Meet the host serving up California-Caribbean flavors in his historic 1920s home
There are a few cities in the US where the concept of a dinner party is extra charming. San Francisco is one of those cities. The colorful homes, the quaint hilltop neighborhoods, the crisp air and foggy views…it’s cozy and classic, and ever-changing yet timeless. When you live in San Francisco today, you’re simultaneously living within a small tech bubble, and feeling like a part of something huge: the next big thing, the coolest new idea about to change the world. The unique culture is one that definitely leads to interesting dinner conversation — especially in a historic Alamo Square home, filled with art on the walls and a feast on the table.
When it comes to dinner at Emillio’s house, it’s all about the details. Read on for a taste of his beautiful San Francisco experience, and recommendations for the best local spots to visit while in town.
Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you’re not hosting?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my last name, Mesa, translates to “table.” I was born to be a host, or at least to be in the hospitality industry. When I’m not cooking or hosting, I’m the events producer for Levi’s North America. I plan, produce and manage their customer events: fashion shows, trade shows, company presentations and outings. I’m also a writer, with essays and profiles in The New York Times, Huffington Post, and Interview magazine. I’m currently working on my first book.
What’s your favorite part about living in San Francisco?
I love the “bubble mentality” of old SF. It’s super progressive and all about community. Also new SF, all about technology and new ways of uniting people. It’s “The Land of Start-Ups,” after all.
Your house is stunning! What elements make it quintessential San Francisco?
My home was built in the 1920s and still has the original crown molding with subtle Victorian touches. It’s airy and spacious, with a full and separate dining room and living room with a working fireplace, which I incorporate into the after-dinner portion of the evening. I live in Alamo Square Park, right around the corner from “The Painted Ladies,” AKA “The Seven Sisters.” I also use ivy and flowers from my garden for my table design.
What’s your favorite thing about hosting? What’s your favorite dish or drink to make?
I love the look of surprise on people’s faces when they see the table I set for them. It gets me every time! One of my favorite dishes to cook is Slow-Roasted Chicken in Red Wine-Sofrito Sauce with Mixed Olives (it takes 24 hours to make) — when done,the meat literally falls off the bone when you put the fork in it. My favorite drink to make is “Coquito,” which is made in the Caribbean during the holidays. It’s dangerous! It tastes like melted coconut ice- cream, but with a lot of rum!
“I’ve always seen life as a narrative. Hosting-Cooking-Setting a table is just another medium, for me, to tell stories and bring people together. I believe in the ‘Over the Table,’ concept. It’s a Spanish term, ‘Sobre Mesa,’ which is about that special, unique time after dinner, when people stay at the table and have conversations about everything!”
Any standout Eatwith moments?
There are a few…but, for this, I’ll mention the friend who bought two seats at my table as wedding gift for her best friends, who came from Israel to get married in SF. My dinner was the wedding present — that meant a lot to me! I also made them a Levi’s gift-bag.
How did you first start cooking and hosting? Tell us about your culinary journey.
My menus are a reflection of my heritage. I was raised in kitchens between The Dominican Republic, Mexico and New York City. After school, my grandmother, Violeta, looked after my brother and me, while she initiated her daily routine of making supper from scratch. The night before, she would chop vegetables, mix sauces and marinate meats. Shortly after my grandmother passed away, my parents divorced, and I went to college. My weekly sit-down dinners were replaced with a new norm: ordering take-out, while sitting in front of my laptop. Though I engaged in random restaurant outings with friends, I still craved the days when a table was thoughtfully set for loved ones and special guests, with a curated menu.
No matter what the situation, our family always sat down at the table and ate dinner together, without distractions. This meant an elaborate spread (hors d’oeuvres, appetizers, a main course and dessert) always with folded-napkins, name cards and fresh-cut flowers from the garden.
The conversations and laughter that came from this ritual shaped who I am today, and cemented the memory of the family I had lost. Thankfully, my mother had made a record of all her recipes and taught me how to cook them. To this day I can’t set a table or plan a menu without hearing my grandmother’s words in my head. “Your food selection and penmanship reveal how much you care about your guests. Choose wisely,” she always reminded me.
Where would you send your guests for non-touristic, local experiences in San Francisco?
“Beach Blanket Babylon,” it’ll give the ultimate history of SF mixed with of the moment pop-culture happenings!
“Mario’s” in North Beach — it’s a delightful hole in the wall place with great food, drinks, staff and you never know who will be there!
“The Mural Project,” Clarion Alley in The Mission: social, political and beautiful art which changes every month!
“Panchita’s Pupuseria & Restaurant,” in The Mission. It’s delicious, cheap and delightful! And on the weekends they cook on the street, it’s quite the natural grill production.
If you could throw any themed dinner party next, what would it be?
I’d love to throw a “San Francisco Through the Ages” dinner event where I would take people on a journey (food-décor-drinks-music-activities) of the city when it was still a part of Mexico/The Spanish to The Gold Rush, Summer of Love, Tech and beyond!
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