San Francisco’s RN74 is named after the Route Nationale 74, a highway that runs through the Burgundy region of France. True to its moniker, the restaurant takes inspiration from the area’s famous wine and cuisine (think duck and escargot). At the same time, however, RN74 is fiercely influenced by the local bounty of the Bay Area from the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market.
“I think that’s the beauty of this restaurant,” says Executive Chef Michael Lee Rafidi. Since he took the reins of the kitchen in 2015, he’s evolved the menu so that it has the experience of a traditional French bistro but also feels distinctly San Francisco. “We’re two blocks from the farmers’ market — it’s very market-driven. There’s nothing on the menu, besides one or two dishes, that’s on the menu all year round.”
We asked Rafidi all about his approach to honoring traditional regional cuisine while letting local, seasonal product drive the menu — here are his tips.
Build flexibility into your menu.
The RN74 menu changes every couple of days, depending on what ingredients the team finds at the market. Since they print menus in house, they can swap matsutakes for porcinis when the mushroom growers bring in a new variety. That means that when the team hits the farmers’ market — three times a week, with the bulk of shopping falling on Saturday — they come in with an open mind. About half of their shopping list is set in stone based on the menu, and for the other half they leave room for peak-season ingredients they can add — for a few days, or for one night only.
Ask the right questions.
Rafidi brings his cooks to the market frequently to get them engaged in where the food comes from: tasting it and ensuring peak quality. “They get a little bit more in touch with the food,” he says.
Face time at the farmers’ market also gives the cooks the opportunity to speak directly with farmers. They have conversations about what an ingredient is, where it’s from, how long the farmers are going to have it, and whether they can supply as much as the kitchen needs. “We’re trying to make a verbal agreement: can you supply us with 30 pounds a week of cabbage? Then we see if it’s even worth it to put on the menu,” says Rafidi. “It’s so specific. Is the cabbage going to be this small all month, or is it going to get larger and we’ll change the dish around?”
Adapt classics for the season.
RN74 is known for its foie gras, pates, and terrines, which have classic preparations with contemporary plating. The accents to those dishes always change with the seasons, says Rafidi. For example, right now winter citrus is at its peak, so he pairs the meats with those fruits. In the fall he used grapes, and in the summer it was stone fruits. “It all changes with the season, but we still have that classic preparation.”
Before Rafidi took over, RN74 featured ingredients like coconut and pineapple that aren’t native to California, but these days he’s sourcing produce strictly from local farms. “I believe pretty strongly that since we have such great produce grown within 50 miles of here, we should use that first. Why use pineapple when there’s peaches right now?”
Let the wine experience guide the food.
Rafidi tastes every dish the culinary team creates with RN74’s lead sommelier David Castleberry, who pairs it with a variety of different wines. Rafidi is quick to take Castelberry’s cues on how to make dishes as wine-friendly as possible. “He’ll say, ‘Chef, there’s too much acidity on the dish with that fruit,’ and I’ll take it back. We’ll find a way to balance it and make sure it makes sense. It’s a package deal: it’s not just the food, it has to go with the wine and come together as one.”
Celebrate farms as it makes sense for your brand.
RN74 doesn’t call out farms on its menu, mostly because of the way the menu is structured. “I’ve always liked that, but we’d have to change the whole menu format to do it,” says Rafidi. He wanted to tweak the menu to showcase farms when he first started at the restaurant but decided not to because of the time and resources required.
Still, the team does use social media to feature the farms they work with. And the servers are extremely knowledgeable about sourcing, so they can call out the Liberty Farm duck wings by name when they are interacting with a table. “We’re educating the staff to educate the diners — it’s a good way to connect.”
Stay ahead of the season.
Rafidi’s number one tip for seasonal cooking is to buy an ingredient when it’s first in season — typically not when it’s at its peak. It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s when he’ll bring the ingredient into the restaurant and start conceptualizing a dish.
“By the time it’s peak season, it’s on the menu and ready to go,” he explains. That’s another reason it’s important to talk to farmers about what’s coming next, and when. “I want to be the first one to have them so my team can start working.”
Photos courtesy of RN74.