2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Nick Balla of Bar Tartine

2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Nick Balla of Bar Tartine
May 2013

Born in Michigan, Nick Balla split his childhood between the Wolverine State and Brooklyn before moving to Budapest for his high school years. Hungary’s rich family and cooking traditions (replete with backyard slaughters) drew him to food, and Balla began feeling at home working in kitchens during his schooling. In pursuit of a professional career, Balla attended the Culinary Institute of America.

After completing a culinary school externship opening Michael Mina’s Nobhill Tavern at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Balla undertook repeated journeys to Japan for extensive stages, including time at a kamaboko factory for udon noodle training and a week at a Tokyo kaiseki restaurant. In 2004, he moved to San Francisco and took a job as line cook at Ozumo, providing an outlet for his ongoing interest in Japanese cuisine. From there, Balla went to work as a sous chef at Americano under Paul Arenstam. In 2007 he was tapped to take his first executive chef post at O Izakaya. He brought his inimitable Japanese cooking to the Mission District in 2009 when he launched Nombe.

While Japanese cuisine provided a platform for showcasing Balla’s remarkable talents, his home cooking often drew on the flavors of his years spent in Hungary and his travels throughout Europe. As chef at Bar Tartine, Balla now highlights these flavors, using artisan techniques for sausage preparation, cheese making, and preserving to produce authentic homemade flavors. His approachable menu matches the restaurant’s convivial vibe and focus on Bar Tartine’s bread.

I Support: Meals-On-Wheels


Why: We all connect through food and all depend on it for survival. Delivering hot meals to homebound seniors is such a simple idea with a huge impact.

About: The Meals On Wheels Association of America is the oldest and largest national organization composed of and representing local, community-based Senior Nutrition Programs in all 50 U.S. states

Interview with 2013 San Francisco Bay Area Rising Star Chef Nick Balla

Katherine Sacks: Why did you get into cooking?
Nick Balla: Our metal band failed. I was already working in restaurants and that was the back up. I ended up being bequeathed with a chef job at a place in Michigan because everyone else got fired. I went to the CIA in New York for four years and then came straight to San Francisco.

KS: Where do you get your inspiration?
NB: I lived in Hungary for part of high school. My dad was a professor there, we're Hungarian by blood, and my dad wanted to go back and reconnect. So it’s usually from family, ethnic food, peasant food, full flavors, and honest food.

KS: How would you describe your style?
NB: I don't know about style but I like full flavors, ethnic food, shared format dining, and big portions.

KS: What are you most proud of?
NB: I was class rebel when I in high school.

KS: What has been the toughest thing you’ve done?
NB: It’s tough going into and changing an existing restaurant. I've had a lot of big challenges, my last three positions had been openings but coming into a successful restaurant and changing everything people loved was hard. I was doing Japanese food and had always cooked Hungarian food at home. In some ways there are similarities, they probably developed from the same tribe. Chad asked ‘What do you think about doing Central European food with great bread?’ It was challenging, a very popular restaurant with a wine bar and French bistro food. Everybody loved it and here I was coming in and doing weird fisherman stew. It was a challenge but it worked.

KS: How do you inspire your team?
NB: We have a pretty unique approach. A lot of young cooks try to talk with the chefs about weird technology and intellectual food and impress people by their amazing creativity before they have experience. What we encourage people to do is embrace what they really like to eat.

KS: Where will we find you in 5 years?
NB: I would imagine I will still be in San Francisco, probably mostly in the Mission. In my mind it’s the best restaurant place. It’s locals, you don't have to cook for tourists or expense accounts.

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