Nancy Oakes has reached and maintained a level of culinary excellence held by few chefs in the United States today. She strongly believes that diners need to be comforted not only by food but by their surroundings and the service they receive. For more than 20 years, she has pulled all of these elements together at Boulevard, her San Francisco restaurant, striving to flatter guests in a way that makes them feel that they are being personally cared for.
“We cook at Boulevard because we love to feed people and also because we love the process of cooking,” Oakes says. “From the first glimpse of raw ingredients, through all the stages of their transformation, we still get extraordinarily excited by the prospect of developing new dishes. We don’t think for a minute that we’ve invented a new cuisine or discovered a new approach to cooking—only a never-ending quest for what’s delicious.”
Clearly, her customers have sensed her commitment and attention: She is one of San Francisco’s most beloved chefs. Reader polls, including those conducted by the San Francisco Chronicle and Zagat, regularly name Oakes as the most popular chef and Boulevard as a favorite dining destination. Boulevard is also among the few restaurants to continuously receive a star in the Michelin Guide since 2007, the year the guide started reviewing restaurants in San Francisco. Oakes has been consistently celebrated by her peers, too, garnering a James Beard Award for Best Chef in California in 2001, and in 2012 winning the foundation’s most coveted prize, the Outstanding Restaurant award. Oakes’s 2006 cookbook, Boulevard, written with Pamela Mazzola, received nominations from both the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Oakes’s culinary experience spans three decades—including opening the highly acclaimed L’Avenue in San Francisco in 1988—but she started out studying art, and fell into cooking at age 27. She opened Boulevard in 1993, in a beaux arts building on the waterfront that survived the 1906 earthquake, serving French-inflected regional U.S. food, a style that continues to define the menu today. In 2010, Oakes and Mazzola opened the contemporary restaurant Prospect, in San Francisco’s flourishing South of Market neighborhood, with Kathy King. Featuring U.S. cuisine in a spacious urban setting, Prospect has quickly become a favorite for dinner and Sunday brunch.
Oakes’s energy and sense of community are reflected in the time and talent she has devoted to cooking for charitable organizations such as Meals on Wheels of San Francisco, Share Our Strength, the San Francisco and Marin Food Bank, Make-a-Wish, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, and Maitri, among many others.