Joshua Skenes: Three Michelin-Starred Saison, San Francisco, California

The last time I was at Saison in San Francisco chef Joshua Skenes had just returned to the city from an all-day hunting trip in the woods. The dry aging carcasses hung in the well-stocked meat lockers above the restaurant are evidence of his prowess as a huntsman while the plates served in his dining room display his culinary skills for transforming the primal bounty. In several conversations with the enigmatic Skenes I realized that there were insightful observations about the food industry camouflaged by his brand of dry humor in our exchanges. Not one for reality TV show appearances and press building exercises he loves what he does and is evidently very good at it. It was amusing to observe at the Michelin award shindig in New York last November where, while his fellow chefs took the opportunity for photo ops and interacting with the press, he was all about just socializing with friends. The edible little Michelin guides did interest him however as they did show up on his Instagram feed. His honesty and candor make him unique and I am a huge fan of his very real personality.

Chef Joshua Skenes
Chef Joshua Skenes

Joshua Skenes: Hunting Season at Three Michelin-Starred Saison, San Francisco

by Geeta Bansal

Chef Joshua Skenes is certainly making a statement on the culinary scene with his distinctive cuisine at his Saison restaurant in San Francisco. The casual vibe of the restaurant with an open kitchen and it’s 80’s soundtrack is misleading since there is nothing laid back about the spectacular food. Served on bare tables, cooked over fire and embers in view of the diners with the flavors wafting through the dining room it is a study in contrasts. Similar to the visuals of drying Hachiya persimmons suspended from the unfinished ceiling of the modern dining room during the Japanese celebration in fall. This idiosyncratic chef’s plates exemplify his refined and minimalistic approach to cooking, his food veering towards Asian sensibilities.

Skenes’ Instagram feed is indicative of his propensity for going hunting for his nature inspired Modern-American fare. Posts such as a bloody bison heart next to a kilo of caviar for proportion raising eyebrows, a reaction similar to the one when he raised the tasting menu price tag at his Saison restaurant, making it one of the most expensive dining experiences in the country. The price tag however for the meticulously prepared food and professional service is inclusive of the guest service fee as is becoming the norm with many high-end restaurants in the Bay Area following suit. From the daintily served infusion upon seating through the 15-20 courses weaving through mountain ram tartare or sea cucumbers grilled over embers the experience justifies the price tag and then some. The heaping bowl of house cured caviar with Parker house rolls made with flour milled in house to begin the tasting, is enough to reel in guests for repeat visits.

The restaurant earned its third Michelin star in 2014 and if that wasn’t reason enough to celebrate it also earned the #27th spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016. Last year during the 50 Best Restaurant Awards, as some of the most famous faces in the culinary world milled about around us in the NoMad Library bar in New York City, I asked him if such awards were the ultimate goal for chefs these days. He said” You don’t cook and try to be your best for awards or lists because then you are doing it for the wrong reasons and wind up creating the wrong things with wrong tastes. “According to me it’s not the right way to look at things and it can’t be the reason for what you do though it’s great and exciting to win.” This year he is nominated yet again for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef West award, but this nonchalant chef will probably not be waiting with fingers crossed for the results. But then like he says, winning is not too bad either.

The restaurant in its third iteration has come a long way from the initial weekly pop up in a garage where it all began for Skenes. After stints at Jean-Georges Vongerichten during his time at the French Culinary Institute in New York it was at Chez TJ in Mountain View where he began to get noticed. A short stint in Southern California to open Michael Mina’s the Stonehill Tavern and then he was back in the Bay Area. A series of pop ups morphed into an eight-seat restaurant that set the course for his trajectory towards the top tier of the country’s chefs.

I recently caught up with Chef Skenes between his frequent hunting trips to ask a few questions:

Do people start cooking differently after they have three stars or are on the 50 Best list?

For sure they do and when you come out to some places you find the taste is missing and they are cooking just for design. It’s whatever design that person may think is valuable to get an award which is exactly opposite to the way I feel we should be working. We should be genuine and focus on something which will actually mean something to people.

In your opinion, what is the present American dining scene about?

I don’t know because I don’t go anywhere else other than frequent visits to China and Japan so I can’t really compare American gastronomy to other places. I have however traveled extensively in America. I know what I see, experience and taste and to me it seems that we need to develop our quality since everywhere you go food is so commodified. You cannot wave a wand and wind up with something good if you start with something not so great. I feel overall it’s necessary to understand the product and this goes back to the right time to pick a product. I feel this is a largely misunderstood area or maybe the information is not out there. There are many different ways to create food and a lot of things are lost in the traditional ways of treating products.

Are there such deep traditions in the American culinary culture? You were probably trained in French technique in the culinary school yourself.

They exist and are definitely there. As for culinary school that is just what it is, a school. It’s like you would not hand a life or death case to a recent law school graduate; it’s the same for culinary graduates. These days you find people are really attempting to understand what quality products are in the form of all the heirloom and heritage varieties. They almost didn’t exist because of the over-commodified industry but you can still find them if you look for them. Wheat doesn’t taste like wheat, tomatoes don’t taste like tomatoes but if you go to farms in the middle of nowhere they still have these products. The problem is that these products are value engineered so far away from what they were at one point. For me making sure that people have a good time when they come is important but so is using good products since I myself want to eat this way. I rather shoot an elk and eat it, even if it is over-cooked, over a piece of Wagyu beef on a silly big plate with a bunch of other stuff on it.

What is the optimal restaurant size according to you? Saison now has 18 seats plus the 14 in the bar area and a private dining room as well.

Actually it’s too big for me now since to me eight seats is the perfect size. Though you can probably do a little more than that but the reality is that there is a point when you are no longer in touch with yourself. It’s when you can no longer wrap your hands around everything that is happening in the kitchen every day. That changes everything, especially the way you procure products. If you get only one deer, then there is a limit to how many you can serve with it. This is especially true if you get something that is really special and you can’t for example get 30 deer per day. The whole world has over commodification issues and so some high-end restaurants in Japan for example have only four or ten seats to be able to do what is feasible with special products.

What are the challenges facing the restaurant industry in San Francisco?

The real challenge in San Francisco is labor, as all other expenses go up you have to raise prices and that is not a generally accepted fact. If your labor cost goes up 20% then you have to raise your prices accordingly and the last time we raised prices we just evened the cost. If we all got together and raised prices as an industry standard as and when costs like labor go up, then it will be beneficial to all of us and more acceptable to the public.

Are diners in the US open to paying more when dining out?

There is definitely a big difference for example, at a three Michelin restaurant in Japan, the queries the guests have for chefs are so specific. They want to know what region the cherry blossoms in season came from and even when or how they were they harvested. There is a deeper understanding about food as there is a particular time even during the day when a product is at its best as specific as even an hour in the day. It’s about maturing the food to the right state and so on.

You don’t get those questions here as we have a different level of understanding about food. We are starting to see that change in San Francisco as people are really knowledgeable and love great food. They are able to discern the difference even between peas and that is pretty cool to see.

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Are chefs, especially in fine dining, over thinking food? Has reality TV or the glamorization of the industry resulted in raising expectations of the diners?

They do raise expectations because people think if they can do it why can’t you. That is always a challenge because it’s not just the material costs but also of labor and processes and there is also the issue of volume.

Take a little place in Japan with six seats, invitation only, the cuisine is very delicate and chef is cooking himself focusing on the best ingredients in existence. It’s very subtle and according to our palates it’s not seasoned well. That is volume one and then take Guy Fieri with a canful of spices at volume 10 which is what we are used to here. If someone comes in and you serve the most expensive caviar in existence and add the cost of procurement it might not be as appreciated because we have over conditioned palates. There is a level of conditioning that a certain sector of diners has and they may completely miss the point. It might not feel valuable to them while in reality it is 20 times the cost of other products. This is a common problem here in the US.

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You are very fortunately situated in the Bay Area with regard to products. Does that give you an advantage?

We are very lucky to have a whole convergence in our area of products and producers. Everything we use comes from within a couple of hours from the restaurant. We have our own farm, our own cows for dairy and we also raise animals. We hunt wild meat ourselves, we have fishermen that go fishing for us because lot of the commercial fisheries are becoming depleted. They also treat the catch such as black cod by just throwing them in an ice bucket and let it sit out in the boat all day. We pay fishermen to go fishing for us for what we need and it’s the same with farmers and ranchers who supply us. It’s easy because of where we are situated as it would not be the same situation in other parts of the country.

Is contemporary American cuisine at the risk of becoming homogeneous? Are we losing our regional distinctions?

I do notice it but I don’t know why. I feel influence happens because maybe people don’t develop their own voice. Especially if people form opinions or influences from Instagram it becomes an issue to create something that is either good or unique. It doesn’t always have to be unique but definitely satisfying, good and delicious. Everyone should be focusing more on taste than on looks and here it is more about the looks of food. Whether it’s the style of service or the wow factor it’s all about the bang for the buck. It’s about let me go into my Spice box and pull out a level 10. It happens when you don’t understand the taste or product and then you have to pile more stuff on top.

Isn’t simplicity difficult to present as you can’t cover it up?

This is where product is important because if you have one little piece of fish it has to be perfect. There are very few places that do that anywhere because people don’t care about that. Making good money off your restaurant is important for most people over anything else.

How long does it take for an idea to materialize as a dish at Saison?

It is all based on product. If I go hunting and get a mountain ram, then as soon as it’s ready we grill it or prepare it to serve. There are only few of us in the kitchen and there is no grand idea, it’s all based off the product. Some things we do are unique to the restaurant which happen through taste over anything else. It’s like thinking what would happen to a beet if we poached it in beet juice or how else can we enhance it. It happens not because of an idea but because of an amazing product. To me there is nothing more exciting than an amazing product. If you eat a shellfish like a langoustine and taste the clean flavor of the water it comes from that is more exciting than an idea.

Does the ambiance contribute to a diner’s experience? What are your design preferences?

I like design and more importantly I like materials. I think the focus should be on actual material experience. If you sit in a chair that is too low and if you are uncomfortable then you cannot enjoy the food. Even if the chair is less fancy but comfortable with your knees at 90 degrees and you can lean back in it and table is the right height it adds to a positive experience. If the silverware is functional and you cut your meat then it enhances the experience. Sometimes there is silly tableware which so frustrating to use as it flips over every time you hold it. All these things like how does a glass feel to hold in your hand, the level of quality and craftsmanship are all important. Design for the sake of design is pointless just like cooking for the sake of presentation.

Any plans of expansion? Any casual concept coming up?

There is some very exciting stuff that I have been working on for years and it’s coming up soon. It’s going to be the next evolution and I can’t disclose the details but it’s everything I have always been talking about.

The casual stuff is easy as long as you do it well and if it means only one in San Francisco then that is it. It takes ten years to make a place perfect before you can do another one. If you organize it well then at some point it runs by itself as long as you have access to good products and a good team in place. If you can get to point where it’s on autopilot, then you can have more locations but it’s not usually the case in fact it’s the opposite.

If you look at the trajectory of Saison it’s about staying focused and continuing to evolve. The next stage means moving or doing something better otherwise you get complacent and the foods becomes boring.

Is it good when a chef begins to be identified by a few iconic dishes?

That is inevitable, and if it’s alive there is always room for improvement. The product especially is a living thing and there is also the possibility of human error. Products change and your understanding of that also changes since you change with time. If anyone looks back on what they did ten years ago then they are prone to question everything.

Are you self-critical?

Oh yes! I can hate everything in a given moment and that keeps me moving forward. Our primary function is to think about what is good for our guests and how we can improve and make things better. Such self critique keeps you evolving.

How do you react to criticism?

It doesn’t matter to me and I find it completely irrelevant. I don’t read any critiques anymore and if I notice it by chance I will look it up. I don’t seek for it because at some point you go from creating as an external process into an internal process. At this point it’s an internal process for me and when I go into the woods or notice the difference between taste because of the way that I kill a fish that is more exciting and meaningful.

What do you look for when you go out to dine?

I only look for product quality and that is why I love going to Japan. It’s so satisfying and nourishing even to just eat a broth made out of kelp.

What is challenging in cooking right now?

The challenge now is to close the gap between the ability to harvest products at the optimum time and get it into people mouths at the perfect time. There are a lot of things between point A and B.

If I pull a trout out of the waters of a creek in the mountains of Northern California and put it on a truck to get it to me at Saison, it changes by the time it gets here. It’s not bad but no longer the same and these are the little intangibles and invisible things that matter to me. I would like to be able to kill it, put it right away in the smoke house and serve it to the guests in that perfect state. The smoke house may be a tiny shed with a small fire but you can’t do that in the city since there is no room for that. The air and water is different in the mountains and this environment contributes to the product. You definitely cannot have this kind of environment and food in a big city.

Is that why chefs are establishing urban farms?

I guess it’s all a part of the same pursuit and everyone wants to cook that way. I would rather spend my days cooking with one little table where it didn’t matter if people came or not. I would then be a part of something valuable and be able to get such information to people which is important to me. These days I am thinking about how to get that back. I imagine it’s every chef’s dream to be close to nature.

Are chefs in the US open to sharing their ideas, techniques or other information with their peers, or are they competitive?

It would be nice if we had that atmosphere but we don’t. I find it silly that it is such an adversarial environment. It’s kind of an American attitude to be closed off. People are guarded also because the media tends to sensationalize everything. It’s all about how many clicks they can get on a website or blog to become the best or most popular media outlet rather than really digging deep to find information with value.

If you are looking for the latest news and choosing that over relaying the thoughts of someone with thirty years of fishing experience for example. Then you are not relaying important information for another person to be able to accomplish that. In order to achieve more specialization, we need craftsmanship and more tangible skills than Instagram sensationalism. Legacy in general in the industry is important and we must pass on knowledge. We need to look from the perspective of total value of our contribution to the craft, the restaurant industry and the food industry. The way we eat and the way we cook pose increasing challenges and we all need to help each other along.

When food writers are dedicated to conveying the right information over the other silly shit we can move ahead. There are some dedicated journalists however who are really working towards this. It’s more because of our present culture in mainstream America which is about making a splash in order to fill your restaurant. We all need to get together and talk about all this stuff not just in this country but all over the world.

In your opinion, does this sharing of information happen elsewhere?

Where it does happen it’s clubby, and we need to drop that attitude. I feel it needs to happen more in the US than everywhere else. We need to talk about the things of value in our country that we need to talk about and how we can evolve. We need to ensure that on certain issues we are all growing together as a whole. The problem is that when you do speak up you people tend to cast you out. That is the problem.

Have you experienced this yourself?

I have, because when I was trying to talk about quality issues I did experience that. I grew up in a martial arts community where we might beat up an adversary but not in anger but only because we were practicing. I feel we all need to come together and grow together. If and when you speak your mind and are honest and straightforward possibly 99.9% of people don’t agree with you and think you are being adversarial. Instead of initiating the discussion you give up, put your head down and continue your own work. It is easy to get discouraged and I feel there needs to be a panel of some kind where you can put forth your ideas.

Any book coming up?

I have been working on my book for five to seven years now and it’s a huge project. It turned from one book into a library of volumes. The book is very focused with a lot of tangible information. This information is transferable to any one and anything whether at home or in a professional kitchen.

What’s your happy place?

The woods and the mountains for sure. It probably has always been that but I didn’t realize this till a few years ago. You are so busy chasing success and working to get everything in place and for the restaurant to be at its best. Then you get the three Michelin stars and the four stars from the local papers and you don’t have to be pushing so much to make things better. Ultimately you realize that these things matter but up to a point.

I grew up in the woods of Florida but moved to Boston at a very young age. From then on until a couple of years ago was the time to work towards what I wanted to achieve. Now I have reverted back to what is important to me. I think (laughing) I might just run away into the woods!

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