Off The Boulevard

Restaurateur Nancy Oakes has the key to world peace. “They should serve lunch at the United Nations,” she says. “I’ve always believed that there is no civilization until people sit down and eat together.”

“Maybe that’s the greatest luxury now,” Oakes declares. The famed owner-chef of San Francisco’s Boulevard restaurant is reflective as she talks during an interview. It’s rare free time during her busiest time of the year when holiday parties abound, in addition to regular lunch and dinner service.

“I am very undependable during this time,” she says apologetically for deferring our interview earlier.

But like getting into Boulevard, it’s worth the wait. Oakes doesn’t disappoint, either as a chef or interview subject. She has plenty to say about dining trends, food preparation, and Hawaii’s place in the world of cuisine.

Oakes might be San Francisco’s most beloved chef. Virtually every reader’s poll of San Francisco Bay Area publications names Oakes as the most popular chef, and Boulevard as the favorite restaurant in San Francisco.

She was born in Massachusetts and arrived in San Francisco at age 11. Food was always the topic of conversation at the family table, she recalls.

“I come from a cooking family,” she says. “My family talks about what they are going to eat next while they’re eating.”

A self-taught chef, Oakes had never been to Europe at the time she began cooking. “I always sort of cooked my mother’s food,” she says. Her approach remains rooted in America, but her cooking became more refined after travels to France and Italy.

“I learned simplicity,” she says. “My food is not as busy as it was.”

Oakes became more sophisticated as a cook. She earned the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award in 2001 for “Best Chef in California.”

Prior to opening Boulevard in 1993, Oakes earned high praise at her restaurant, L’Avenue, a 50-seat neighborhood bistro where she sustained a wonderful loyalty and intimacy with her diners. This relationship continues at the 145-seat baroque-designed Boulevard on San Francisco’s waterfront, where she and her crew cook “a la minute” for each diner.

According to Oakes, “When you order a chicken, we actually cook it to order for you over the open fire in our wood-burning oven. There are no shortcuts.

“There’s a lot more to cooking than getting to the top of a recipe,” she says.

“You can work very hard to make something seem simple,” she states. “Simplicity is elegance, and it takes a lot of steps to get to it. You have to love the process of bringing out the best of ingredients.”

Home cooks and professionals who “love the process” will want to meet Oakes in person when she comes to town Feb. 10 for the Halekulani Hotel’s Connoisseur event, open to the public. She presents a private workshop Feb. 11 for students and instructors of the Kapiolani Community College Culinary Institute as part of the Hale `Aina Ohana program.

No doubt she will draw upon recipes and food prep ideas from her best-selling book Boulevard The Cookbook. Oakes co-authored the book with her longtime collaborator and executive chef Pamela Mazzola.

“I figure about 3 percent of the population are gourmands and the other 97 percent want something really simple, and they’d like not to feel threatened by their food,” she says.

Energized by the business, Oakes and partners Mazzola, Kathy King and Ravi Kappur are in the midst of plans to open a new restaurant “in a more modern mode” just up the street from Boulevard, in a stylish Mission Street condo tower. It’ll open in June 2008 and is still unnamed (“Suggestions are welcome.”)

Success begets success. No doubt Boulevard devotees will find their way to wherever Oakes and associates are serving meals.

From her meat-and-potato roots, patrons rave about her grilled filet mignon, served with bone marrow topped with chopped herbs, mashed potatoes swirled with wild mushrooms, and whole tender onions and mushrooms in a natural juice sauce. They also applaud wood oven-roasted black Angus beef rib chop and rack of lamb stuffed with herbs and lemon.

While Oakes admits that “fish has always been a bit of challenge to me,” her grilled Hawaiian butterfish is delectable. It is served with wild rice, trumpet mushrooms, broccoli, butternut squash, and parsley beurre blanc sauce.

“I think of seafood when I think about Hawaii, its authentic Asian flair and other contributing factors that make Island cuisine so interesting,” Oakes says. “Hawaii is the most successful melting pot of food in the world.

“Many different people have contributed to the culinary signature of Hawaii,” she adds. “From plate lunches to the highest refined food, it all really works.”

It was Boulevard’s ex-pastry chef, the late Heather Ho, who introduced Oakes to the mélange of Hawaii flavors.

“I’ve never forgotten the shaved ice experience,” she recalls. “Ice, ice cream and azuki beans. You don’t realize how much civilization is right there in that cone. It’s a perfect combination of things.

“When I travel to a destination, I look for what people are eating and just loving. I look for iconic products, and who’s pushing the envelope.”

She also looks for growers. As a proponent of the farm-toplate ecological movement and recipient of Sustainable Food Institute honors, she’s always on the lookout for quality products like Big Island hearts of palm, which is always on the menu at Boulevard.

“Fresh, unprocessed food is the key to health and happiness,” she states. “The political question of the moment is whether such foods are destined to become something only the well-heeled will consume. You don’t want that to be a luxury item.

“What is luxury?” she asks rhetorically. “It’s a question we must all answer. Will only the wealthy be able to afford freshly prepared food because everything else will be so processed? Hopefully, that’s not the vision of the future.”

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