Banks White is the executive chef of Five, which calls itself a modern American bistro. Think comfort food with au courant accents: Macaroni and cheese made with orzo, wild mushrooms, tomato jam, and smoked gouda. Slow braised short rib pot roast with mascarpone polenta. Buttermilk biscuits with white cheddar pimento cheese.
The Berkeley restaurant (named for the five senses and its 5 o’clock happy hour) is housed in the historic, refurbished Hotel Shattuck Plaza, which looks like it’s been given the Dorothy Draper treatment. (This writer spent some time last fall at the interior designer’s signature space, The Greenbrier in West Virginia.) Swirling black-and-white wallpaper. Ornate red chandelier. Black-and-white marble floors and red wall sconces. Get the picture?
White hails from Texas, land of barbecue and Buds, but is trained in classic French culinary techniques. The 30-year-old has worked for several upscale boutique hotel restaurants including The Driskill in Austin and Auberge du Soleil in the Napa Valley.
Involved with Five since the planning stages, earlier this year White took over the reins at the restaurant from chef Scott Howard, who recently opened Brick & Bottle in Marin. In a nod to Banks’ hometown, this summer the restaurant is featuring a pre-fixe BBQ, Brews & Blues night every Thursday. Read a review of the restaurant by Bay Area food critic Michael Bauer.
White moved here three years ago and lives in West Berkeley. We spoke last Tuesday afternoon following First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to The Claremont Hotel, where Alice Waters and other local chefs, including Josh Thomsen, Charlie Hallowell, and Samin Nosrat, cooked eggs and toast for 200 at a political fundraiser.
So, were you there this morning?
No, I wasn’t invited.
You were not invited to cook for this country’s African American First Lady?
That’s right. It was disappointing. I wanted to be there so bad.
Do you know the Chez Panisse crew?
I’ve staged there three times.
Would you please explain for readers what the French term stage means?
In most American restaurants a stage means trying out for a job in a kitchen. But in Europe it really means learning from a chef in the kitchen.
My first stage at Chez was a few years ago, not long after I moved out here, and I was trying out for a job. They offered me a line cook position in the cafe. But I didn’t take it. I didn’t realize there was a long line for jobs at Chez. I got the offer at Auberge and took that instead.
I’m really most comfortable in a hotel kitchen environment. I love the energy of it and the fact that you’re not just coming in at 11 to cook dinner that night. It’s three meals a day and events and banquets and catering and there’s just always something going on at a hotel.
Can you give us the flavor of those experiences at Chez?
Every chef should have the opportunity to stage at Chez Panisse. It’s a learning experience in a restaurant that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, just getting the lay of the land there and taking in their approach to cooking food. I’m glad I had the chance to do that.
The first time I was there Alice Waters pulled up a chair and watched me prep. But you know she hasn’t really cooked in the kitchen for a long time. The two chefs are Jean-Pierre Moulle and David Tanis. Jean-Pierre took me downstairs and showed me how to break down a whole pig. The fact that an executive chef took the time to do that really stayed with me, they’re all about teaching and training others.
Berkeley patrons are well-educated about food and they expect you to know your stuff. And they really want to know where their food is coming from. That’s all great. The flip side to that is sometimes I’d love to cook lobster or foie gras. But it doesn’t fit with our local, sustainable, farm-to-table sensibility. And, of course you have to be consistently good, because people have options downtown now like Gather and Revival, and we’re all vying for the same diners. I see that as a positive; it keeps us on our toes.
What do you like about the local food?
The incredible quality of produce, meat, and cheese. Cooking here is about choosing and pairing the right ingredients, not so much about trying to coax flavors out of them. You have to get out of the way and keep your ego out of it and just let the ingredients speak for themselves.
Do you like to eat out around town?
I don’t cook on my days off. I like the pizzas and salads at Paisan. I live right near the International Marketplace and I love the diversity of ethnic cuisines there. I can have an Afghani kebab one day and lamb karahi from Chaat and Curries the next. I liked the Jamaican soul food place, Flavah Island Cafe, before it closed down.
What’s missing here food wise?
A really good barbecue place. The ones I’ve tried just don’t smoke the meat long enough.
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