Ubuntu's Aaron London: Cooking Like Meat Doesn't Matter
When Ubuntu opened in 2007, there was great fanfare across the land. Jeremy Fox was the undisputed king of vegetables, and the restaurant topped pretty much every Best Of list. Critics (literally?) crapped their pants over its amazingness ― they couldn't believe vegetarian food could taste this good. Well, more likely, they just hadn't eaten in a vegetarian restaurant until one opened that was shmancy enough to catch their eye, but that's another story.
Ubuntu James Beard Rising Star Chef finalist Aaron London.
Fox reigned supreme at Ubuntu until 2009. He left to take time off, before going to work for Tyler Florence and starting work on a book. His position was soon filled by Aaron London, a chef who ― with the exception of a brief hiatus working front-of-house at Bottega in Yountville ― has been with Ubuntu since the beginning.
London has worked in nearly every role in the Ubuntu kitchen (he joined as sous chef just weeks after the restaurant opened). London brought a new philosophy and passion to the 4-year-old restaurant in the post-Fox era, and his food is ridiculous. As in ridiculously delicious. It's so good that although the wine list is exceptional, you don't need alcohol to forget you're eating in a restaurant that's also a yoga studio. Normally we need to be one gin and tonic away from hospitalization for that to happen.
London's hard work ― he puts in over 100 hours a week! That's more hours than we're awake per week! ― was recognized with a nomination for a James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award. All that and he's barely 27. As someone who is jealous of her 5-year-old niece for not knowing what a shitfest life can be, we could really see hating this guy if he weren't so damn likable.
London's rule at Ubuntu has meant jettisoning the bulky-yet-popular strawberry pizzas and chickpea fries and introducing weirdly named experimental dishes that often focus on a whole fruit and/or vegetable. After working at fine-dining establishments around the world, London says the one thing he's most bummed about is the amount of food that's tossed out in our nation's fanciest kitchens. [When asked if our favorite dish-gone-by, the chickpea fries, would make a comeback, London says, "My God, I never want to see those things again!" He wants to focus on less bulky foods, and on more actual vegetables, "plus they're a signature dish of the previous chef." That's fair, but we have to give it up to Oprah for having the recipe. Ugh, where would be all be without Oprah? Probably still rubbing two sticks together.]
"I feel strongly that high-end restaurants waste too much," he says. That's why he's so excited about the off-parts ― he believes that if more chefs used the whole item, the food would be more creative and interesting as a result. Added bonus? It'll also get cheaper, and that means more food accessibility. Biking around Europe, London loved places with strong food cultures, where people of all ages stay out late enjoying long meals and good company. [London loves to bike but doesn't log 60 miles a day, as reported in the Chronicle. That was his European schedule. If he did that now with his 100-hour-plus work week, he'd be an actual superhero and/or probably dead.]
"I want to switch people's perception of what beauty is in restaurants," he says.
One particularly beautiful dish that exemplified this ethic was the fresh extruded pasta of the day, which consisted of artichokes in various preparations and caramelized grapefruit. The pasta tasted as if it'd been infused with artichokes, and the complement of sweet grapefruit was mind-blowing. When asked about the dish, London immediately became enthusiastic. Most restaurants use only 5 percent of an artichoke ― the heart ― and throw out the rest. But London divided the whole vegetable into sections and figured out the best way to cook each: fast, slow, dry, wet, at what temperature, and for how long. It's experimental cooking with a background in technique, yielding unique results, all of which made their way into the final dish. London calls that sort of challenge "fulfilling and complex." It's definitely something you couldn't make at home, and if you could, why the fuck are you cooking at home? Open a restaurant, fool!
Another dish completely worth freaking out over is Ubuntu's vichyssoise. Okay, check out the ingredients in this beast: artichoke, Rangpur lime, crispy potatoes, creamy potatoes, beet leaves, and miso. And that's just the beginning! Ubuntu does this thing with the soups where part of it arrives already in the bowl, and the other part is in a carafe, which the server pours at the table. If you're not used to this fancy shit, it's totally something weird rich people do to show off. And it works because it's SO COOL.