This month we are thrilled to partner with the team at Outerlands, a restaurant in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset neighborhood, to celebrate the launch of our new Open Kitchen collection. Outerlands is known for its menu of seasonal food and rustic dishes and the strong sense of community created by the space — it’s no surprise the restaurant has become a legend among locals. Read our interviews with the owners, chefs and experts behind Outerlands and try their original recipes here.
As Outerlands’ head chef, Brett Cooper is responsible for creating rustic, seasonal dishes with the best possible ingredients and a focus on local, sustainable resources. His innovative menus have turned the restaurant into a culinary destination, but the casual, inviting atmosphere makes it feel simultaneously cozy and communal. Here, we ask Brett all about his approach to cooking, what inspires him in the kitchen, and his favorite ways to enjoy a meal with friends.
Tell us about your background and how you became a chef. How did you find your way to Outerlands?
My background begins as a young cook at an Italian restaurant in Colorado when I was 17. I moved to California when I was 22 and took an externship at Rubicon with Stuart Brioza and eventually became his sous chef for the next four years. When the restaurant closed, I took a job running the kitchen alongside Daniel Patterson at Coi. The combination of those two chefs really shaped my career and skills.
After Coi, I helped open Saison as chef de cuisine before coming to Outerlands as the chef in February of 2011. I was introduced to Dave and Lana by a longtime mutual friend, Jessie Schlesinger, who has contributed a lot to Outerlands. He is an amazing Bay Area artist and also works with one of our favorite farms, Dirty Girl Produce.
What is your food/cooking philosophy?
It’s mostly based on ingredients. Whether I’m cooking for my friends or my family or guests at the restaurant, my cooking style is based on the best possible ingredients we can get. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a dish, but it really comes together when I’m at the farmers’ market. Or when I’m talking to my fishmonger and I see what the freshest local catch is. Either way, it starts with ingredients and the idea of sustainability and things being produced or harvested the right way.
What was the inspiration behind the menu for the dinner?
The inspiration was the people. They were people I knew, and I knew what they liked to eat and what would be fun for us to eat together, so it was really a celebration of us being together, as friends. It was about cooking simple, tasty food that we could all appreciate and have fun conversing over.
What kind of food is fun for you to eat with others?
Food that’s fun for me are accessible ingredients or products that you might not get to eat all the time. Like oysters — they are not extremely extravagant, but they take time and patience to shuck, and you can do a lot of different things with them. Also, food that is aesthetically pleasing. Take lamb shanks; everyone who’s a carnivore likes to see a big piece of meat falling off the bone. You look at it and say, “That’s going to be good.” Also, food with vibrant colors. The idea with the salad was to buy everything that was delicate and floral and colorful and edible raw that we could find at the market, tear it up, and mix it with a simple dressing.
How would you describe the food and atmosphere at Outerlands? What do you love about it?
The atmosphere is very cozy. When you walk in, you don’t feel like you’re walking into a restaurant; you feel like you’re walking into a space where other people are eating, cooking, smiling and happy. We try to emulate that in the food with the idea that we’re doing something different — not with weird ingredients you’ve never heard of (we may have those, but they’re not the emphasis of the cooking), but to provide someone with an experience where they leave and say, “I felt connected to the food, but it was so different from anything I’ve had.” We put a specific twist on things, so people are comfortable eating the food but they’re also getting a specific experience.
What is your approach to entertaining? Any strategies you swear by?
Booze! When I’m entertaining, I want to put forth the extra effort. When you do something for a living that people appreciate, like cooking, you’re doing it day in and day out at the restaurant. So when you’re doing it for people you have a close connection to, who you feel deeply about, you want to give them your all and make something special. I pay attention to the details, like aesthetically pleasing food and service wear. I try to make it very warm — and throw some wine in there.
What makes a great dinner party?
It’s the people. It’s all about who you’re around. If you’re at a dinner party, unless you’re someone’s guest, you’re there for a reason: you’re with people you care about. That dynamic shapes it for me. Also, you have to have a diverse group of people to keep each other on their toes and keep everyone entertained.
Who are your favorite people to have around your table?
Friends and family, for sure. My wife — we really enjoy eating together. She’s getting more into cooking and baking recently, and she’s a natural at it. I’ve also really enjoyed teaching my parents more about food and the possibilities and ideas, and thinking more outside the box. They have grown with me throughout my career. My mom would cook us the same thing every week when I was growing up, but now they’ve been having a lot of fun. Recently they went pheasant hunting and made a cassoulet! My family is really fun. We can hang out and not even worry about what we’re cooking.
What are some of your go-to dinner party dishes?
It changes so often, depending on the weather and who’s coming over. I really like to do roasted vegetables a lot and use different seasonings. That’s something I’ll always do.
What’s a go-to everyday meal for you?
At the end of the night, a raw kale salad with shaved vegetables and a little vinaigrette and some beets. It’s the only leafy salad we have on the menu at Outerlands, and it’s really satisfying and hearty.
How do you make everyday meals feel special?
By including somebody else in the cooking. I like to put my friends to work! I think that makes it memorable for other people, too. Also, trying new things — seeing what you like and don’t like and building your pantry and your repertoire of the dishes you make off your likes and dislikes.
Read more about our dinner with Outerlands here.
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[…] the inspiration behind the food in our Q&A with Chef Brett Cooper, and learn how owners Dave Muller and Lana Porcello created such a special, unique space with […]
Outerlands is my favorite in SF. From the warm, welcoming staff to the intriguing creative dishes, it all comes down to the flavors. Always amazing! Our “gabby” crew is always silent when we dine here; except for an occasional noise of delight as we enjoy this incredible food.
Can’t leave SF without a loaf of the best bread in California tucked in my carry on.
Warning TSA people…..keep your hands off the bread!
Miss you guys. See you in April.