Five Questions for James Syhabout
Photo by Isabel Baer
Many people thought James Syhabout was crazy when, in 2009, he decided to translate his experience at haute cuisine hot spots such as El Bulli in Spain and Bay Area stalwarts Manresa and Coi into a similar high-end concept in his grittier hometown of Oakland. But Commis was an instant success. Ten years later, the Piedmont Avenue restaurant remains the East Bay’s flagship fine-dining destination—and the only one with a Michelin star (two, in fact).
Q: Why did you open Commis when and where you did?
A: To be honest, I kind of went into it blind. I didn’t look at the numbers or if it was the right concept. It was my first restaurant, and I was just excited to open, and it all worked out. Lady Luck, I guess.
Q: Your more casual restaurant, Hawker Fare, came after Commis. What is your relationship with each?
A: It’s somewhat different. Commis is something I love to do. I love fine dining. I love the discipline, the artistry, the choreographed service. I’m a fine-dining guy. Hawker Fare is more like what I grew up with [at my mom’s Thai restaurant in Uptown Oakland]: a place that serves everyday food. [Hawker Fare] also serves as kind of a self-measurement tool for what delicious food should be.
Q: How has the food at Commis changed over the last decade?
A: In the beginning, I was serving four courses; now it’s 12 or 13 with double the staff. Stylistically, the food is very personal now. I’ve grown in the last 10 years. I’ve seen more. I’ve lived more. I also have more restraint than I did as a young chef. Everything is more distilled; there’s more clarity. Commis is mature; it’s all grown up.
Q: Are you planning any more projects?
A: I just turned 40 ... and I’m taking some time to absorb the last decade. The biggest thing is that I want to be a dad and a wonderful husband. My kids are 8 and 6, and I want to help them with their homework and go to playdates and after-school activities. I should be able to miss service to take my kids to tae kwon do class; that’s just as important as the dietary restrictions at table 35.
Q: What’s your perfect East Bay day?
A: It would definitely be with my kids and wife. We’d go to the Grand Lake farmers market and afterward go to Redwood Regional Park for a hike. Get pizza at Slicer for lunch and then some Fentons ice cream. Maybe go a movie at Grand Lake Theatre and then walk home.