Gary Danko is widely recognized as one of America’s most talented and respected chefs. His achievements include a James Beard Foundation “Best Chef – California” award and reflect his lifelong pursuit of excellence in the culinary arts. Danko’s successes can be attributed to his many years of study and hard work, combined with an innate ability to create dishes of both elegance and depth that evoke the simple pleasures and warmth of home cooking.
Danko was reared in the small town of Massena in upstate New York. He credits his parents for his strong work ethic. Cooking was learned at his mother’s knee. A Louisiana native, she deftly balanced flavors through the judicious use of simple seasonings, and focused on farm-fresh ingredients. Those lessons guide him to this day. His father, an architect and builder, launched Danko’s interest in restaurants when he undertook the remodeling of The Village Inn, a local eatery. Danko, then only fourteen years old, worked his way through high school at that restaurant, and had worked in all facets of this business by the time he graduated in 1975.
Always convinced of his calling, Danko enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. His classmates included Great Chefs Bradley Ogden and Susan Feniger. A top student, he mastered the techniques of professional cooking.
After he graduated in 1977, Danko moved to San Francisco and spent the next three years working as a lunch chef at a small bookstore/bistro and as an expediter/waiter at the Waterfront Restaurant in the evening. He enjoyed this opportunity to explore the Bay Area, but eventually returned East to the traditional roots of his evolving style. Moving to Vermont, he became the chef at the highly regarded Tucker Hill Inn, where his creativity and distinctive style flourished. Exhilarated by the profusion of fresh and flavorful local products such as butter, cheeses, poultry, and produce, Danko began to change his menu nightly, an uncommon practice at the time.
Avidly following Madeleine Kamman’s career, Danko enrolled in her class at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School in 1983. A year later he enrolled in her cooking school in New Hampshire. He distinguished himself at the school and at its adjacent restaurant, and this marked the beginning of a close friendship. Although Danko received his formal training at the CIA, he credits his study under Madeleine Kamman with refining his skills and developing the approach that embodies his personal cooking style today.
Madeleine Kamman subsequently appointed Danko to Beringer Vineyards’ food and wine externship. Impressed with Danko’s talents, Beringer hired him as executive chef in 1985, and in this position he helped build Beringer’s culinary center in a successful, respected educational program that garnered considerable recognition and respect. A year later, Kamman established her School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards in the Napa Valley. When Beringer purchased Chateau Souverain in Sonoma County, Danko took the helm of its restaurant as executive chef. It was there that Danko’s achievements first attracted national acclaim. In 1989, Food & Wine magazine selected him as one of the ten best new chefs in America, and they featured him on the cover of its issue focusing on wine country fine dining.
After four years at Chateau Souverain, Danko left to become the chef of the Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, which then attained well-deserved status as one of the country’s finest restaurants and earned a rare four-star rating. In 1995, Danko won the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef – California” award.
While at The Ritz-Carlton, Danko appeared as a featured chef on the Great Chefs Television series entitled Great Chefs – Great Cities and Great Chefs of America. He also worked with Jacques Pepin on another series. In addition, he taught extensively and earned the respect of food editors and writers as a source of exceptional information and recipes.
He left The Ritz-Carlton in 1996 to begin work on a cookbook and to continue laying the groundwork for his own restaurant. In the interim he took on the challenge of launching Viognier, the restaurant at the new Draeger’s Market Place in San Mateo, California. He had been a frequent and popular instructor at Draeger’s Cooking School, which offers cooking classes taught by this country’s foremost chefs. During his two-year tenure as a consultant at Viognier, he fashioned a successful restaurant that was featured and lauded in respected local and national publications. Columnist John Mariani recognized these achievements by bestowing the coveted “Best New Restaurant” award on Viognier. This was the second time Danko has received the award, the first being at the Dining Room of the Ritz-Carlton in 1993.
With Viognier thriving, a phone call from Michel Elkaim, the owner of Chez Michel restaurant in San Francisco brought Danko’s plan for his own restaurant to life. Chez Michel, which was featured in the Great Chefs of San Francisco series in 1983, closed in the Spring of 1999 and was the precise location that Danko had determined was ideal years before. This phone call led to the creation of GARY DANKO, the restaurant.
Within months of opening, the restaurant received the highest accolades possible from both of the San Francisco daily newspapers, a spectacular listing in (December 1999) annual “Best New Restaurants” article, and the first of three “Five Star” ratings. In May of 2000, GARY DANKO won the James Beard Foundation’s “Best New Restaurant” award, and in August of that year Danko was named Chef of the Year. In January of 2002, the restaurant was selected as a Relais & Chateau property, one of only eighteen such dining venues on the continent. Later the same year, Danko was nominated as Outstanding Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation.