Featured Chef: Q&A with Chef Banks White
On his cooking philosophies, influences, and his favorite food that Berkeley, Calif., hasn't quite mastered.user rating
What appeals to you about the Napa/San Francisco/Berkeley area?
After growing up in Austin and attending culinary school in Vermont, I wanted to move to a food-centric city in California, but didn’t want to go to a big city. Berkeley and Montpelier are similar in that they both are college towns and have been into local and sustainable foods long before it was popular. I love the ability here to work directly with farmers. We have farmers markets that take place three times per week, but we also have farmers who will come to the restaurant with freshly picked produce. This enables us to have a farm-to-table approach to our menu offerings. The majority of our produce is sourced from California, and we use organic when available.
What is the Berkeley dining scene like?
We are 30 minutes from San Francisco and about 45 minutes from Napa. People visit Napa specifically to eat and drink so restaurants can be adventurous in their food offerings. The dining scene in Berkeley is changing so we can be more adventurous, but people still want comfort foods. Berkeley has a lot of serious diners but it is also a big college town. FIVE is designed to appeal to both audiences, so we offer food that both crowds can relate to—comfort food, but slightly reinvented. Our bar menu was created for college students, especially to attract them before a big game. All items are priced at $5 and include fried chicken and Belgian waffles with chipotle syrup and pulled pork sliders. Much of our business also comes from a pre-theater crowd so we created a farmers market-based menu that can be executed quickly.
What is your food philosophy?
Working at Auberge and étoile, I was able to hone my skills in fine dining. I learned how to translate flavors throughout a meal without a spice or ingredient overpowering the dish. I use that approach now—to take ingredients and not over-think them. I like fresh, locally sourced foods and use simple techniques to make the food stand out.
What inspires your cooking and ideas for recipes?
When I travel and whenever I go out to eat—I look for new food, products and ideas that I haven’t seen before and then see what twist I can put on them, while keeping with the comfort-food approach that we maintain at FIVE. The available produce at farmers markets also heavily influences our menu. For example, we purchased some wonderful cauliflower so we are currently offering a curry cauliflower soup with almond raisin chutney.
How do your Southern or Texan roots influence your recipes?
I love chipotles. I also like to use family recipes when I can. The cornbread that was on the menu recently is my grandmother’s recipe.
How often does FIVE's menu change?
We have staples that stay on the menu. Twenty percent of the [à la carte] menu changes every month. The prix fixe menu changes every week.
Do you have a preferred food or ingredient to work with?
It’s hard to say. I’m really into spices like cardamom. I often get hooked on specific ingredients during certain seasons. Right now my preferences are persimmons, dates and winter citrus fruits such as Bergamot oranges and blood oranges. I feel I’m at my best in the spring when I can use seasonal ingredients like lush peas, fava beans and ramps, which I love.
What is your favorite thing to eat?
Barbecue! Whenever I get a little homesick, my father sends me barbecue from Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas—the restaurant my family’s gone to since I was a child. I’m particular about barbecue and I haven’t found a good place here.
What is the one food everyone should try in their lifetime?
It’s not one food, but a group—black-eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread—my family ate it every New Year’s Day for good luck.—Vanessa Facenda