Hillside Supper Club in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood is all about community. In fact, you could say that chef-owners Tony Ferrari and Jonathan Sutton, along with the kitchen crew, servers, and regular customers, are like one big family. Ferrari, Sutton and their team love to put new spins on seasonal and local ingredients. At mid-summer’s peak, tomatoes take a star turn on the menu, as in the restaurant’s zesty Sauce Vierge. We had a chance to ask the Hillside Crew about their humble beginnings as a pop-up, the importance of farmers, and the joy of summer tomatoes.
Hillside Summer Club is deeply committed to connecting with the local community. For someone who’s never been to the restaurant, can you describe what that approach looks and feels like in action?
As chefs we have a responsibility to cook from the land, the sea, and our local economy. We have to grasp the idea of farming and what that means for day-to-day operations in the restaurant. We try our best to get the staff out to our farmers and producers once a month to meet the people behind the product. Once back at the restaurant, the story then continues to the guests. The servers know firsthand what they are delivering, the cooks feel better about cooking it well, and everyone has more respect for what they just worked hard to produce. The farmers admire us coming out to help as a way to better understand how much work it takes to provide for us. We cook it well, enhance the flavor with fun garnishes, and hope that the guest can feel it as much as we do.
Can you talk a bit about Hillside Supper Club’s beginnings as a pop-up?
We started some years back before pop-ups were so popular. We cooked at people’s homes in Bernal Heights for casual get-togethers with friends. All of us would cook a course and plate it the way we wanted; it was our time to shine on our day off away from the professional kitchen. It got too popular for the home so we had to move in somewhere bigger. The owner of a place called The Corner had opened for pop-ups and chefs who wanted to test their concepts. We brought our concept there every Monday for three months and it eventually spread into a full-time business for us. We quit our jobs and focused 100 percent into turning this into a real restaurant. We reached out to all our friends to help us cook and serve to help make it happen—without that support we could of never done it. People in Bernal kept telling us about Cozzolino restaurant. We made a deal with the owners to do a pop-up to prove to ourselves that we could run a place. After a year they gave us the keys and moved in. It was the perfect situation for everyone.
We just hit summer’s peak in the Bay Area and tomatoes are entering their prime. How are you using tomatoes on the restaurant’s menu?
We have such a tight small menu that it’s hard to use everything, or use it multiple times, but we just can’t help it with tomatoes. It’s such a short season and when tomatoes are in their prime you can’t pass them up. We use them for brunch in a hash and in a salad. For dinner we blister them for a pasta, macerate them for a lobster dish, and put raw ones in our pot pie. We personally love the baby heirlooms because of their color and flavors. They are like a little burst of love.
Your Sauce Vierge recipe calls for eight pounds of heirloom baby tomatoes. How do you source the best tomatoes for this recipe?
We find the best from the market. We go to Alemany Farmers Market and get pounds of tri-colored grape and cherry tomatoes. They are so sweet and the skin gives and nice bitterness to balance them.
What are some of your favorite tomato varieties?
Sun Golds for their color, sweetness and constant beautiful shape. Early Girls for heartier, family-style salads and eating straight up with EVOO and Maldon salt. Zebra Rita for cooking and frying—it’s the classic green tomato that has a tangy, almost pickled-like texture.
How can EVOO compliment tomatoes in the home-cook’s kitchen?
We believe great olive oil helps carry the flavor of the tomato. Fats, especially EVOO, help enhance and carry flavors. It gives the tomatoes more body, texture, and adds to the earthiness. Not to mention the sheen it can give any type of tomato, and it can also act as a preservative.