TURNING POINTS—Nicole Krasinski's Life-Shifting Moments
One half of the powerhouse culinary duo behind State Bird Provisions looks back.
August 23, 2016
Turning Points catalogues three non-culinary moments that define a culinary life; for chef Nicole Krasinski, often credited with bringing technically-immaculate whimsy to the Bay Area pastry scene at both State Bird Provisions and The Progress, it's about nurturing that slow-burning resolve — pushing through past passions and shitty weather and fatigue to find the point of this whole crazy endeavor we call life.
1. Meyer lemon and rosemary, 1998-ish.
When I was nineteen, I started baking bread. When I first met Stuart [Brioza, husband and co-chef/owner], at twenty, I was baking a lot of challah bread. I was just out of high school, it was my first year of college, and I was studying art and photography. I would come home from classes, bake bread until midnight, and leave the kitchen a total mess. My parents would get up to go to work and they’d know I had been at it again. My mom had an amazing garden, and our neighbors had a Meyer lemon tree. One day I made Meyer lemon rosemary challah; I remember eating it and thinking, this is transcendent.
I of course found out later that that's a very common combination, but I didn't know at the time! The reason I baked bread then was to take pictures of it — a photographer that Stuart and I were both very influenced by was Joel Peter Witkin, who did these bizarre still lifes with people and decaying food. It's very dark, but not gruesome. You can go really deep into it. I was doing a lot of those kinds of still lifes with challah and other things I baked. I was accepted into the Art institute of Chicago to finish my studies. I went there early in the summer, because I was paying for school myself and needed to get a job.
There was an opening for a bread baker in Wicker Park; I walked in and offered my free services to the lady, who begrudgingly let me come and mix at 3AM. After a month, she couldn't get rid of me. By the end of the summer, it was clear that this was my path, not photography.
2. Snow, Chicago and Michigan, 1999-2002.
I was working another 3AM bread shift in a bakery that opened the week I started, so sometimes I'd work 22 hours in a row just because it was new. I remember waking up one morning to go to work, looking outside and thinking: if I go out there I'm going to die. It was such a crazy snowstorm — the kind of snow that if it hits you in the eyeball like needles. It's dark, there's no one out. I'm going to get buried and no one can find me because it's 2:30 in the morning. But: the bread has to get made. I went out and made it to work. It was that feeling of, you have to do this job, because there's nobody else that can. All these restaurants are depending on you. They might not even open today because of the storm but you have to be ready.
In Michigan, Stuart did all the driving to and from work whenever it snowed because the roads were pretty tricky. He had gone on some trip, so I had one of the cooks pick me up because it was so bad out. There were four-foot icicles dripping from the trees. Again, you've got to go no matter what. You've got to go, even if there's only four customers.
The great part about being in those places: they weren't our restaurants. Knowing what I know now, I'm sure my boss was completely freaking out on snow days, when she would make product and everything would close down — for us there was the passion, but none of the responsibility yet. There was a real innocence and sweetness to that.
3. South America, February 2009.
Stuart and I were in between jobs and took a trip to South America. We had closed Rubicon, we had gotten married, we had taken a year to not do anything culinary. I was doing a lot of yoga and meditation and he was doing all this pottery. We took six weeks. The majority of that time we spent in Peru, in the Sacred Valley, where there's ten different temples you can go to which are all as amazing as the last.
Our minds were so blown away by the simplicity of the food there. You hike for six hours, you're starving, and then you go back and eat this simple bowl of quinoa and dried fava beans and it's the best thing you've ever had in your life. There's this magic that happens when you're in a place that powerful; you can think way outside your normal box — we were able to see really clearly that we didn’t have to do what we had been doing. We could go back to San Francisco and do something totally different. How we'd get there we didn't know, but we knew that we wanted to wipe the slate clean and really express our creativity, not what was happening in the greater culinary scene.
We had forgotten all that. If we had closed Rubicon and opened another restaurant right away, it would be a very different restaurant from what State Bird became.
The world is so vast. You go to work every day, you cook, you interact, you get frustrated, you have creative epiphanies, but it's all within the same matrix. When you're in a place like Peru where people are living like they did thousands of years ago and the landscape is so amazing, it totally checks you. You're totally humbled.