Maynard Oestreich pops his head over a partition, a wide smile across his face. “I’ll be right there,” he promises. “I’ve been begging for artichokes, and they got here today. I want to make sure they’re being prepared correctly.”
Sailor Jack’s executive chef is exuberant about the artichokes, the mushrooms, and the frisée –oh, the frisée! And that excitement grows as he talks about fish—good, fresh, local fish–and the importance of food.
“Food is so great. It flashes memories like nothing else–great tuna always takes me back to Hawaii, eating it fresh off the boats. I think of the simple ramen houses in Japan and really good Dungeness crab. I think of Fisherman’s Warf when it was a real fisherman’s wharf.
“Food is memory, food is culture, food is a connection to your past,” he says passionately.
Chef Maynard is dedicated to creating some of those memories. A 1986 graduate of the California Culinary Academy, he honed his skills in San Francisco and Napa Valley restaurants. He was the critic’s choice for Chef of the Year at the 2006 Mustard Festival, an honor he shared with one of his mentors, Chef Peter Pahk. Chef Maynard, 48, spent a year at Havana Sol in Vallejo before he came on board at Sailor Jack’s. The seafood restaurant celebrates its first anniversary this month.
His off hours are spent with his family in Napa, where he grows heirloom tomatoes and Japanese eggplant in his back yard. His wife is a pastry chef and his daughters are Vintage High School students who play fast-pitch softball. Over a salad of greens (including frisée) and mushrooms, Chef Maynard talks about the waterfront restaurant and his love of cooking.
When did you start cooking?
I’ve been cooking since I was 16 years old, when I was a prep cook at Chateau Shon in San Francisco. The chef was a great guy, an older guy, who taught me a lot of fundamentals and showed me that shortcuts never pay off.
How would you describe the type of food you prepare?
I want to do accessible, citified cuisine that doesn’t intimidate people. I like using exotically sourced ingredients, but I like to play them against beautiful, locally produced stuff. I smash Asian, French and Italian into an amalgam of food that is Californian. I like to say I make International Grandma Cuisine. That’s soul food.
Yes, soul food. It provides more than just sustenance. When my grandmother would put a bowl of bean soup in front of me, it was like a hug to my soul. That’s the real stuff. It makes a difference.
How does that translate into the dishes you prepare now?
I’m trying to reconnect people with our culinary heritage. We’re getting back to the way it was back when Grandma and Mom were under the same roof and the kids would go out to pick food from the garden. We’re utilizing the heirloom varieties instead of the hybrids, making food safer and healthier, using less pesticides and fewer chemical fertilizers.
Where do you find those ingredients?
We’ve searched the world for the best ingredients. We use an olive oil from Sicily because it’s got such a great, buttery taste (pouring a bit of Mastri di San Basilio to sample).
But the freshest food is the best. I make sure the freshness is up to snuff. I have a good relationship with purveyors so they deliver the quality I’m looking for. I get calls at 3 o’clock in the morning from the guy at the fish market. “I can’t believe it, they have John Dories. Do you want good John Dories?” he’ll ask. I’m known as a straight shooter, so they know what I want.
We only use fresh calamari from Monterey. It’s so much work but the taste isn’t the same otherwise.
We try to use wild-caught, sustainably raised fish. If we don’t manage our aquaculture better, there’s not going to be anything for my kids.
How does your commitment to fresh food affect the kitchen?
I buy in small quantities so we have fresh food coming in every day. Some places get a whole shipment of carrots for a week and cut them all up at once. Here we cut up carrots every day.
I really want this to be a kitchen where we’re teaching older techniques. You won’t find vacuum-packed, pre-shredded ingredients here.
My job is really easy —I go get really good ingredients and let them sing the song for me. I’m a facilitator. I let the good flavors come out.
So how many hours do you work to prepare the menu you want?
I work an incredible amount of hours—I don’t want to say how many. I work on the line day and night. I literally touch 85 percent of the plates and I’m here five to six days a week. It makes a difference.
But I tell people I play with food for a living. I do exactly what I want. Any job where you can get away with wearing comfy shoes is a good job.
What restaurant trends do you see developing over the next few years?
I think people are ready for good, old-fashioned, beautiful sit-down dining establishments–dinner theaters and supper clubs.
But culinary trends break my heart. We blew through Spain way too fast, Caribbean foods have come and gone. Tapas are two years ago. We learn the catch words and don’t know the significance of the food. How can you really know a cuisine after so short a time?
One trend I do like is slow foods. Slow food is back to basics, traditional cooking. I simmer sauces for six, eight, 10 hours. You’ll eat it in a microflash of the time it took me to prepare it.
Do you have a favorite cooking show?
I’m not a huge fan of them. There’s a cult of personality, and we’re seeing the personality people taking over (in television).
Why haven’t we heard of James McDevitt, a multiple James Beard Award winner? He built Budo in Napa, a five-star restaurant. The last time I cried during a meal was at his place. I had tears streaming down my face. He ended up going to New York.
But to watch a good chef work–I love that. I still love to watch Jacques Pépin–the joy, the pride as he works is a pleasure to see.
I’m not in that league. I’m not an artist, I’m a craftsman. I make honest food. No one’s going to buy my memoir.
What attracted you to working in Benicia after all those years in Napa?
I’ve come to this restaurant on and off for 25 years. My aunt lived here. My grandmother came here when it was the Nantucket. She had polio as a kid and she would drag herself up the stairs to her favorite table.
I keep her favorite dish on the menu–sole dore. I keep it on the menu for her. I know she’s looking down and smiling.
My brother-in-law proposed to my sister here. We had my grandfather’s memorial here. My wonderful family is buried here, at Skyview. The Passalacquas have buried three generations of my family.
What’s not to like? I hope I have a good, long ride here.