What’s Next for Chef Nick Badovinus

Chef Nick Badovinus made his name at Hibiscus and The Porch. Now he’s taking the leap and opening his own place, Neighborhood Services, after a little R&D trip to San Fran with our intrepid food editor.

AT YOUR SERVICE: Nick Badovinus, former corporate executive chef of Consilient Restaurants, breaks ground on his new restaurant, Neighborhood Services.
photography by Kevin Hunter Marple

The traffic light at mission and 20th streets is still green. Nick Badovinus, who walks quickly anyway, picks up his pace and breaks into a jog. We’re half a block from the corner as the light changes to yellow, but he doesn’t slow down. Ten feet before he reaches the curb, the light turns red. Badovinus grits his teeth and slaps his fist against his thigh. This is a guy who doesn’t like to be stopped.

It’s mid-afternoon on a Thursday, and the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District are swarming with people from different cultures. Old taquerias, Latin bakeries, and thrift shops operate next to hip cafes, art galleries, and chic boutiques. “I love San Francisco so much,” he says. “But I never want to date her. I don’t ever want her to know me that way. We’ve got a perfect thing together.”

He may as well be talking to himself. All day long I’ve felt like I’ve been a good 30 yards behind him (and about 40 pounds ahead). Badovinus and I just consumed our third meal of the day, and it isn’t quite 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

For “breakfast” we shared a broccoli rabe, ricotta, roasted cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella pizza pie and a couple of Anchor Steam beers at Pizzaria Delfina. Badovinus, like a chemist, explained how the atmospheric conditions reacted with the ingredients in the dough to produce the thin, chewy crust and why it could not be replicated in hotter, drier Dallas. Then we stood in a crowded doorway leading into Pete’s Bar-B-Q, a dumpy spot where a lone line of butchers chopped up whole rotisserie roasted chickens, ribs, roast beef, and turkey to order.

By then, I was stuffed. So of course we went to Spork, a funky, low-key restaurant on Valencia, and ordered three entrees: the original hand burger, a griddled long hot dog served with cornichons and potato salad, and huevos rancheros. The quirky new spot operates in an old Kentucky Fried Chicken. The goal of the young owners is to serve high-quality food in a space that once sold “crappy fast food.”

Spork is just the sort of guerilla-style restaurant chef Badovinus has come to San Francisco in search of. He’s looking for inspiration for his soon-to-open Dallas restaurant, Neighborhood Services. Though at this point, he hasn’t yet settled on a name. All he seems certain of is the feel of the place he wants to open. “I want to be in touch with the tradition of food and to tap it into culture,” he says. “I want to create food that people crave.”

And, this time, he wants to own the place. In January 2008, he announced he was leaving his post as corporate executive chef and partner of Consilient Restaurants. During his six-year stint with Consilient, he and founder and CEO Tristan Simon gentrified tired, old Henderson Avenue with Cuba Libre, Hibiscus, The Porch, and Fireside Pies (and the Candle Room and Sense, though the former has changed ownership, and the latter has closed). Badovinus says the creative tension that defined his relationship with Simon led to “a lot of great things.” But it had run its course.

Hence the San Francisco expedition for menu and design concepts. It would be two days of nearly nonstop eating. A half dozen restaurants a day, multiple meals at each. A glutton for punishment, I asked to tag along. I’d heard stories before about such R&D trips. Many larger restaurants maintain large budgets that allow owners, managers, and chefs to travel and eat. Example: when the M Crowd-the corporation behind Mi Cocina, Taco Diner, and Mercury Chophouse in Fort Worth-wanted the perfect french fry, CEO Mico Rodriguez, executive chef Chris Ward, and the entire board of directors went to New York, where they tried the fries at 40 restaurants. Three days later, they returned with a secret recipe for the thinly sliced crispy version they serve at The Mercury in Preston Forest Square.

Badovinus chose San Francisco for a couple of reasons. First, he’s no stranger to the city. He was born in Seattle but lived in San Francisco through the third grade, when his father, Wayne “Pops” Badovinus, worked there. More important, though, he appreciates the city’s culinary style: small, focused, and trendsetting. It fit perfectly with his goals for Neighborhood Services. “I didn’t want to be the chef version of Derek Zoolander,” he says. “I really want to do small places where you can take a very clear, little point of view and create a niche boutique.”

As the light turns green, Badovinus yanks at the collar of his camel hair sport coat and jaywalks across the intersection of Mission and 20th. “Check out the tiles on that joint,” he says. Before he reaches the other side, he has his iPhone out, ready to photograph the wavy brown tiles on the facade of Bruno’s, a historic nightclub. “Man, I dig this retro stuff.”

I unbutton the top of my jeans and waddle across Mission Street. “God, I love funk,” Badovinus says as he pushes his nose to the window and cups his hands around his face so that he can see inside the closed spot. “All of this stuff is so relevant to what I want to do in Dallas.”

In San Francisco, on February 21, 2008, what Badovinus wants to accomplish in Dallas is decidedly different from the reality of Neighborhood Services, the West Lovers Lane restaurant he plans to open next month, in October. His original strategy is to open three restaurants or, in Badovinus’ words, which often sound like a foreign language I call Badovinian: “three small-footprint adaptive reuse opportunities.” Each restaurant would have its own culinary point of view and price point, and they’d be clustered on the triangular corner of North Henderson and McMillan avenues, just down the street from his former businesses.

First up would be Little Stash: “a tap room and chef-driven eatery with beers on draught with definitive bar bites and small plates.” Second, Town Hearth: “a family-style roast house featuring ham, roast, pork, sides of salmon, with old-school lamps and carving stations, fresh breads baked in wood-burning ovens, with a small retail component.” And finally, Flavor NB: “an upscale, chef-driven urban bar and grill format.” All the restaurants would fall under his new company, Flavor Hook. When asked how he came up with the name he smiles and says, “I’m a crafter of flavor hooks.”

Then, his epiphany: in mid-March, his 5-year-old son, Nick, scored his first soccer goal. “That moment gave me pause,” he says. “I realized I needed to detox some ideological poisoning. I needed to practice responsible restaurateuring and create a business that made me available, because I don’t want to miss any more of these moments.”

There’s no question that seeing one’s offspring score his first goal can lead to introspection. But it’s also true that the economy in general, and the restaurant business in particular, looked a whole lot better last year than they do today. In either case, Badovinus responded by combining the ingredients of the three restaurants to create Neighborhood Services, where he hopes the food and ambience surround the flavor memories of rustic, roasted, slow-cooked meals shared with family and friends. “The idea of Neighborhood Services has come from the right amount of cooking time,” he says. “I took time to let it caramelize, break down, and rest. Now it’s time to carve it and serve.”

Badovinus and I step into the Mission Thrift shop to peruse the racks of clothes for fabric samples. It doesn’t take long before Badovinus finds a well-worn butternut-colored suede jacket, the perfect shade for the stitching on the leather chair design he has in his head. “Wait until I show you this awesome knife tomorrow night,” he says. “I am so in love with this knife.”

Seconds later, our cab roars down Folsom toward Embarcadero and the waterfront, where Epic Roasthouse and Waterbar, the combined $30 million culinary visions of rock star restaurateur Pat Kuleto await-as does Nick’s father, who lives with his wife, Nancy, in the marina and also owns a 500-acre ranch just five hours southeast of the city. We’re too early for dinner, but the bar inside Waterbar is overflowing. Pops Badovinus orders a round of martinis, and we make our way through the restaurant like patrons scrutinizing a newly opened museum.

Far from the small indy restaurants Badovinus was here to research, Waterbar is the anti-option. In the center stands a 19-foot tall, 5-foot diameter, floor-to-ceiling circular aquarium filled with marine life. Huge fish tanks with a gallery of fresh catches-of-the-day line the outer walls of the kitchen.

The opulence continues next door at Epic Roasthouse, where celebuchef Jan Birnbaum prepares New Orleans-inspired steakhouse fare in an upscale, urban rustic setting. Epic Roasthouse sits in an old pump house, but Kuleto has “Ralph Laurened” the space, which is highlighted by an unobstructed view of the Bay Bridge. “You’ve gotta see these booths,” Badovinus says as we climb the stairs to the lounge on the mezzanine. “God, I love these booths.”

Pops loves the booths, too, but after a couple of iPhone pictures of the circular brown leather seating structure, he reminds us of our schedule and pours us into a taxi for a short ride to Serpentine. A young female bartender is rocking a silver shaker over her head, as she sells us a round of Whiskey Smashes and some “bitchin’ lamb rillettes.”

I am almost face down in a mixed chicories salad as I watch Badovinus scurry around the room with his iPhone, taking pictures of everything from the young chef in the kitchen to the fixtures in the restrooms. A quick look at my watch reveals we are late for our dinner reservations at Maverick.

“Gosh, there’s a lot of Little Stash in here,” Badovinus says as he studies the New American, chef-elevated comfort food menu at Maverick. Posters of TV maverick James Garner adorn the walls, which are covered with cork. “Got to have that cork,” Badovinus says. “These guys are true mavericks. Look at how little money they spent to get this look.”

We divide and conquer the menu: Prather Ranch braised short ribs, Kurobuta pork chop with potato dumplings, and Southern fried free range chicken with Nora Mill’s “Georgia Ice Cream” grits. Between courses, Pops takes over the conversation. I see where Badovinus inherited his intensity. “I’ve told him since he was a little boy to find something that you love doing and do that,” Pops says. “Making money is important, but it’s more about being happy at the end of the day. That’s the feeling behind Flavor Hook.”

After Badovinus finished school at the University of Washington, Pops took his son on a trip. Every year they’d taken a long fishing or hunting trip, but this one would last a month. They packed their Coleman stove and a lot of Steely Dan and pointed the pickup toward the Madison River in Montana. “After a couple of weeks, I could see that Nick was really uncomfortable about something,” Pops says. “I finally asked him to tell me what was wrong.”

In the restaurant, Badovinus squirms in his chair, pokes at his pork chop, and interrupts his father: “I said, ’Dad, I want to go to culinary school.’”

It was 1993, pre-Food Network, and it wasn’t exactly the manly thing to do, but Badovinus headed to Western Culinary Institute in Portland. “For the first time in my life,” he says, “I felt engaged in an educational experience.”

As the dinner plates are cleared, Pops finishes the story: “I was CEO of the Acme Boot Company at the time, and I called the people at Lucchese and asked them to put me in touch with Dean Fearing, who was a huge customer of theirs. In 1996, they arranged an interview for Nick, and Dean offered him an externship after one visit to Dallas.”

The fresh-baked white and dark chocolate chip cookies and huckleberry cobbler arrive. As I dive in, I swear to myself I will never eat again.

The phone in my hotel room wakes me at 9 on Friday morning. “Hey, dude, are you ready?” Badovinus says. “I just finished my run and I’m heading over.” As I stumble out of bed, he rattles off the day’s schedule. He wants to hit Slow Club because they do an apple and bacon flatbread that is “a perfect little nosh for a rainy day like this.” For a brief moment, I wonder how I can get out of chasing Badovinus around San Francisco in the rain, but his enthusiasm is contagious.

I slip into the same clothes I wore the night before, and Badovinus continues on the phone: “I’d like to take you to the Rosenthal brothers’ places, Town Hall, for awesome meatballs, and to Salt House to eat pastrami cured ribs. Then I want to slide over to A 16 for a warm, wood-roasted crositini topped with burrata that is so freaking good, it’s like gently French-kissing a perfectly poached egg.”

Through the phone, I hear a car door slam. He is here, and I haven’t even brushed my teeth. He doesn’t stop: “We have to have cocktails at Beretta in the Mission on Valencia. It’s hands-down the best cocktails in the city, and the salads are out-of-sight. We’ll hit the Ferry Building, rap with some farmers, take in Hog Island Oyster Company, and chow on some crack-I mean crab-noodles at the Slanted Door. Before we head to Nopa for dinner, we’ll slip into Perbacco for these salt cod fritters with green garlic aioli. They’re freaking nuts!

SOAKING UP SAN FRANCISCO: Badovinus chats with former restaurateur Guido Piccinini.
photography by Nancy Nichols

“But first,” he says, “we’re going to meet Guido.”

Ten minutes later, I am sitting in the backseat of a car driven by Guido Piccinini, a first-generation Italian who, in 1952, started as a busboy and worked his way up to captain of the famous Blue Fox in North Beach. In 1973 he opened his own spot, Guido’s, where he lost money because he couldn’t keep the celebrities like James Caan and Robert Duvall out. It was during The Godfather heydays, and customers preferred to linger and star-gaze, so the tables didn’t turn. After 44 years in the business, he’s retired. Guido knows everybody in North Beach. Badovinus met him through superstar chef Michael Chiarello, a family friend.

We park down the street from Liguria Bakery on Stockton, where they have been making focaccia in a red brick oven since 1911. It’s 10 am and, much to our chagrin, they’re already sold out. A surly woman rushes to swoosh us out of the store but stops when she recognizes Guido. A dramatic conversation in Italian ensues. Badovinus and I try to decipher the words through the artistry of their hands, which fly through the air as they talk.

SIGHTS AND SMELLS: Piccinini and Badovinus discuss the fine points of prosciutto and sourdough bread.
photography by Nancy Nichols

Our next stop is a secret underground prosciutto curing “factory” where some 300 hams hang overhead. Badovinus whispers, “This is so cool. I want to have a vivid charcuterie element on my menu.”

Back on the street, Guido leads us down Telegraph Hill. Here Badovinus and Guido begin a serious discussion about tradition, family, and cooking. Guido talks about how he’s disappointed that so many traditions and passions of the table have disappeared. “That’s a big part of why I want to do my own place,” Badovinus says. “To me, cooking is being in touch with the human past.”

I’m just happy to be alive still in the present, after eating so much food. But now that I’m walking about, for the first time in 24 hours, my stomach is actually growling with hunger. Now that I want to eat, Badovinus and Guido have decided to go see Luciano. “He’s a great human being,” Guido says. Goody, I think, that must mean Luciano has some fantastic food.

Within 10 seconds of shaking his hand, I realize that Luciano Repetto probably is the nicest man in the whole world, but he has zero food. He operates Graffeo Coffee Roasting Company, one of the oldest artisan coffee roasters in the States. Walking in the front door of this tiny store that opened in 1935 is like diving into a triple espresso-I got a contact high from the caffeine in the air.

After many man hugs, we are guided around huge wooden barrels filled with dark beans. “This is so Town Hearth,” Badovinus says. I actually tear up as we leave loaded down with samples. “I’ve had dinner with that man almost every week for 50 years,” Guido says.

Badovinus shakes his head and says, “Man, that’s what it’s all about. The biggest difficulty about being in the restaurant business is being away from my son. I miss him. We talk so much about tradition, but it’s hard to do if you aren’t in the same place as the rest of your family.”

Miraculously, Guido finds a parking spot in front of the Ferry Building, the city’s shrine to local farmers, and I am ecstatic as our threesome sits at the eating bar of Hog Island Oyster Company, overlooking the Bay Bridge. We talk to waiters and chefs about “sustainable aquaculture” while shamelessly stuffing ourselves with Hog Island Sweetwater Oysters, creamy clam chowder stocked with potatoes and bacon, a platter of grilled 8-inch sardines served on huge white beans, and the best grilled cheese sandwich I have ever eaten: two thick slices of Acme Bread filled with mezzo secco, cave-aged Gruyere, and fromage blanc from the Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes.

Sardines at Hog Island Oyster Company.
photography by Nancy Nichols

We catch a cab back to the Slow Club, a small spot in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood. From our position in the back of the restaurant, Badovinus goes into full-force brainstorming mode. He notes the simplicity of the menu, the chair design, how the kitchen is open and the daily menus are coming off the printer. I take a few pictures and the suspicious manager, Amy, comes over. Badovinus turns on the charm. “Hey, we’re in town to eat at a bunch of restaurants,” he says. “Would you mind looking over our list?”

What happens next is a demonstration of the restaurant culture that Badovinus loves so much. Instead of blowing us off as obnoxious customers and getting back to the heavy lunchtime crowd, she spends 30 minutes describing the menus and vibes of each restaurant on our list, telling us about the chefs and owners, all of which are friends because they all support each other by eating and sometimes working in each other’s restaurants. All I can hear over the music is Badovinus’ rapid-fire yeah-yeah-yeah-yeahs and right-right-right-rights. “Cool, cool, that’s so cool,” he says.

Amy hands Badovinus her revised list. “Is she the greatest?” he says. “I just fell in love. Again.”

As the dinner hour approaches, we head down Divisadero Street to Nopa, a hip spot north of the Panhandle neighborhood that features “urban rustic and organic wood-fired cuisine.” Badovinus seems overloaded with the information he has taken in. The all-day session of restaurant business talk has him amped up like a kid on a sugar rush.

Inside Nopa, he goes into a nonstop, 30-minute analysis of the interior, talking more like a contractor than a chef. “I love the way they take things usually used in a vertical application and use them horizontally,” he says. I stare at where he is looking but I have no idea what he is talking about. “The back bar is set low. I love how the rope light behind the mirrors make them pop. Man, what you can do by only spending $70.”

Trying to make conversation, I note that the bar stools are large 18-inch squares, which is a good thing, because if they were any smaller, my butt would need two. The bartender fixes us a Dark and Stormy. A plate of warm olives arrives.

Badovinus looks to the open kitchen and checks out the oven, how many guys are doing what, and how they are working together. “Dude, I am just digging the seating here.” He points to the food being delivered to other tables. “Check out the [smaller] size of those burgers, so different from Dallas,” he says. “And the chard and white beans. God, I love broccoli.”

Pork chops at Nopa.
photography by Nancy Nichols

I fear Badovinus has gone over the edge. He’s worked himself into an epicurean ecstacy and, to me, he’s speaking in tongues. A server approaches to ready us for our entrees. She sets down a place mat and flatware. That’s when Badovinus flips out.

“This is the greatest knife I have ever seen,” he says. In his hand he holds a slender black-and-silver knife. “I drew this knife. I have sketches of it. When I found it here I was like, are you f—ing kidding me? This is my knife.”

Badovinus stares at the knife like a woman who has just been handed a 10-carat diamond engagement ring. He breaks his silence. “Nancy, I’d like to introduce you to my knife,” he says as he kisses the black handle. “Hello, knife, I love you. I will have this knife.”

It’s June 25, and I am standing with Badovinus and his son Nick in what will soon be Neighborhood Services. The old Rouge spot on West Lovers has been gutted. The room is empty except for a makeshift table covered with blueprints. From the back, a rotary saw blares. It’s 10 am, and Badovinus’ starched white shirt is soaked with sweat. He talks me through the space, pointing out the details like a real estate agent selling a house. After six months of talking, researching, and planning, he’s finally “getting to the fun stuff.”

Some of which includes many of the things we saw during our brief trip to San Francisco. He’s using the seating plan at Nopa as inspiration for the 90-seat restaurant, which will include leather banquettes with stitching the same color as the butternut jacket he bought in the thrift store. And, like Nopa, the back bar is low. “Remember the cork at Maverick?” he says. “I’m covering the walls with the same stuff.”

Badovinus whips out a working menu. I spy the warm olives and sausage flatbread from Nopa and the “bitchin’ braised lamb rillettes” from Serpentine. Tri-tip London broil, a staple on almost every San Francisco menu, will have a presence at Neighborhood Services. The “vivid charcuterie element” will be supplied by Michael Chiarello. It’s a new country salami recipe made traditionally, except he substitutes dried celery for chemical nitrates and organically raised Berkshire hogs from a single farm. Family-style slow-roasted meats are the heart and soul of the menu-whole standing rib roasts, turkey, ham, and chicken to name a few. The bar will no doubt have a lovely lass with a silver shaker above her head, as Badovinus plans to offer a “heavy cocktail component.”

Even Pops and his wife, Nancy, will be nearby. Pops has come out of semi-retirement and taken a job in the area to be close to his son and grandson as they build their future.

“And the knife,” I say. “What about the knife you introduced me to?”

“Oh, she’s on her way,” Badovinus says. “I couldn’t do this place without her.”

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