Nicole Krasinski and Stuart Brioza on their new book, State Bird Provisions, and what it took to get there.
There’s something to be said for taking your time.
The mythological rise of San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions is a well-known proverb by now: industry veterans Nicole Krasinski and Stuart Brioza take a chance on a scrappy ex-pizza place in a neighborhood known for jazz and barbecue, buck current trends and place their menu on roving dim sum carts, throw everything in their arsenal at the walls to see what works and what doesn’t, win local hearts, then win a big mention from a big magazine and live happily ever after.
That was in 2012, and the line of people waiting to get in, the story goes, has been down the street ever since.
With such meteoric impact, the sweat and the stress and the vast constellation of details are often buried under the resulting cloud of breathless column inches. State Bird did not spring wholly-formed from Krasinski and Brioza’s joint cerebral storming: it was, and is, the product of careful plans jolted into life by gut instinct. It was built on minute-by-minute adjustments, and a really, really, really jazzy larder.
In a field where the starring attraction is by its very nature temporary, a cookbook is the kind of tangible landmark that allows chefs and their creations to live outside of time. It’s an alluring possibility for an especially high-profile restaurant, and the temptation to strike while the iron is hot can be overwhelming. State Bird will turn six on New Year’s Eve of this year, a birthday preceded by the long-awaited release of a glossy, triumphant book.
“We always knew we wanted to write a cookbook, but once we had the subject matter with this restaurant, we actually thought if it came out in five years that would be perfect,” Krasinski says, a few days before its release this week. “We sort of put that out into the universe.”
“Five years is a critical point in a restaurant,” Brioza chimes in, seated beside her in a new dining room booth they’ve christened “The Nest.” “You're not new anymore, but you're still fresh to a lot of people. You've kind of figured it out—at least you think you have. You know who you are. You have an identity. You've gone through a few staffing phases, where every time you do those changeovers you really gain a lot. They're hard but they're also very welcome because you re-identify who you are as a restaurant every time.”
Who or what State Bird is, it would appear, is a playful arena for the familiar — shot through with a globe-trotting imagination. It may give the impression of a shape-shifting runaway train, but the perception of an off-the-cuff menu is driven both by format and a willing (and, trained) audience. It's savory pancakes and boatloads of kimchi and fried quail and puffs of bread and cheese you rip into with your hands. It's funky, and technical.
“The way the food world is now, I think the expectation of what great food is has changed so much,” says Brioza. “The real testament is your longevity. It's one thing to rise to instant stardom, but can you manage that? Do you have the stable foundation, whether it's in your own mind or your own personal being?”
“And have the patience to stay with it, and not feel like, ‘Oh, I'm successful now. I can go and do the next thing,’” Krasinski says. “We're still here every day. In a way, this book is the story of the start of our careers, of State Bird. The next would pick up where that left off.”
It's a story of beginnings, not finality. And so, as any veteran chef will attest, the continuation becomes the success — no longer the carrot at the end of a stick that never stops moving, but the pursuit of that carrot.
No restaurant, no matter how good, has figured out its identity in the beginning, Brioza points out. “The paint's still wet on the walls, you know? It's your stuff, but nothing feels right. You're constantly moving furniture around until you get it to just that right point. Staff is new. After a couple of years, it starts to feel like home. That just takes time. That's all that is.”
“That's probably one of the biggest successes of State Bird: patience, time. We didn't jump right into anything,” he says. “Nicole was 35, and I was 37 when we opened this. We had already had 10 years under our belt as chefs in other restaurants. Spending hours doing it over and over again. Traveled all over to eat as much as possible. I don't think we would have been able to create the book as well as we did if we had less time.”
The book itself does justice to the origin tale fans know well, and lends insight to the couple’s critical thinking approach to freshness, to waste, and to creativity. (One choice excerpt describes an old stumbled-upon recipe that urges the reader to pick corn and sprint back to the kitchen, shucking as you go. If that doesn’t totally capture a chef’s central struggle around peak flavor, we don’t know what does.) The photographs, just like the recipes, are gorgeous. The book’s designer, who had never eaten at State Bird, spent a few nights as a guest over the course of the project. Krasinski says that through fresh eyes, the book began to take on unconscious parallels to the space. “She picked up on details that we didn't even talk about with her,” she says. “She just felt them.”
What doesn’t show is how much was going on next door—the opening of a whole other restaurant, The Progress, complete with private dining space — or the diligence it took to capture seasonal cooking at its natural pace. A full year of life in this corner of California is effectively contained in its pages, preserved, fermented, or otherwise, without getting too heavy-handed or devotional about it.
“A restaurant cookbook is really an odd creature for the home cook. The goal was to write a cookbook that does justice to the amount of work that goes on in the restaurant, but also, that is something that people can do at home. I think it would be a total disservice if we're like, 'Here’s our dumbed-down version of x, y, z.' We don't expect somebody to make the guinea hen dumplings, which is like eight pages for like, a bite. It's ridiculous, but also: they're good for a reason. There's a lot of work and effort that goes into them to make them that good.”
(Krasinski interjects here, with a grin: “We worked very hard at trying to make them approachable in the design of the book… even though you have an eight-page dumpling recipe.”)
“I do believe that people want to know the secrets. You have to read, and you have to dig in our book, but it's there,” Brioza continues. “Every recipe has got something to it that is unusual, or different, and that's what makes it so good. But we're also surrounded by those things every day.” “You're looking to be inspired by cookbooks. It's like owning a little piece of the foundation,” Krasinski says.
Brioza nods. “That's what books are: bricks. Building blocks to your own foundation that help navigate your own style through replication, through trial and error.”