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Raising the bar with Chef Alek Zito, Chef de Cuisine of Saison

March 19, 2024



"Every day you have the opportunity to be better."

Pioneering Chef Alek Zito has risen to Chef de Cuisine at the two Michelin-starred restaurant @saisonsf in San Francisco, leading their Foraging and Fermentation Program, reducing food waste, and sourcing exceptional ingredients from local purveyors.

Her advice to chefs? Choose a place where you can get the most exposure, not necessarily in fine dining. Chef Alek has worked at local farmer's markets, nonprofits that grant access to fresh produce for low-income residents, and ultimately pivotal experiences at Prune and Blue Hill that eventually led her to Saison. 

Tell us about your background and what inspired you to become a chef.

It was all kind of an accident. I did some food work in college and was always involved in food in one way or another whether I worked farmers market jobs or worked for a nonprofit food organization writing grants (CalFresh) on how lower-income people can gain better access to farmers' markets. I also did catering work on the side. I've always been circling around working in professional kitchens, but never dove in. I accidentally took a job at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago and didn’t realize it was a Gordon Ramsay environment. I didn’t realize the level of seriousness and commitment it entailed but after a month, I felt like I got much better at aspects I enjoyed. There's a lot of immediate gratification. You know if you’ve done well or bad, it’s clear-cut and obvious. Every day you have an opportunity to be better. It’s been about six or seven years and I’ve learned that it’s 50% physical labor and 50% artistry as well.

How do you describe your own cooking philosophy and how that integrates with Saison?

How we approach everything at Saison is: “You’re only as good as the ingredients you use.” If you start with the best ingredients, you can only get better from there. Since we’re based in California, we have access to great things. We figure out how ingredients can shine on their own without manipulation, but also how to highlight unexpected combinations. Take kiwi, for example; how do we showcase it in a surprising way, such as serving it with oysters.

Photo credit: Adahlia Cole

"You’re only as good as the ingredients you use. If you’re starting w/ the best ingredients you can only get better from there."

— Chef Alek Zito, Chef de Cuisine of Saison

Tell us about your role at Saison and all the different important parts of the restaurant that you’re influencing and overseeing.

There was fermentation work being done when I joined Saison; I came in and took charge of it, taking ownership of that project. From there, I could develop what's loosely considered a fermentation program. It allows me to experiment, but the main goal is to identify areas of waste that we produce and find a way to reuse them, ultimately showcasing them on the menu as house flavors/pantry items unique to Saison. Some of these have become staples for seasoning our dishes. Additionally, I took on the role of buying from farmers' markets which helps me identify things we can use moving forward—unique ingredients, items that are currently in season, as well as those suitable for fermentation. I progressed from a sous chef role to a Chef de Cuisine role.

I have worked with renowned chefs such as Chef Gabrielle Hamilton, one of the most influential chefs in my life, as well as, Dan Barber at Blue Hill in NY. 

Photo credit: Adahlia Cole

What's your favorite ingredient and cooking tool to work with?

I work a lot with koji; it is both an ingredient and a tool. It’s an organic technology that can help develop flavor which is used in fermentation, and the end result is also an ingredient.

Best kitchen hack and/or helpful tips/tricks for at-home chefs?

I like the idea of building a little pantry for yourself. For example, if I use mushrooms, I save the mushroom butts and leave them on the windowsill to dry. When making soup, I toss them in. For herbs, if they've dried out, I collect the tops from leeks or leaves from celery, mix them with salt, and run them through a blender. You've got herb salt for various dishes. You can expand your home cooking creatively, not necessarily relying on store-bought items, by developing a personal pantry.

Any culinary heroes, favorite restaurants or food inspiration?

Fergus Henderson at St. John in London. I’m just about simplicity. If it's delicious and on the plate cooked well and seasoned well, it’s basically perfect.

What's your favorite dish or recipe on the Saison menu that incorporates Zero Acre oil and why? 

We've been using Zero Acre oil to actually cook. It takes high heat well, so when we're cooking over embers to grill or pan-roasting items, the heat can be high. In terms of concentrated flavor, it's in the seasoning oils we use. We typically use what's considered neutral oil to make seasoning oil, adding herbs to allow their flavors to come through. I've used Zero Acre oil for this purpose, and it's actually not very neutral. It's almost like there's MSG present; it enhances the ingredients that you add to it.

What advice do you have for chefs at the beginning of their careers?

I generally advise that culinary school is not necessary. You should choose a place where you can get the most exposure, which is not necessarily in fine dining. In some fine dining restaurants, you'll be picking herbs for six months. Instead, look for an environment where you can engage in a variety of tasks. Then you can decide what's right for you. Get as much exposure as you can which can be at a small restaurant.

What excites you about the future of your industry?

I think overall, there are a lot of trickle-down effects in terms of taste. There's increasing attention to the quality of ingredients and sourcing, which is becoming more mainstream rather than exclusive to fine dining. It's becoming more accessible for people now. The general public has a higher taste level, and that makes me happy because it means we can enjoy really creative and high-quality food at a lower price point and in a more casual environment.

Visit Saison and follow @saisonsf.

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