Guest Chef
Nancy Oakes
Raised in Northern California, Chef Nancy Oakes’s passion for the restaurant business began with front-of-house positions at Carnelian Room and then Alexis Restaurant on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Her first experience in the kitchen was on the San Francisco waterfront at the Barnacle, after which she ran the kitchen at Pat O’Shea’s for the next decade.

Oakes opened her first restaurant, L’Avenue, in 1988 and then Boulevard with Pat Kuleto in 1993. Boulevard has garnered many accolades, including the 2001 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in California and 2012 Outstanding Restaurant in the United States.

She cowrote Boulevard: The Cookbook with Pam Mazzola in 2005, which was nominated for awards from both the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. In 2010, Chef Oakes opened Prospect Restaurant with Pam Mazzola and Kathy King in the South of Market/Embarcadero neighborhood.

Chef Oakes’s energy and sense of community are reflected in the time and talent she devotes to cooking for charitable organizations.

Nancy Oakes And Charlie Palmer
Nancy Oakes
and Charlie Palmer
at pigs & pinot, benefiting
Share Our Strength.
Wine Glass
Chef Nancy Oakes on giving back, why men and women are not equal, and her love for the City by the Bay.

How do you know Chef Charlie Palmer?
In this industry, everyone knows of Charlie. Thinking back, I must have forged more of a relationship than nodding hello at food events through our mutual love of Healdsburg. That’s where he lives and where my husband and I have a second home. If I remember correctly, we both looked at the same property when we were house hunting. One luncheon leads to another…

You participated in Pigs & Pinot in Healdsburg this past March to benefit Share Our Strength. How was it?
Great, as always. Charlie has been kind enough to invite us back a few times over the years. People travel from all over for this event, and so it’s good to mix it up with different chefs. It is so well organized, and there is always something to learn from Charlie, no matter what level you deal with him on. He is such a profoundly good businessman and operator, far beyond just a restaurateur.

What other charities are you personally invested in?
I serve on the board of directors for Meals on Wheels of San Francisco, and that alone uses up a lot of our resources and time. However, I always participate in Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research and, of course, Share Our Strength for Charlie, as well as in other ways with auction items and a few other local charities too.

You started in the front of the house and moved to the kitchen. What experiences from those dining-room experiences serve you well today?
You learn more about the operation and management of the other 70 percent or so of the restaurant business by being in the front of the house, for one. I try to use those experiences as a touchstone when there is discord between the kitchen and the dining room. Nothing is more glaring and less beneficial, most of all to the guest, than tension between the two. In the kitchen, you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve, and so it becomes a challenge to keep in the back of your head that the front of the house is trying to please our guests as much as we are.

What is your take on being a woman in the restaurant business?
I feel that both men and women are incredibly strong, but not in the same way. To achieve the same goals, we go about them differently. A lot of it has to do with the way we are raised: Men do things on their own, while women plan and work together. We are also different for a profoundly amazing reason: Women are entrusted with having children.

So be true to who you are. You don’t have to be overly feminine in this industry to prove a point, just be yourself. Over the years I have been very lucky. Only once in a while will I sense that I am being ignored because I am a woman. Once I started cooking and was my own boss, that made a big difference.

As smaller cities all over the country become dining destinations, what does this mean for major cities like San Francisco?
If you go to Italy, some of the greatest restaurants are in the middle of nowhere, but you still have to fly into somewhere. Major cities will always have something to offer people besides dining. However, I do see a shift in larger cities, a gap widening between ultra fine dining, three-star and the equivalent, and smaller restaurants without tablecloths that still offer great food and a fun wine list for less money. That also means less service and ambiance. The middle ground is already beginning to erode. That semi-luxury experience, where you can still enjoy truffles, will not exist any more.

What does local mean to you?
I live in California, where there are at least three climates and something is always growing. That is my local! I do my best to support farmers and producers in a 50-mile radius. But local also means sense of place. The same way the thrill of eating that same great meal in Italy will never quite taste the same anywhere else, we have to reveal that sense of place right here in San Francisco. And so we put Dungeness crab on the plate, wild salmon in season, Petrale sole caught right outside the Bay, and those great sourdough breads San Francisco is famous for. It comes down to a love and respect for the place where you are—which I have—and that is really important.