Dave Cruz is the chef-partner at Little Gem in San Francisco. He’s redefining fast food with a counter-service lunch and brunch featuring a California farm-focused menu free of dairy, gluten and refined sugar. Expect the same at dinner, but with a relaxed table service.
• Developing Miles, a new restaurant in Napa, California
• Former chef de cuisine at Ad Hoc and executive sous chef at Bouchon, both in Yountville, California
• Stints at Nobu, Mas, March and Fuentes Cafe Downtown
• Mentors include Thomas Keller and John Fuentes
• Co-author with Thomas Keller of ”Ad Hoc at Home,” a James Beard award-winning cookbook and International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year
• Fitness routine includes cycling, rowing and tennis.
Taking the Right Detour
If Dave Cruz invited you over for the ultimate meal with his extended family, you could expect some rich Filipino favorites.
“There would definitely be rice—rice and fried rice,” says Cruz, whose mother is Filipino and whose father is from Guam. “And you would see things like fried fish and chicken adobo. We’d always have an amazing chicken adobo.”
After spending more than a decade cooking in Northern California, he would break with family tradition and serve vegetables. A lot of vegetables.
“I love cooking them in so many different ways,” he says. “None of it would be fancy at all, but it would be a little more thoughtful, a little more elevated.”
These days, Cruz is always looking for the next vegetable challenge, seeking out new ways to make people love taken-for-granted cabbage or cauliflower. He treats roasted vegetables like he treats beef or chicken, letting them rest after cooking so they have time to reabsorb their juices. Details make a difference.
However, this isn’t happening at a fine dining restaurant where you’d expect to find innovation. Instead, he’s turning fast food on its head with Little Gem, a restaurant in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley that’s counter-service-only at lunch and brunch, with table service at dinner.
Focused on clean food choices (read: no gluten, dairy or refined sugar), Cruz makes vegetables a crucial part of the draw, not only in crisp-crunchy salads but also in richer options, like gluten-free crepes filled with those well-rested roasted vegetables.
People don’t expect vegetables in a fast food setting, which makes working with them all the more important and fun at Little Gem, he says.
Cruz wasn’t always this focused on vegetables. He moved to California from New York to refine his fine dining technique under Chef Thomas Keller. In 2006, while Cruz was an executive sous chef at Bouchon, Keller asked him to join the team at a temporary restaurant specializing in home cooking. Keller said the menu would be filled with dishes he liked to eat at home, such as meatloaf. Cruz, who would take Spam fried rice served in a deli container over a slab of meatloaf any day, said he wasn’t interested.
And then Keller asked Cruz again. This time, Cruz changed his mind and the world opened up.
The restaurant, Ad Hoc, was supposed to be a four-month detour, followed by Cruz’s return to Bouchon. However, once he dove in, he began to see endless possibilities. Home cooking didn’t have to be limited to meatloaf or other classic comfort foods.
“If you grew up in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, or a particular region of Spain or Italy, what would you eat?” he asked. “I wanted to broaden the idea of those memories and try to attach techniques that would make it one step better.”
Since that moment at Ad Hoc, Cruz’s goal has been to convey his excitement in a dish—be it French, Japanese or Filipino—in a dish so that other people get excited about it too.
And of course, this includes vegetables.
“You pair that food with the bounty of Northern California and you can’t lose,” he says.
Dave Cruz is also part of Simple Feast, an app the hosts an amazing community of Chefs and their delicious recipes. To view more recipes by Dave and other incredible Chefs go to Simple Feast.