Five questions with a master chef
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
For 20 years, chef-restaurateur Nancy Oakes has been respected by and even beloved of San Francisco diners, which is saying something in a town populated by sophisticates familiar with every food fad, cuisine and type of eatery on the planet.
The reason may lie in Oakes' no-nonsense philosophy. "There are no shortcuts," she says, flatly. The restaurant's menu is kept relatively compact, allowing chefs to prepare many dishes to order. Even make-ahead dishes are made in small batches, so that cooks can lavish home-style care on each batch. Also, as a front-of-the-house veteran Oakes was a host for many years, rare background in a chef she cares deeply about making customers feel comfortable and welcome.
Oakes will be in the Islands next month for a public appearance and a master class for culinary students, sponsored by Hale 'Aina 'Ohana. We talked with her one morning from her kitchen office at Boulevard restaurant, a graceful belle époque-style space in the 100-year-old Audiffred Building, near the Ferry Plaza.
Q. You've been called a pioneer of California Cuisine; what is it now and how would you have defined it when the movement began?
A. I suppose the terms now are "local and sustainable." (At one time) I would have said it was country French with California foods. I was certainly heavily influenced by that and then later heavily influenced by Italian food.
Q. How does your study of art play out in your work in food?
A. I don't know that it does at all. I suppose it always helps. You eat with your eyes first (but) it's certainly not my first focus. I think the first focus has to be taste. It has to taste wonderful. I do think it's helpful to be able to arrange the plate with an eye to shape, size and color.
Q. You have been praised for not losing contact with your meat-and-potatoes upbringing and you have said that you didn't eat much fish until you were in your 20s. You're also married to a man who has helped to repopularize fine quality meat products. Americans have an odd relationship with meat swearing they are cutting back on red meat, then consistently naming steak as a favorite restaurant choice. Talk about that.
A. Steak something they could and should make at home and don't. We sell a lot of filet mignon. We have it on the menu for that person who wants it, but it's not what I consider a fascinating cut or something that I would ever order in a restaurant. Most diners are very set in their ways. They like to go to places that serve sweetbreads and calamari and foie gras and quail, but they don't want to order them. They just want to be in a restaurant that has them. I can't explain it, but it's something that I've observed. You've got to have the crab cake and the roast chicken and the steak (on a restaurant menu) ... but that would be the last thing I would ever order in a restaurant because I can make them at home. (She pauses and looks over the sales figures for Boulevard from the previous evening: 32 percent of customers order beef filet mignon or New York steak, 13 percent had lamb; 42 percent ordered one of three fresh fish dishes.) People don't like to cook fish at home; it's hard for the consumer to buy good quality fish in a supermarket.
Q. Thinking about the culinary world today, what pleases you and makes you feel optimistic and what worries or concerns you?
A. I'm pleased that there are very intelligent and caring and motivated people who are ... learning how to do things in the old, authentic ways, learning how to raise animals differently, now to making things not in an overprocessed way and using high-quality raw ingredients. ... I'm very pessimistic about what it's going to cost and that those costs make it unavailable to so many people, that people are excluded and unable to eat well.
Q. You'll be talking to culinary students while you're here what's your central message to them?
A. I often ask people who start here, "Would you feed this to your mother?" If the answer is no, then why are we serving it to our guests? Remember what you're doing food is very personal, it actually becomes part of your own body. It should be prepared with care. ... Stop looking at it or talking about it as a "product." The moment you use that term, it becomes impersonal.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.