At San Francisco's AQ, which is nominated for a Best New Restaurant award, chef Mark Liberman merges Northern California's hyper-seasonal style with a rigorous but discreet use of modernist techniques. We got in touch with him to discuss his cooking philosophy, the best dish on the current AQ menu, and his favorite American foods.
JBF: AQ is very devoted to seasonal cooking. Are there particular ingredients at the markets that you can’t wait to get your hands on each year?
ML: Right now we’re heading into spring; we’re at the strange seasonal place where it isn’t quite spring yet, but it isn’t winter anymore. I’m looking forward to cooking with purple artichokes and young fava beans.
JBF: AQ is clearly a disciple of the California philosophy of cooking, but you’ve also cooked in very technique-driven restaurants, like Daniel and L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. How do you find a balance between the two? What guides you?
ML: I think it’s very important for a young cook to learn proper technique and discipline. That’s something that will always be with me; there’s a proper way to braise a lamb shank or blanch English peas. AQ will always be a technique-driven restaurant, but we are driven first and foremost by the seasonality of Northern California. I spend a lot of time sourcing ingredients, and we work really hard to make food that doesn’t look too fussed over.
JBF: What’s your favorite item on the AQ menu right now?
ML: The pork trotter with spring garlic, snails, and avocado. We buy a lot of whole animals at the restaurant, which results in having a lot of off-cuts. I really like it because it’s a complicated dish—it takes three days to prep—but it looks very simple when presented to guests, which is something we love to do at AQ.
JBF: We read that you guys are opening a whiskey bar below the AQ space. Does it have a name? Will you be offering a menu there?
ML: It is has a pending name: The Whiskey Library. It’s still a work in progress and we’re still allocating all our whiskies. We will be offering a cheese program as well as our housemade charcuterie.
JBF: What are your favorite restaurants in San Francisco right now? What do you like to order there?
ML: I always love going to Kokkari: they have amazing lamb and grilled octopus. I also like going to Nojo for their izakaya fare. Everything they grill is awesome, especially the chicken parts, and their chawanmushi is always delicious.
JBF: What’s your favorite cookbook and why?
ML: Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras, I remember reading this book when it first came out and being completely blown away by his meticulous approach, philosophy, flavors and plating style. Everyone talks about foraging and being hyper-regional: he was the pioneer for both of those movements.
JBF: What’s your earliest food memory?
ML: Eating just-picked ripe strawberries in the backseat of the car with my dad.
JBF: What’s your favorite regional American food?
ML: I have two hands-down favorites: being a local boy here in San Francisco, I love cioppino and would never turn down a bowl of it. I also love classic, old-school prime rib with spinach, horseradish, potatoes, and all the fixins.