ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Legendary Chef Nancy Oakes Shares her Top Tastes of San Francisco

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For entertainment aficionados and celebrity zealots, awards season has come to a close. Golden Globes and Oscars (and a little Sandy Bullock drama) aside, there’s not much on the horizon except a return to reality, and hopefully some warm weather.

However, if a side of oven-roasted pork shoulder makes you drool more than The Blind Side, then you’re in luck. James Beard season is upon us.

Deemed “The Oscars of the food world,” by Time, the James Beard Foundation Awards honor the best chefs, restaurants, and food professionals across the country. Announced this past Monday, the 2010 nominees represent a variety of cuisines and styles, with San Francisco culinary artists making a fantastic showing.

Local favorite Boulevard is a third-time nominee in the “Outstanding Restaurant” category, which comes as no surprise to the food community. Arguably one of San Francisco’s most popular eateries, Boulevard is known for its elegant hospitality and delicious French-influenced menu. Owner and Executive Chef Nancy Oakes is also a Bay Area legend due to the fact that she is a self-taught chef with three restaurants under her belt and numerous accolades, including the 2001 James Beard Award for “Best Chef in California.”

Haute Living sat down with Nancy for some unprecedented straight-talk and insight on the SF food scene:

Haute Living: Congratulations on the James Beard nomination for “Best Restaurant.” What does this honor mean to you?

Nancy Oakes: The Beard Awards are always satisfying because it’s based on peer recognition—these are past winners, people who do what you do. It’s called the Oscars, but it’s more like the Golden Globes of food. It’s not a popularity vote. It resonates with you since the voters are those who directly understand the energy and effort that goes into keeping a place running.

HL: How would you describe the San Francisco culinary scene?

NO: The San Francisco scene is a complete celebration of ingredients, which are now the driving force behind so many openings. I think there is room for a lot of different expression and levels of food. However, heavily techniqued food and modern food isn’t supported in San Francisco. But I think it has its place. Sometimes food doesn’t have to be strictly organic, as long as it’s interesting.

HL: As both a chef and restaurateur, you have a keen eye for the dining experience. What restaurant in the city boasts the best combination of cuisine and ambiance?

Well, we all want the best of both worlds—good food and a good, quiet space. Some put themselves in one camp or the other, but there is room for both. Sometimes you want a more cerebral experience, one not strictly based on hunger, and then you want [an experience] that feeds the soul. I think Flour+ Water is great—just delicious and natural.

HL: There is such a wide array of artisan groceries and specialty stores in San Francisco. Where would you suggest people shop for the best ingredients?

NO: Avedano’s Market and butcher shop on Cortland in Bernal Heights is amazing. And although not all locations are as good, the Whole Foods in Potrero Hill has a great selection. I just bought some wonderful avocado oil there the other day!

HL:  San Francisco has witnessed culinary renaissances and revitalization in several parts of the city. Is there a particular budding neighborhood on your radar?

NO: The Mission—Tartine bakery is excellent. I love [Chef] Melissa Pirello, love her restaurant Frances. The Dogpatch is another neighborhood to watch. The hard part of the business is the rent and space. Running a restaurant is not as profitable as many think—it’s a deep personal commitment that involves a lot of risk, and a rent that fits the business plan. Whatever area in which a landlord decides that a full and lively building is better than an empty one is a good place to be!

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