Alan Wong’s 5 Questions for Jason Fox
Photo courtesy of HFWF
For this Hawaii Food and Wine Festival chef Q&A, we thought we’d do something a little different: We asked Alan Wong, who founded the HFWF with Roy Yamaguchi, which chef he would pick to interview, and what five questions he’d ask. He singled out Jason Fox, the chef/co-owner of Commonwealth in San Francisco. The two met about two years ago, cooking at a James Beard dinner, where Fox says they chatted about the importance of tradition, and doing new things, but still honoring the old.
Here are Alan Wong’s questions and Jason Fox’s answers (interview has been edited for length and clarity):
AW: What style of cuisine do you offer?
JF: We call ourselves progressive American. We’re a small, 45-seat restaurant with an a la carte and tasting menu. We really try to meld the classic and the new—looking forward and looking backwards. I don’t want to say modern, but there are techniques that we do that are modern and we use toys that help us cook better. But we also use live fire. A lot of our sauce building is very classic. We’re very seasonally driven. Vegetables are probably my favorite thing. Vegetables and seafood. We try to highlight them but take things a step further and be creative.
[For example,] we sear a scallop and pair it with a popcorn puree, serve it with hearts of palm. And then there’s a frothy sauce with yuzu kosho and pea greens on top. I do this dish a lot—it’s a balance of textures and flavors. There’s some richness, there’s some creaminess, there’s some nuttiness. Texture is really important to us.
We’re using international flavors, but a lot of the product is grown here. I try to create a personal cuisine that’s formed around where I’ve eaten, my travels, where I’ve worked.
AW: Explain to people what you do to give back to the community, in particular your decision to give $10 from every $75 tasting menu to charity. Who does it reach, and why do you do it?
JF: The $10 goes to a different beneficiary every month. We try to do mostly food or local related stuff, but we don’t want to 100 percent limit ourselves to that, if there’s a cause that’s near and dear to us. For instance, this month, [the beneficiary] is the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Next month, it will be At the Crossroads, a local outreach for homeless youth. And we’ve done the Food Bank a bunch. When we opened this restaurant, we did charity dinners all the time, and we thought, can we take it one step further and work it into our business plan—[build] it into our tasting menu rather than doing dinners here and there.
AW: What do you see as the current trends culinarily and for restaurants? Where do you see these trends going?
JF: Oh, there are so many trends. I think everything is cyclical. There’s a lot of do-it-yourself things right now—people fermenting everything, making their own vinegars, condiments and stuff. Also, the death of fine dining has been going on for a bit—the casualization of dining and trying to reach people who can’t afford astronomically-priced restaurants. That’s what we’re doing. But I don’t want to see fine dining die. I like some of those trappings of the old school, the old school maitre’d, the white linens. I can’t do that all the time, but there’s a place for that.
Where are the trends going? I wish I knew, then I could get ahead of them. In some ways, things are getting better. It used to be you had to work in big cities to get high-quality ingredients, but now—in places like Portland, Lummi Island, South Carolina—towns are developing good networks of produce and well-raised animals. The importance of the major cities is diminishing—I don’t think it’s just about New York, Chicago, San Francisco anymore.
AW: What advice would you give to young culinarians aspiring to be chefs?
JF: Go to law school. Go to medical school. You have to really, really want to be a chef. You’re not doing it for the money. You’re doing it for the love of food, for the hospitality of taking care of people. Work really, really hard. Learn and pay attention. Try to learn from everything. That’s why we like going to Honolulu, to these chef gatherings, seeing what other people are doing.
AW: How do you inspire and stay inspired?
JF: We hope to inspire our cooks with our own passion for what we do. We try to teach and share what we know so that they’re continually learning.
I stay inspired by eating out and traveling—getting away from the restaurant and going to different places, usually some unexpected place. I was in Uruguay not too long ago and just seeing all the open-fire cooking was pretty awesome. I haven’t been to Hawaii in about 15 years, so I’m pretty excited to try everything there. It sounds like there’s a strong farmer network and people are exploring the indigenous cuisine. We’re excited to go, to check out the stuff, big and small.
For more info on the HFWF, August 29 through September 7, and to buy tickets, check out hawaiifoodandwinefestival.com