Rarely does a meal linger in your mind for days, but downtown San Francisco’s Aveline will leave you marveling about the food long after the last plate has been cleared. The genius behind inventive and whimsical dishes such as the visually stunning vegetable garden (a presentation of raw vegetables on a bed of turtle bean puree and mustard seed cream) and the dainty crab macarons (a toasted finger sandwich filled with meaty crab and Asian flavors) is chef Casey Thompson.
A self-taught toque — she didn’t even go to culinary school — who worked her way up the ranks at Dallas‘ famed Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Mansion Restaurant at Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, Thompson was mentored by the legendary Southwestern chef Dean Fearing. She also appeared on season three of Top Chef, where she built a massive fan following due to her charming personality. May 2014’s opening of Aveline at The Warwick San Francisco is Thompson’s first big project on the West Coast. We sat down with the petite, friendly chef to discuss her creative vision and how she sees California cuisine tasting in the near future.
How did you get involved in the restaurant?
Two years ago, almost to the day when we opened [Aveline], I was approached [with a proposition] by a guy who no longer works for the company. He came to me and asked if I was interested in opening a restaurant with him. This happens a lot and you have to dig deep and do your research. For example, I had been a year into talking about one restaurant, but decided, “No, it’s not the right one.” But this guy said, “We would love for you to chef at one of our hotels in New York.” And then he said, “Well, what do you want? We have many hotels.” I told him that I live here in the Bay Area and that’s where I want to be. It was good timing as they were looking to overhaul the entire restaurant here, and this is where we started Aveline. It’s all me. I picked it all — the stain of the wood on the tables, the candles, the linens, everything. You don’t want to know what I went through. It’s a home for me, and I’m still tweaking things. It’s very much a massive project that has my entire heart and soul involved.
Why did you decide to come to San Francisco in the first place? Most chefs head east not west.
After Top Chef, many different avenues opened up. I was working with Clorox and they are based in Oakland. I would travel out here and do test kitchen stuff. There was one day when I got on the plane to go home and I had tears streaming down my face because I didn’t want to leave. I love the Bay Area. It’s not too big. There’s an amazing bounty of food. I love the fact that it’s not New York. I’ll never forget when Tom Colicchio and I were walking down the street to his sandwich shop here in San Francisco and he looks at me and says, “This city is so not New York.” And it’s really not. It’s small. It didn’t take me long to get used to where I was going and figure out where the farmers markets are.
What are the differences between the cuisines of Texas and California?
Texas is definitely closing in. I can’t open a magazine or check Twitter without hearing about the food in Texas. Everyone is talking about it. Our food [in Texas] is super bold. You eat it and think, “Is it spicy or herbaceous or is there a lot of cilantro?” There are a lot of peppers and chiles and habaneros. Out here, a dish might have a light habanero scent to it. But out there, they are chopped up in the dish. Texas food is big, bold and in your face. In California, it’s delicate, colorful and beautiful, and the bounty provides so much. In Texas, it’s tricky because our growing seasons are much shorter. California is also more technically driven. I am trying to combine both and have colorful, bold food at Aveline, but with smaller California portions.
What is your take on San Francisco’s dining scene?
It’s rapidly growing, competitive and traditional. Community wise, we have been well received. I sort of came in with blinders being that I’ve never cooked here. That set me apart in a different way. I came in doing what I wanted to do, not what San Francisco is asking me to do, and I did it with my fingers crossed. I’m paying homage to my roots while using what the farmers here have to offer.
You cook for Aveline and also do the menu at the hotel’s bar, The European. What is it like to cook for two distinct spaces housed at the same hotel?
Super fun! I’m very lucky. It’s the brother to the sister, the ying to our yang. At The European, I get to have fun with food. I make a dish with a Velveeta Mornay sauce and also there is housemade spam over there. Our burger has brisket ground into it. The food at The European is meant to be playful and delicious.
There is always a lot of talk about how there aren’t many female chefs. Do you feel like you are helping to blaze the way?
I never really thought about it until it was brought up. My kitchen? It’s predominantly male, but I don’t think of it. We all have a job to do. I can be a bit feisty, and I have had to fight for what I want. There is a boy’s club and I have found myself thinking, “How would things be different if I were male?” I am a girl, and that’s totally fine. I remember coming up the line, and there were a lot of things thrown at me. Women possess something different. They have a level of cool calmness to their cooking style. I don’t have to be so macho. I can see when my guys are stressed out. I can tell by their plating. Women find this inner peace. I have a very nurturing kitchen environment. I don’t yell. We are a close-knit team.