ArrowDownFill 1arrow-small-lineFill 1GroupStaff FaveGroupClose IconEmailLike Cooking Light on FacebookShapePage 1 Copy 3Page 1 Copy 2Grid IconFollow Cooking Light on InstagramList IconMenu IconPrintSearch IconSpeech BubbleFollow Cooking Light on SnapchatFollow Cooking Light on TwitterWatch Cooking Light on YouTubeplay-iconWatch Cooking Light on Youtube

Chef Sean Baker: The Healthy Omnivore Award 2014

Photo: Erin Kunkel

In an era of specialized diets—vegan, Paleo, gluten-free, raw—and similarly focused restaurants, it's increasingly rare to find a chef who celebrates both all-the-animal and meat-free dining. When you find someone who does both exquisitely well, you know you have a rare winner.

At San Francisco's Verbena restaurant, Sean Baker offers a menu that could serve as a template for the ideal omnivore diet: plenty of plants and grains and judicious amounts of meat, all cooked cleanly yet thrillingly. Vegetarians and meat lovers can share a table and be equally satisfied.

Credit Baker's binary background: He honed his vegan chops with four years at San Francisco's meat-free mecca, Millennium, and learned whole-animal cookery at Mediterranean-themed restaurants down the coast. After becoming equally adept at both, in 2009 he helped to open the hugely popular restaurant Gather in Berkeley, where his food induced media swoons and garnered awards. The popularity of Gather's signature Vegan "Charcuterie" still makes him chuckle: "The dish started as a joke," he says. "The name doesn't even make sense." Kidding aside, he crafted an array of seasonal veggies—roasted, pickled, raw—served up on a board in a visual riff on the classic charcuterie platter, and the Gather dish amounted to some of the most well-crafted and creative vegan cooking in the country.

"I'm really passionate about vegetables," he says, "and lucky to be where I am, because the Bay Area is one big garden."

Baker left Gather in the capable hands of Executive Chef Charis Wahl after opening the even more veggie-focused Verbena in December 2013.

SF Weekly food critic Anna Roth has called Baker a "vegetable whisperer." "Baker not only uses more obscure vegetables," Roth says, "but he also transforms them, coaxing out their essential flavors with layers of intricate sauces and purees."

A dish called Tomato and Fennel further demonstrates Baker's vegan virtuosity: It pairs perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes with saffron-seasoned roasted fennel and an ingenious "tonnato" sauce that swaps traditional tuna for an umami bomb of smoked cashew, nori, and nutritional yeast (the vegan cook's secret weapon). A dish of succulent taverna green beans and black plums comes together with an intricately spiced cherry charmoula. As for the meat of the menu, Baker treats his animal proteins with every bit as much respect and finesse. Fort Bragg king salmon is served with a fig leaf mole, avocado, and an amazingly balanced, sweet-tart lime pickle–Galia melon sauce. Koji and buttermilk marinated chicken thighs are paired with hazelnut miso and Sonoma grains.

The well-known Michael Pollan prescription for balanced eating (eat food, not too much, mostly plants) is made manifest at Verbena. Baker's restaurant is simply one of the best examples in the country of where delicious and balanced eating is headed.