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Hot 20 2009: James Syhabout, Chef-Owner of Commis

Photography by John Lee.

Chef James Syhabout’s timing is spot-on. Just as the recession has people questioning fine-dining, he’s redefined it with Commis, his tiny three-month-old restaurant set in his native Oakland. Commis’ food is four-star exquisite, but the prix-fixe menu stops at three courses. There are neither tablecloths nor pretensions. The open kitchen’s counter allows patrons to sit within feet of Syhabout and his small team, as they meticulously prepare California-fresh dishes that are rooted in classic technique, such as smoked sardines with green-tomato confit in rhubarb juice, or roasted chicken paired with porcinis emulsified with foie gras.

The California Culinary Academy grad was most recently at the two-star Michelin restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos as the chef de cuisine; prior to that, he was the executive chef of PlumpJack Cafe in SF. His cooking has also been influenced by his time with Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in England and Ferrán Adrià of el Bulli in Spain. “If I would do it all over again, I’d just skip culinary school and ship myself to Europe,” he says. “Do it the old-fashioned way.”

Syhabout admits his mother—formerly a cook at a Thai restaurant—has never eaten his food. “She grew up in a family of 11 in Thailand, and eating for her was more of a necessity than a luxury,” he says.

Despite his clear ambitions, Syhabout is modest to the point of shy. He got the name Commis (a French term for an apprentice chef) from Marco Pierre White’s book, White Heat. “In the French kitchen, the lowest ranks wear a blue apron and the chef wears a white apron,” explains Syhabout. “White says, ‘We all wear blue aprons; we’re all still learning.’ I took that to heart.”

Check out the other 2009 Hot 20.