10 Questions with Chef... Nancy Oakes
By Susan Dyer Reynolds
Ask diners in San Francisco to name their top five restaurants and Boulevard invariably comes up. Chef-owner Nancy Oakes is a pioneer in the sustainable food movement, presenting fresh, simple, satisfying dishes that never disappoint. Oakes has also been recognized by her peers: She won the coveted James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef California in 2001, and was nominated for their Outstanding Service Award in 2002 and 2004, and the Outstanding Restaurant Award in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.
Last month, Oakes once again lent her talents to the annual Star Chefs & Vintners Gala benefiting Meals on Wheels, the oldest and largest meal delivery program for seniors in San Francisco, delivering approximately 16,000 meals per week to homebound seniors and serving more than 2,200 individuals per year. The Star Chefs & Vintners Gala is the organization’s largest and most important fundraiser – more than half of its funding comes from private sources, and the money raised at the gala accounts for one-third of that private funding for the entire year. It is because of that funding that Meals on Wheels has grown by 25 percent over the last three years, with the 2008 gala raising a record-breaking $1.1 million for this tremendously important cause. This year’s event raised another $1.1 million – a live auction brought in nearly half of that with several items going for five figures, including a private dinner for six prepared by Chef Oakes at a Pebble Beach estate. The climax of the evening was the final lot, Fund-A-Route, in which guests pledged a record-breaking $311,000 towards funding a meal delivery route in San Francisco for the next year.
Food Style: Contemporary American
Fun Facts: Oakes’s husband is Bruce Aidells, former owner of Aidells Sausage Company (he also has a Ph.D. in biology). The couple has a Shih Tzu named Peanut. “I used to have a brindle Great Dane,” says Oakes. “But if you’re going to get unconditional love, you might as well be able to take it everywhere with you.”
What is the last thing you cooked for yourself?
Poached eggs on toast – that’s one of my favorite breakfasts.
What is your favorite food from your childhood?
My mom was a great cook … probably her clam chowder – it was white chowder, and not too thick.
How would you describe working in your kitchen?
I would say it’s collaborative, with a lot of consensus. It can sometimes be confusing to work with me – I have a bit of an attention deficit.
Something in your ’fridge or freezer that would surprise people?
Best Foods mayo for my BLTs. I don’t like homemade mayo – I like homemade aioli, but I like mayo from a jar. And Bruce has like 50 kinds of condiments in there.
What was your worst kitchen experience?
I’ve had a few. Working in Taiwan was hard – it was for a hotel group, and the facilities were old. There was a trough that ran through the kitchen for the gray water to drain. And I can’t tell you how many events I’ve done where things don’t work – like they use the ovens to store pots and pans. I once worked an event on Columbus Island where I asked for potatoes and they gave me dehydrated ones – the few fresh ones they had were sprouted and rotting. The chef was French and could only understand English with a French accent, so he asked me to speak with a French accent. And they only had one whisk to cook for 500 people – they begged me not to take it for my demo.
What is the last restaurant you ate at?
Santi in Geyserville – once a month they do a regional Italian night. This time it was Rome – artichokes with baccalà puree, soup, lamb chops, cheese, and dessert, all for $40, and paired with reasonably priced wines.
If you retired tomorrow, what dish would you be remembered for?
I’ve never made a stand on a signature dish, which could be good or bad. Maybe the crab cakes; anything with scallops is popular, too, but the filet is the most ordered.
What is your favorite offal?
Sweetbreads. I like tripe, but I’m fussy – it’s about cleaning. We had a kid who worked here named Jacob Kenedy – now he has a restaurant called Bocca di Lupo that’s the toast of London where he does tripe with pork cheeks and pecorino. I imagine it in a wonderful tomato sauce.
What is your favorite staff meal?
Sometimes I do Mediterranean day with lamb meatballs, hummus, yogurt; we have taco days with rice and beans; shrimp and calamari tostadas … I do a lot of staff meals – I think it’s important.
What is your ultimate fantasy meal?
Remarkably simple – the older I get, the simpler – it’s hard to beat farm fresh eggs with white truffles … then there’s caviar. I’d toast a Thomas’ English muffin and put too much butter on it so it fills the nooks and crannies and then pile osetra caviar on it.
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