James Syhabout, the chef at Oakland’s Commis, just got back from New York where he was crowned one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs for 2010, and he talked to Grub Street today about breaking bread with Roy Choi of Kogi fame (now helming L.A.’s Chego!) and friends Nate Appleman (formerly of A16 and SPQR, now at Pulino’s), and Daniel Holzman (Meatball Shop).
Did you meet any chefs at the awards who you’d been wanting to meet?
Yeah I met a few people who I’d heard a lot about and really respected. Like John Shields who’s been cooking at Town House in Virginia. It’s kind of astonishing to see someone open a very avant garde place in a town of 1,800 people. And Roy Choi — I’ve got great respect for him. At the end of the night, at the after-party at Kenmare, I texted him and he was over at Momofuku and he brought me over two pork buns. He brought me two! It was like three in the morning. I couldn’t complain.
Any highlights from the trip to New York in general?
Manhattan at night is such a phenomenon, so much energy. You walk by all these no-name restaurants at midnight on a Monday and they’re, like, full. That just doesn’t happen anywhere else.
I went and hung out with Nate Appleman, had some pizza at Pulino’s and it was amazing. It was good to see Nate. He looked reasonably happy. [laughs] I went and saw Daniel Holzman at the Meatball Shop at like one or two a.m. They’re open ‘til four on the weekends. You only get that in New York. I wish we could do that here.
What do you think the Food & Wine honor will mean for your restaurant?
It’s definitely a great honor. And the Food & Wine people were really welcoming and a great group of people. You know, I don’t think it’s going to change our course or our ambition. We’re still going to keep doing what we do at Commis, always trying to be better. But it definitely was a good moment for me to exhale. Puts you in a more positive frame of mind.
Have you seen any uptick in reservations?
There’s definitely more messages on the phone when we come in in the morning, but 95% of our reservations are on OpenTable, so I haven’t really noticed. I think we’re pretty booked up the next couple weekends but you can still get late-night (like, as-in, nine o’clock) and some weeknight tables.
Is your mom proud of you? [Ed. Note: James’ mom cooks at Davan, a Thai restaurant in downtown Oakland.]
I don’t think she really knows, to tell you the truth. My mom doesn’t really keep up with what I do professionally. She and I cook for different reasons. For her, she came to this country to have a better life, and it pays the bills. For me it’s more for a career and the artistry of it. I’ve really been pushing her to retire. She’s been at this game too long.
Earlier: James Syhabout Believes in Always Being a Commis [Grub Street]