Ask most San Francisco chefs about their culinary influences, and you'll hear tales of long, grueling apprenticeships.
Chef Mat Schuster of popular bistro bar Canela has these tales, too. But his greatest influence is a 70-plus-year-old dynamo in Madrid named Pepi, who still sings flamenco while she cooks.
"When I picture my mother-in-law, I can only picture her in her kitchen," Schuster admits.
Paella of Canela — Photo courtesy of Canela Bistro Bar
Schuster is quite the dynamo himself. A trim man, he moves from kitchen to table with a dancer's intensity and grace. His business and life partner Paco works the front of the restaurant, suavely greeting regulars and newbies with equal parts Latin charm and San Francisco savvy.
It's just another Thursday night at one of the Castro's hottest restaurants, but a Madrid flamenco dance hall could not be more lively, graceful or enjoyable.
From the strong Arabic influences of its Cordoba design to an extensive menu – featuring gazpacho, croquetas, arroz con leche and paella – the Canela experience begins, ends and is stuffed through and through with inspiration from Pepi.
The redesigned Canela — Photo courtesy of Canela Bistro Bar
The result is a hybrid not felt or seen in many San Francisco restaurants: urban chic on the outside, but brimming over with home-cooking wisdom on the inside.
"Pepi thinks I have too many knives in my kitchen. I think she uses a tad too much salt, "says Schuster. "On everything else, we completely agree."
The chef insists on using only local and organic ingredients, which alters traditional recipes in the most natural way. For example, when gazpacho was recently on the menu, tomatoes were already out of season. Crisp Sonoma apples were substituted, and Schuster worked his magic.
The sweet, sharp tang of the traditional soup did not miss a beat. Pepi would have been proud.
As an energetic staff bustles from happy table to happy table, Schuster shares his most transformative moment with Pepi. Years ago, in her small kitchen in Madrid, he learned how to cook her irresistible paella.
"I speak no Spanish, and she speaks no English," he explains. "We communicate through our love of food. I followed her for almost two hours until the paella was done. She spoke the whole time, and I didn't understand a word. But we communicated 100 percent. By the end, I had my recipe for paella."
Mat Schuster and partner Paco — Photo courtesy of San Francisco Agenda
Schuster looks toward his kitchen. You can see on his earnest face that he needs to be back in its energetic and creative glow.
"Canela is a restaurant with a soul," he says. "That soul can be felt everywhere, from how our staff treats the guests to the food to the decor. Canela is an extension of our home, and we want everybody to feel that they are part of our family, not just our guests."
A 70-plus-year old Madrid dynamo could not have said it better.