Executive chef Eric Tucker has guided San Francisco’s Millennium restaurant into a solid position as one of the most respected vegetarian establishments in the country. The fact that Millennium is vegan and has a sustainable ethic that permeates every aspect of the restaurant is a quiet fact.
The ingredients are all organic, the curtains that hang from ceiling to floor utilize recycled fabric, and cooking oil is lent to bio-diesel manufactures; but Tucker’s focus is unquestionably on a fine dining experience. Serving up dishes such as Pecan Crusted Portobello Mushrooms and Blue Hubbard Squash Risotto, the lifelong cook draws upon a global palette of flavors to create gourmet food that happens to not use animal products.
This is a destination restaurant for both those interested in high-end cuisine and healthy eating, it’s not uncommon for Tucker to step out of the Millennium kitchen to sign one of his two cookbooks for a patron.
A tattoo of a chanterelle mushroom peeks out from his shirt cuff as Tucker talked to YOGI TIMES on a day off before the busy holiday season.
YOGI TIMES: On your day off, do you think of what you’re going to make next?
ERIC TUCKER: I was riding my bike this morning and for the entire ride I was thinking of food. Sometimes I get great ideas while cycling. On the ride, I got a call from the wine buyer to discuss what will go with the tasting menu. Next week we’re doing a five-course menu, where every course is built around winter squash. It never stops.
YT: You’ve been a successful restauranteur for more than a decade, which is saying a ton in a competitive business. Do you think that’s partly attributable to being vegan?
ERIC TUCKER: We’ve never tried to wear being vegan on our shirtsleeve because we don’t want to be limited. That’s the cuisine we do. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed into what many people’s perceptions of what vegetarian restaurants are, which is that mound of brown rice thing. We basically set it up to be a vegetable-based fine dining restaurant. I think sticking to our guns, but adapting a bit has helped us be successful.
YT: So a diner at Millennium can be assured they’re eating healthy?
ERIC TUCKER: I can’t say something out of our deep fryer is healthy for you. But small doses of things like that satiate on a psychological level as well. It can be healthy not to deprive yourself. Eat sensible. You enter our walk-in and it’s like going to the farmers market. Everything is quality fresh. We only use the best stuff we can get our hands on. Not just produce but grains and beans too. Everything is organic and sustainable, including our wines.
YT: How did you first find yourself interested in healthful eating?
ERIC TUCKER: In high school, I was hypoglycemic. I was trying to run cross-country and wondering why I was passing out before class or practice. The nutritionist of the day recommended meat. He said, “You should be eating seven courses of meat. You need that protein to regulate your insulin.” I thought, that goes counterintuitive to anything I’ve been reading about carbohydrate loading and what’s good for digestion and stuff like that. So that led me to do research on my own, which led to heading toward vegetarianism in college. I was working at normal, mainstream restaurants in New Jersey and there was a point where I started to do something more health supportive where they give a damn about the product. This led to going to cookery school at the National Gourmet Institute for Food and Health in Manhattan, which led me to California.
YT: Eleven years, two cookbooks and a recent move into a new building (the Geary St. location at the Savoy Hotel is two years old), what keeps it fresh for you?
ERIC TUCKER: We’re always evolving and to a certain respect de-evolving. In the SF Bay Area we’re a much less food trendy city than New York or Chicago where food is constructed and reconstructed. The education base of our clientele doesn’t need nor want that trendy kind of food. Most restaurants get the core of what you’re doing and then it’s just riffing on that theme. Every year there’s some new produce we’ve never used before. New blood in the kitchen or dining room will add to it. If anything, I think the food is getting a hair simpler. There’s a little less being influenced by haute cuisine where everything has to be a tower. I like to keep the flavors more distinct, let the product shine. There’s so much indigenous cuisine from the pre-industrial revolution that’s vegetable based. We change about three quarters of the menu through the seasons. We got some rain so that means we have local wild mushrooms. I’ve got my refrigerator full of fantastic chanterelles. I’m exited about porcinis. Every month we do an insert on our normal vegetable. The focus could be a vegetable or a particular farm. Or we focus on particular style or region.
YT: With vegetarianism, people get concerned about food combining. Is that something you think about when designing a menu?
ERIC TUCKER: No. Realistically if a plate is balanced it’s going to take care of itself. If we do an entree, there will be some sort of protein on the plate whether it’s beans or tofu or tempeh or a nut based sauce. Not exclusively, but there might be a grain. Then there are a myriad of vegetables. So with that it becomes a complete protein. We’re doing it from a composition, texture, flavor profile of balance, but it takes care of itself.
YT: How do you come up with a new menu item? You’ve just been out foraging—will you bring the mushroom into the kitchen?
ERIC TUCKER: Those mushrooms are mine. But I did bring some in the kitchen and we did a simple bruschetta. We had some roasted pumpkin so we made a spread to smear on the bread with a little scallion oil. It was perfect. That’s how we do it. We see what we have on hand and get creative with how to use it. A farmer may come in with 10 extra pounds of something and we think okay, that’s a good deal. Let’s turn it into something. I go to the farmer’s market to buy from them and I have plenty of farms I directly source from. My favorite is Terra Sonoma. Suzan Stover and Tony Sadoti have a small farm themselves and are a clearing house of small farms. They send us a list and show up at our door twice a week with all sorts of stuff. A farm will for some reason have the best butternut squash and we’ll use that. All summer long I used Eat Well Farms tomatoes.
YT: Do you have a favorite season?
ERIC TUCKER: Probably a couple of weeks ago when we had the end of the summer produce and all the fall produce. Every season has it positives. The beginnings of all the seasons are good, when you get the first of the vegetables. In spring, you get the first of the asparagus, morels. In fall, the first local chantarelles pop up.
YT: And you cook at home? Will you celebrate Thanksgiving at home?
ERIC TUCKER: Thanksgiving is our biggest day. But afterward, I might get together with friends or it will just be my girlfriend and me. In general, I like to cook at home and I like to go out. I like good Vietnamese cuisines, or Asian based cuisines, Hispanic cuisine. I always like to check out ethnic places more than typical fine dining.
YT: Do you have any recommendations for the home cook?
ERIC TUCKER: Do things ahead of time, casserole type things you can put in the oven, set a time and forget about it while guests arrive. If you bake something, it can be more foolproof. And don’t fight the seasons. We have the best produce around here.
YT: What would you order from your menu right now?
ERIC TUCKER: Hmmm. For a starter i’d probably have our tamale right now. It has squash, pure, end-of-season corn, and is served over a rich parsnip bisque with a tomatillo chipotle salsa, toasted pumpkin seeds and some sautéed broccoli. I’d have the grilled artichoke radicchio salad, because I love both those things grilled. Our pastry chef has a really fantastic spiced blondie with a coconut pumpkin sorbet on top of it, and a bourbon pecan anglaise. It’s kick-ass. They’re the best brownies I’ve ever had whether they have dairy or not.
YT: What do you hope a diner will experience at Millennium?
ERIC TUCKER: Restaurants are the entertainment for a lot of people. I hope they come in and forget about what is going on outside, that they feel appreciated by the wait staff. A really good meal is exciting and nourishing.