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.
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.
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.
—Gabe Ulla is a food writer and the co-author of Estela.