MARIN LAYS CLAIM to some of the most creative and passionate chefs this side of the Golden Gate Bridge, but do they share any interests outside the kitchen? As an automotive journalist (and restaurant enthusiast), I set out on a quest to determine if our local chefs’ desire for spice and variety extends to the garage as well as the kitchen.
My journey begins at a sidewalk table in Sausalito. I’m at Poggio, talking to executive chef Ben Balesteri. We will eventually have the opportunity to discuss the wonderful Italian cuisine and his journey in culinary arts, but what brought me here was his car, a 1970 Pontiac GTO, to be specific.
Balesteri was born in Monterey and raised in the Salinas Valley, surrounded by cars. “I grew up about 10 minutes from Laguna Seca, went to lots of races, and then there’s also the concourse and other car shows; there’s constantly something going on.” His neighbor, a collector of classic vehicles, was constantly working on cars. “I was always playing in his garage as a kid,” Balesteri recalls, “learning here and there what I possibly could.”
He took his driver’s license test with a ’67 Chevy three-quarter-ton four-wheel-drive ranch truck. A task complicated by the vehicle’s three-speed granny gear.
The 1970 Pontiac he drives today, a GTO 455 with a Turbo 400 transmission, has been in the family for many years. “My uncle actually bought the car brand new in 1970 off the lot, and after about two years, he sold it to my grandfather,” Balesteri says. “It then just sat in a barn for about 10 to 15 years, and when I was 16, I stumbled upon this amazing beautiful car with rats running through it.”
Balesteri had it towed home, flushed both the gas tank and the radiator, and changed the plugs and distributor, and it started. “It was amazing. I drove it about a month, and then I blew it up,” he says. “It had been sitting for about 20 years, and I was going — let’s just say — plenty fast. It was quite fun.” The engine was rebuilt and it’s been a work in progress ever since.
Taking a GTO to the farmers’ market elicits remarks such as “What a beautiful car!” or “Why are you at the market with it?” or “You shouldn’t be hauling produce in that thing.” Ben tells people it’s his daily ride as he loads up cases of Brussels sprouts, broccoli and lettuce. “I don’t even know what other car I would purchase,” he says. “I love the feeling, I love the sound, I love the power. I love the smell of gas and I guess it just reminds me of the racetrack.”
Balesteri’s love of working with his hands is evident in both his cooking and his passion for cars. “I think wrenching on a car has always been natural for me, like chopping vegetables, slicing tuna or cutting up meat. It feels natural to get under the car and start wrenching and getting grease all over.” After a long day of working in the fast-paced restaurant industry, the GTO is the chef’s diversion.
“Our restaurant is very high volume so it’s a pretty intense day-to-day operation,” he says. “I start around 8 or 9 in the morning and I get off anywhere from 9 to 10 at night. So I think it just helps me release and relax a little bit when I get home to have something to play with.”
When asked if there was another car that might be added to the garage, Balesteri admits that he has admired Porsches and Ferraris, but overall, “I like classics and that would be my direction.”
And though he loves being in the kitchen, it’s hard to avoid fine cars, even at work. “We’re fortunate to have a car show right in front of Poggio,” he says of the first-Saturday-of-the-month gathering called Biscotti and Cars.
On the Road
Directly across Richardson Bay, Tim Humphrey is the executive chef at Tiburon Tavern and spends his time on the road cruising in a modern 2010 Dodge Challenger. Asked about the affinity many chefs share for Detroit iron, he says, “The new chefs these days have a little cutting edge to them, and muscle cars fall in that line.”
Humphrey has been around Dodges his whole life. In his youth in the South, his father had “an ol’ Dodge pickup truck that we drove around in forever.” He learned to drive in that pickup and became a big fan of Dodge classics. “It was a toss-up when it came time for me to get a car. I was going to go old school and then the new Challenger came out and I was like, ‘man, that’s really beautiful,’ ” he says, “and it has air-conditioning and stuff so the functionality won out.” It had the style that he was looking for, and he figured “that one day I would reach back and get an older one, but we’ll start with the new one now.”
The Challenger is relatively new, so Humphrey is able to spend less time on maintenance and more time driving. He has even taken it cross-country a couple of times. “I just like to get out on the road and go,” he says. “I usually kick open my sunroof and enjoy the weather and just cruise.”
Driving is a form of escape for Humphrey. “I take solace in the kitchen and it’s a good place for me; I feel comfortable there,” he says. “But every now and again you get away and try to just clear your mind out there on the road and think of new stuff, and go see new things, and try to get new inspirations into where you’re at and what’s going on.”
And that passion and inspiration found on the road often makes its way to the menu. “I got a lot of exciting stuff, exciting flavors coming from all over the world, not really just out of the South or out of California,” he says. “Whatever I can come up with, I love to put it on a plate and see how the rest of the community enjoys it.”
Asked what other cars interest him, Humphrey says he’s drawn to the classics. “I would actually like the classic version of my car. To have them in comparison would be pretty cool.” Though he says he wouldn’t turn down a 700-horsepower Dodge Hellcat.
Ged Robertson opened Small Shed Flatbreads in Mill Valley 10 years ago and recently transformed it into the popular Molina. He also worked on the reintroduction of the Sweetwater Music Hall and owns Shoreline Coffee Shop. On occasion, he can be found driving his rather large 1970 Cadillac Deville convertible around town.
“This car was from Tiburon and it’s spent most of its time in Marin. So it’s been on the hills and, surprisingly, because it has a suspension, it drives really well and we don’t scrape the bumpers going up a steep driveway,” Robertson says. While not his daily ride, the Deville emerges for special occasions and is regularly featured in the local Fourth of July parade.
Robertson likes to think of the Caddy as a rock ’n’ roll car. “When we opened up the Sweetwater, with all the history here and the music, the car helped channel the time and the feeling that was this place back in the day.”
The restaurateur grew up in New York, where his mom made him learn to drive a stick shift and his first car was a Datsun SPL 311. “It was an old convertible and a troublesome car that could go very fast,” he says.
Prior to that, he rode a moped to high school. “I wasn’t the coolest kid, but maybe I’d get a girl on there once in a while and if we stayed upright it was great,” Robertson says. “But the kids who had cars before I did were kind of badass.”
While growing up, he was surrounded by people working on their muscle cars — the popular after-school hobby. “Walking home from school you’d pass by somebody’s house and they were modifying their car.
He always wanted a 1973.5 Porsche Targa and says that for him ’70s cars hold a special attraction. Another car from that period that piques Robertson’s interest is the ’70s Citroën DS convertible. “That is my fantasy car, and by the time I was able to afford it, I think it tripled in price,” he says. “It’s a beautiful car, and unique.”
Robertson’s restaurant experiences offer insight into what compels some chefs to own unique vehicles. “The good chefs are really into creating unique experiences, so they enjoy anything that gives them a different angle,” he says. “They’re attracted to doing things a little bit differently.”
When it comes to cars, Shoreline Coffee Shop sees plenty of classics stop by its location in the busy junction between Mill Valley, Muir Woods, Stinson Beach, and the city just over the bridge. “It’s called Tam Junction for a reason, and old cars just pull up here,” Robertson says. “It’s pretty cool.”
Check out Motor Trend podcast episode #75 featuring Executive Editor Mimi Towle and the chefs!
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “On the Grille“