In the restaurant business there are chefs, and then there are Chefs. The word literally means “chief” in French, so the idea that there are multiple chefs in a restaurant sometimes gets confusing. There are sous chefs, pantry chefs, chefs de cuisine, and now of course, bar chefs, all lower case. But rest assured, in a restaurant/bar setting there is only one “Chef.” And the sooner you figure out who that is, the better off you are going to be.
At Insalata’s in San Anselmo there is no such confusion. Heidi Krahling is in charge. That is not to say she doesn’t have talented staff around her, because she does, but Insalatas is her vision, her baby. And as restaurants and bars go, you couldn’t ask for a better mother. In addition to opening Insalata’s and Marinatas she has written a cookbook: Insalata’s Mediterranean Table (published in 2009) and a book about her culinary adventures (including recipes) called Insalata’s and Marinitas: The Story of Two Restaurants (2014). She has also been the culinary go-to for her community, which during this pandemic has been most welcome, serving as the “Culinary Host” of the Great Chefs and Wineries yearly event benefitting Lifehouse, and as a sitting Board Member of the ExtraFood nonprofit, which provides “extra food” donations to Marin’s senior housing centers, homeless shelters, and food pantries.
Krahling originally came to Marin County 31 years ago after attending cooking school in San Francisco. She began by working as a highly acclaimed Chef at Butler’s in Mill Valley before branching off to work at the Smith Ranch Homes retirement community in Terra Linda. Then in 1996 she opened the Mediterranean-styled Insalata’s in San Anselmo (along with her husband Mark) and then the Latin influenced Marinitas in 2009.
Recently we caught up with this “Hero of Marin” to glean her insights on mixology and “culinary cocktails,” or the use of time honored cooking techniques in the making of mixed drinks:
Q) How has Covid impacted what you have been doing? Specifically, your deli/take out counter?
A) Thank goodness for takeout. I never would have thought 25 years ago that our takeout counter would rule our revenues. During the pandemic when we couldn’t open the restaurant, we put a lot of focus on our takeout case preparing abundantly more food and more choices. We have a fun array of wine, beer, and cocktails too.
Q) You are quite the accomplished chef, two restaurants, cookbooks, etc. What do you think of the “bar chef” movement? In particular the use of culinary techniques in drink making.
A) I think any “movement” that focuses on quality ingredients and techniques is great.
Q) Just like “farm to table,” “grain to glass” gets overused. What advice do you give mixologists out there (both professional and amateur) from a product sourcing standpoint?
A) I would suggest visiting distilleries and farmer’s markets. Honor the seasons. Find good mentors and teachers and use them as valuable resources. I would give the same advice to someone in the culinary field.
Q) Most of the cocktails on your menu feature just four ingredients. Do you think drinks (or food) can be too complicated?
A) Yes! And Yes! Keep it simple and clean and the ingredients will shine. And beautiful glassware makes a huge difference.
Q) What have you seen in culinary cocktails that gives you pause as a chef?
A) I am not an overly fussy chef who likes frou-frou drinks. I hate fussy overly complicated drinks. Too many ingredients can mask the subtle flavors of the spirit. Paris (Insalata’s bar manager) is pretty imaginative and creates yummy cocktails. We keep them simple because we don’t have a big bar/bar area. Our bartenders are super busy with patrons and with servicing the restaurant’s needs.
Q) Much like plating, a great garnish helps us taste with our eyes first before we taste with our mouths. Are there any cocktail garnishes that you’ve seen that have wowed you?
A) I think Bloody Mary drinks that have an entire appetizer on a skewer as the garnish are wild and whimsical. Call me old fashioned but I like a simple garnish that compliments the ingredients of the drink. Heirloom citrus or a perfect herb, great cocktail ice, and an awesome glass is all I need.
Q) What advice would you give to a person who wants to add a culinary slant to his/her bartending. What is a good way to start?
A) I would start with collaborating with a chef or farmer. They can be a wealth of knowledge about product, sourcing products and techniques such as making shrubs and infused syrups. There are tons of great books out about handcrafted cocktails. Maybe read that book Twenty Years Behind Bars for some pearls of wisdom!
Q) What is your favorite cocktail?
A) I love a Negroni on the rocks. A classic drink for this Italian!
Paloma Italiano (submitted by Paris Teijeiro, Insalata’s bar manager)
2 oz. blanco tequila
2 oz. grapefruit juice
1 ½ oz. Cocchi Rosa Aperitivo*
½ oz grapefruit cordial**
½ fresh squeezed lime juice
1 oz. soda water
1 grapefruit slice
Combine first five ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Shake until chilled, strain into an ice filled Collins glass, add soda, stir, and garnish with the slice of grapefruit.
*You may substitute any lighter style Italian bitters: Campari, Aperol, Cappelletti.
** You may use agave syrup, or triple sec instead, to help moderate the grapefruit’s bitterness: ½ an ounce triple sec, or ¼ ounce of agave.