Chef Kim Alter is showing that a woman’s place is in the kitchen—a kitchen she owns, leads with a 100-percent female team and has turned into one of the hottest restaurants in San Francisco.
Alter, a 2018 James Beard semifinalist for best chef in the West, owns Nightbird in the trendy Hayes Valley area of San Francisco. It’s her first solo venture and named after her love of owls. The eatery focuses on her philosophy of whole animal cooking, supporting regional farmers, and offering organic, seasonal cuisine crafted with precision. Nightbird serves five- and 10-course tasting menus that flex Alter’s creativity and skill.
Alter’s cooking pedigree reads like a tour of the Bay area’s top tables. She’s cooked at Manresa, Aqua and Acquerello, all of which hold Michelin stars, and worked with the Daniel Patterson Group before choosing to spread her wings with Nightbird. “It just seemed like the next step to take,” Alter said. “I thought, ‘let’s see if I can do this.’ If I knew then what I know now I’m not sure I’d do it again!”
Alter’s cooking pedigree reads like a tour of the Bay area’s top tables. She’s cooked at Manresa, Aqua and Acquerello, all of which hold Michelin stars.
With the amount of ambition and drive Alter has, owning a restaurant really was a foregone conclusion. The week after she graduated high school in southern California, she went to the Bay area, fell in love with it and enrolled in the California Culinary Academy. She then spent 10 years working as a line cook before making the move to sous chef. “I tried everything, so I could find the right fit for myself,” Alter said.
At Nightbird she not only has total control to do what she wants, she’s also creating a culture that is rare in the restaurant industry. “I have an all-female kitchen, offer 100-percent paid health insurance and a quality of life—you know that thing normal people have,” she said with a laugh.
Besides crafting the right kind of environment, Alter’s also creating the right type of food. Her themed menus change every few weeks, inspired by what she finds in the farmers markets. “I go to at least one farmers market a day,” she said. “Today I was with two musicians, and we’re going to do a menu based on one of their compositions.”
This week her menu’s theme is simplicity and features dishes like lobster carrot vadouvan (her favorite spice) and white asparagus, escargot sabayon. While even her simplicity menu is complex, Alter’s own taste in food is truly simple. “My comfort food is grilled cheese,” she explains. But there’s a story behind that. This standout chef grew up in a home helmed by a mom with two culinary left feet. “Grilled cheese was one of the few things my mom could make,” Alter said laughing. “There are horror stories about her cooking, it’s become a joke now, but it’s a definite possibility that I became a chef out of necessity.”
Not starving is clearly a motivation to learn to cook, but Alter also became excited about cooking when she incorporated it into school projects and saw how happy it made people. “I really enjoy the hospitality aspect of it,” she said.
While Alter likes cooking for everyone, there are a few individuals that would garner a seat at her dream dinner party. “It would be really rad to cook for Stephen Colbert. I often think about what I’d cook for him when I watch him,” she said. “I’d also be stoked to cook for Mike Ness (singer for Social Distortion) and Escoffier.”
It’s ironic that Alter created a restaurant with an ever-changing menu, considering her own preferences when dining out. “When I go out I get the same thing from each place and I get bummed if they take my item off the menu,” she laughed. “Clearly I don’t cook like I eat.”
Alter has been cooking from such a young age that she’s only ever had two jobs outside of the culinary universe, but says she could be a writer in another life. And while her mom wasn’t a good cook, she is a writer and a librarian, so the gene could be lurking in Alter.
“I’ve always loved writing. Sometimes I go to the library and smell the books when I’m missing my mom,” she said. “Writing is like cooking in that you’re putting yourself out there, but somehow words are a bit more intimidating to me.”
Alter’s started more than 20 books, but a cookbook might be the first book she finishes. “A cookbook is a goal, and I’m in the very early stages talking to someone about that now,” she teased.
Chefs notoriously have little free time, so it helps that Alter’s business partner, Ron Boyd, is also her life partner. Boyd is the general manager of Nightbird, and beverage director at the adjacent Linden Room, a small 1930’s themed lounge, turning out American craft cocktails. The two met when Alter was just 19, and they were both working at Elisabeth Daniel. What started as a friendship, blossomed into romance.
So what’s next for the chef who describes herself as stubborn, loyal and funny? It’s hard to say, but you can bet it won’t be resting on her laurels. “Evolution is a big word for me,” she said. “I’m always working to be better, I’m constantly pushing myself. Of course, this could be because I have an irrational fear of failure.”
“Evolution is a big word for me,” she said. “I’m always working to be better, I’m constantly pushing myself.
If the past is any indication of the future, Alter doesn’t really need to worry too much about that.