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Like any parent, David Nayfeld, the esteemed chef who helms the critically-acclaimed San Francisco restaurant Che Fico, is destined to navigate the frustrations of a child’s evolving tastes. “Every few weeks something changes,” he says of his daughter Helena. “She used to be fine with carrots. Now she’s not.”
Helena’s fickle, shifting food standards are normal for a kid who just turned three, but her changing preferences test Nayfeld’s determination not to succumb to the path of least resistance, or what he calls the “buttered noodles” syndrome. “There’s no shame in that, I get it, but I also believe with the proper amount of advanced thought and strategy, you can get kids to eat a more diverse diet with lots of vegetables.”
Certainly, a chef dad has advantages, like cooking skills and the ability to perform culinary magic under pressure, but Nayfeld has his own unique challenges. He’s a single dad who’s had to juggle parenting while running a business during a pandemic when many restaurants didn’t survive. The Che Fico team pivoted to a take-out model, then to an outdoor dining model. All the while the restaurant fed workers who lost their jobs and Nayfeld continues to lobby legislators on behalf the Independent Restaurant Coalition.
At the restaurant, Nayfeld takes pride in the fact that vegetarians can feast well on dishes like roasted maitake mushrooms with cannellini beans or a tantalizing spinach lasagna. His cooking emphasizes seasonal fruits and vegetables, whether he’s making a meal for customers or his own family.
To introduce Helena to as many different foods and flavors as possible, he’s focusing on creativity and engagement “When she’s able to participate in the cooking process, she’s more likely to try it,” he says. “I have her help me with certain things, like how much cheese we add to her scrambled eggs or I enlist her to help me peel or prep vegetables. It sparks her curiosity and then she’ll give it a shot.”
These busy days, he says, “Efficiency became the name of the game. That’s why I like a soup or pasta. You can cook it all in one pot and it just gets better and better over time.”
Che Fico Chef David Nayfeld offered Vegetarian Times a couple of his and his daughter Helena’s favorite home recipes: Pasta Fagioli and Winter Vegetable Soup.
To make the dishes sing, Nayfeld recommends two simple pantry staples. First, he says, invest in a good pepper grinder and roast the pepper corns before use. “It’s a fresh, flavor altering experience that offers vibrance and nuance,” he says. “Pre-ground pepper permeates a dish and kills it for me.” Second, he suggests, “invest a good finishing olive oil. Try different ones and see what you like. It could be Israeli, Greek, Spanish, Tuscan, Ligurian, Portuguese, Californian.” Finally, stick to whole foods as much as possible. “I would never feed my daughter or anyone in my restaurant food that’s over modified. What I want comes from the earth and not out of a science lab.”
6 Tablespoons Butter
1 Tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ cups yellow onion, Small diced
3 Garlic Cloves, Sliced
2 Carrots, Chopped
½ Lemon Peel, Chopped
1 Sprig Thyme
2 cups Cooked Butter Beans, in Liquid (20.5oz can)
3 cups Macaroni Shells
1 Lemon, Juiced
1 Bunch Flat Leaf Parsley, Chopped
¼ cup [Vegetarian] Parmigiano Reggiano
To taste: Kosher Salt
To taste: Extra virgin olive oil
To taste: Additional [Vegetarian] Parmigiano Reggiano
In a medium saute pan, melt half of the butter and all of the extra virgin olive oil; add the onions and garlic and cook over medium heat for two to three minutes, until translucent.
Add the carrots and cook for an additional two minutes. Add the lemon zest and thyme, stir to combine and cook an additional minute until fragrant. Add the butter beans with their liquid and bring to a simmer.
In the meantime, cook the pasta al dente in salted boiling water according to the package instructions and add to the pan.
Continue to simmer over medium heat until the sauce thickens and coats the noodles, stirring occasionally.
Take the pan off the heat and on a cool, heat proof surface stir in the lemon juice, remaining butter, chopped parsley, and parmigiano reggiano. Season with salt to your taste.
Plate the pasta in warm bowls and top with a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and parmigiano reggiano.
For a vegan version replace all butter with an equal amount of olive oil and omit the parmesan cheese.
Winter Vegetable Soup
½ cup EVOO
1 ½ cups Red Onion, Small Diced
4 Garlic Cloves, Minced
2 cups Carrot, Medium Diced
1½ cups Celery, Medium Diced
2 cups Butternut Squash, Medium Diced
2 cups Potato, Medium Diced
2 cups Cauliflower, Small Florets
4 cups Kale, Cut in 1-inch Pieces
1 Lemon, Peeled and Julienned
6 sprigs Thyme Leaves
1 28oz Canned Crushed San Marzano Tomatoes
2 cups Kidney beans in their liquid (20.5 oz can)
1 quart Vegetable Stock or water
4 teaspoons (or to taste) Kosher Salt
1 Lemon, Juiced
[Vegetarian] Parmesan Cheese (Optional)
Heat the olive oil in a large stock pot over medium heat; add the red onion and sweat for five minutes, until translucent.
Add the garlic and sweat for two minutes. Add the carrot, celery, potato and squash and continue to cook over medium
heat for five minutes.
Add the cauliflower and kale and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Add the lemon peel and thyme and cook until fragrant, about a minute.
Add the tomatoes, beans, and vegetable stock or water and bring to a simmer.
After 15 minutes, season the soup with the kosher salt and lemon juice (add a pinch of chili flake if you like a little kick).
Serving suggestions: ladle the soup into bowls and drizzle with olive oil, top with a sprinkle of grated parmesan cheese and enjoy with a crusty country style bread.