JD Crayne/Daily Journal
Executive Chef Preston Dishman, of Viognier in San Mateo, puts the finishing touches on a pizza made with chanterelle mushrooms, fennel and olive tapenade. Head pizza chef, Jesus Astorga, looks on from the left.
Chef Preston Dishman is no stranger to new environments — he’s worked in North Carolina, New York, Florida and California. Currently he’s the executive chef at Viognier restaurant in downtown San Mateo, located above Draeger’s Market.
Dishman, 38, has experienced both the culinary and management side of the restaurant business, but his philosophy remains the same: It’s about hospitality and making people happy.
"A lot of food experiences — and I’ve been to them myself — are very cerebral now,” said Dishman. "For me, I want you to come down and eat and say ‘Wow, that was great, I’d like some more.’”
Dishman came to work at Viognier in 2008 after leaving his chef job at The General’s Daughter restaurant in Sonoma. Dishman’s style of cooking is classic French with a California influence. He said cooking school taught him more techniques and the skills to organize ingredients and kitchen tasks.
"It made sense to me,” he said.
The French were the first to use those organization methods in cooking, Dishman said, and he still uses that logical approach with whatever ingredients he cooks. But Viognier is very much a California restaurant as well, Dishman said, because a lot of the produce, seafood and meat he uses are local, and the style — including plating — are more rustic here than in places like New York.
Using local food is a priority for Dishman, and he said he wasn’t always able to use only local product. However, he said, "flavor is still the key ingredient,” and if there is a product grown farther away that has better flavor, that’s better for the customer. Since he uses so much seasonal product, he said the menu at Viognier changes almost once a week but during the summer dishes with seafood and produce like tomatoes are popular.
Growing up on his family’s North Carolina farm, he said he was always aware of seasonal and local food and using everything about a product. His grandmothers cooked from the garden, he said, and he now he tries to use the best local product possible.
As a teenager, however, he tried work that would take him away from the farm, and his first job was scooping ice cream.
"Cooking chose me — I didn’t really choose it,” Dishman said. "I didn’t know enough to actually choose it.”
Dishman worked his way up through the ranks. The foundation of doing every kind of job in the business and not feeling above any job is important and missing from a lot of people, he said.
Dishman enrolled in a local college for two years while still working in restaurants but at 19 decided the classroom environment wasn’t right for him. He eventually became the chef de cuisine at the Eseeola Lodge in North Carolina, where he met his wife Nichole. In 2000, Dishman and his wife moved to New York so he could attend the French Culinary Institute.
Dishman and his wife opened Dragonfly Bistro in Fort Myers, Fla. in 2003, and approached food service in a unique way. Dishman would take the reservations for the restaurant, but instead of the usual questions about time or number of diners, Dishman would ask, "What do you want to eat?” and then prepare a special menu for each customer. That’s difficult at a place like Viognier because of its large amount of business dining and the complications when customers try to plan meals for others, Dishman said. But he still tries to accommodate guest requests whenever he can.
"I just crave cooking what other people want,” Dishman said. "I’d have a whole menu for you, and then I’d have another menu that if you came in off the street you could look at and order from ... on any given night we’d have 30 or 40 customers, but I might have 50 or 60 dishes, some of them just specifically for individual people.”
Dragonfly Bistro was a great experience for both, but he said managing a business is very different from cooking.
"You may be really good at doing something that’s a craft ... and then all of a sudden you’re put in charge of people and you may be a horrible manager of people,” Dishman said. "The cooking part is the easy part — managing people and everything else is the hard part.”
In 2005, the pair struck a deal with a couple who dined at Dragonfly Bistro who were planning to buy a restaurant property in Sonoma. They sold Dragonfly Bistro and moved across the country, where Dishman became the chef at The General’s Daughter. Three years later, however, the couple who owned the restaurant was ready to move on, Dishman said, and he and his wife decided a smaller place would work better. After six months of looking, Dishman was contacted by someone who knew the Draeger family about an opening at Viognier.
Dishman has been recognized many times over for his work and talent. He’s won the Carneros Wine Alliance’s "Taste of Carneros” lamb cooking competition a few times and has been in many articles and magazines, including Gourmet magazine when he was the executive chef at The General’s Daughter. He’s also been on "View from the Bay” three or four times.
He said he has a tremendous amount of opportunity at Viognier and he and his wife — who is Viognier’s general manager — are very happy. But that doesn’t mean he’s getting complacent.
"We’re always testing cooking methods, timing, to get better on things and to see how to do things,” Dishman said.
Right now, he said the staff is working on an idea to bring Viognier meals that are more rustic than what is usually served in the restaurant to the market downstairs for customers during the dinner rush.
A big change in the industry in the last 10 years has been new cooking techniques and tools like vacuum sealing and immersion circulators, Dishman said, which he said have allowed him and his staff to work better.
Dishman also said he teaches four or five classes a year at the San Mateo Draeger’s Cooking School. He also said he likes to think he’s mentoring his chef de cuisine Chris Aquino — and Dishman could not be prouder of his daily work.
"I’ve served tens of thousands of meals ... and I’ve cooked for celebrities and I’ve been in magazines, and the most rewarding part for me now is seeing other people develop,” he said.
Pan Roasted Salmon with Tomato and Herb Cream
4 boneless skinless filets of Salmon, 5 oz. each
1 tablespoon whole butter, unsalted
2 tablespoons shallots, finely diced
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
1/2 cup white wine
2 oz. heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh basil leaves, chopped
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a medium sized oven proof skillet, over medium heat, heat a thin layer of vegetable oil. Season the salmon with salt and pepper. Add salmon filets to the pan skinned side up. Transfer pan to the oven. Cook for 10-12 minutes, or until salmon is cooked to desired temperature.
While salmon is cooking, in a small sauce pan sweat shallots in the butter. Add tomatoes. Cook for two minutes then add wine. Simmer until liquid is almost fully reduced. Add cream. Reduce by half. Remove from heat. Add chopped basil. Season with salt and pepper.
Spoon warm sauce in the center of four plates. Remove salmon from oven.
Place a salmon filet on each plate skinned side down.