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Paul Shenkman: Passionate Hospitality Entrepreneur
It is a common story in Silicon Valley: An entrepreneur takes the leap and changes careers to follow a passion. With hard work, good fortune and a taste of success, the entrepreneur forms a winning team, takes on more challenge and, against the odds, builds a runaway hit.
While this tale may not be surprising in Silicon Valley, the entrepreneur might be.
This story is about culinary entrepreneur and restaurateur Paul Shenkman, managing partner of Sam's Chowder House in Half Moon Bay, Sam's ChowderMobiles, Osteria Coppa in San Mateo and Campo 185 in Palo Alto. Over the past dozen years Shenkman and his partners—wife and Marketing Director Julie Shenkman and Executive Chef Lewis Rossman—have built one of the most innovative, successful and award-winning restaurant groups in the Bay Area. Most recently, Shenkman was presented with the 2013 Innovation in Hospitality Award by the San Mateo County/Silicon Valley Convention and Visitor's Bureau through the Peninsula Recognition of Passionate Service Program.
Shenkman's restaurant career began in 1988. After leaving a successful career in clothing manufacturing, East Coast native Shenkman found himself on the California coast, looking for new opportunities. Shenkman's "lifelong passion for Italian food" led him to open Pasta Moon in Half Moon Bay. It may seem like standard fare now, but handmade pasta and seasonal, authentic Italian cuisine was still rare at the time, and "we got real busy, real fast," says Shenkman, who served as chef for the first two years.
"Chefs from the city started coming to Half Moon Bay to try out our food. It was like we were their little secret." And just a few years after opening, the San Francisco Chronicle named Pasta Moon one of the top 15 Italian restaurants in the Bay Area.
Looking for more challenges and a larger space, in 2001 Shenkman and his wife opened Cetrella Bistro and Café, also in Half Moon Bay. Then Lewis Rossman joined the team as sous-chef, and with this core team in place Cetrella became one of the Bay Area's most lauded Italian restaurants, featured nationally by Gourmet magazine, the Wine Spectator and named a Top 100 Bay Area restaurant by the Chronicle for several years. In 2006, the Shenkmans sold Cetrella as they looked to their next venture, Sam's Chowder House.
While Italian food is Shenkman's passion, both he and Rossman are "East Coast guys and we loved those seaside clam shacks and chowder houses." So when the right location opened up on the water in Half Moon Bay, Shenkman and his team built Sam's Chowder House.
It was an audacious project. Others had failed in the same location and the site had to be completely redesigned and rebuilt. But once the doors opened in late 2006, the crowds started coming. And they never stopped.
Today, Sam's serves up to 1,500 guests a day and has a slate of positive reviews and dozens of national and local awards. Across all his properties, Shenkman's restaurants serve over 550,000 meals each year.
Sam's is perhaps best known for its award-winning lobster roll (using butter instead of the traditional mayonnaise) that was featured on the Today show, but the restaurant also boasts of its extensive use of seasonal, locally sourced seafood and produce. Rossman's menus feature "local halibut and petrale, king salmon when we can get it, really good local 'chili-pepper' rockfish, white sea bass, squid, sardine and Dungeness crab when in season." As for produce, Rossman adds, "We have quite a bounty here. The local Iacopi Farm beans are amazing and our local artichoke farmer, Daylight Farms, literally drops off right at our door."
Innovation in the restaurant business can take many forms and Shenkman understood that to continue to lure diners to the coast, he team would need to be creative, dedicated marketers. Luckily, Julie Shenkman had a successful career as a high-tech marketer. "Having someone with her level of experience has been an incredible luxury," says Shenkman. "First starting with Cetrella and then Sam's, we understood that we needed to make the restaurants into true destinations."
The next launch from Shenkman would combine all of the team's experiences and place them at the forefront of one of the hottest trends in eating, the food truck. In 2009, Shenkman launched Sam's ChowderMobile (there are now four). As Rossman puts it, "The ChowderMobiles represent Sam's 'greatest hits' and let us bring them to people all over the Bay Area."
And while there were many logistical challenges, the trucks "were popular from the start. Not only are they a good business, but they are great marketing for Sam's," says Shenkman. Not long after they launched, the ChowderMobiles received "top food truck" awards from the likes of Zagat, Gayot and the Discovery Channel. Nowadays, the four ChowderMobiles have over 10,000 Twitter followers and the bright red trucks are a staple at food truck events and private parties all over the Bay Area.
Building on the momentum of Sam's and the ChowderMobiles, in 2010 Shenkman and the team launched a local, organic, artisanal Italian restaurant, Osteria Coppa in San Mateo. Led by Executive Chef Chanan Kamen, formerly of San Francisco standouts Quince and Jardinere, Osteria Coppa features handmade pastas, Neapolitan pizza, antipasti and salumi. A return to Shenkman's Italian roots with a farm-to-table approach, Osteria Coppa sources over 95% of its produce from Bay Area farms. The team at Osteria Coppa even has a "farm van" so they can track down the freshest local ingredients.
As local vintner Rob Jensen of Testarossa Winery in Los Gatos notes, "Paul is a great supporter of the locavore culture. He sources his produce, meats and fish from local sources to ensure freshness and quality for his guests. He also goes out of his way to support local wineries like Testarossa." And it shows in the food. "I received the nickname 'Sr. Testarossa' (Italian for Red-Head) when I was living in Italy. I am a huge Italian food lover and am rarely impressed with Italian restaurants in the United States. However, Osteria Coppa Chef Chanan Kamen's Italian cuisine is by far my favorite in this country. He would do extremely well cooking in Italy with his unique dishes and melt-in-your-mouth pastas."
In December 2012, Shenkman launched his latest restaurant, Campo 185 in Palo Alto. Led by Executive Chef Robert Holt, formerly of Marzano in Oakland, Campo maintains the farm-to-table approach and applies it to Tuscan-influenced Italian cuisine. Keeping with the Shenkman's tradition of creativity, Campo brings something new to the scene with its own "Mozzarella Bar," serving dishes with fresh mozzarella cheese made in-house.
What does the future hold for Shenkman and his team? Any more expansion? While busy managing 320 employees across multiple properties, Shenkman may have more openings in his future. "I have no set plans to expand, but I still really enjoy conceptualizing, designing and building," he says. "I have been an entrepreneur all my life and I still have a passion for designing restaurants."
Stewart Putney is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and writer. He grows food, cooks and mixes the occasional cocktail. Stewart is the online editor and associate publisher of Edible Silicon Valley and blogs at www.PutneyFarm.com.
Burrata Cheese with Grilled Artichokes
From Executive Chef Robert Holt of Campo 185
6 medium artichokes
1 fresh lemon
Splash of white wine
Salt and pepper for seasoning
Extra-virgin olive oil
Handful of wild arugula
4 ounces burrata cheese
1 tablespoon toasted pistachios crushed
Mint Pesto (makes 3 tablespoons):
1 small bunch mint leaves, picked
½ teaspoon minced garlic
Squeeze of lemon juice
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Handful Parmigiano cheese
Cut off the prickly top of each artichoke and peel the outer leaves off until you have reach the pale yellow leaves at the heart. Slice each heart into quarters and remove any of the fuzzy "choke" with a spoon.
Place the artichokes in a small pot and cover with water and a splash of wine. Season the water with a sprig of mint, a halved lemon and salt. Cook the hearts gently until tender. This should be around 7 minutes. When the hearts are cool, skewer them and season with salt, pepper and olive oil. Then place on a hot grill to achieve nice grill marks.
To make the mint pesto blend mint leaves with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Remove the pesto from the blender and fold in a handful of Parmigiano cheese.
On 2 plates paint a streak of the mint pesto and then arrange the artichoke hearts randomly on top. Next place 2 slices of burrata on each plate. Season the wild arugula with salt, pepper and extra-virgin olive oil. Scatter the leaves on top with some of the crushed pistachios.
Local Halibut in a Lemon Brown Butter Sauce
From Executive Chef/Partner Lewis Rossman
20 fingerling potatoes, sliced in ½-inch rounds
Salt and pepper
2 (5–6 ounce) portions fresh halibut
1 cup fresh peas (blanched in boiling salted water and cooled)
1 large handful pea tendrils
5 French breakfast radishes, halved
¼ brown butter lemon sauce
Brown Butter Lemon Sauce:
4 ounces unsalted butter
1 ounce lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 450°. Coat potato rounds in olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place potatoes on a baking sheet and roast in oven until soft on the inside and crisp on the outside, about 12–15 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
In a medium nonstick pan add a tablespoon of olive oil and allow the pan to reach the smoking point. Season the fish fillets with salt and pepper and add to the hot pan. Sauté for 4 minutes on medium heat and then turn over and finish cooking for another 4 minutes.
In another sauté pan add a tablespoon of olive oil, the radishes, potatoes and peas. Season with salt and pepper and, when the pan is hot, add the pea tendrils. When the pea tendrils begin to wilt, remove pan from heat. Place half of the vegetable mixture on each plate and top with the fish.
Meanwhile, to make the lemon brown butter sauce: In a small pot place 4 ounces unsalted butter. Heat the butter until it browns and remove from the heat. In a small mixing bowl place 1 ounce of lemon juice and 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Whisk the 2 together and slowly add the hot brown butter. This will create an emulsion and you should have a smooth sauce. Season the sauce with salt and pepper and top the fish.