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Cooking complements cycling

From issue 77 • Words/images: James Startt

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For SPQR Chef Matthew Accarrino

For Matthew Accarrino there are two things that matter most in life, cooking and riding bikes. And he does them both with the same passion and dedication. Head chef at the award-winning, Michelin-starred SPQR restaurant in San Francisco, Accarrino is also a pretty darn good bike racer in what little spare time he has. But while 12- to 16-hour days in the kitchen prevent him from training and racing as much as he would like, cycling and cooking are largely synonymous for Accarrino.

“In cycling you have to be individually excellent. You have to be able to stay with the pack, to be able to climb, descend, whatever. But you also have to be part of a team. And the same thing happens in cooking. You have to be able to hold your weight in the kitchen and at the same time you have to work in concert with others because it is by no means a personal endeavor,” says Accarrino. “And you need endurance in both cycling and in working in a kitchen. A day at the restaurant is not unlike that of a racing cyclist. We have our dinner service. That is our event. But then there is everything that goes into that, all of the training, all of the preparation, all of the logistics, just like a bike race. There are a lot of rhythmic comparisons. In restaurant work, if you are so busy that it hurts, well, that’s a good thing. That’s what you need to be successful. And if you are in a bike race and its hurting, well, there is a chance that you are headed to success. Even if you are only gaining fitness, you are heading for some kind of success. It’s meant to hurt.”

After growing up in the Midwest, Accarrino got his culinary chops on the East Coast, first working in various and sundry eateries in New Jersey, before attending the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and eventually settling in the Bay Area. It was here where he fell back in love with cycling. Accarrino caught the cycling bug early, when he chased his friend’s father—an avid cyclist—on an 18-mile training ride with only his BMX as a ride. “I thought I was going to die at the end of it, but I was hooked,” he remembers.

Unfortunately, a benign bone tumor in his left leg left cut short any chance of a professional cycling career when he shattered his left leg during a game of Frisbee while in high school. “It was a birth defect, but I didn’t walk for two years.”

It was during his convalescence that he focused on his other passion: cooking.

“I also always loved cooking, so I pursued that as well. I loved the kitchen and always spent time cooking with my grandmas and was interested in what they were making and their recipes. I remember when I was like 8—you know, around when everyone says, ‘I’m going to be this or that when I grow up.’ I remember saying that I was either going to be a firefighter or a cook on a train. And one of those kind of came true.”

Accarrino’s star continued to rise in the culinary world, where he has been nominated five consecutive times for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for “Best Chef: West,” while Food & Wine magazine named him “Best New Chef” in 2014.

It was only when he settled in San Francisco that he reconnected with cycling. He hasn’t turned back since. “I got back on a bike one day and realized how much cycling had been missing from my life. And up here in San Francisco there is a lot of great riding, so I started really getting back into it and eventually started racing again. Today, I ride 12-plus hours per week and I’m maybe in the best shape of my life.”

While Accarrino often rides out from the city, frequently riding across the Golden Gate Bridge and stomping around the Marin Headlands, one of his favorite places to go to is Napa. He loves riding through the rich farmlands on his Wilier Cento10Air. But he also simply loves the farms, particularly the farm of Peter Jacobson, an admirer of Accarrino’s cooking and an ally for SPQR.

“Peter Jacobson was one of the original farmers for The French Laundry [the legendary Napa restaurant in Yountville],” Accarrino says. “When I started working at SPQR I noticed that Peter would come in and eat. And at one point he came up to me and introduced himself and asked if he could start bringing in things from his farm. That was like 2011, and within a year he just started leaving me the key. They have a lot of orchard fruit. There are probably 30 kinds of citrus on the property. They have a brown turkey fig tree that is 50 years old. I mean, go find one of those! They have all kinds of plum trees. And every year he asks me what I want to plant and we have some really esoteric things like caper leaves. We are not trying to grow two tons of carrots a year or something. So for me the Jacobson Farm has become a sort of vacation place and also a creative place.”

Observing Accarrino working on the Jacobson farms, it becomes instantly clear that he is in his element as he glides through the array of rare vegetables, picking and choosing a select few for the upcoming evenings at the restaurant. And, on this day, Osaka mustard, red sorrel and cardoon are just some of the exotic produce that he cuts and puts into a crate to take to SPQR, which has established a reputation for fine Italian cuisine with a modern element.

“When I first arrived at this restaurant I thought they would do more traditional replication of great Italian cuisine. And I pretty much turned that idea on its head,” Accarrino says. “I’m not so much trying to replicate anything. I’m trying to take the tenets of Italian cooking in terms of tradition or ingredients and apply personality and my location in time and in space…. Even though I am running an Italian restaurant, in the summertime we use huitelacoche, a corn fungus more commonly used in Mexican foods. But because of all of the people that have come north from Mexico here, it has become a very common ingredient in this area and it finds its way into corn pasta. For me, a chef in California, it’s unavoidable. We use a dried persimmon as well, for example. Persimmons exist in Italy but are not served dried. Such a preparation comes from Japan actually. As a bike racer, you are expected to not leave anything on the table at the end of a race. And I am like that in my cooking. I try to put all of my life experience into my cooking.”

Today, Accarrino splits his time unevenly between cooking and cycling. And he is the first to admit that his two passions are not always complementary. “It can be catastrophically difficult,” he says with a laugh. “So often it seem that just when I am trying to peak for a race, an event comes up and I have to travel for something cooking related. And all of a sudden I am taking a week off of my bike. That combined with the long hours of a restaurant can be difficult. My coach will tell me to go do this six-hour training ride and relax for the rest of the day and I will be like, ‘I just worked 16 hours yesterday and I am going to work 14 hours today!’”

But while Accarrino’s responsibilities at the restaurant may not be ideal for his current racing career, he isn’t complaining. After all, there is always the Marin Headlands when in need of a quick loop. And then there is Napa for a good day off.

From issue 77. Buy it here.