From Palo Alto to State Bird

San Francisco's most popular chef -- and his Palo Alto roots

Stuart Brioza might not work with food at all if it weren't for two Palo Alto restaurants and one East Palo Alto pepper farm.

Brioza -- now a James Beard-decorated chef and co-owner (with his pastry-chef wife) of the Michelin-starred State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, actually got his start in two Palo Alto kitchens in the mid-1990s. Today, State Bird Provisions is San Francisco's hottest eatery -- it was named "Best New Restaurant in America" by Bon Appétit in 2012, and has grown so popular that at one point, hungry techies hacked a reservations website to get in.

It wasn't so long ago that Brioza was an 18-year-old art and photography student at De Anza College in his hometown of Cupertino. At the time, cooking wasn't his main course, but a side pleasure.

After he finished class for the day, Brioza would ride his bike about 12 miles into Palo Alto, first for his job as a line cook at The Gatehouse, which had a 20-year run from 1974 to 1995 at 265 Lytton Ave. (The downtown building has a historic restaurant history -- it would next house Stars, led by former Chez Panisse chef Jeremiah Tower, then Wolfgang Puck's Spago. Now, sadly, it's occupied by offices.)

"The Gatehouse was this old-time restaurant that was kind of saloon-like, but also (had a) really great outdoor patio that was rustic, let's just say," recalled Brioza, sitting at a table at State Bird on a recent afternoon while a flurry of prep cooks got the kitchen ready to serve the long lines of people who wait to dine there every night. "Nothing was coiffed or manicured about the place. It was a very dated dining room.

"But the chef, Jeff Stout -- he was young, dynamic (and) really interested in food presentation. He just created beautiful food. I loved working with him. He really taught me a tremendous amount."

Stout, The Gatehouse's executive chef, would go on to open the first Alexander's Steakhouse in Cupertino, now a multi-restaurant chain (though Stout is no longer a part of it). But before that, he went across town to take a sous chef position at California Cafe at the Stanford Barn. Brioza followed him.

His two years there would prove pivotal: "It was really at that restaurant that I decided I wanted to pursue the next step, which was not to continue in art school but to go to culinary (school)," Brioza said.

Brioza was naturally inclined toward and good at cooking, he said, but he had nowhere near the culinary vocabulary or educational foundation of some of his coworkers. California Cafe chef Mark Stark, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, would bring in interns from his alma mater.

"I liked how they would communicate about food, and I didn't have that," Brioza remembered. "I cooked very well; I understood just the feel of cooking, but I didn't have the language skills about cooking."

He remembers someone explaining to him the difference between a pork loin and a pork chop by pointing to the same muscles on his back.

"It was just little things like that," Brioza said. "That was definitely the start. I probably wouldn't have gone to culinary school if I wasn't in that restaurant."

California Cafe is a significant place for another reason: It was where he first invited Nicole Krasinski, a fellow De Anza arts student, to dine. This wasn't a first date, he said, but equally important: It was his first opportunity to show off his culinary prowess to the woman who would later become his wife and partner in restaurant-crime.

Krasinski, a pastry chef and Los Gatos native, is the genius behind State Bird's innovative dessert menu.

Wanting to "join the discussion" in the food world, Brioza decided to leave Palo Alto and art school behind for the Culinary Institute. He went on to notable jobs in Chicago and at Tapawingo, a long-legendary upscale restaurant in Ellsworth, Michigan, before returning to the Bay Area in the early 2000s. He and Krasinski both worked at Rubicon in San Francisco's Financial District until it closed in 2008, then spent several years doing private catering before opening State Bird in a former pizzeria on Fillmore Street in 2011. They thought of State Bird as a placeholder restaurant while they worked on their longtime dream: rezoning and renovating the old movie theater next door to open a family-style restaurant. The Progress opened in December 2014, but to their surprise, it's State Bird that has really taken off.

The State Bird menu is almost impossible to categorize and it changes frequently, but several items have become lore in the Bay Area foodie world, such as the garlic bread with burrata (circles of bread coated with garlic puree, then deep-fried into a magnificent puff and topped with fresh, cream-filled mozzarella cheese) and the state bird itself (deep-fried quail, breaded to perfection and served with "provisions" including onions and Parmesan cheese). There are also oysters, dumplings, "kung pao" beef sweetbreads and a sourdough, sauerkraut, pecorino and ricotta pancake. Desserts range from innovative ice cream sandwiches to a Blue Bottle coffee granita with whiskey cream, dates and cocoa nibs.

For years, Brioza has sourced his Padrón peppers, smoked paprika, umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums), myoga (Japanese ginger blossom) and other specialty produce from Happy Quail Farms in East Palo Alto.

The Green Street farm, tucked in an unlikely location behind an Ikea and the Ravenswood Shopping Center, is owned by David Winsberg, who Brioza calls "the pepper king." Winsberg has grown specialty peppers and other produce at his 2-acre farm since 1980. (He actually got his start raising quail, another tie to the seminal dish and namesake of Brioza's restaurant.)

Winsberg remembers first meeting Brioza at a San Francisco farmers market when he was buying peppers for Rubicon; the two kept in touch during the chef's meteoric rise of the next several years.

For Brioza, Winsberg's produce was influential.

"He was one of the first farmers to really introduce the pimiento de Padrón, the Spanish frying pepper that you now see everywhere during the season," Brioza said.

Winsberg's paprikas -- "some of the best things I've ever tasted," Brioza said -- soon became a favorite and often appear in State Bird fare, often in uncommon combinations of flavors and ingredients served dim-sum style from carts and trays. At the moment, diners will find a smoked paprika sprinkled over the top of a silver-dollar sized whole-grain pancake topped with a dollop of finely chopped broccoli and cheddar.

Winsberg said he started drying peppers to make paprika about 10 years ago as a way to expand his offerings during the peppers' off-season. He now makes about 20 different paprika blends from different varieties -- smoked, sweet, hot, mild, cayenne, Serrano and more. Winsberg said his spices are set apart from most commercial paprikas, almost all of which are imported and leave out the peppers' seeds. (The seed acts as a natural preservative, keeping the paprika fresh longer, he explained.)

When Happy Quail's Padrón peppers are in season, Brioza said he'll fry them with basil and garlic and serve them with a dipping sauce, often an aioli, and sometimes even a smoked-paprika aioli. Winsberg also introduced Brioza to some other vegetable varietals that the chef gets visibly excited describing, among them green rhubarb and myoga ginger.

The success of State Bird is nothing short of surreal for Brioza, who emphasized that without the exposure to a different level of cooking at California Cafe, he might not have chosen the professional route he did.

"If I wasn't working at that restaurant, I may not have gone off to culinary school. This wouldn't exist," he said, laughing. "I'd be some poor art student or artist or something."

But as anyone who's ever dined at State Bird will attest, Brioza did become an artist, after all.

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