San Francisco’s leading culinary couple discuss food, travel, and the philosophy of doing things their way.
Perhaps the only thing more pleasurable than dining at State Bird Provisions, otherwise knows as America’s Best New Restaurant, is talking with Chef Proprietors, Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski. Stuart and Nicole embody so much of what we love about the Bay Area food scene. They are daring and inventive, connected to the community, and have a beautiful aesthetic. They are also incredibly nice people, and as a husband and wife strong team, personal heroes of ours.
The couple and their son, Jasper—an impeccably mannered cherub who reminds you why people raise kids in the city—generously met us for lunch during their 96-hour Christmas break.
During the meal—three plates shuffled wordlessly between the threesome—food and travel were major themes. We also heard much mention of the importance of freedom.
Their words left us brimming with SF love, and hungrier than ever to take on the world.
What are the advantages of partnering with your partner?
Stuart: I was just thinking about this morning. Nicole is in the kitchen. I come in and turn on the hot water. She immediately starts grinding coffee beans. There was no conversation, just action. That’s probably the most simplified version, but you multiply that 100 times, and there are just that many activities throughout the day. We read each other by actions. You just know what the other is anticipating, well, most of the time. In a restaurant setting, we all have our individual jobs that all require one to do the other. What I do sets Nicole up for what she has to do. It’s a big part of it. That’s from over 10-years working together, and more traveling together and living together.
And what’s the not-so-sexy side of working with your spouse?
Nicole: Even when you’re at home, there’s still the potential for a conversation about work to come up. You don’t have that person who’s not directly involved to bounce ideas off, or vent to.
State Bird Provisions serves dim sum style. How do you balance a historically Asian concept with seasonal California fare?
Stuart: Creative thinking, really. When we created State Bird—I actually remember us having this conversation in Peru—it wasn’t State Bird that we were creating. It was the restaurant philosophy, what we wanted most. And for us it was really a sense of freedom from the traditions of restaurants. We wanted to be able to cook what we wanted, when we wanted, and how we wanted. We didn’t want it to be dictated by a certain region or traditional course style.
Nicole: Course size. Appetizers. Entrée. Dessert. Small. Big…
Stuart: You can’t rewrite food, but we wanted to have the comforts of being in one’s home where food just sort of arrives. We’d always talked about this cool dim sum, tapas, appetizer concept. Everyone loves small plates. People love one to two bites of something, tasting menu style. So how do you take that tasting menu format, and let everyone create their own tasting menu with no rhyme or reason? In a way, you get to choose your own adventure. We’d been cooking a number of hors d’oeuvres parties…
Nicole: …You remember the house, you’d walk in and there would be an explosion of food everywhere?
Stuart: It just made sense, we had to figure out how to do an hors d’oeuvres party sitting down. So it wasn’t really a dream of doing a dim sum thing, or even an Asian thing—an asiatic theme is just in one or two dishes. We also wanted it to be something where you could come in and be a part of it. You create your own experience. Restaurants serve so many purposes. There’s a social quality, they’re a form of entertainment. It’s such an interesting market now, and I think we’re really pushing that.
Years ago, our friend said, “knowing what kind of restaurant you are is half the battle”. Meaning are you a pizza restaurant? Are you Northern Italian? Are you a taqueria? That puts you into a class. Then, when people think, “I feel like a pizza tonight”, or “I feel like tacos”, you’re one of their options as they run through the category. Nicole and I couldn’t come up with that idea, because our minds don’t think like that. We’re not necessarily passionate about one type of cuisine, we’re passionate about cooking and creating. That power of creating a dish has more of an impact than replicating a traditional dish. I have much respect for tradition, I just wasn’t raised that way. It’s not our habit.
Time away from the restaurant scene sounds like an important part of the concept development for State Bird Provisions. How important was that freedom?
Stuart: That’s it, a sense of freedom. Isn’t that what everyone wants? We had been away from the restaurant industry for over three years, and it allowed us to think outside the box. We didn’t have much money so we weren’t going out to eat, we were keeping up in the newspaper and such. By completely removing ourselves, it allowed us to come back and do this from a completely different point of view. State Bird almost didn’t happen. It was really the next restaurant we were talking about. Then this space was kind of handed to us, and we both had a duh moment.
Our mission statement was to cook with a sense of freedom and flexibility. To treat people really well, and like who you work with.
Nicole: You need to have fun, because work is hard.
How has California’s farmers market culture affected the way you cook? How do you choose your vendors?
Nicole: There’s a mutual respect. A history.
Stuart: For me it’s relationships, stories, and respect. There’s a responsibility you take on when you develop those relationships. You own it. They start to define how you cook. At Prather, you [Cliff was Wholesale Manager] only slaughter 11 cows a week which poses some limitations, and I’m OK with that. That’s part of the responsibility. Again, it comes back to the fact that with the restaurant we’ve created, we have that freedom and flexibility. We serve quail—we obviously serve a lot of it—from a pretty basic cooperative in the Central Valley. They’re very good quail, very good quail. There we have a relationship with the vendors more than the farmers, because there’s no one farmer who could keep up with the volume.
If the State Bird Provisions philosophy started on a hilltop in Peru, what travel meals have been a transformative experience?
Nicole: We’ve been traveling for 17 years, so there have been a few. Our first official trip, we went to New York in 1995, just for a weekend. The next summer we did a six-week trip to Europe, which was pretty big. I was only 20-years old, Stuart was 21. We didn’t have cell phones, there was no internet, we were just doing it.
Stuart: As students, meals weren’t a very big part of it. Later, I was fascinated with French cuisine, and European cooking in general. I worked in France, and Nicole joined me—we went to France every year for four years or so.
I find some of the most satisfying and interesting meals aren’t in the Michelin starred restaurants; aren’t in the restaurants you’d even think about. In Chile, we were on a tour bus going to look at the volcanoes, and we stopped at this open area. It was indoor/outdoor—rules are much different there—and they had this 16 ft long pit, all bricked-in with shoulder clods roasting all along. It was just a dude sitting down like a young kid, spinning this meat. He would bring you a platter of meat with several different condiments. It was really, really remarkable. In Peru, we went to this cevicheria called Sonia in Lima. It was a nice walk to get there, but we went back three times in the course of a week it was so incredible. Of course we were in shorts and flip-flops; it was just the whole mood, the whole experience.
If you only had time for one meal in a new place, would you beeline for a Michelin-starred chef or street-food?
Stuart: Definitely something on the lowbrow. I love creativity, but what I really like is the sense of spirit of the whole place. I was in Spain for 10 days in October, without Nicole. I was looking for confirmation on what we’re doing. My buddy Jeff who I was with asked, “what are you looking for on this trip?” I responded, “I’m not really looking for food, I’m really looking to understand the sense of spirit of these tapas places”. We ate at all levels, and my favourites were the ones where you walk in and are immediately embraced by something. Hospitality is a major, major, major part of this. Again, it’s telling that story: the food, the atmosphere, the service…the walls. That story is what has the lasting impression. Those are the places that I seek.
If you weren’t cooking in San Francisco, where would we find you?
The world is changing really fast—what travel experience do you hope for Jasper?
Nicole: What I really hope for him is that the world retains a sense of mystery, even in the age of the internet. There’s something amazing about discovering something that you had no idea existed, and making your own path. Not having it all google mapped and laid out. I hope he can travel and still do things off the cuff, and not be exposed to everything in the world before he actually experiences it. Often times your idea of something new is clouded by what you think you know. But if you have no preconceived ideas, your mind is open in a totally different way.
On our trip, what’s the one food we should seek out at all costs.