Gilbert Pilgram

The owner of San Francisco’s beloved Zuni Café, Gilbert Pilgram, speaks with Gabe Ulla about a childhood in Mexico, road-tripping through Argentina, and the virtue of good service.

Zuni Café

Gilbert Pilgram, the chef and owner of San Francisco’s urbane landmark Zuni Café, seems to have cracked one of the most difficult codes in his industry: how to stay at the top of your game while enjoying life outside the walls of your restaurant.In tones more impassioned than decadent, he speaks of hitting the slopes in Zermatt or catching an Ivo van Hove production wherever in the world it may be staged—interests that give him the fuel to preserve the legacy of Zuni, which he took over in 2013 after the passing of his dear friend, the chef Judy Rodgers.

Maybe it’s the California thing that explains the enviable balance; for decades Pilgram has played a central role in the wellsprings of good vibes and farmers’ market cooking that are Zuni and Chez Panisse (he is still a partner at Chez, where he was general manager before moving over to his current post). Maybe it’s his former life as an MBA graduate, managing law firms with such ease that he had to seek out a career in restaurants to fight the boredom. Or it could also just be his acupuncturist, whom he says has taught him how to compartmentalize.

Whatever deserves the credit, one can count themself lucky to cross paths with Gilbert, whether he’s signaling you over to the zinc bar at Zuni for a margarita (he maintains they are the best in the world), belting out Chavela Vargas late at night in a villa along Lake Como (that happened), or meeting up for an early spring breakfast in New York, as he did a few weeks ago, to talk about how he likes to engage with the world.

What makes a good diner? Particularly when traveling. __If you come into a restaurant for the first time and you are a walk-in, you have to be respectful of the institution. It clearly has regulars that come two, three times a week. So if you see that someone who got there after you got a slightly better table, don’t make a stink of it. Being a regular for a restaurant is so important. It is economically great, but it also makes the place run more efficiently. You, the newcomer, will actually get better service, since the waiters know what the regulars want, freeing them up to take care of you.

Is the food the most important part? There are restaurants I really like where the food isn’t very good but the theater is, and I go for that. You can learn how to navigate a restaurant that has really good floor staff and mediocre food, because you can just figure out how to order something safe. If I have a choice between great food and snooty service or mediocre food and great service, I’ll go with the latter. You will have a better time.

Palacio de Bellas Artes. Credit: Xavier Quetzalcoatl Contreras Castillo.

Walk me through your passion for the theater. Growing up in Mexico City, I fell in with a group of friends who liked to go to the Palacio de Bellas Artes. It was a time in Latin America when dictatorships were flourishing, and there was a coterie of exiled singers that were doing canciones de protesta [protest songs]. Most of them were living in Mexico and would do concerts there. I was twelve, thirteen, thinking I was going to change the world. I also went to San Francisco years before I moved there, when Hair first came out, and my grandmother, who raised me, got tickets. But they wouldn’t let me in, because of the nudity, and I started to cry. They got us into the show next door, which was Man of La Mancha. And so as an eight-year-old I saw a world I had never seen before. Still to date, when I am very, very drunk, I sing, “I am I, Don Quixote!” By now, Dick [my partner] and I have developed a taste. We have begun to recognize productions and opera houses. Next month, Ivo van Hove is directing Boris Godunov, a solid Russian opera with magnificent chorus scenes. I have enough points to get to Paris for it, so I will go there and it will give me tremendous pleasure. A good show is like getting the best acupuncture session. You leave your body and give yourself to a beautiful experience.

What’s with your laundry habit while traveling? I am obsessive about clean laundry, and all my friends make fun of me for it. I like doing it myself, in my room. I wash it in the sink. If you are staying in a room with a jacuzzi bathtub: baby, go for it! I use the hotel shampoo or body wash, and then I hang it to dry. On long trips, I tend to take things that can stay wrinkled or I iron a little. The hotel laundry is not the best place to send a nice shirt, as they are getting many, many shirts and it goes to a service that can turn it around quickly. So I wash it in my room and ask the hotel to press it, because I know that it’ll be done in house. I find the idea of putting dirty clothes in a suitcase disgusting.

Ett Hem in Stockholm, a favorite hotel for Gilbert.

Do you always keep your cool? Temper tantrums in the kitchen will never help you. In my book, you get one a year. Sadly, I think it is important to lose it once, so they know it is at least possible. But overall, you have to treat people with respect. You know who is going to get the upgrade at the airport when the flight has been canceled or they are overbooked? The person who is respectful and kind, not the one throwing a fit. It doesn’t mean sucking up. It means being the adult in the room.

Where was your last vacation? Mexico City, for Mother’s Day. I go nearly every year.

Where will your next vacation be? In a couple of weeks we’re going to Laos, Cambodia, and the Himalayas. I really want to taste the food and see the culture first-hand.

The thing you can’t travel without? A comfortable pair of shoes. Everything else, if you forget, you can get somewhere. A bad pair of shoes can ruin a trip.

Plane, train, or automobile? Plane and train. I am not one to do a road trip through the United States, for instance, because there are parts of the country I am not interested in seeing. But I could definitely do a road trip through Portugal, because I am ignorant to an extent, so I won’t know what I can skip until I see it.

The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? You know, I’m not a talker on flights, so it’s someone who will exchange some niceties and some silly conversation during the meal and that is all.

What is your in-flight ritual? If it’s a long flight, I swallow an entire bottle of water right when I get on. Then I find my “comfort space” before I go to sleep.

The language you wish you spoke? I wish I spoke better French and better Italian. I would love to speak German.

When were you happiest on the road? My friend Alan Weiss and I took a very long road trip in Argentina years ago that was perfect. We went through the desert and the jungle. There were mishaps that were funny, mishaps that weren’t funny. We never lost our sense of humor. It was around the time that The Motorcycle Diaries came out. We had this crappy rental car which we named “El Poderoso” that became part of us.

Desert island or downtown? Downtown: the people, the buzz, the possibility of art. Desert island is something that you can accomplish at home with a bit of discipline.

If you could live at any hotel which would it be? Ett Hem in Stockholm.

What is your room service indulgence? We do a continental breakfast because we are lazy and wake up late.

The strangest place you’ve spent a night? I would say the bath houses in San Francisco when I was in college.

What is your favorite market? Coyoacán in Mexico City.

If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? San Francisco thirty years from now.

What are the show-off spots in your hometown? The Marin Headlands road, right beyond the Golden Gate, when it goes one-way along the coast and you can go incredibly fast in a manual car with someone who is having fun with it and won’t be saying, “You’re going too fast!” That is the point.

Which places would you happily spend a: Weekend: Bolinas, California. Week: New York. Month: Zermatt, Switzerland, or José Ignacio, Uruguay. Year: London.

Your biggest extravagance on the road? A good hotel room.

Describe a memorable meal from your travels. Traveling with Anissa Helou in Syria. We were on the road, had just left Palmyra and had driven by the very famous Bagdad Cafe, the real one. We stopped where we saw a family processing freekeh, the grain. They made some for us with citrus and a little bit of oil. It was incredibly special: we were total strangers to them, a poor family who welcomed us into their milieu right away, even if only Anissa knew the language. They were curious about us, we were curious about them. It was almost childlike.

Travel hell is? I truly haven’t had a travel hell. If you are traveling, you are already lucky.

Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? By now I should have gone to Vietnam.

Three favorite stores on earth? One doesn’t exist anymore: a little shop at the Palais Royal called L’Escalier D’Argent that was run by a former head ballerina for the Paris Ballet. She knew she wasn’t going to be a dancer forever, so she learned upholstery and did it for fancy, fancy people. She also knew she wasn’t going to be able to do upholstery forever, so when the lady of the house would buy a couch, she would always make a vest for the man of the house with the same fabric, knowing that he would be on board for more purchases. She then opened a store of vests made with upholstery fabrics named Atelier D’Argia.
I also love Deyrolle in Paris; and in San Francisco, a store that makes handmade leather goods called April in Paris.

Most treasured travel memento? The perfect run in Zermatt, Switzerland, from top to bottom. Seeing the immensity of the surroundings puts me in my place.

Why do you travel? It makes one a better person. I think you understand people better. If people traveled more there would be more peace. Everybody ultimately has the same needs and aspirations.

Gabe Ulla is a New York-based writer who has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, T, Saveur and Town and Country. He has co-written two books, Ignacio Mattos’ Estela and David Chang’s forthcoming memoir, Eat a Peach.

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