Not many people know the story of Emperor Norton, which is surprising, because as stories go it’s a pretty quintessential San Francisco story.
A true story of success, failure, and deciding to be whoever the heck you want to be.
The story goes like this: A young man in 1849, inherits what today would be the equivalent of around $1.5 million. Moves to San Francisco and grows his fortune, proving himself a successful businessman. As China gets hit with a famine, he decides to take advantage by buying up rice from Peru and trying to corner the market. After the contract was signed, numerous outer boats filled with rice arrived from Peru, shooting the price of rice down, spiraling into a series of lawsuits and ultimately driving Norton into bankruptcy.
Norton disappears for a year and shows up in 1859, distributing letters to city newspapers declaring himself Emperor of the United States. Congress and most government officials didn’t bother themselves with Norton’s decrees, but the city of San Francisco, accepting as ever let Norton go about his business as “Emperor”. Norton walked the streets decked out in an elaborate uniform, eating at the finest restaurants for free and attending all the biggest performances in the city. He issued his own money to pay for his debts which was accepted currency in San Francisco. He was loved and praised by San Francisco residents till he passed away on the corner of California and Grant.
Norton’s reign may be over, but a new emperor has taken the streets of San Francisco, honoring Norton’s story and decreeing the best places to eat in San Francisco.
The man you see walking around the city in Norton’s regal uniform is actually Chef Joseph a history buff and food enthusiast offering tours to San Francisco locals and tourists alike. Joseph started his career in journalism, before his love of food took over and he dove head first into the restaurant and culinary world. He’s worked every job from bus boy to chef, loving putting a smile on people’s face through food.
His passion took the form of social gourmet groups, where he loved explaining the in’s and outs of different cuisines to friends, giving cooking classes in his living room and then decided to take it to the streets with his San Francisco tours.
Joseph and his husband run the tour company together, offering both food tours, drag tours and Emperor Norton historical tours and now exclusive North Beach Food Tours for EnjoyFresh members! (Get more San Francisco food recommendations)
The tours cover hidden gems and North Beach and will leave you stuffed to the brim with delicious pastries and Italian delicacies. Chef Joesph took a break from his double life as emperor to give us his take on the San Francisco food scene.
Tell us a secret:
I’ve crashed parades as Emperor Norton. I feel like a different person with the uniform on, people love it. They treat me differently, I get the greatest reactions. So far I’ve done Colombus day twice, Chinese New Year and Gay Pride.
What do you think the biggest problems in the culinary world are:
Everything is too precious. Portions are so tiny you don’t even want to eat it. I’m all about the flavor, not the presentation. I hate overpriced food. As a food critic I felt the same, it was al about the food, don’t write about service, decor doesn’t matter, let the food be the center.
What inspires you:
Diversity! I want to try every cuisine on the planet. If I don’t like it one way I try it a different way. There so much to try, to see and to taste! So many stories to heard.
Hearty simple cooking. I love experimenting with my pressure cooker, going to farmer’s markets and finding new ingredients. Lately, I’ve been making my Middle Eastern Cassoulet a lot.
Where are your favorite places to take people in North Beach:
There are so many great places. The neighborhood has so much history. The focaccia from Liguiria Bakery, the folks there have great personalities. Original Joes, XOX Truffles… These places have great stories. I love the stories just as much as the food.
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