Above: Destino owner and head chef James Schenk
Sometimes there’s a moment of clarity that sends you through time and space and lands you exactly where you need to be. When James Schenk’s moment came, he was sitting in a small café in Madrid, Spain, studying abroad during his junior year at the University of California, Berkeley.
It wasn’t long before the cozy Café Barbieri inspired a life full of flavor.
“That was the year that changed my life, because that was the year that I basically fell in love with this café close to my house, and realized inside it that I needed a place like this back home,” says Schenk. “And that was basically the birth of Destino.”
Destino is a San Francisco-based bar and bistro that serves fresh takes on traditional Latin dishes like ceviche and empanadas. Schenk, the owner and head chef, opened the bistro in the Mission District in May 2000.
Initially, Destino was going to serve just coffee and pastries, like his favorite café in Spain. But Schenk instead decided to serve modern Latin eats and Spanish tapas. At the time, contemporary Latin cooking was still new to the Bay Area.
“I decided to piggyback on this new trend that was happening in New York and Miami, which was called Nuevo Latino, which was basically a reintroduction of Latin cuisine. Because back then – we’re talking 20 years ago – everyone just assumed all Latin food was beans and rice because no one knew what anything else was,” Schenk recalls.
“And so, I was one of the first Nuevo Latino restaurants out here in San Francisco to really introduce good healthy Latin foods.”
A native San Franciscan with Peruvian and Swiss roots, Schenk is passionate about food and travel, and how each inspires the other. He’s led several culinary tours through Argentina, Uruguay, and Peru, immersing guests in local cultures with unique culinary traditions.
Schenk went to culinary school before opening Destino, but only to learn the basics. He attended the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Vancouver for six months.
Half of this was spent gaining practical experience in a restaurant’s kitchen. One day, Schenk was tasked with making dessert. He decided on vanilla ice cream with a dulce de leche swirl paired with alfajores, South American butter cookies. It was a hit.
“…Chef Walter comes into the kitchen, and he’s like, ‘I want to gather everyone’s attention.’…And he basically started drilling me about what I did for dessert. So I told him what it was and everything. And then he congratulated me because he said that every table out there wants more cookies, and ‘Where can we get the cookies?’, and ‘Where can we buy the cookies?’, and stuff. And it was just like, holy crap!” says Schenk.
He knew from that point on that this was something he wanted to pursue, and soon became the head chef at Destino. Today, the bistro is on a new path. For a year and a half, Schenk has been planning a change in concept and location.
He listed the bistro on the market back in January and found a great new place in Hunters Point, San Francisco. It will be a bistro café, with catering in the back of house and healthy Latin foods to-go up front.
“And so basically downsizing into this little café concept, which is ironic, because jumping back 20 years ago, that’s exactly what I wanted to do in the first place. Right? So, it’s kind of a crazy kismet of like how things come full circle and how things evolve,” Schenk explains.
The Impact of Covid-19
Schenk says when Covid-19 hit in the spring, he empowered himself and his employees to get through the pandemic. “I applied for everything under the sun day one.”
Destino was approved for multiple loans and is now headed for an exciting future as a bistro café. “Destino’s not over, it’s just a new chapter,” the chef confirms.
Today, Schenk is hosting Zoom cooking classes, indulging in quarantine cravings, and looking forward to reconnecting with the San Francisco community when the café opens. The new location will keep the name Destino, which means destination and destiny. It was inspired by the Gloria Stefan song of the same name.
“…When you follow your passion, you follow your life,” says Schenk. “It’s like how much of our life is really based on destiny, how much of it is what we actually create? Or is the path already established before us, and we just need to open our eyes to embrace it?”
Right now, the future seems uncertain for San Francisco. One thing that’s clear, though, is that when it comes to Latin food in the Bay Area, there’s no better chef than Schenk, whose appetite for life is apparent in every dish.