State Bird Provisions: San Francisco on small plates

State Bird Provisions: San Francisco on small plates

by Katie Smith 10 June 2016

State Bird Provisions has gained cult status as one of the most exciting and inventive restaurants to have hit San Francisco’s food and drink scene. Katie Smith caught up with sous chef Gaby Maeda to discover just what makes this culinary institution tick.

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Katie is an avid home baker, passionate about using seasonal produce and hedgerow ingredients. As part of the editorial team at Great British Chefs, she pursues her dual loves of food and writing.

Katie is an avid home baker, passionate about using seasonal produce and hedgerow ingredients. As part of the editorial team at Great British Chefs, she pursues her dual loves of food and writing.

San Francisco is a town fuelled by good food. The city’s illustrious food scene bursts with innovation and creativity at every turn; always ahead of the curve when it comes to new ways of thinking about what we eat and how we eat it. San Francisco pioneered the now flourishing farm-to-table ethos way back in the 1970s, a movement spearheaded by prominent culinary figures including Alice Waters, executive chef and founder of Chez Panisse.

State Bird Provisions has now picked up the gauntlet and is currently leading the charge as one of San Francisco’s most inventive and forward-thinking restaurants. This reputation was what caught the attention of the restaurant’s sous chef, Gaby Maeda. ‘I’d never been before, but I knew that I wanted to check it out,’ she explains. When State Bird Provisions opened its doors in 2011, it offered a completely new and unique dining concept: small plates of carefully balanced, locally-sourced food served fast and informally from dim sum carts and trays which constantly circulate the restaurant. ‘There’s just trays, on trays, on trays of food passing and it’s just nuts!’ says Gaby. ‘It’s a really cool experience, especially for a diner.’

The open kitchen amplifies this original culinary experience further, allowing diners to observe the chefs in action. Cooking in full view of a restaurant brimming with guests may sound like a daunting task, but it actually has the opposite effect and makes for a ‘very fun working environment’, Gaby explains. ‘The big part of State Bird Provisions is engaging with people and engaging with the guests,’ she elaborates, ‘and helps you to become a much more ‘well-rounded chef. You have to be able to cook, keep yourself and your station clean, and also still be able to pour water for guests.’

This revolutionary style of service has proven an overwhelming success with diners. Every night swathes of people can be seen queuing along the pavement outside on Fillmore Street in the hope of snagging a prime walk-in spot at the chef’s table. The anticipation is palpable, so much so that as soon as the doors open at 5:30pm the restaurant is full of energy.

State Bird Provisions
Dishes are taken around State Bird Provisions on trolleys and served as small plates
The restaurant has held a Michelin star for several years, despite its relaxed, casual interior

In the beginning

The success of State Bird Provisions was, however, an unexpected one. ‘Originally chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski were going to open a normal restaurant,’ explains Gaby. ‘At the time they didn’t have quite enough money, so they tried the dim sum idea thinking that it would help raise funds, but the concept just blew up.’

In reality, this way of serving food requires an extraordinary amount of time and effort to craft and fine tune every element of each dish. ‘Because there are approximately twenty small plates on the menu, each one has to stand up to the others,’ says Gaby. ‘Every single dish should have salt, fat, acid and texture. So every time we think of ideas, those are the four components that are super important.’ The menu development process is an extremely collaborative one, with everyone bringing their own particular ideas to the table. ‘We sit down every week and talk for like an hour; we talk about food, what we want to see and what we want to change,’ she says.

These ideas often take influence from the chefs’ own personal history and heritage, particularly the food of their childhood. ‘I’m part Japanese, German and Scottish, and I grew up in Hawaii,’ says Gaby. ‘Right now one of my favourite things on the menu is the cold potato porridge. Every time I eat it I just get transported back home. It’s dashi-poached potatoes with mixed shellfish and pickled nori, with a crunchy quinoa furikake on top. It’s so good and it’s one of chef’s classic State Bird dishes. The restaurant’s combinations of compelling flavours began with chef Stuart. Growing up he learned about food not just from his grandmother, but also from going to his friend’s house where his friend’s mum made pho.

This mix of culinary inspiration is not limited to State Bird Provisions alone. ‘In San Francisco everyone comes from a different place,’ says Gaby. ‘Eat at any restaurant and you are going to see so many different cultures and cultural foods. The UK is even making a substantial impact on the San Franciscan fine dining scene with the likes of Kyle Connaughton – who used to be a chef at the Fat Duck – stamping their own mark on city. He’s bringing ideas over here from the UK and it’s going to be awesome.’

Dim sum trolley
Different dishes are sold at different prices, so diners can spend as much or as little as they like
Ingredients are always seasonal and locally sourced wherever possible

Local produce

For Gaby, the thing that makes the food of San Francisco stand out from all other foodie destinations are the ingredients at its disposal. ‘We have so many great products just within the vicinity of this area,’ she says. ‘When it comes to produce, ranches, farming, fishing, wine and anything that you can think of, everything is grown directly in this little circle and is just within arms reach.’ These products are brought even closer still at the largest of the Ferry Building’s thrice-weekly farmers’ markets held every Saturday. ‘What’s great about it is that the San Francisco food scene is a big community and that’s what makes San Francisco food so awesome,’ adds Gaby. ‘When you go to the market you’ll see maybe ten people you haven’t talked to in a while or ten people you catch up with every Saturday and you build really great relationships; everyone knows each other.’

It’s not just the ease with which San Franciscan restaurants can access these products – it’s also their quality. ‘All the farmers have got how they produce down to a science,’ explains Gaby. ‘So every restaurant really wants to utilise what it can get – kind of like an Old World mentality of using what’s around you – and already that just makes the food taste awesome.’ When the team at State Bird Provisions begins the process of designing new dishes, the seasons always play a key role in the final makeup of the dish. ‘Because the farmers around here are so great, there are certain ones we will go to for certain products. If the product is gone, we don’t use it; we don’t force it if it’s not good.’

Awards season

State Bird Provisions seems to have hit on a winning combination with not only diners, but industry professionals too – the restaurant has held a Michelin star for several years. In 2013, the restaurant was the winner of the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best New Restaurant and in 2015 obtained another win, this time in the category of Best Chef: West. ‘In America the James Beard Awards are like the chefs’ version of the Oscars,’ explains Gavy. ‘Every region in the States – Pacific Northwest, West Coast, Southwest, everyone – gets a chance. It’s really awesome. It’s not just West Coast versus East Coast. You get people from Kentucky winning awards because they work really hard for it and their food is really good.’

Competitions and award ceremonies aside, when it comes to creating stunning plates of groundbreaking delicious food, Gaby believes it should never be about rivalry. ‘That was a big thing ten years ago, but I think we’re coming to a time where it’s not all about who’s best,’ she says. ‘Let’s just keep doing what we want to do and really put our hearts into it. That’s why I really like working in this building.’ And long may it continue.