“The only thing I’ve ever done is work in kitchens,” says Stuart Brioza, the chef and owner of San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions and The Progress. “Well, that, and I had a paper route as a kid.”
Thank goodness he wasn’t lured in to the newsroom. Since staking his claim in San Francisco’s restaurant scene, Brioza has become an iconoclastic force in a region steeped in tradition.
While the Bay Area native is deeply influenced by the seasonally driven philosophy of the area’s culinary scene, his career has its earliest roots in Chicago. After graduating from culinary school, he honed his skills in the fine-dining world of the Windy City, working under the tutelage of chef John Hogan (Park Avenue Café and Savarin). At 25, Brioza left to become the executive chef at the now-shuttered Tapawingo—a destination restaurant in the wilds of Ellsworth, Northern Michigan—where he would eventually meet his wife and business partner Nicole Krasinski, who signed on as pastry chef.
Shortlisted by Food & Wine for 10 Best New Chefs in 2003, Brioza and Krasinski made his way back west the following year, where they began working at Rubicon, a downtown powerhouse that launched many of California’s best contemporary chefs. After the restaurant’s closure in 2008, the couple worked as private chefs while plotting a restaurant of their own—one that would reinterpret the idea of how a meal and restaurant service should function.
For us, it all comes down to the energy and enjoyment that comes with a meal.
The result was State Bird Provisions, which opened in 2011 and made an immediate impact on the dining scene with its whimsical approach. What’s more, it took the core of California cuisine—showcasing top-notch local bounty—without adhering to its austere, “simplicity is best” model of cooking and presentation.
Despite this departure from Bay Area orthodoxy (or perhaps because of it), the San Francisco Chronicle, Bon Appétit, and the New York Times were quick to sing its praises, won over by Brioza’s guilty pleasures (a garlic-bread doughnut topped with a molten round of burrata) and simply composed, big-flavored bites (local raw oysters delicately dressed with a funky-spicy kohlrabi kraut).
Genre-bending small plates were only party of the draw, though. State Bird Provisions was, as Brioza had hoped, rejiggering the flow of a traditional upscale restaurant, thanks to a lively, almost frenetic, dim sum-style service. Plates of food made the rounds on trays and carts, some of which were presented by the line cooks who had made them. This ran the risk of being a tiresome, short-lived gimmick; instead, it was a breath of fresh air that brought spontaneity and fun back into the fine-dining equation.
“For us, it all comes down to the energy and enjoyment that comes with a meal. Sitting around a table with friends. Eating. We thought, ‘How can we incorporate that feeling?’” he remembers. “Somehow we went down some crazy rabbit hole… and here we are.”
Brioza, apparently, has good rabbit-hole instincts: State Bird earned a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2013, and his latest restaurant, The Progress, has already been nominated for another few.
From Singaporean roti bread topped with curry to an epiphany about quail that inspired his restaurant, these are the 10 dishes that have inspired Brioza’s creative drive.
Steamed Artichoke with Mayonnaise
“Growing up in California, we ate a lot of fresh foods. On the family dinner table, twice a week, there was always a steamed artichoke with a big dollop of mayonnaise. I still use a lot of mayonnaise, and different varieties too—including the sunchoke black-truffle mayonnaise that we have at The Progress.” (Photo: Darcy/Flickr)
Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
“I knew about seasoned salt at a young age, and it taught me that salt can be much more than just salt. The whole thing actually goes back to a meal at Lawry’s. My mom worked for an airline, and one time we did something completely crazy as a family: We flew down to L.A. from San Francisco, took a cab to Lawry’s for dinner, and returned to San Francisco the very same day. This spirit of adventure has remained a big influence on my food.” (Photo: Megan Delicious Dishings)
White beans and vegetables at Gotham Bar & Grill (New York, NY)
“When I met Nicole in Chicago, we flew out to New York in the mid-’90s (using my mom’s travel passes!) to go gallery- and museum-hopping with some friends. I asked John [Hogan] where I should go for a great meal in New York, and he said we needed to check out Gotham Bar & Grill. We were all 18, 19 years old at the time, and we walk in wearing Dr. Martens and sweater vests—like funky art kids. One dish that stood out was the one Nicole ordered: It was vegetarian dish not listed on the menu, featuring big white beans with the freshest vegetables and roasted onions. Everything about it was so beautiful, and I remember being jealous of that dish! Even though I was probably eating some awesome steak, hers blew me away. (And they served us alcohol.)” (Photo: Facebook)
Mediterranean small fish with rouille at Savarin (Chicago, IL)
“I found chef John Hogan so inspiring. I really cut my teeth at his restaurants in Chicago. He did this dish of Mediterranean small fish, seared on the griddle, served with crushed steamed potatoes, and topped with a rouille. There was something so unique about it, too; the rouille was not a traditional one. It was basically a bouillabaisse reduction with bread that would soak everything and caramelize it. I thought the combination was so weird, but eating it with this strong, oily fish was amazing. ” (Photo: Facebook)
SCALLOPS WITH CARAMELIZED CAULIFLOWER, CAPER, AND RAISIN EMULSION AT JEAN-GEORGES (New York, NY)
“Early in my career I had a meal at Jean-Georges. It was the first year I was my own chef at Tapawingo. One of the perks of working in Michigan was that you closed for a month in the winter, so Nicole and I went on a road trip and headed to New York. This was post-9/11, so everyone in New York was doing comfort food. And then we go to Jean-Georges and he’s doing his own thing. What struck me about it was how different the flavors were without being weird or off-putting. Scallops with caramelized cauliflower, capers, and raisins: It was so simple. It had a huge impact on the kind of food I wanted to cook.” (Photo: Jean-Georges)
SPIT-ROASTED BEEF WITH CHIMICHURRI SAUCE IN SOUTHERN CHILE
“When you’re traveling, you allow yourself to be open to new experiences. Nicole and I were in South America after Rubicon closed, and there was a roadside stand in Southern Chile. We were on a tour heading to a volcano, and on the way we stopped for lunch at a place with a 30-foot brick outdoor barbecue full of spits, used for roasting beef. We ordered a platter, which was just various parts of really well-cooked meat and chimichurri. I remember thinking about the simplicity of it—how pleasurable it was to sit and share this platter. It could have been anything. This was before we opened State Bird, and there were lots of moments of feeling that this was what we wanted to create. Honestly, that lunch opened us up to a whole other way to thinking about food.” (Photo: WikiCommons)
MOREL AND TOASTED RYE SOUP AT TAPAWINGO
“This dish was inspired by a meal that I’d had at Astrance in Paris, when it first opened (they now have three Michelin stars). They brought out this bread-and-butter soup: stock, butter, and bread skins. They peeled just the outer layers off of this crusty bread with lots of dark caramelization on the outside and cooked that into the soup. I started working with this idea at Tapawingo, where we also had an amazing morel mushroom season. We’d buy 350 pounds of morels a year. I used dark rye bread, took the outer crusts off, then flavored the stock with the kinds of things that would be in rye bread—molasses, caraway seeds, and butter. We’d lightly roast morels and throw them all in with the bread skins and the stock for about three minutes, before lightly pureeing everything. Then we’d strain it and add butter at the end. The flavor was familiar, but put together in a modern way.” (Photo: Indiana Public Media)
BUTTERMILK FRIED QUAIL AT RUBICON (San Francisco, CA)
“I started off wanting to do a fried rabbit, but the excitement wore off. I started thinking, ‘What kinds of fried poultry can I do?’ Fried chicken wasn’t really an option at Rubicon, and that’s when I thought of quail. Growing up in the Bay Area you’d see quail on hiking paths or crossing the road. Then came the idea of having something fried with something really sweet and sour; this led to the onions (which are sweet), stewed with sour lemons, oven juices, and rosemary. I always loved fried chicken because my mom used to cook it every week, and my favorite part was the crispy skin. That made doing a smaller bird even more interesting—there’s more texture. We coined this idea of calling it the state bird around then, too. That dish became so popular that when, we’d run it on the tasting menu, it wasn’t uncommon for a guest to order a second one. I remember talking to Nicole about it and saying, ‘I wonder if we could do a restaurant revolving around fried quail.’ It all started with that little dish; it really did!” (Photo courtesy Freda Banks)
SOURDOUGH, SAUERKRAUT, AND PECORINO PANCAKE AT STATE BIRD PROVISIONS
“This was the first pancake that we put on the menu. I love flatbreads and savory pancakes like Japanese okonomiyaki, Korean-style pancakes, and Szechuan scallion pancakes. The inspiration for this dish also comes from my late-night snack craving. I generally always have sauerkraut and pecorino in my fridge, and sometimes ricotta. I’d take a flour tortilla, torch it on the burner, rub it with a stick of butter, throw on some sauerkraut, and shred pecorino on it. I’d be living large if I was able to throw a dollop of ricotta on the tortilla. It was always my midnight snack, and Nicole was totally into it. When we opened State Bird, we combined those two ideas. We really started hammering out the recipe—we wanted a more complex pancake batter, so we added the sourdough starter that Nicole had going. We took all those ingredients, chopped up pecorino and sauerkraut, put it on the griddle with clarified butter, and added a little dollop of ricotta in the center so it had a little sunburst. It’s still, to this day, my favorite pancake on the menu.” (Photo courtesy Dylan + Jeni)
ROTI WITH BLACK TRUFFLE BUTTERMILK AT THE PROGRESS
“The idea of roti came from traveling. Nicole and I went to Singapore in 2006. We were guest chefs at the Hotel Shangri-La, but we’d try to get out as much as we could and go to these little hawker centers. I would eat roti canai constantly. In a professional’s hand, it would be super thin and have all this texture, and they’d and serve it with this sludgy curry. What’s better than that? It set us on a path of trying to make roti. We came up with a different method because we don’t have that skill of tossing the bread. I think it might have something to do with the humidity in Singapore; it gets the dough super relaxed. We roll it between two oiled pieces of parchment paper, and stack two together on the griddle. Then we take fresh black truffles and add mayo and buttermilk to make a Ranch dressing, basically; and grate pecorino and black truffles on the top. I wanted to do something decadent. We’re going to do different variations, too, like a curry ghee with curry Dungeness crab.” (Photo courtesy Ed Anderson)