James Syhabout brings an A-List resume, laserlike focus, and a dishwasher’s humility to Oakland’s lauded Commis restaurant.
Photography by James Carriere
Peek in the window shortly before Commis opens for dinner, and you’ll likely catch chef-owner James Syhabout with a vacuum. We’re not talking about cooking sous vide (literally, “under vacuum”) or aerating vacuum jars, common tools at The Fat Duck restaurant outside London, where Syhabout staged with the iconoclastic Heston Blumenthal. Nor do we refer to the kind of pressurized preparations—CO2-charged black truffle foam, culinary syringes loaded with foie gras mousse—popularized at Spain’s El Bulli, where Syhabout worked as one of “a swarm of cooks,” under Ferran AdriÀ, the molecular gastronomist.
No, we’re talking about an old-fashioned Hoover-type vacuum cleaner, the same kind he might have used while working in his family’s Thai restaurant in Oakland, where he grew up, and which he uses to make a last sweep behind the kitchen line. Syhabout (pronounced See-HAH-boot) finds comfort in order. He calls the Container Store “the best place in the world” and sees even a drop of water as an affront to a workspace. It’s this kind of discipline, this uncompromising work ethic, that allowed Commis to join Chez Panisse as the only two East Bay restaurants that landed a star rating in last year’s venerable Michelin restaurant guide. Syhabout hasn’t done it with molecular manipulation (see “vacuums” above), maximum mayhem (à la Gordon Ramsay), or a minimalist mandate (à la Alice Waters). He’s done it with hard work and the deep knowledge and quiet intensity of a chess master.
In the kitchen, Syhabout is about as modest and closed lipped as a piece of Tupperware from his beloved Container Store. Watching the hushed action from the chef’s counter, a diner would need several minutes to figure out who’s in charge. Wearing black pants, white coats, and full-length blue-gray aprons, the kitchen staff look a bit like blacksmiths or artisan glassblowers, with Syhabout melting into the mix. To pick out the chef, you would do well to notice who draws the least attention to himself. He even named the restaurant Commis—a French word that refers to the lowliest cook in a kitchen brigade—in part to remind his staff to remain teachable. Syhabout, like everyone else in the kitchen, wears a blue apron, an indication of an apprentice.
It’s an ethic that instills self-reflection and dedication in those around him. A thrashing from Gordon Ramsay is mild compared to a puzzled stare from Syhabout. (He doesn’t mean to send you reeling; he’s just sensitive to the awkward truth revealed through your careless words or actions.) Keeping a tight ship and spotless kitchen isn’t unusual for a Michelin-star chef, but accomplishing this without ever raising your voice ... that’s something else.
Strong yet delicate, long lashed, and just 31 years old, Syhabout is already a national figure. The New York Times’ Eric Asimov profiled Syhabout a few months after he opened Commis in July 2009, and Food and Wine featured him on its coveted Best New Chef cover in July of this year. But it’s clear that accolades mean little to Syhabout other than affirming that Commis is on the right track. When the director of Michelin rang Syhabout’s cell one October morning last year to let him know he had been awarded a coveted star, Syhabout thanked him—and went back to sleep.
Perhaps this nonchalance is born from a culinary résumé that is nothing short of outstanding. After graduating from San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy in 1999 and cooking his way through Europe’s finest restaurants, Syhabout worked at Coi in San Francisco, as the chef at Plumpjack Cafe in San Francisco, and at the two-Michelin-star Manresa in Los Gatos. Or perhaps this nonchalance reflects his humble roots (his mother was an immigrant from Thailand, bringing the family to Oakland when Syhabout was two). That modest upbringing certainly explains the Commis location: a little space with a plain white awning tucked between Bay Wolf and Dress Best for Less on the gritty side of Piedmont Avenue. Asked why Commis has no marquee, he says flatly: “We don’t wear name tags; I don’t have a sign on my home.” OK, but what’s so humble about a $68 prix fixe–only menu? “It’s all very bipolar,” he admits.
That label could also be attached to his cooking, which applies a highbrow interpretation to uncomplicated, ingredient-driven California cuisine—all while starting with basic, often foraged ingredients: “Carrots, potatoes, chard, kale—I’m all for it.”
Syhabout’s mission, he says, is to coax simple, comforting tastes out of complexity. A good example is his signature amuse-bouche, a small starter meant to “amuse the mouth” and the only constant on his seasonally evolving menu. Served in an earthen bowl, the dish consists of three warm, custardy elements—a Medjool date puree, a creamy onion soup pooled to mimic an egg white, and a precisely poached farm-fresh yolk—enlivened by finely minced chives and toasted steel-cut oats. The rich textures and sweet, nutty flavors are wholly calming, like Sunday brunch reduced to a few tablespoons.
Every element on Syhabout’s plates is there for a reason. He likes to imagine the ingredients having a conversation with each other. “I’m crispy, so you’d better not be,” he mimics. When creating a new dish, Syhabout first thinks in terms of flavor profiles. In this way, he can break down classic dishes into their constituent parts and remake them in a novel way, without losing their nostalgic resonance. The dates in the egg dish, for instance, have a smoky undertone that evokes ham or bacon and “make sense” to the diner’s palate. The crunchy oats are reminiscent of breakfast cereal.
In September, Syhabout changed the prix fixe menu from three to four courses, but with all the freebies, the new four-course menu is closer to eight. This means that 400 dishes are needed to serve just 50 customers, requiring lockstep concentration and implementation from the staff. In designing the new menu, Syhabout had to consider flow, workload, and balance. What’s remarkable is how effortless it all looks. Like a ballet. The 10 workers, four in the dining room and six in the kitchen, move fluidly, as if consciously choreographed—each making a unique and vital contribution to the whole, just as each ingredient serves a purpose on Syhabout’s intricate plates.
Doing it once is impressive. Doing it night after night baffles the mind.
All this intricate organization can translate into a rather rarefied dining experience. His food is served without tablecloths and without attitude, but still, not everyone will understand or appreciate it.
No worries. Nightly 13-hour shifts and tough critics are what Syhabout has been groomed for, and it’s a lifestyle he’s clearly happy to lead—at least judging from his upbeat attitude toward the two hours of cleaning and inventory work he and his staff had to look forward to after serving their last customer on a recent Friday night.
“And then we get to do it all over again tomorrow.”Commis, 3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-3902, commisrestaurant.com.
⇒ Hit of the Party!
Commis pastry chef Carlos Salgado unlocks the mysteries of absinthe, with a petit four recipe that will knock your socks off. CLICK HERE to check it out.
Nicholas Boer spends an eye-opening—and humbling—shift in the Commis kitchen.
On the first Friday after Commis reopened from a weeklong break, James Syhabout allowed me a behind-the-scenes look at his operation and new menu. Having worked as a chef at several area restaurants, I thought I was well qualified. I thought wrong. The seven hours represent half a day’s work for the Commis crew, who often start before noon and finish after midnight.
3:30: I’m shelling a box of butter beans, when one slips away and rolls under a refrigerator. I get on my hands and knees, and rise triumphantly with my bean and a lost apple ring. My pride turns to shame when I need to be reminded to wash my hands before turning back to my beans.
4:00: A cook places eggs in a 62°C water bath to poach for tonight’s amuse-bouche, while pastry chef Carlos Salgado shapes dough into 35-gram rolls. I’m plucking tiny sprigs of purslane, when the chef comes by and, without commenting on my shoddy work—or the nest of stems and leaves under my feet—proceeds to pluck sprigs faster than a chicken.
5:30: Sous chef Andrew Moy says we can start on the elaborately prepared corn pudding. My contribution: shuck 15 ears of corn.
6:00: Diners arrive, and the first salads are constructed. Small, peeled, dry-farmed tomatoes are cut into wedges, sprinkled with sea salt, then placed on a pool of house-made yogurt. Tiny heirloom peppers are arranged against the wedges. Purslane sprigs are applied with tweezers. Crushed croutons are aligned down one side with basil. The plates are brought to the counter, the edges meticulously polished. “Service please,” says Moy. I reevaluate my entire cooking career.
7:00: There should be nothing on the counter, the chef tells me flatly, transferring the scallions I’m prepping to a pan. “Not even a spot of water.” I fumble for an excuse and manage to say: “Yes, chef. Thank you, chef.”
7:30: A beaming couple celebrating a 34th anniversary stop by to thank the chef for an extraordinary meal.
8:00: I return to the prep area, where hundreds of slow-cooked duck tongues need to be peeled. I get the hang of it by tongue number 50.
9:00: Six amuse-bouche are delivered, explained by three servers, including the chef. The kitchen and dining room are now in full swing, the tempo fast but smooth. A couple thank me for a great meal. I tell them it was nothing—really.
10:00: The last six savory courses are delivered. The chef offers me a plate of crisp-skinned fish with nasturtiums, yellow squash, and fried okra. After dining, I ask him if I can help clean up. He pauses and says, “No.” I’ve done enough for one evening.