach Green Tea Chiffon Cake. (Photos: Kelly Puleio)
The menu has evolved, too, as Nahm has dabbled with Chinese, Japanese and Korean elements, as well as Indian.
More importantly, Nahm said, the menu has changed with the times, using ingredients and techniques that are fashionable these days.
“Pickling has always traditionally been part of Asian cuisine — I think probably part of most cuisines — but it’s also something that people are interested in a lot more, so we do a lot of pickling in-house,” she said.
Nahm has also taught her 20 or so back-of-the house employees about kimchi and other foods she grew up watching her parents and grandparents make.
“Not only that, but we also make sure that they taste everything as they go, every day, and learn the final look and taste of the dish that we’re looking for. If something is inconsistent, then we go through that as well to see where something may have gone wrong or an ingredient may have been missed — training them to identify those flavors, especially with the sous chefs,” she said. “That’s something they’ve learned and come a long way over the years.”
Dumplings are also becoming more popular across the country, and Nahm has added different types recently, including steamed duck confit buns with crispy duck skin. A butternut squash dumpling was popular in the fall, and for the late spring she replaced it with dumplings stuffed with pea tendrils and tofu spiced with crispy shallots and fried mint leaves, served with a soy-vinegar dipping sauce.
As pork has gone from being mostly a breakfast item to a welcome dinner entrée, she has added a grilled pork chop with black garlic sauce and kimchi on top.
Pea tendrils also are part of her new asparagus dish, which is inspired by that vegetable’s affinity with eggs — as in asparagus with hollandaise sauce.
Pu Pu Platter (fritter bites, 2 sliders, 2 ribs, 2 chicken satay 2 ahi tartare, taro chips & pickled veggies) and Grilled NY Strip (rau ram salsa verde, toybox cherry tomatoes). (Photos: Kelly Puleio)
“In my mind I played with the idea that egg and asparagus go together,” she said. “Taking that idea, I also discussed it with my chef de cuisine and we sort of played and added some togarashi spice and chile oil to the egg to bring an Asian component, and then it was all tied together with a miso dressing,” and topped with a mound of pea tendrils.
Sometimes her dishes are variations on Western classics, like asparagus with Hollandaise, and at other times she starts with a traditional Asian dish, like stir-fried noodles, augmented with local, seasonal ingredients like mushrooms and snap peas.
Of course, it doesn’t always work. A few years ago, Nahm tried a more healthful fried rice, which combined quinoa and organic millet with brown rice, stir-fried with seasonal vegetables and bok choi.
“Our guests really wanted the more traditional fried rice that we were serving before,” she said, so they dropped it.
“Perhaps we just did it too soon,” she said. “Maybe it’s something we’ll address again sometime soon to see if our current audience would be more receptive.”
This summer, Nahm plans to experiment with stone fruit.
“I love doing salads and such with stone fruit, and I think the Asian flavors really blend together well with that, because it’s a lot of acidic and spicy that always goes together well [with stone fruit],” she said. “So we’ve played with peaches in various ways, in dessert form and we’ve also incorporated it into our savory dishes, grilled, in salad, that sort of thing.”
This summer, diners might see crudo with plums, as long as they get good ones.
“That may go onto the menu, depending on how the fruit tastes,” she said.
Nahm said teaching her staff and fostering their professional growth has been one of the keys to retaining them.
“The sous chefs that I work with have been with me for the last eight, 10 years, so it’s a really tight-knit team,” she said.
It also helps to be nice, she said.
“We think of everyone that’s been with us as a family, and I think they feel the same way, so it’s like walking into a second home for them, and we continue to foster that,” she said.
“My teaching method has always been leading by example, and nurturing and sort of coaching rather than by being more disciplinary or more harsh,” she added. “Coming from that position is more positive, and you get better results.”
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]