Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.
– Isak Dinesen, nom de plume for Danish writer Karen Blixen, from Babette’s Feast & Other Anecdotes of Destiny
As this year’s chef for the Lunafest East Bay Committee’s Lunafest VIP event on March 21st, Sirona Skinner Nixon intends to do what she’s always done as a private chef – “to provide food that is unique, beautiful, and deeply flavorful, and to wow and delight my clients and their guests.” Based on the glowing reviews of her work, there’s good reason to believe that she will meet and exceed great expectations.
The daughter of recently retired California State Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, Sirona grew up in Berkeley – the “birthplace of California cuisine” – and attended Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, where Chez Panisse (1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA, 510.548.5525) owner Alice Waters co-founded the original Edible Schoolyard. Waters pioneered the culinary philosophy of sourcing fresh, seasonal ingredients that are locally and sustainably grown. “At a young age, I understood that food tastes better when it’s prepared with ingredients at the peak of their season,” Sirona said. She remembers her excitement over taking an after-school cooking class in seventh grade. “We used the lettuce grown right there in the schoolyard to make a simple salad showcasing the beauty and flavor of the leaves,” she recalled. As a child, she was – and still is – a big fan of the popular Cheese Board (1504-1512 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA, 510.549.3183). Noting that her favorite childhood breakfast was a fresh warm cheese roll from the Cheese Board, she said, “I understood what good bread was, what the difference in flavor and texture was between the over-processed stuff at the supermarket and the good fresh stuff that was made with time and care.”
Even with the Berkeley influence, it’s clear that her culinary love was in her DNA. While other kids watched cartoons, when she was as young as two years old, Sirona was mesmerized by cooking shows hosted by chefs such as Jacques Pépin. She’d wait all week for Saturday mornings to jump on her parents’ bed and ask to turn on the television set to the PBS station KQED. Most importantly, she was inspired by her grandmother, Helene Hurd Nixon, who cooked family dinners several times a week right up until she passed away – at age 102. Some of Sirona’s fondest childhood memories were watching her grandmother make macaroni and cheese, buttermilk pancakes, French toast, crispy chicken, and glazed carrots in her grandmother’s small apartment kitchen.
Her grandmother encouraged her to experiment with ingredients, which included knowingly allowing Sirona to mix ingredients that weren’t going to work well together so she could find out for herself by tasting her creations. “This is the way we learn – throw it together and see what happens,” she said, of her grandmother’s philosophy. This trial-and-error experience became the foundation for what she loves most about her work – “creativity in menu development – combining flavors and combining dishes on a menu to tell a story.” Sirona’s cooking style pays homage to her grandmother’s “1950s Americana” style, which she says was infused with “a lot of love.” She added, “I love plays on sweet and savory combinations and elevated comfort food.”
A Mom’s influence
Sirona credits her “superhuman” mother, Nancy, for her drive and determination. “It still blows my mind that she ran for Berkeley City Council at age 26 while pregnant with me and still a student at Cal,” Sirona said. “She has always pushed me hard to do better and achieve more.” Her mother instilled in her a “conscientiousness” about the provenance of ingredients and how they’re produced, and their impact on our health and environment, which led Sirona to pay attention to her menus’ “carbon footprint.” Her mother’s undergraduate work as a naturalist also influenced Sirona’s philosophy of sourcing fresh, local ingredients. “She has an encyclopedic knowledge of local edible plants,” Sirona said. “She used to take me on walks through our neighborhood in Berkeley and point them all out. We’d sample loquats, blackberries, sour grass, and nasturtium.”
Sirona earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in community studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC), which put her on a path slightly similar to the one her mother took. She still harbored a love of cooking, but feared jumping into that career and instead followed her mother’s advice to get a well-rounded education. While at UCSC, she completed a semester-long field study, participating in food service job training – essentially, a cooking school – for low-income and homeless people at the now-defunct Haight-Ashbury Food Program in San Francisco. The program taught her the difference between charity and social change. “Charity is a Band-aid over the problem, but if you go to the core of the problem and give people the tools to make a change and have a career, you can make lasting change,” she said. Participating in the program made her realize that she could no longer push aside her love of cooking, and upon graduation, she set out to follow her passion.
Following her passion
Sirona cut her culinary teeth, so to speak, at Michael Wild’s BayWolf Restaurant (3853 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA, 510.655.6004), where her wife and business partner, Sinead O’Rourke, also worked. For five years, she worked her way up the ranks, from lunch chef, who is responsible for planning all lunch menus, to sous chef. “That restaurant was all about local, seasonal California cuisine, which was a huge foundation for me,” she said. In 2012, Sirona and Sinead moved to New York City, where they both worked for Danny Meyer’s Maialino restaurant, in the Gramercy Park Hotel. Sirona was in charge of the fresh pasta for its menu of classic Roman-Italian soul food and served as a party chef at his events company.
Working in a restaurant with the line cooks is akin to being on a sports team and developing a tight camaraderie. Sirona acknowledged that lifestyle changes such as settling down and raising a family, however, required a shift from the physically demanding career paths of either owning and opening up a restaurant or getting promoted to executive chef. Most executive chefs, in fact, no longer cook, which is at the heart of why Sirona is in the business in the first place. Her eight-plus years in the restaurant business provided the foundation she needed to be a successful private chef, such as learning how to cook in an open hearth and wood oven, and making flawless handmade pasta. “I look at restaurant work as a rite of passage, a school to graduate from,” she explained.
While culinary schools and training are important, Sirona emphasized that being technically perfect isn’t enough. You have to have a “built-in or nurtured palate” to make a delicious meal that is infused with soul and love. “That’s what separates me from a lot of cooks,” she said. “You have to pay attention to your own palate when you’re layering and developing flavors.
Bay Area homecoming
Sirona and Sinead’s stay in New York City was also temporary, but their three years of success there gave them the confidence to become self-employed under their private chef business, S&S Foods, and return to their “incredible network of friends and family” and make the Bay Area their permanent home. “One of the beauties of being a private chef is you can really do it anywhere,” she noted.
“My favorite thing in the world is menu development, and the private work we do allows me to create something totally unique for every event,” Sirona said. While Sirona serves as chef, Sinead runs the hospitality part of their business, making guests feel welcomed and relaxed, thanks to what Sirona cheekily calls Sinead’s “gift of gab” – handed down from her Irish heritage – and her warm personality. “Working for ourselves and having the freedom to cook the foods that we want to cook is a dream,” Sirona said. “I get to physically cook every single day and earn a real living.”
In Manhattan, Sirona and Sinead’s clients hosted events in their amazing homes, including museum-like penthouses, but one of their most memorable events since coming back to the Bay Area was cheffing a 70th birthday celebration for a Napa family’s grandmother – an al fresco dinner in an autumn garden setting. “They were such a sweet family and so appreciative of our food and service,” Sirona enthused. “I remembered thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is work; I am so lucky to be able to support myself doing what I love surrounded by so much happiness and beauty.'” While she and Sinead eventually want to open a small brick-and-mortar food business, right now their private chef business is “perfect for us,” she said.
Come meet Sirona and Sinead, and enjoy their culinary offerings at the 6pm VIP reception at 638 Clayton Avenue in El Cerrito, CA. The Lunafest screening begins at 7:30pm at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Center, 540 Ashbury Avenue, one block over from the VIP event. Tickets for both the VIP reception and films are $50 per person. You can purchase the tickets here or contact me directly. Bon appétit!