LAFAYETTE -- For 31-year old Adam Carpenter, the Lafayette Park Hotel's new executive chef, the key ingredients are good food, great family, and spying on customers.
Er, make that superlative food, close family and reading customers.
"We have to create food for our guests, not for ourselves," he said shortly after he made the leap from San Francisco's Jasper's Corner Tap to a position closer to his familial roots. "Maybe it's a lighter season and they won't want bacon on their burger; maybe the weather is colder, and then it's soups."
Unraveling his culinary DNA -- yes, food is that central to his makeup -- one discovers pearls of experience harking back to his childhood.
"My dad's bacon waffles have always been my number one. My mom cooked pork, slow-cooked stews -- and her carrot cake is tops: pecans, pineapple, fresh cut carrots ... "
Carpenter's first meal as chef was chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes.
"I just watched my mom to learn it. Garlic, salt, butter, milk -- that's it," he says, revealing his early propensity for "simple, untwisted" food.
From the home kitchen, he graduated to Baskin Robbins in Alamo and Walnut Creek's Taxi's Burgers as summer jobs, before landing at Blackhawk Grill while attending Diablo Valley College's culinary program in the late 1990s.
"I've never had a job outside the cooking industry," he said.
At Blackhawk, he learned everything from the bottom up -- line cook, pastry, sous and executive chef. Daniel Amaya taught him station cooking, from pantry to saute to grill.
"He told me, 'Don't mess up. Don't burn things, get your ingredients ready, work clean.' That's still in my head."
Scott Sasaki, of the French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, taught him to respect farmers and to treat food well.
"Produce makes food stand out and taste great on plates," he says. "It has to be local. For me, local is wherever things grow close to you that is the best environment. Asparagus from Stockton; pears, peaches and tomatoes from South Sacramento. Nothing that's flown."
As a leader in the locally-sourced, seasonally-astute, sustainably-raised food chain, Carpenter will continue to rely on people he knows.
"Farmers I can talk to who have the best in the area, even if it's 90 miles away," he begins. "People here want to hear the story behind the food. Right now, the menu doesn't have enough local-inspired items. There are great things on the menu, but I want my menu to develop with more local farms. In January, we'll do big changes and bring my cuisine."
Still in the planning stages, menu revisions already include tweaks like an added chicken dish and refinements to potato preparations. The new year will bring citrus-themed creations in the freeze-time early months and colorful "red is red, green is green" produce in March and April. A carrot cake hasn't "crossed the menu line," but he likes the idea.
Carpenter believes East Bay diners expect good value, above all else. "You can't say you're serving an Angus steak and instead, serve a cheap, commodity steak; we're going to serve a prime experience."
The decision to leave San Francisco -- and a smash-hit restaurant with a mixologist celeb, fries rated best in America by CNN, a burger he had coaxed into existence with the tender devotion of a father and a Yelp page that reads like a love letter to gastronomy--was hard. "There were sleepless nights to make the decision," he admits.
Ultimately, it came down to family. Carpenter is the father of 3-year old barbecue-eating Chase, and 5-year-old Dane, who eats anything served on a park slide during a picnic.
"And raw pasta out of the box they love," he laughs. "I think they learned that from their mother."
Carpenter cooks at his Martinez home or pops into local establishments like Havana in Walnut Creek ("They're open late, when I get off work,"), BJ's in Concord ("Because the beer is phenomenal,"), or indulges a fondness for Mexican cuisine at Taqueria Los Gallos in Pleasant Hill (That's always been a good one for me,").
He follows television's "Top Chef," especially when friends are featured. Favorite cookbooks, among the hundreds he owns, are Thomas Keller's "Ad Hoc at Home" and anything relevant to his current interests, which range from gastro-pubby London-style food to the Asian cuisine he perfected at Ponzu (the restaurant he led before Jasper's).
What would he prepare for Daniel Boulud and Gordon Ramsay, two chefs he admires?
"A really good burger with good chemistry. You don't just put meat on a bun. You let the meat rest, use proper meat to bun ratio and the cheese has to stand out. It has to have function or it shouldn't be there."