Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
A Tale of Two Restaurants: Creating Limitless Concepts with Care and Flavor
At Nightbird Restaurant, you offer a 5-course tasting menu in a boutique-style setting while at Linden Room, your focus is on American craft cocktails. What was your inspiration behind not only the two locations but also the desire to run two very different types of establishments?
Inspiration was based on where I like to eat and drink. I really wanted a focused concept in Linden Room that was very stylized with Nightbird being a little more organic and something I could evolve into.
Both of your restaurants spotlight a commitment to whole animal cookery and support of local farms. Share with us how your ingredients and flavors are incorporated into both Nightbird’s and Linden Room’s menus.
We try to utilize everything and having Linden Room makes that easier. For example, we have sous vide rhubarb on the menu in Nightbird, where we use the actual rhubarb, and then in Linden Room, we use the liquid it was cooked in for our cocktails. It acts as a substitute for sugar, adding sweetness, extra flavor and viscosity.
Describe the role spices and seasonings play in the creation of your menus. How do your choices change from one restaurant to the other?
Spices are a big part of every dish. Since we have a themed menu, this makes it easier to hone in on a certain region or flavor profile. For example, we did a sanctuary menu, since San Francisco is a sanctuary city, and the spice profile was based on Syrian flavors. This involved using dry spices and cooking techniques representative of Syria. One was Za’atar from which we made a “kibble” dish but put our own spin on it.
What are the biggest flavor or seasonality challenges you’ve come across in developing separate menus for Nightbird and Linden Room?
The biggest challenge in being so seasonal is that sometimes the farmers won’t have what they had available 2 days earlier. When I can't get ingredients consistently, I have to change the menu a lot and substitute products.
Have there been times where you paired dishes from Nightbird with features from Linden Room? Provide examples.
Yes! We try to mix up our pairings. Right now, we have wine, sake and a cocktail which the bartenders make table-side. Common flavors in our table-side cocktails include Rose, cardamom, rose-infused gin, brandy, sparkling rose and citric acid.
With our last menu, we were making truffles that were paired with a cocktail and a walnut tuile that we served with a walnut drink.
As seasons change, which new flavors and ingredients can we expect to see making their way to the center-of-the-plate, or the center of the cocktail glass?
Now that it’s officially spring, I am putting strawberries on my savory menu, rhubarb in our pastries and ending citrus usage in Linden Room. The strawberries are going to be charred with roasted fennel for inclusion in a quail dish. The quail itself is sautéed and placed on top of a green strawberry soffritto with warm quinoa salad that has been flavored with strawberry vinegar, roast fennel, raw strawberries, tarragon and foie gras fat.
What advice would you give an up-and-coming chef who dreams of running two contrasting restaurant types?
Put your head down, work hard, listen to your clientele and stand behind your food and staff.