Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2021: Gaby Maeda
Kindness in the kitchen is as important as creativity to this chef, who draws on the flavors of her honolulu childhood to create a menu that’s part Hawaiian, part Californian, and entirely her own.
"Every day when I go to work, I am just as excited as I was on day one," declares Gaby Maeda. Maeda is the chef de cuisine at the San Francisco stalwart State Bird Provisions, where she and her team whip up a menu of bright and punchy California cuisine, heavy on the local produce and with strong Asian influences. She has worked in professional kitchens for over a decade and a half, and that is where she is happiest. "All I want to do is work hard with my team and grow with them every day."
Maeda was drawn to restaurant work as a young teen in Honolulu, but has never been in a rush to make it to the top of the ladder. She has always been more interested in gaining skills than accolades (though she has received her fair share of those, too, including a James Beard nomination). At 14, she convinced her parents to let her homeschool herself, with two conditions: that she get good grades and a job. Maeda started working at Sekiya's, a popular Japanese delicatessen, but wished she was cooking. "I wanted to be where the action was," she says. When she turned 16, she landed her first back-of-house job at Hiroshi Eurasian Tapas, one of the first farm-to-table restaurants on the island. "I was so pumped!" Maeda recalls. She might have been hired as a cook, but Maeda didn't know what she was doing half the time. So she homeschooled some more: she bought a textbook from the Culinary Institute of America, looked up every word she did not know, and practiced how to braise, chiffonade, and brunoise on carrots at home.
She had long set her sights on San Francisco and moved to the mainland to attend culinary school. That led to an externship at Gary Danko. She ended up staying for five years, mastering each and every station, leaving with the title of lead line cook. "I never became a sous chef, and I was totally fine with that," she says. "I was proud of what I learned and for being treated with respect as an out, gay, young kid."
At 24, Maeda started cooking at State Bird Provisions and instantly connected with chef and co-owner Stuart Brioza (a 2003 F&W Best New Chef). "He had a plan for me before I had a plan for me," she says. Maeda was quickly promoted to sous chef, and just over a year later she was offered the chef de cuisine job. The rapid promotions took her by surprise. "This is exactly what I wanted in my life, and these are the steps I wanted to take, but I wasn't expecting it to be so fast," she says. Maeda felt comfortable in her technical cooking skills, but it was always important to her to learn how to become a good manager, not wanting to repeat the anger and the yelling she had seen in other kitchens. "I wanted to make sure I knew how to talk to staff, how to schedule, and how to deal with the stresses of everything," she says. "I learned how to properly give constructive criticism and positive reinforcement at the same time."
When she stepped into the chef de cuisine role, she also found her culinary voice and point of view, one grounded in, but not bound by, her past. Maeda grew up around phenomenal home cooks. Maeda's mom cooked Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food, turning to dishes like kimchi stew for a quick and satisfying meal, and her with grandmothers—one Okinawan, one Japanese-American—made dishes like kobumaki, seaweed rolls stuffed with pork and gobo (burdock root); or fried rice, tossed with strips of canned corned beef, onion, soy sauce, and dashi; or snacks of crisp mochi topped with soy sauce and nori. "Hawaii is such a melting pot," says Maeda. "You grow up cooking and eating Korean food, Chinese food, and Filipino food, even if you are not from these cultures."
The influences of her childhood are a through line in the menu at State Bird Provisions. A dish of carrot mochi makes clever use of the chewy pounded rice, using it in a gnocchi-like preparation. It's part of a dish where Maeda cooks carrots in three additional ways: roasting them until they are sweet and tender, pickling them for crunch, and using the juice to make a supple vinaigrette that brings the dish together. "Mochi was a passion project of mine because it is such a strong food memory for me," says Maeda.
Another favorite childhood treat, tamago tofu (a creamy tofu made from eggs) forms the basis for a dish of egg tofu—made by steaming eggs, dashi, white soy, and mirin in a hotel pan—that's cubed and topped with pickled mushrooms and a crown of chile oil that she makes with Korean chile flakes, Szechuan pepper, and golden Japanese sesame seeds. And then there is the shrimp toast, a fresh homage to the Chinese classic. Thick slices of fluffy Japanese milk bread are toasted and topped with a mountain of tender, sweet bay shrimp that have been gently poached in a liquid teeming with lemongrass, galangal, shallot, and lime leaf, then tossed into a curry oil aioli and topped with a shower of celery and cilantro for vegetal relief.
One day, Maeda would like to open her own spot. In her mental blueprints, it is a California-driven restaurant with "little snapshots of Hawaii" in the Bay Area. Maeda, now 31, is in no rush. "I would hope that in 10 years, I would open my own restaurant," she says. "I will only do it if I can do it right."
Photos by Aubrie Pick