Interview with 2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Chef Brett Cooper

May 2013

Katherine Sacks: What brought you to Outerlands?
Brett Cooper:
I've been here for almost two years. The restaurant opened four years ago by David Muller and his wife. Initially it was purchased as a space to keep the vibe of neighborhood going; it was originally going to be a soup and bread kitchen. They spent a year and a half doing it and there is a large community out here that really supports each other. Everyone would come out here; they were making really good soups and Dave makes really good bread. They got so busy they hired a cook to do more food, but when they realized it was transforming into more of a business they started looking for a chef. I met them through a mutual friend, and at first I wasn't interested because I had been working in high-end dining for 10 years in the city. It was much more casual then anything I had done, but then I met Dave and Lana and changed my mind. I talked to them about being part of change; part of the reason I came on was to keep integrity and bring food up to the next step. We’re not getting too fussy with things but making simple food for people who might not respect it.

KS: How would you describe your style?
BC:
That’s hard, I don't really think about that too much. If I had to pinpoint something it would probably be contemporary American. I don't focus on techniques or ingredients from one area; I focus on as local we can get and sustainable and then go anywhere from there. Some dishes have Japanese influence or Italian influence but nothing is super specific so the menu still flows really well.

KS: What made you interested in becoming a chef?
BC:
I kind of fell into it, my mom would cook at home, and I would cook with her sometimes. When I was 17, I looked for a job as a bus boy—my friend was doing that making good money—but all they had open was a prep cook job. A few months later I realized I was getting better and better and having fun doing it. I moved all over Colorado cooking, but realized it wasn’t as expansive as I wanted. I wanted more culture in the food, so I moved out here to go to culinary school and also got an apprenticeship at Rubicon. Stuart [Brioza] offered me a job, and I stayed there for 4 and a half years until the restaurant closed. I was sous chef for almost four years there. All the sudden everything was so exciting and new; Stuart was a really great mentor, he lit a fire under me. After Rubicon closed I was offered a sous chef position at Coi. I stayed there as sous chef for almost 2 and a half years; it was a really amazing experience working with Daniel [Patterson], shaping the textural and cerebral side of food. I really wanted to do something that I could focus on, and wanted a lot of freedom. Dave and Lana were really willing to give me that and I’ve been here for just under two years.

KS: What is the most challenging thing you’ve been through?
BC:
Starting here. These guys had been running this restaurant so openly and without specific systems. It was kind of like a free flowing restaurant and it was working to a certain degree, but coming from the background I had—tweezer plating, extremely spotless kitchens, no one talking during prep—more casual was a challenge for me. Also understanding everyone’s place in the restaurant, and really letting people do what they are good at.

KS: How do you inspire your staff?
BC:
By getting them really involved with the food; trying to bring new things to the table all the time; talking with them about why we buy from certain farms; always trying to do things a little differently. It’s really important that everyone’s inspired but also comfortable in creating on a consistent basis, that’s a big part of it. Also working really team oriented, that’s one thing everyone learns when they come to work here. You have a station but you are just as responsible for everything else in the restaurant, everyone helps each other out. There is great camaraderie, a great connection between Dave and Lana and all the employees.

KS: Where will we find you in 5 years?
BC:
Traveling definitely, and maybe living in Europe or Scandinavia for a year, it’s something I've really wanted to do. But for however long I go away, I'll be back in San Francisco. There is such a sense of community and thriving agriculture; the progressive ranches, fish markets, artisans here are unparalleled. Some days I think I eventually want to go back to a tasting menu format, and then sometimes I feel like I just want to open up a pickle shop. But I feel like I'm in a really good place right now, so I’m not worried about making a decision quite yet. It’s all about opportunity.