State Bird Provisions, which just snagged the James Beard Award for the best new restaurant in the nation, may seem like a hipster spot with its offbeat name, string art decor and dim-sum-style service. But people who’ve been following the national restaurant scene for a while know the honor is what chefs Nicole Krasinski and Stuart Brioza have been working toward since the late 1990s.
The Bay Area natives met in a photography class, but later traded in their Nikons for knives. They honed their style at places like Tapawingo in rural Michigan, where Brioza won a Best New Chef award from Food + Wine Magazine in 2003. Next, they took over the kitchen at San Francisco’s star-studded Rubicon. Brioza and Krasinski sat down to share just how it all came together — from a mountaintop in Peru to the Beards — and what’s up next.
Where did you dine on your Beard trip to New York City?
Nicole Krasinski: The Lafayette, Neta for sushi, Empellón Cocina — which was also nominated — and Gramercy Tavern. That was all in one day. It was painful.
Your story really gets interesting when you went to rural Michigan to work at Tapawingo. What did you learn there?
Stuart Brioza: The Midwest had a profound impact on my work ethic and on my keen interest in trying to live somewhere different and on true seasonality. They had a different way of living, a simpler way, and it was so real. I learned a tremendous amount about hospitality working in Northern Michigan. You formed relationships with your guests like they were next-door neighbors.
SB: It was like going to the big leagues to work with Drew and Larry. It was a big deal. I learned a lot about restaurateuring in the city and that it’s a really important thing to be there and really be a part of your restaurant. We kept our heads down for two years and we didn’t eat out and then slowly emerged.
And then Rubicon closed in 2008. What did you do next?
SB: We took off and traveled for a year, and one year became three-and-a-half years. We threw pottery. We had a little boy. We had no idea what we wanted to do. We were in Peru, in the Cuzco Valley in Chinchero having a conversation about what is the thing that will make us most happy if we go back? We wanted our cooking to have freedom and flexibility and we had no idea what that meant.
We had been doing elaborate hors d’oeuvre parties with 15 items. It’s the best way to eat, we all like to eat that way, we had so much fun and we could be a lot more adventurous. We said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could go take that same idea and do it in this setting?”
What makes State Bird Provisions feel so unique?
NK: It was clear very early in our careers as chefs that a big part of our job satisfaction came from meeting guests, getting to know them, going out with them outside of the restaurant and interacting with them in other ways than serving food. When you work as much as we do, you have to create your community in the four walls of the restaurant.
How do you define your food, and what are some of your hits?
SB: We stopped defining it. State Bird is its own category. We’re not a restaurant you come to if you’re craving pizza or pasta or a burger tonight. It’s a San Francisco food restaurant. There’s the garlic bread with burrata, the quail with provisions, sourdough sauerkraut pancakes, the ice cream sandwich. You eat with your eyes and we just bring the food. That has changed the whole equation for the grazing style of dining.
Your dessert style has changed over the years, from classics like your blueberry meringue pie to elaborate, not super-sweet creations. How has it evolved?
NK: You get palate fatigue with something that’s very sweet and one-dimensional. Most of my stuff has a sweet foundation, texture next and either spice or acidity. I have a chocolate cake coming on the menu. It’s a flourless chocolate cake with pistachio instead of almond flour, dried figs poached in red wine mixed into the cake before we bake it, fresh cherries and yogurt strained so it’s a little thicker with cayenne for heat and peppery olive oil. I like when your brain doesn’t think that those go together, but they’re so delicious. It’s surprising but it works.
What is your new restaurant next door and when is it opening?
NK: The Progress is opening in late winter. The building was built in 1911 and it was a movie theater called The Progress. It’s going to be symbiotic with State Bird but twice the size and with a full bar. It’s not going to be dramatically different, but there probably won’t be a cart.
Photos Courtesy of Freda Banks, Maria Hunt