Open Source Hero: Chef Stuart Brioza, James Beard Award winning owner of Statebird Provisions SF

Contributor / Culture / Interview

It was naive and stupid of us to think it would be easy, but we wanted to have fun.

Photo by Freda Banks

Stuart Brioza (along with partner Nicole Krasinski) is the owner of State Bird Provisions and now The Progress, in San Francisco, the former of which won this year's James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. He's been lauded as an innovative chef, and praised by peers as a great friend and boss; a nice reprieve from images of competitive celebrity chefs plating gratuitous metaphors of “pressure cookers” in the public appetite for status cuisine. Chef Stuart lets us know the value of good food: it's about stoking creativity, making generous yields and answering one question: Is it delicious?

Paperhouses: How's the re-opening (of State Bird Provisions) going? What's the progress on The Progress?
Stuart Brioza: Considering that we only expanded about 20% of the total space, including a bathroom, which is pretty significant, it feels–and a lot of our regulars have commented–it feels more like twice the size. It really is just 20% larger in all aspects: in square footage, staffing, eating. But I think it was so tight and narrow (before), it just feels like a realistic amount of space for a restaurant now. Before it was almost an unrealistic amount of eating space.

Ph: You have a lot of different roles, not just designing a menu and cooking, but how do you personally manage the role of developing and managing a space, and the food, and a business? You're a small business-owner and a creative, in the end, so how do you balance that?
SB: Well, I think that as far as the small-business owner role goes, I decided early on it wasn't worth taking on more than what I could actually handle. Meaning, if the business of owning a business became so overwhelming that it cut into the creative aspects, it wouldn't be worthwhile. You make a lot of decisions as a business so that you can think creatively, and one of those decisions was location. We found a place where we could rent in San Francisco for a fair deal. If you're paying so much in rent and other costs then it will feel like you're just managing a business. We knew where we wanted to put our money and our efforts and I guess that translates to it affording us the opportunity to have staff and other management that can oversee other aspects of the business. It allows the goal of the restaurant–to serve interesting food and have fun with it–to happen. We have this idea of not overworking anybody, especially when accustomed to the workflow. It's fun. But yeah, sometimes I'll walk straight from an intensive management meeting to creating a menu. It reminds me of that scene in The Cook The Thief His Wife Her Lover where they go from the kitchen to the dining room to the bathroom, and the walls and the color schemes change in every single room and so does the mood and temperament. I really feel like that sometimes.

Ph: That's a great spacialized way of understanding your many many roles. When you're looking at making food or designing a plate, what's your primary parameter? The cuisine category? Where the produce comes from? The style of cooking? Is it about being local and organic?
SB: All of that is part of the decision but the first and foremost… it's very easy: it's got to be delicious. I mean really, we go into every dish with that as the primary focus. Is it delicious? It's the first thing I think about. Interesting food is interesting. It can be intellectual and sophisticated, but all food has got to answer one thing: is it delicious. I think if that's where you start, all the other pieces fall into it. We use a lot of local and definitely organic ingredients. We apply different techniques to different dishes. Some things call for more Southeast Asian styles, or maybe we do something Southern, so in addition to deliciousness, the area in which it's influenced by is important. I like looking at it through the ingredients. Fish sauce, for example, may be in a dish, even if there's nothing about the dish that says Vietnam or Thailand. The other thing is that we try to also in every dish answer four flavor profiles: salt, fat, acid and texture.

Ph: Hmph, texture.
SB: I mean how does the mouth feel? I think texture is so important. It can really elevate big dishes to a whole new level.

Ph: I agree, though I personally love slimy things.
SB: Like mountain yam?

Ph: Yeah I love mountain yam! I also love natto, which of course also incorporates the odor element (laughter).
SB: Those aren't my favorite but it is an important texture that defines the ingredients and dish. Our “slimy” would be oysters.

Photo by Freda Banks

Ph: Do you think though, that deliciousness is in the eye of the beholder? Do you have dishes that don't take off, for example?
SB: You know it's interesting. If it were printed on the menu I'd see there are a lot of areas in which we're making a lot of plates and not using it right, but part of the beauty of what we do is we put it on a tray or cart and put it in front of someone's face. We have you eat first with your eyes. It doesn't just taste delicious it looks delicious; fresh and bold and colorful. There's some mass appeal to the way it looks. Often times I think food as words don't translate as well as the chef or restaurant wishes it to.

Ph: That's really interesting because I was going to ask how you feel about sharing recipes or adapting upon other people's recipes? I mean you've come up with an incredibile restaurant model but in the industry there's always some conversation about recipes being ripped off or restaurant ideas being hyped. Everyone has a bao now, for example, but five year ago someone must have re-invented it. What do you think of recipes or restaurant models as intellectual property?
SB: You know, I think it's a very interesting conversation. A cook or another chef or restaurant can replicate ingredients or technique or recipe but what they can't replicate is the recipe in its context; how it's served in the particular dining room, the ambiance, the people, how the recipe lives in the context of the other ingreditents in the menu. I guess in the old days, recipes were secrets and there was “earning” your recipes like badges of honor. I remember working in those kitchens. You earned that. If you wanted to learn that vin blanc sauce, you had to work your way up through garde manger and hot apps, and the fish station and you're breaking down your own dover sole and making vin blanc sauce from the bones, you know… it's just all over the place. I feel that especially the way information moves is so fast now, it's hard to pinpoint the origin of where things come from. You see it all over in various cultures not just food. Especially the art world–where things were happening at the same time at opposite ends of the world. Take pottery for example. I think it's such an interesting use of mud and fire, making natural minerals and making pigment out of it–making ornate pieces of beautiful vessels we eat with. How's that happening in Mezo-America in 500 A.D. at the same time as China and Korea and Japan is making beautiful celadon. Cooking has a way of doing that. We're not that far off from the way we think. Some of us have designed a plate which totally encompasses a way of thinking that gets more attention, but with things like food and recipes and style, it's all one. We are all one. (laughing)

We're notching out areas that are our own space, but I don't think the intellectual property thing… I mean I miss those days of earning your recipes, of earning your badge of honor, because it's just constant incentive. I see a lot of cooks who are like “oh yeah, I know that dish,” who talk about food but it's not through experience. It's through the Internet or books or whatever. I tend to like moving through food and ideas not based on what I taste and see, but how it feels. That's a lot of the creative process of it.

I have this theory too that you only have to stay two steps ahead. You don't want to be ten steps ahead because then you're ahead of your time. (Laughter) If you're just two steps ahead you're in the zone and on everybody's radar.

Ph: (Laughing) I like that. The value-add to the restaurant is the experience and not the data.
SB: I mean someone could do my sauerkraut pancakes easily. I think that's awesome. But where does that go? That's what I'm interested in. How does it further creativity? Maybe it sparks someone's flavor profile or taps into something they didn't know they had. Besides, I don't think someone could replicate what I do with that dish in our restaurant. That's why you go to restaurants, right? What makes them special? The whole package.

Ph: Absolutely. To that end, I wonder how you feel about the really robust restaurant scene in San Francisco and the Bay Area in general? How has that community evolved?
SB: There are a lot of great restaurants in San Francisco. It's definitely one of the most interesting places to be in the US right now. There's such a proprietorship here of the ingredients. We all shop generally for the same ingredients but it's so neat to see the different ways we all take it back to the kitchen and provide something amazing. I thnk what we do really well in the Bay Area is the mid-range. We do that very very well. Certainly there are high-end restaurants but you can eat really really well for 50 bucks a head in San Francisco.

Ph: Yeah I mean I've never had a so-called high-end meal in SF that I didn't think was the best thing I'd eaten, but the only thing that distinguishes it from New York, in my opinion, are the serving portions. It's so much more food in San Francisco.
SB: Yeah I agree. Value is an important part of our equation. I definitely think that's a big part. It's amazing to me, how we spend a lot of money on ingredients but I think the yield of our ingredients are better. I can use 98% of my ingredients in my dishes, after trimming and whatnot, whereas in other parts of the country it's definitely different. I worked in Chicago, for example, where I remember having to sort a lot of food to get to the gold.

Ph: Why do you think San Francisco has better bang for the buck?
SB: It does start with yield. We can be more bountiful if we use more of the ingredients we pull into the restaurant. While I say this, of course I know it's become a very expensive city to live in, San Francisco, and food does cost money. No doubt about it. It's not less expensive, but I don't know why value matters more here, to be honest. I think it's more in our culture to be bountiful and value-driven, than to invest a ton of money in restaurant space and design. Maybe that plays a big role. Also the way people like to throw around money. New York is certainly different. Money is spent far differently in restaurants in New York than in San Francisco. I see it, I feel it, I totally get it. Money plays a big role in New York dining culture whereas value here is… I don't know, but I think it goes back to the ingredients. If we can use more of our ingredients it allows us to be generous with our food.

Ph: What's been the hardest part of running a successful restaurant? 
SB: Well, I learned a lot from closing Rubicon. It was hard to close but then I got to asking myself, “What do I want out of a restaurant?” I realized the most important thing is freedom and flexibility in cooking. At one point I had no idea what that meant. Over the following several years we honed in on something. We did private dinners and events with substantial hors d'oeuvres, and then we were just having elaborate hors d'oeuvres parties with like 13-15 dishes. We decided to be more risky, and then we saw this great space and we had this idea inspired by great tapas in San Sebastian or Southeast Asian street carts or dim sum carts, no menus. We scratched out our old business plan, put it on the back burner. That old plan was actually The Progress. That's how State Bird Provisions came to be. It was never meant to happen, actually.

Photo by Freda Banks

Ph: Wow. That reminds me of something someone said in another of our interviews, that the big risks can't feel like risks at all. State Bird Provisions sounds like a happy accident.
SB: Definitely. I mean we were really stupid and naive thinking it'd be easy, but it was really about freedom and flexibility in cooking.

Ph: Lastly, I have to ask because Thanksgiving's around the corner, but what's your favorite side dish at Thanksgiving?
SB: I love the turkey, of course, but I'm totally a stuffing guy.

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