"His presentations look natural but are precisely orchestrated; the combinations are infused with bold flavors, but the execution is subtle. Danko proves his mettle on dish after dish."
—M. Bauer, food editor, San Francisco Chronicle
"Only a chef who understands the northern California seasons and knows the sources of the finest products as well as Danko does could create a restaurant with a distinct San Francisco identity."
—C. Bates, Gourmet Magazine
These tributes are a very small sampling of the accolades showered on Chef Danko since he joined The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco prior to the hotel's April 1991 opening.
Wide critical acclaim for his Northern California regional cuisine lead to the 1995 James Beard Award as California's Best Chef. Consecutive San Francisco Chronicle reviews—in 1992 and 1995—bestowed four stars, its highest rating. Food & Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, Esquire, Gourmet, and Bon Appetit magazines have offered their highest praise.
The Dining Room menus showcase strictly seasonal ingredients, simply prepared and reasonably priced. Though Chef Danko is French trained, he is fascinated with cuisines outside the European tradition. His Moroccan style lamb with chermoula, a spicy coriander and parsley sauce, is a tasty example of his exacting technique blended with exotic flavors. He also weaves Indian, Japanese, Thai and Italian flavors throughout his continually evolving menus. His Maine-inspired Roast Lobster with Tomato Corn and Basil is a fresh, summery twist on the traditional New England Clam Bake.
He unmasks multiple flavors in basic ingredients with different cuts, textures and cooking styles. This is exemplified by the polyphonic tastes in his Pan-fried Soft Shell Crab with a light mustard sauce, served with wispy, fried salsify chips, inspired by a summer in Maryland.
Chef Danko's menu changes regularly and features seasonally fresh ingredients. Diners may compose "tasting" menus of several courses to suit individual preferences. Three courses are $45; four courses, including dessert or an array of perfectly presented cheeses, are $52.
He offers his own dinner suggestion with a five-course tasting menu of his seasonal favorites at $59 per person. Master Sommelier Emmanuel Kemiji pairs wines with four courses for an additional $37.
With lessons from Betty Crocker cookbooks, Chef Danko began his culinary career baking cookies and cakes at six years old in his mother's kitchen in Massena, New York. He first worked in a restaurant, at age 14, at Massena's Village Inn, beginning as a busboy and dishwasher. Upon high school graduation, he had completed an "American apprenticeship," working in all facets of the Inn's kitchen and dining room.
Northern California has always been a magnet for Chef Danko's talents since he completed his formal training at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York, in 1977. As chef at Vanity Fair, a small bistro/bookstore in San Francisco's Embarcadero Center, his innovative cuisine attracted popular attention.
He returned to New York in 1980 to pursue a life-long dream of studying with Mme. Madeleine Kamman, one of the world's most respected practitioners of "la cuisine Francaise" and French-influenced American cooking. As chef in Vermont and New York restaurants, Chef Danko spent a year petitioning Mme. Kamman for entry into her school. Admittance in 1984 began a long culinary friendship.
Chef Danko spent six months under Mme. Kamman's guidance. Under her critical eye, he refined his cooking techniques and deepened his understanding of culinary theory. She rewarded his accomplishments by appointing him to a coveted spot in Beringer Vineyard's food and wine "externship" program in 1985. Upon completing the three-month program, where he mastered food and wine pairing, he managed the kitchen for the St. Helena, California-based winery and consulted with San Francisco's Washington Square Bar and Grill.
In 1986, Mme. Kamman re-entered Chef Danko's life, this time petitioning him to assist at her New Hampshire cooking school. He then accompanied Mme. Kamman to France, where he spent several months teaching, cooking and traveling in Europe's culinary capitals.
Upon returning to the U.S. in 1986, Chef Danko joined Chateau Souverain Winery restaurant in Geyserville, a premier growing district in California's wine country. During his five years with the winery, he redesigned and modernized the restaurant, transforming it into a culinary destination. His efforts received outstanding local, regional and national accolades. In 1989, he was named one of the Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine Magazine.
Chef Danko creates and prepares menus for special charity events in private homes, hotels and restaurants throughout the U.S., Japan, United Kingdom, Latin America and New Zealand. He has been guest chef for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Meals On Wheels, Share Our Strength, The Cancer Society, the James Beard Foundation, The American Institute of Wine and Food, and "Merci Julia," honoring Julia Child. He has also taught cooking and demonstrated his craft at Macy's Cellar in San Francisco, Peter Kump's New York Cooking School and Draegers in Menlo Park and the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley.
Chef Danko joined The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco's pre-opening team as Chef of The Terrace, prior to the Nob Hill hotel's April 1991 opening. He was appointed Chef of The Dining Room in May 1992.
The Dining Room, managed by Maitre d' Nick Peyton, is open for dinner, Monday through Saturday evenings. Master Sommelier Emmanuel Kemiji selects and pours wines from an award- winning list.
The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco is that city's only hotel to hold both Mobil Travel Guide's Five-Stars and AAA's Five-Diamonds. The Nob Hill hotel is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World.
by Gary J. Danko, Chef
Clean calamari separating hoods and tentacles. Trim tentacles right below where the tentacles join body. Peel hoods of skin and wings. Remove backbone turning hood inside out. Cut into 1/4" rings.
Bring water to a boil, salt lightly and blanch prawns and calamari 30-45 seconds. Submerge in ice water, drain and reserve.
Combine in glass bowl: fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, red curry paste, onion, mint and cilantro. Stir together.
To serve: toss calamari and prawns in marinade. Serve with small greens, lime rounds, tomato and cilantro sprigs.
by Gary J. Danko, Chef
Have crab shell removed and body cut into eight pieces, lightly crack claws and legs. Discard any gray fibrous matter and reserve any orange, yellow and white crab fat, using it to flavor stew.
In a large thick bottomed soup pot heat the olive oil, over medium heat, sauté onions, garlic, red and green peppers until translucent, about five minutes. Add tomato products, thyme, parsley, salt, black and crushed peppers, wine and clam juices. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. This base of the dish may be done ahead up to three days before serving the dish.
One hour before service make soft polenta and hold in warm oven. To serve, return sauce to large soup pot and slowly bring to a boil. Add cracked crab, prawns, clams and rock cod. Cover and simmer for 10—15 minutes.
Spoon portions of polenta into individual soup plates. Divide stew between plates. Serve with sourdough bread.
Provided by The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco
This page originally published as a FoodDay article in 1997.
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