With an organic apple farming father and an uncle that founded Santa Cruz’s famous Outstanding in the Field dinners, Jonah Oakden’s low-key and modest about his culinary pedigree. Under the mentorship of Cory Obenour, Jonah has become the chef de cuisine at The Blue Plate. It’s not the vintage skateboards on the wall, the alluring green patio with beautiful flowers guarding their hallucinogenic pollen, or the Black Sabbath playing in the background that draws most of San Francisco’s industry folk in. It’s twenty seven year old Jonah’s well-executed, well-seasoned modern American dishes that are hearty and unpretentious with a focus on proper technique and an obvious love for seasonal product. Jonah’s most recent interest is in bringing back American charcuterie like pastrami, a technique he spent months working on before arriving at what tastes like the Platonic ideal of pastrami: lightly smoky, tender, and bright with flavor. Jonah thinly slices the slab and serves it with crispy rye bread croutons and seared diver scallops.
Interview with Chef Jonah Oakden of The Blue Plate - San FranciscoWill Blunt:
When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
My dad is an organic farmer so I learned a little about food from him. I started cooking when I was 17 at Café Gabrielle.
WB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
JO: I started off working with Jim Donavan at Café Gabrielle. I moved to Postrio, where we would regularly do at least 200 covers. I worked really hard. It kicked my ass but I learned a lot.
WB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs without a culinary school background?
JO: I went to CCA but I didn’t graduate. I would get yelled because I didn’t have my shoes shined so I quit and started working. You can learn as much in the field as you can in school.
WB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
JO: All of the guys at Postrio – they got along, inspired each other, and even the front of house was good. Chef Cory Schreiber, of Wildwood Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, is a mentor as well.
WB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JO: Get a job at a place where you love the food and just dive right in and get working.
WB: Is there any ingredient that you like do you feel is particularly under appreciated or under utilized?
JO: Pork, greens, celery, cabbage, and eggs are all really important ingredients for chefs.
WB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
JO: I like any surf and turf combination, like fried oysters and braised bacon, clams and chicken, and scallops with pastrami.
WB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
JO: My Gray Kunz plating spoon. I get really mad when they hide it in my kitchen.
WB: Is there a technique that you have either created of borrowed and used in an unusual way?
JO: We make pastrami in a pretty unique way. We brine it longer and use a hotter smoke in a barrel smoker.
WB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
JO: I like simple French cookbooks. I find Michael Bras’ books pretty inspiring.
WB: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in your city?
JO: Tacos Morenas, Brother’s Korean, and Boulevard. I go to La Taqueria and get crispy tacos with red salsa that aren’t on the menu.
WB: Which person would you most like to have dinner with?
JO: My grandparents so I could say “look at me now!”
WB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JO: I think food should be as seasonal as possible. I like to give people food that has a hand-made feel at a good value. I like good solid food using solid tools like ovens, pots and pans and fire.
WB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
JO: There is a widespread charcuterie trend going on right now.