Tucked in the shadows of The Fillmore, the famed music venue where the Grateful Dead once reigned, nestled among the shops and karaoke bars of San Francisco’s Japantown, you might stumble upon the unassuming storefront of one of the best restaurants in the world.
One thing that gives it away is the line that often forms down the block as it opens for dinner. What it lacks in glam, the Michelin-star rated State Bird Provisions more than makes up for in sumptuous food and stellar presentation. The Hawaiian-inspired dim sum restaurant features dumplings with duck confit filling and pork belly that melts in your mouth, all served with the fresh local produce for which San Francisco dining has become famous.
All of this is presided over by the out head chef, Gaby Maeda. GayCities sat down with Gaby in the restaurant’s stylish yet unpretentious concrete dining room to talk about being out in the workplace, the secrets to recipes, honing her craft with award-winning chef Gary Danko, and where she eats when she’s not in the kitchen herself.
Gaby’s tasting menu of small plates blends her Hawaiian roots with California’s abundance of fresh produce and game. She strives to create a “whimsical and fun” aura in every dish, each as tasty as the next. Her presentation, in her words, is “like a diamond.” (For wine lovers, State Bird Provisions has a section dedicated to the varietal know as Gamay, which the chef says pairs well with the restaurant’s namesake commandable, fried quail.)
She got her start as a line chef at Gary Danko, another renowned San Francisco eatery.
“That was a big part of me as a chef,” she recalls. “Me as a gay chef.”
In fact, owner and head chef Gary Danko produces some of the Bay Area’s most noteworthy chefs. “To be seriously considered in your career, there were three or four restaurants in San Francisco that you needed to work at,” Gabby says. “Gary Danko was one of them.”
She acknowledges that these are often “tough houses” for budding chefs but they can also be opportunities to learn from the best. “Just shut up, put your head down, and pray they don’t notice,” she told herself during her years as an apprentice, a sacrifice that has paid off today.
She said that her time working for Danko also helped her be her authentic self in the workplace.
“I felt very comfortable being honest with everyone about my orientation,” she says. “Finding out that Chef Gary was gay definitely made it easier. I felt supported by everyone: the sous chefs, line cooks, servers, and the front of the house. They were all really supportive like it didn’t even matter. That meant a lot to me.”
This culture of acceptance and support has stuck with Gaby throughout her career. As she rose through the ranks and made a name for herself, she carried this culture of kindness into her kitchen.
The Danko experience “definitely translates into how I am here, now,” she comments. “I have complete empathy for everyone in my kitchen. They aren’t just bodies that fill stations; they’re people with feelings, and it’s valid to have feelings.”
She makes sure “there’s no room for scolding, you know? It’s really distracting and doesn’t make the food cook any faster or taste any better. There’s a difference between leading by fear and working when you’re scared versus leading with respect and wanting to work hard for someone because you actually respect people.”
Watching Gaby prepare for the evening’s service, we could see this philosophy in action – so welcoming compared to the culture of harassment and intimidation created by some male celebrity chefs. Gaby attends to the relationships in her kitchen just as artfully as the plates that leave it. You won’t find a hot-tempered chef at State Bird; just high boiling points and a commitment to excellence.
State Bird Provisions is one of many remarkable Asian/Pacific Island-inspired restaurants in San Francisco.
Here are a few others on Gaby’s food radar:
Jo’s Modern Thai
“The chef there was a pop-up chef at one of my favorite wine bars in the city, Beirba in Hayes Valley. She was approached by someone to open a Thai restaurant and it’s spectacular. It’s definitely a must-go.”
“A buddy of ours, David Yoshimura, opened up a new restaurant on Polk Street. Japanese fine dining really hits home being Japanese American. It was nice to see a more traditional, washoku style brought into the spotlight.”
Washoku is an approach to Japanese cooking that emphasizes seasonality and balance. Nisei breaks away from the typical Californian fare, like sushi or ramen, and offers diners, as Yoshimura describes it, “Japanese soul food.”
Gaby heaps praise on Abacá, a contemporary Filipino restaurant near Fisherman’s Wharf. She and head chef Francis Ang once worked together for Gary Danko. Gaby says Abacá is like “a personal love letter to the chef’s time growing up in the Philippines.”