Interview: Max Mackinnon, Mason Pacific

Posted in Interviews on May 27, 2016

For Chef Max Mackinnon, returning to San Francisco was something of a homecoming. The California native had been looking for a road back west when the opportunity to take the helm at Mason Pacific as executive chef presented itself. Here, he shares how he made a splash in Burlington, Vermont with his nationally-renowned restaurant Pistou, his experiences cooking everywhere from Hudson, New York to Copenhagen, and his plans as he settles back in to a West Coast state of mind.

You made a name for yourself in Burlington, Vermont, a food scene that doesn’t get a ton of national press. Tell us about your experiences there. What was your vision with Pistou? The opening of Pistou was something that happened when my partner and I found ourselves in the right place at the right time. We did not move to Burlington, VT with the idea of opening a restaurant within 8 months of moving back from New York.
We had planned to both find work  and to slowly get to know the community and the people who were a part of it. Things happened a little differently, but I think we found that through running Pistou, we came to know and understand the community much more quickly than we would have otherwise.
Our goals at Pistou were not to open a restaurant that was going to change restaurant culture in VT. We found ourselves there because we loved it, and because there was so much about food and culture in VT that was already great. We did look to find our own place within that, but what we wanted most was to be a part of what already made VT stand out to us. The farms and produce, though the growing season is short, are incredible. The cheese, the beer, and the people who were doing all of this, are second to none in my mind.
It was for all of these reasons that we chose to be back there, and Pistou was a place for us bring all of it together. In the end, the hospitality business thrives off of individuals who are genuine in their passion to serve others. We were so lucky to have a community that treated us so well and allowed us to contribute what we had to offer.
Since then, you’ve spent time in a really interesting (and universally excellent) array of food towns. What were some highlights from Hudson, Copenhagen, and D.C.? It’s been a crazy couple of years since leaving VT. I really love to travel, and being able to work in this diverse collection of cities (or towns) has contributed a lot to who I have become as a person. The town of Hudson may have been a little small for me, but it was pretty hard not to head down to Fish and Game and be inspired by what they are doing.
The restaurant is beautiful, and there is an attention to detail that extends far beyond what is on the plate, and even what is in the restaurant. From the farms they use to the farms they’ve started, the animals they’ve raised, and whatever other crazy projects they have going on, Zak and the team there remain so active in their pursuit to do something unique, creative, and excellent.
Copenhagen after that was, unsurprisingly, an entirely different experience. The restaurant scene there has been so influential in recent years, so it was pretty special to be able to spend some serious time there and begin to understand that. The way food, wine, and restaurants is approached on a fine dining level there is not something that was very familiar to me. Balance in dishes, the way they were served, and the wine they were served with was all very different from what you see at most fine dining destinations in the world. It was a great way to kind of recalibrate the way you look at a lot of things, and I hope in the end, it has resulted not so much in a direct influence in how I cook, but has helped me evaluate my own food in a different and more comprehensive way.
Washington, DC is another special city, but in a very different way. In a short period of time, I was able to get to know a number of individuals who were all doing exciting things. The culinary landscape in DC has changed so much in recent years, and the community is one that I found to be very tight knit and supportive.

What inspired you to come back to California? What drew you to Mason Pacific, specifically? This is actually the third time in the last few years that I have looked at making this move. I have had family in California ever since I left, and it always felt as if there was a small part of me that never left. The West Coast, and in particular, California, is so conducive to a certain style of cooking, and it is one that I feel very drawn to. It is hard for me not to walk through the best markets in California and not be inspired to cook. Most of the cooking I do stems from this. The menu at Mason Pacific will be composed of very focused dishes, highlighting the best product we can get our hands on. When a dish has three of four primary components to it, it is very important that the quality be very high. In California, all of this is right at our fingertips.
Coming to Mason Pacific specifically was a result of being in contact with the wine community. When I started working in restaurants, it did not take long until I was fully immersed in also studying wine. I made friends with many wine professionals, and I think they quickly took note of the fact that I took wine seriously. With a wine program like Mason Pacific’s, I think it is important that the people in the kitchen do their best to understand and work with those in charge of the wine program. The food coming out of the kitchen at Mason Pacific will be food that is not just wine friendly, but it will be food that we hope works well with the styles of wine that make up the large part of our list.
Ultimately, I was very excited to come to work with some people that were looking to operate on a very high level.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve made, menu-wise? Although the fire at the restaurant was a bit of a set back and very unfortunate, it has allowed us to take a look at the way we would like to run the kitchen moving forward, and it has also allowed to do significant work on the menu. We are looking to remain a great neighborhood restaurant, but the style of the food will shift slightly, and then menu will be comprised of brand new dishes that fit within that style. When reading the menu, we hope that it’s apparent that we are in California. It should have a distinct California feel, while the cooking will be steeped in French tradition.
What’s exciting and inspiring you right now? Being newly transplanted to SF, there is so much going on right now that is inspiring. Recently I have had a lot of time to explore the farmer’s market. I have been able to get out of the city a bit as well and to drive through farm country which gives you a certain appreciation for where your food is coming from. On top of all of this, the restaurant scene in SF is one of the best. Getting out and meeting as many people as possible and eating around the city has shown me a lot of what is going on in town, and I am very excited to be a part of it. I feel lucky to be in the position I now find myself in, with the opportunity to cook for people in such an exciting community, and to have so many talented people around working at such a high level.
Any upcoming plans you can share? The plans coming up in the next few weeks still involve a lot of organizing in the restaurant and some work with our guys on the new menu. There will be a significant portion of the menu devoted to vegetable dishes that I hope people find fun and delicious. With the quality and diversity of produce available to us, I feel that it only makes sense to showcase it. After this delay, I know we are all very excited to get cooking and to have people back in restaurant.