By Sofia Englund
When arriving for my interview with Staffan Terje, renowned Swedish-born chef and restauranteur, I inadvertently walk into the wrong restaurant. “You’re here to see Staffan?” the polite American hostess asks after my brief introduction. “He’s next door, at his other restaurant.”
Terje’s two San Francisco restaurants, the modern Northern Italian “Perbacco” and its more casual sister trattoria “Barbacco,” are separated by a brick wall on California Street. Exiting Barbacco and entering Perbacco, I wait for Staffan in a large, high-ceilinged room. On one side, the exposed red brick wall backs the well-stocked bar, on the other, a row of small burgundy leather booths suggests the sophisticated intimacy of old-school eateries.
As I sit down at the marble bar desk, I have a view of the contemporary clean lines of the dining room, the restaurant’s sleek mezzanine and its utilitarian open kitchen. When Staffan later tells me that many diners assume the restaurant’s interior designer is Scandinavian, I am not surprised (the immaculate style and minimalist decor are in fact the work of internationally recognized American architect Cass Calder Smith).
In contrast to the often provincial and pastiche-like Italian restaurants of the North Beach, Perbacco evokes nostalgia for those authentic, reliable and classic gastronomic institutions of the past. The restaurant’s sophisticated design echoes a Milanese atmosphere and the kind of “no nonsense” mentality that has made Italian cuisine conquer the world.
And certainly, Staffan Terje is a no-nonsense kind of chef. Arriving in the dining room straight from the kitchen, Staffan looks relaxed and put together in his crisp white chef’s coat. At 2 p.m. preparations are well underway for another busy night at the prize winning restaurant. As I slide into one of Perbacco’s stylish burgundy booths, Staffan says, “It is the simplicity of the Italian kitchen that attracts me.” If it wasn’t only 2 p.m., this would be the kind of place to order a Negroni — and where you would be served the best of its kind in town. Somehow excellence often seems to be born out of simplicity.
Staffan began his culinary journey, surrounded by fresh produce and a family that loved to cook and eat, on his grandparent’s farm in Nyköping, an hour south of Stockholm, Sweden. The now highly acclaimed chef began discovering his passion for food at the age of 10 — pulling carrots from the ground, cleaning Baltic fish with his grandmother and reading Escoffier. In high school, he did his mandatory apprenticeship at the local slaughterhouse. Staffan tells me that he fancied himself in those days a punk rocker and a bit of a rebel so he thought he’d shock his classmates with his unconventional choice of an internship. But soon he discovered he had a knack for butchering as he developed his knife-handling skills.
After high school Staffan went on to train at the Hotel and Restaurant School in Stockholm and apprenticed at the Michelin starred, classic institution “Gourmet.” Then, in the early 80s, he crossed the Atlantic to accept a job in Sarasota, Florida. “I planned to go there for a year and then return to Sweden with bragging rights about having worked in the States … thirty-plus years later, I am still here!”
Staffan was persuaded to stay in the United States as he developed a growing affinity for American culture and cuisine. “At that time Europe — and with it, Sweden — was very much for sticking to tradition. I was schooled in French cuisine, the convention of the time, but I found the environment in Europe strict and somewhat old fashioned. I found America different, freer, more forward thinking and open to influences from other cultures.”
In 1988, Staffan arrived in the Bay Area and joined the original “Piatti” in Yountville, Napa Valley, followed by a seven year stint at the wildly popular Scala’s Bistro in San Francisco. Since then, Staffan has travelled the world, and across the United States. He continues to sample flavors and find inspiration in a variety of settings and from a multitude of cultures. He nonetheless continues to remain loyal to the conviction that local trumps global and he always returns to northern California — the locale for local.
“I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. This area has such a rich history — a controversial and inspiring history that continues to change the world. You’re forced to be flexible here, to be open, to learn how to listen. Here, you can’t just blindly follow one path. It inspires you. You feel encouraged to engage with people around you.”
Staffan continues to nurture his relationships with local farmers and artisan producers. His California Street restaurants, situated as they are in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District, are still only blocks from the Ferry Plaza’s Farmers Market. The chef procures 75 percent of his restaurants’ locally grown produce at the Embarcadero market. Terje is a proud member of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA hosts the Ferry Plaza’s Farmers Market three times a week) and he participates regularly in fundraising events for the non-profit’s educational services.
“Going to the farmers’ market brings back memories of the fruit and vegetable stalls at the town square in my childhood Sweden. While that tradition began disappearing in Sweden, the local movement had a revival in northern California. Now this is the norm for what good cuisine should be throughout the world.”
And high-quality locally sourced produce is, of course, at the very heart of the Italian kitchen. At Perbacco, Staffan and longtime friend and business partner Umberto Gibin enjoy celebrating the rich history of northwestern Italy and the full range of flavors found in the regions of Liguria and Piemonte. Traditional recipes are updated with seasonal ingredients found in northern California, supporting the integrity of each dish while creating the deep rustic countenance and unique flavors that draw crowds. In this respect, “Perbacco” — a word Italians use to express pleasure and surprise, like the French “oh là là” — is an apt appellation for a restaurant so thoroughly steeped in tradition, yet with a refreshingly modern feel.
Searching constantly for inspiration, Staffan travels to Italy on a yearly basis for full-immersion eating and research. “Every time I visit, I come home exhausted, recharged and inspired. Eating in Italy is hard work. Italians are probably the most discriminating eaters on the planet. Italian food is quality ingredients, prepared carefully. It is pure and direct, to the point. Food cannot be more honest than that — that’s why I love to cook Italian food.”
Perbacco guests can enjoy a rich variety of dishes, like slow roasted Pancetta wrapped pork loin filled with Salsiccia and served with heirloom corn polenta and roasted beets, Piastra seared scallops with mandarin puree, fennel-citron salad and crispy Jerusalem artichokes and “Cunij,” white wine braised devil’s gulch rabbit leg with roasted Peperonata and saffron Pitati Passato. Perbacco has its own curing room and the house made salumi is a must-try; its salumi — a mandatory item on Italian menus these days — ranks among the best.
Having journeyed from Sweden to the United States, through California and Italy, Staffan Terje is now ready to return to his roots. Together with Umberto Gibin, he is in the process of setting up a Swedish restaurant in San Francisco. The architectural plan is being drawn up and Terje is currently developing a menu by entertaining himself and experimenting with homemade herring and other traditional Swedish dishes. The doors to the new restaurant open in the coming year.
“With the new restaurant, I want to recreate the feel of traditional and respected Stockholm culinary establishments, such as Riche, Sturehof, Lisa Elmquist and Tranan — restaurants that call to mind the French Brasserie and continental Europe, but with a Swedish twist.”
As I say goodbye to Staffan, I find myself leaving the Italian restaurant and walking down the afternoon’s bustling California Street with a sense of childish excitement about the prospect of authentic Swedish meatballs — be them with a twist or not — coming soon to San Francisco.