Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Passion and dedication are central to everything that chef Cortney Burns touches. For her, food and cooking engage all of the senses; they’ve laid the foundation for her creativity, most notably during her six years as co-chef at Valencia Street’s Bar Tartine. It’s here that her curing and pickling prowess became a solid feature on the menu; the restaurant’s confluence of Californian, Japanese, Scandinavian and Central European cuisine fused to become its own eclectic culinary movement.
Born in Northern California and raised in Chicago, the lure of sun and produce brought Burns to the Bay Area in 2001. She wanted to cook.
Today she flies coast to coast, opening a restaurant in a 48-room hotel on 55 acres in Massachusetts, while her partner in life and work, Nick Balla, runs their San Francisco restaurant Duna. She declares food the perfect medium for working through all major life decisions. And she lives by the words of a former chef, “You’re only as good as your last plate…”
How would you describe yourself in one word?
What really inspires you?
I would say I’m mostly inspired by Old World flavors, Old World techniques in cooking. And I’m inspired in all avenues of my creative life by nature.
What’s something about you that most people don’t know?
Most people don’t know that I practice tai chi — sword form.
Where are you living now?
Right now I’m living in between San Francisco and North Adams, Massachusetts.
How are you finding living in two places and traveling between them?
I would say that the most challenging part is that I have a fairly regimented schedule, which is important since I like routines, unless I’m traveling. Although I have routines in both places, it takes time to reset. But it’s lovely to have the mountains to come to and then the city. Not too bad.
What can’t you live without?
Access to open space.
How did you, and how do you continue to, find your creative voice?
It’s a work in progress at all times. The main thing is to pause and check in. To completely check my motives and try to understand what story needs to be told, what needs to come out. What am I hiding from? And, allow that to be the muse to create something.
What was a big learning moment for you, and what did you take away from it?
One of my biggest learning moments was landing in Marrakesh to take over a restaurant for four days in 2016. I realized that I was there mainly because I had something to prove to myself. It was about the ability to go somewhere else and cook on my own in a place that was completely foreign. Although I know that I always need a team of people around, I sometimes questioned where my own kind of creativity and style is coming from. I wanted to prove to myself that I could actually cook from within, and not need any help to create. I just needed to know that I could do it on my own.
What other challenges do you see for women in the kitchen?
I think one of the biggest challenges is that there’s still a conversation about women in the kitchen. At some point, we can just be human beings in the kitchen. At some point, we can just be in the kitchen doing our jobs as human beings in the world, and I think that’s the idea of non-duality needs to be more embraced. I think that if we all possess “male and female” characteristics, then we’ll be more whole people in general.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Whoa. As far as place goes, I think I’ll be here somewhere in a mash of San Francisco and Massachusetts, but I’m not trying to take the question as literally as that. I think that in five years, I will know more about why I need to create and how to create a team of people that also feel empowered to create from within.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists and chefs in the Bay Area?
I’d love to see and be a part of more collaborations across artistic mediums. I believe our muses come in many forms and I’d love to have more of them.
Curious about who else made the list? Check out the Women to Watch series page, including photo galleries, interviews, and videos.