8 Oct 2013

CHEFS: Daniel Patterson

DANIEL Patterson says frequent family travels to France with his mother, a teacher of French and English, and lawyer father, influenced his feelings towards cooking. Beginning as a kitchen porter aged 14, Patterson’s escalating fervour for food saw him drop out of English studies at Duke University, North Carolina. He launched Babette’s, Sonoma aged 25 with then partner, Elizabeth Ramsey. He subsequently opened Elisabeth Daniel within San Francisco’s financial district, which embraced aromatherapy and molecular gastronomy. COI, which makes use of foraged ingredients, opened in 2006 in San Francisco Bay (two Michelin stars). Also sharing that accolade is London’s Ledbury restaurant, where Patterson crafted eight courses for trade and press to celebrate the launch of his latest book, ‘COI: Stories and Recipes’ (Phaidon Press). Pretty, not dainty, cheerfully-coloured, and always finishing fresh, precise dishes included: ‘Earth and Sea’ (tofu coagulated with sea water, tomato and fresh seaweeds), and ‘Monterey Bay Abalone’ (nettle-dandelion salsa verde, spicy breadcrumbs, and wild fennel flowers). 

How important was it to endure a tough kitchen upbringing, washing dishes and sweeping floors from age 14? 
I don’t think it’s possible to become a chef without putting time in as a pot washer and prep cook. Like any other craft, you have to learn it properly and completely. You won’t really understand an onion until you’ve dealt with 1,000. No matter how modern the equipment can be, cooking is a traditional craft. Give me a fire and I’ll make food. There’s something about human desire that is expressed more and more strongly as time moves on: the depth of emotion becomes greater. 

Why did you drop out of university? 
Cooking is a young person’s game. So I had to make decision. My parents imagined a different life for me. When I started in the 1980s, there weren’t many celebrity chefs, so dropping out of school to be a minimum wage line cook looked like I was chucking my life away. Over time, they came to respect how important it was for me. Having said that, I would prefer my kids (aged five and two-and-a-half) not to go into cooking ulitmately. 

What was your brief to Maren Caruso, photographer of COI: Stories and Recipes? 
What I told Maren, who grew up in the area, was: capture as much as possible the feeling of a place - convey the strong sense of familiarity. Having lived there for 24 years, I knew a lot of places, from where to forage to farms that had meaning. She took 1,000s of pictures over the course of a year. As well as 50 shots of dishes on a light table, she also shot one menu, beginning-to-end, at the restaurant. 

Why wasn’t she credited on the cover?
You’d have to ask Phaidon. She’s certainly on the title page.

Why did you call your two Michelin-starred restaurant, COI? (pronounced ‘Qwar’) 
It’s an archaic French word, out of common parlance for hundreds of years, meaning quietness or tranquil. I found it on the internet when it turned up in a random search. First of all, although it has its own energy, the restaurant is meant to be a little bit of an oasis in a busy city. Secondly, I liked an obscure word which almost certainly would be mispronounced and misunderstood! 

Who are your most marked protégés? 
There have been so many. Right now in the San Francisco area, there’s Brett Cooper at Outerlands, and Evan Rich at Rich Table. Hopefully time with us helped them in some small way. We want people to leave better than they came, and not just in the sense of cooking, but character, values, responsibility and caring. We tell everyone: everything matters, from how you fold your side towel to cleanliness, which is so, so important. This way, you make more space for a calm environment - quiet and uneventful. Not that we succeed in that all the time... 

Tell me about your cellar? 
Wine is as much a cultural construct as a product of nature. I work with small producers rather than bigger brands. Our wine list is not huge but well chosen, in that I think it should say something: be at its’ best for what it is. 

Is Western cutlery too brash for your dishes? 
No. Ours is well-balanced, silver and elegant. It feels good in the hand. I like simple form. The pottery plates we use are handmade, which fit the food. How we plate relies on what we’re plating on. 

While your book makes mention of Circulators, Cryovacs and Pacojets, do you ever have a simple home BBQ?
Yes, that’s all I cook at home. And I don’t cook home food at my restaurants. At COI, I have 10 people working many hours a day to produce food under very precise conditions. At home I’m concerned about spending as much time as I can with family and friends. Having said that, I recently shared the tasting menu with my kid when he turned five, at Plum, Oakland. He wanted an extra portion of octopus. 

Would you write if you couldn’t monetise your words? 
Definitely I don’t write for the money. And I wasn’t under any obligation to write as much as I did in Stories and Recipes. I first met Commissioning Editor, Emilia Terragni in 2009 after she read an article I wrote for FT called ‘Carrots are the New Caviar’. What excited me was that she wanted a book which hadn’t been done before (something you don’t typically hear from publishers). It would be a book which fits the restaurant and my own sensibilities rather than a template. 

How important is it to maintain a vein of acidity through your dishes? 
Everyone cooks differently and I love acidity. Because we use a lot of vegetables, which can be sweet, we need acidity to balance them, which keeps things, including your palate, lively. I need to find the moment between where something is overwhelming and diffuse. 

Inverted Fromage Blanc Tart.

Is there a pressure working in a city perhaps famously inclined towards healthiness to avoid using fats? 
No, I cook the way I cook because that’s what makes sense. I don’t feel pressure to do anything. 

Do you consider the abalone your most exciting ingredient? 
One of them, for sure. It’s a very iconic ingredient in California which used to be very strong in the wild until the 1950s and 60s. Now it’s almost extinct. 

Do you worry about radiation leaks from Fukushima? 
There’s nothing I can do about it. The natural world is always changing; now faster than it maybe it ever has. How we cook will change with it. 

What is the future ingredient for California?
Because it has such a strong focus on technological innovation, my gut instinct is, rather than a specific ingredient, we will see California evolve forward-thinking ways of looking at how we eat, to packaging, delivery systems, and how recipes are aggregated. Also, to some degree in a philosophical sense, we will move towards a vegetable-based diet. 

How important is aroma? 
I don’t think that handling it in a very over-the-top way is necessarily good; it can be distracting. For example, when walking in someone’s house, if there’s a roast, and it smells like food that’s going to taste good, I’m instantly put at ease, whereby if it smells like cleaning chemicals, I’m not going to want to go any further. It’s not necessarily about adding to an environment, but being aware of how you have everything within that place. 

Do you miss Massachusetts? 
No matter where I’ve lived, I think the same way. I don’t miss Massachusetts in terms of wanting to live there, but I think what I try to deal with in my book is the sense of belonging. Food is one of our most primitive and primary elements: how we eat and how we feed eachother says everything about who we are. Whether I stayed in Massachusetts or moved somewhere else, I think a bit differently. I always want to be around the margins. Everyone finds themselves somewhere. I could never live very far away from the ocean. 

Were you nervous cooking at The Ledbury for a crowd including René Redzepi, Pierre Koffman and Jason Atherton? 
Always, especially in a strange environment where I didn’t know my fellow cooks. Koffman was enthusiastic, while Rene, Sat [Bains] and Claude [Bosi], have already been to COI. I always want to meet expectations. 

Does this high profile lunch indicate intent to consider opening in London? 
From a cook’s perspective, it sounds a great challenge: leave all the ingredients behind, learn new ingredients and culture. A lot of the way we cook is focused towards people in our area. I would have to look towards people in London, who I don’t know very well. It would take years of work, which is intellectually, very appealing. But the reality is I have a family and four restaurants in California. So I think I will content myself with coming here as often as I can to enjoy your dining scene... 

 Also by Patterson: ‘The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance’ (together with Mandy Aftel, Artisan)