Chef-Parent Interview: Nicole Krasinski

Nicole Krasinski, chef-owner at State Bird Provisions and The Progress, serves up advise for aspiring female chefs and dishes with Nibble and Squeak about how she got started in the food business and life changes after having a kid.
By Joanna Augenbergs

You have had a very illustrious career for such a young chef – James Beard award winner, 2 Michelin starred restaurants in SF… How did you get started?

I got into baking at a young age, thanks to my mom.  She was a stay-at-home mom and was constantly baking homemade bread and cookies, going to the farmers market and using fresh local ingredients. I was also pretty shy as a kid but I realized that if you made people cookies, that was a great ice breaker – so I used homemade baked goods to help with my social life.

Then in 1995 while studying art & photography at DeAnza College, I met Stuart Brioza, my now husband, co parent & business partner.  He was already cooking professionally and I would visit him at work, getting the chance to taste things like duck mu shu for the first time.  I was also baking a lot of challah at the time & using it in my photo still lifes.

With plans to finish my photography degree, I moved to Chicago to attend The Art Institute of Chicago. Needing a job for the summer, Stuart encouraged me to apply at a bakery since he knew my love for bread. I was lucky enough to find Red Hen Bread, which opened for business the day we moved to the Wicker Park neighborhood where they were located.  The owner took a total leap of faith and allowed me to stage as the bread mixer. Starting my shift at 3am every day, I would stay until all the bread was shaped, baked & ready for the retail counter, never wanting to leave the place! By the end of the summer I was one of the head bakers and decided to defer enrollment in school. Basically I fell into the industry by mistake.

What advice would you give other women/ moms trying to break into the food and restaurant industry?

It’s really just a matter of going in, keeping your head down, working hard, being engaged and asking good questions. Although it’s also definitely a lifestyle choice – which for Stuart and I was a positive aspect.  We didn’t mind working holidays or long hours and we quickly found our community of chefs & producers. It’s not a “traditional” life per say and as people get older, it can be more difficult to pursue this career. It certainly can help when both partners are in the food business. Stuart and I were lucky in that we grew up in the industry together. We had our son Jasper and when he was a year old, our first restaurant opened. We were already planning the restaurant when we found out we were going to have a kid so we just had to figure out how to make it all work.

I look back and wonder how I did it. Now he is 8 and the restaurants are more mature and we have much more flexibility with our time; but back then I would work 3-4 nights a week and we had 3 different nannies and 2 sets of grandparents and aunts and uncles to help. So the upside is that he has grown up with a slew of people in his life which I think is awesome.  He trusts and loves a lot of people and has very deep relationships with other adults besides us.

Tell us a little about your son Jasper and what life is like at home… Does he help in the kitchen? Do you guys bake together? Is he a good eater?

[Laughter] He’s has not been into helping in the kitchen much at all.  He actually tells us when we are done with the restaurant to give it to our best chef, I don’t want to run it [laughs]. He is on his own path but he definitely loves delicious food and asks for instance when morel mushrooms will be in season. But he’s also like many other kids with food particularities. Although he is getting more and more into baking now that he realizes that if he shows an interest, then mom will bake with him and he can “taste” throughout the process and have more homemade treats!

What’s his favorite dish/ baked good?

The ice cream sandwiches at State Bird. The first thing he’ll do when he gets to the restaurant is head for the pastry kitchen, say hi to the pastry chef, open the freezer door and ask if he can have the new ice cream sandwich.  Everyone at the restaurant knows when he shows up to have a Progress hot dog and an ice cream sandwich ready.

How do you balance being a mom with a chef’s schedule? What does a typical day look like for you?

In preschool, there was more wiggle room in terms of the schedule. But now that he has started school, we’ve fallen into a 9-5 routine. The benefit of being a chef-owner with your husband is that there are no judgments. I know he needs to be at the restaurant many nights and he knows that my schedule needs to be more accommodating to Jaspers activities.  We both take weekends off, which is great so we can all spend time together as a family.

When the restaurant first opened, for the first 2 years or so, we both worked 6 days a week. And when we opened 7 days a week, we did start taking 2 days off, but it probably took about 3 years until we started consistently taking weekends off.

What is the chef-parent community like in SF?

The great thing about San Francisco is that it has a really tight-knit food community. When we started out in 2004 at Rubicon, there were a lot of up and coming chefs like us and now many of them own their own restaurants and have families.  So now we get to hang out with other chef parents (and Jasper can relate to their kids). We continue to support each other in different ways like watching each other’s kids if needed.

What influences your culinary creativity?

Travel has always been a big influence for creativity, but even more so lately the abundance of the amazing local produce.  For a pastry chef, high quality and variety of fruit grown so close to San Francisco is a dream.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects that you can share?

We have some ideas percolating but nothing close enough to share!

Has becoming a parent changed your cooking style and/or eating habits? Do you have any family dining traditions that you especially treasure?

As chefs, generally all you have in the refrigerator is condiments and beer and after we had a kid, we thought “awww now we need to learn how to shop!” In all honesty, I think it took us until last year to figure out how to shop for our house and our family.  Now we have our list of staples and stay pretty consistent in our weekly shopping.

Do you get out with your pipsqueak?

We tend to cook at home more often then go out when we have nights off, since we love entertaining at our house.  There is also the chef brain that automatically starts working when we are out at restaurants, so it’s nice to have a break from that on our days off.  But there are so many great places here in SF and we love supporting our friends, so we take him out as often as we can.

Where in SF do you like to eat out with your family?

Nopalito is one of our favorites. Outerlands is super fun and great for kids. Jasper really likes Zuni – which is awesome for everyone!

Our goal at Nibble+squeak is inspiring parents to share and enjoy food and travel experiences with their children… What’s your perspective on dining out with children?

We are huge supporters of families dining out with their kids to share the experience together. This past year, we changed the format of our New Year’s Eve dinner at both restaurants, from a set menu to our regular al la carte menu.  As a result we saw many families at the first seating and it gave the night a really great vibe. It felt more like a cross-section of the city which we love!

State Bird in particular is a great place to bring kids in the sense that there is so much going on, there is a lot for them to look at and things to check out. The food can be challenging because it’s all high impact (lots of spice, acid & texture) but usually there are a couple of items on the menu that kids will love. And of course at The Progress we have the “Prog Dog” which is always a hit with the little ones.