Interview with Absinthe Chef Adam Keough: spicy rabbit meatballs, food secrets and culinary mentors

| May 6, 2012 | 0 Comments
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Adam Keough
Chef Adam Keough. Photo Credit: Ana Homonnay

One San Francisco hotspot that has been able to consistently nail brasserie food and thoughtful cocktails is Absinthe. The Hayes Valley location and varied menu tend to be a draw for arts patrons and gourmand imbibers, and the inviting space gives off a sexy and warm vibe (what’s not to love about that?). Adam Keough, 34, has been the Executive Chef of Absinthe since 2010. During his tenure, Absinthe garnered a Chronicle Top 100 spot for both 2011 and 2012. Wine Spectator gave Absinthe its Best of Award of Excellence for three straight years from 2009 through 2011. The accolade list continues: Absinthe is also on the 2011 and 2012 Eater SF 38 Essential San Francisco Restaurants list and 7×7 Magazine Big Eat 2012 list of 100 things to eat before you die.

Chef Keogh is from Boston and early on felt the draw of the kitchen when he did holiday cooking with his grandparents as a kid. His first job was as a teenager at a South Boston restaurant and he then enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Keough did an externship at the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach and was junior sous chef and chef de cuisine for award-winning Chef Anthony Ambrose at Ambrosia on Huntington. The budding chef worked with Joshua Skenes at Ambrosia, and the two remained friends after Skenes landed in the Bay Area (more on that in a bit).

He next worked under Skenes at Chez TJ, and then cheffed for the Mina Restaurant Group at Arcadia in San Jose. At age 28, he opened Stonehill Tavern for Michael Mina at the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point. Under his watch, the restaurant received three stars from the Los Angeles Times, and Keough was named “Best New Chef of Orange County” by Riviera magazine. He was also twice a James Beard Foundation semifinalist, in 2007 and 2008. Bay Area Bites caught up with Keough via telephone interview.

What’s new at the restaurant? We hear you’re looking for a pastry cook.
We’re always looking for good people in every department.

Mattie Conway is now the Bar Manager. We’re re-launching some items on the menu and he’s still out front doing some bartending.

Obviously launching the spring menu is exciting. We’re coming out of the long winter, where you see the same products over and over. So once spring hits, you have beautiful vegetables and fruit. I’m adding a mozzarella stuffed arancini with a spicy orange pomodoro. My grandmother used to put orange juice in her marinara for sweetness. The dish is done with a little white wine, and San Marzano tomatoes charred under the broiler. Fold that into all the ingredients, and then do a slow simmer for 45 minutes. There’s acid to balance the flavor from all the mascarpone cheese and cream.

By early May, there will also be an open face smoked trout sandwich with gribiche sauce, crispy pancetta, butter lettuce, and pickled red onion, on griddled brioche. Gribiche is almost like a French version of tartare sauce. It has all the same kind of components, and instead of egg yolk, there’s a mayo made with hard boiled egg. Then I fold in capers, cornichons and fines herbes.

I’m also preparing a James Beard menu, for an event happening at the Beard House in Manhattan mid-summer. We have a team of about ten people doing the planning and preparing. Everyone’s distributed to different tasks, and we’ll create the Absinthe experience there. Which means we bring everything there. I went ten years ago with Tony Ambrose. They’ve remodeled since I was there last, but you can look online to see how it’s all set up.

You rotate rabbit meatballs on the menu. Meatballs are crowd pleasing, but why go with rabbit?
The way the rabbit meatballs started is I wanted to do this rabbit stew because I really like a good, simple braised rabbit stew. But the loin pieces of meat always dry out. So I decided I wanted to just serve my favorite part of the rabbit: the front and hind legs. Then I can take the rest of the meat and do something different. Thinking about our bar snack program, you’ve got people who are going to the symphony and getting small bites and what not… Whenever rabbit stew is on the menu, then meatballs are also on the bar menu.

Do you have a significant other?
Yes, I do and she likes it when I mention her (laughs). Emily LeBloch and I met when I was the chef at Stonehill Tavern. I was at the Red Fox Lounge bar. It’s a surfer and lifeguard type of bar and I used to go there after work. She was having a small birthday party and asked me to sign her friend’s birthday card. We started talking and have been together for 5 yrs. She’s a behavior therapist for kids with CARD (the Center for Autism Related Disorders) and we live together in Hayes Valley.

Working at a place called Absinthe may get people wondering if you love to order the “green fairy” spirit. Do you drink absinthe?
I like it in cocktails and try and taste everything here. But I prefer my drink to be the 21 Hayes, which has gin, Pimms and muddled cucumber.

What are your favorite spots for food & drink?
Rainbow. For meats and things, I’ll stop by Fatted Calf and get something cool.
I don’t want it to blow up too much but I like to go to Katana-Ya on Geary at Mason. Every time, I get the lava roll, which has tempura shrimp with spicy tuna.

We really like going to Burma Superstar, usually for lunch on Monday, which is always my day off.

I go get pizza at Tony’s in North Beach.

Who are your mentors?
Michael Mina – we still communicate by phone or text.
Tony Ambrose really taught me a lot and we still talk quite a bit. He’ll probably come to the James Beard dinner.
Josh Skenes – we worked together years ago with Tony Ambrose. Then Josh moved out here. He kept telling me about Chez TJ, and the produce and restaurant scene out here. So then we worked together at Chez TJ.

What is your favorite meal to have with your family?
My favorite cooking style that I love is cooking whole cuts of meat, whether it’s a whole turkey, prime rib, or leg of lamb. I make an herb marinade, and then a sauce from the natural pan drippings.

What is your guiltiest food pleasure?
Smartfood popcorn.

Any other news?
Beyond going to New York for the James Beard dinner, I have some trips planned to Vegas this year.

Rabbit Meatballs
Photo Credit: Ana Homonnay

Recipe: Spicy Rabbit Meatballs
Yields: about 20-25 golf ball size meatballs

Ingredients: Meatballs
1 1/2 lb ground rabbit (very cold)
1/4 lb ground chicken leg meat (very cold)
1/4 lb ground pancetta (very cold)
1/4 lb ground back fat (very cold)
1C finely chopped Calabrian chiles
1 1/2 Tbs finely chopped garlic
3/4 C minced yellow onions
1 tsp toasted and ground fennel seeds
2 tbs Kosher salt
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 C chopped Italian parsley
1/4 C chopped oregano
1/4 C chopped basil
2 tsp red chile flakes
1/2 C grated Parmesan
4 ea whole eggs
1/4 C milk
1/3 C Ricotta cheese
3 C bread crumbs (made from Italian or French loaf)
1qt olive oil for frying
1 pt All purpose flour for coating the meatballs

Ingredients: Sauce
3 qt San Marzano tomatoes, hand crushed
1 bunch basil

    Instructions:

  1. Mix the ricotta, milk and eggs in a bowl and lightly whisk together.
  2. Add all other meatball ingredients in a big bowl and pour over the milk-ricotta mixture.
  3. Mix well. Then sauté a small piece in oil to check for seasoning. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
  4. Form by hand into golf ball sized meatballs and put on a large tray lined with wax paper.
  5. Heat oil in skillet to 350 degrees. Heat tomatoes and basil in a large pot. Season with salt & pepper.
  6. Lightly coat 9 or 10 meatballs at a time with the flour and fry in the oil until golden brown. Drain on a paper towel. Then add them to the tomato sauce. Repeat until all the meatballs are fried.
  7. Cook over low heat (very slight bubbles) for 1.5 hours. Stir gently every 20 minutes to rotate the meatballs.
  8. Turn off heat and cool the meatballs down in the sauce.
  9. Serve with crusty bread or over your favorite type of pasta. These meatballs are best topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, chopped basil and good extra virgin olive oil.
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Mary Ladd is a freelance writer and event professional based in her hometown of San Francisco. Her writing has been featured in SF Weekly, Tasting Table, the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere. She has shuttled Anthony Bourdain around town and mastered the art of properly loading a catering van in a flash. Mary has eaten the world’s hottest burger and loves to cook and eat. Follow her at @mladdfood