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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.

Nicolas Delaroque, the executive chef of Nico in San Francisco, was born in Normandy and raised among a family of serious cooks. He studied classic French cooking in Paris, where he completed his training and restaurant management degree. At the age of 23, he began to travel and cook internationally, and learned English along the way at establishments such as Les Ecuries du Château in Dampierre, France, and Le Charlevoix in Quebec’s Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu.

Delaroque settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2008 and began cooking modern American cuisine as the sous chef at Luce. From there, he honed his talents at Le Garage Bistro in Sausalito and L’Appart Resto in San Anselmo; at Coi, a Michelin two-star restaurant in San Francisco that has garnered worldwide acclaim, he worked under chef Daniel Patterson. In 2011, Delaroque began cooking under chef David Kinch at Manresa in Los Gatos, another influential restaurant holding two Michelin stars.

Just a year later, Delaroque began pursuing a dream shared with his wife, Andrea, of owning a restaurant of their own. They opened Nico, located between San Francisco’s Pacific Heights and Laurel Heights neighborhoods, last November. The space, a former furniture store, was transformed into a warm, modern bistro with sleek wood tables and chairs, a small zinc bar, and a rooftop garden. In January 2014, the 44-seat restaurant was awarded three-and-a-half stars by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Delaroque’s cuisine incorporates vibrant and refined elements, and reflects his classical French background and precise, imaginative style. His sophisticated dishes—whose straightforward descriptions belie their inventiveness—include beignets with sunchoke and vanilla, pork rillettes with red cabbage and crouton, and asparagus soup with seaweed and sesame. With a distinct emphasis on seasonal ingredients from local farmers’ markets and the restaurant’s own garden, Nico’s menu is enlivened by a distinctly Californian sensibility.

Watch Nicolas Delaroque prepare halibut crudo, a dish from his Culinary Masters Competition menu.

INGREDIENTS (SERVES 4)

Halibut Crudo
2 pounds halibut
10 ounces gray salt
Noilly Prat vermouth
1 leaf giant kelp (available at seafood markets)
Tomato Water (recipe below)
Lightly Pickled Cucumber (recipe below)
Avocado Puree (recipe below)
Borage flowers, for garnish
Fresh dill, for garnish
Puffed rice or barley (optional)

Tomato Water
4 green (unripe) tomatoes, chopped
1½ ounces verjuice (tart grape juice)
Salt

Lightly Pickled Cucumber
3 Persian cucumbers
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
1 branch dill, chopped
Salt

Avocado Puree
2 avocados, pitted and peeled
2 tablespoons buttermilk
Juice of 1 lime
Salt

INSTRUCTIONS

Halibut Crudo
Place halibut in a shallow dish and cover with gray salt. Let rest 40 minutes in the refrigerator. Remove the halibut from the salt, rinse with cold water, and brush with the vermouth. Place the fish on a clean plate, cover it with the kelp leaf, and return it to the refrigerator for 2 hours. Prepare the Tomato Water, Lightly Pickled Cucumber, and Avocado Puree (recipes below).

To serve, slice the halibut into strips approximately ¼ inch thick. Arrange in the middle of four shallow plates. Pour Tomato Water over the fish (use just enough so it pools at the bottom of the plate). Arrange Lightly Pickled Cucumber around the halibut and use a pastry bag to pipe dollops of Avocado Puree as you wish. Garnish with borage flowers and dill. For more texture, scatter puffed rice or barley.

Tomato Water
Place tomatoes in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Strain liquid through a cheesecloth into a medium bowl. Add verjuice and season with salt to taste.

Lightly Pickled Cucumber
Using a mandoline at the 2 mm setting, thinly slice the Persian cucumbers (leave the skin on). Place in a dish with the Champagne vinegar, dill, and salt to taste. Let rest for 10 to 15 minutes for light pickling. Remove cucumbers from vinegar.

Avocado Puree
Place the avocados, buttermilk, lime juice, and salt to taste in a blender or food processor. Puree until smooth.

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