Lauren Ladoceour / March 2013
In moving from one flashpoint San Francisco neighborhood to another, from a back alley space to a historic building, Joshua Skenes fashions Saison to long-harbored reckonings. Lauren Ladoceour looks at a chef bushwhacking through the crowd noise, guided by his own voice.
One night last fall in San Francisco, Twitter creator Jack Dorsey sat at the chef’s counter inside Saison’s near-silent kitchen. Before that, it was Digg’s Kevin Rose and Twitter’s Dick Costello, Internet celebs in their own right in a town known for IPOs and start-up acquisitions that turn everyday nerds subsisting on cafeteria diets into millionaire fine dining aesthetes with money to invest in new restaurants. (Dorsey himself is an investor with Saison.) Often, the tech elite can be found here at chef/owner Joshua Skenes’ Michelin two-star restaurant. Prepaying online for a 16- to 22-course evening, they get to watch what a staff obligated to no more than 30 covers a night can deliver. Sometimes they watch under fluorescent bulbs from the chef’s counter near the Molteni suite. Others opt for a cashmere-draped chair in the dimly lit dining room, eating alongside Skenes’ curious peers: Thomas Keller, Christopher Kostow, Chad Robertson, or David Kinch.
But on a crisp early evening in November, the standout guest isn’t a who’s who of the tech or chef worlds. It’s a schoolgirl, probably 9 or 10 years old, in a cardigan and headband that sweeps her wispy hair back as she hovers over Skenes’ amuse bouches. The first, a kid-pleasing sudachi seltzer with a sugar-and-zest rim, is a softball toss that goes down bright and easy. Perhaps she notices how the sugar crystals tickle her lips and act as a layer of unexpected texture, how four pin-sized yellow citrus blossoms on the thin crystal rim are perfectly spaced, and how yuzu, Meyer lemon, and mandarin make a slightly acidic palate cleanser. Or perhaps not. Perhaps she just likes its refreshing and slight sweetness, finishing the seltzer off in a few sips.
Whoever the diners, Skenes waves a wand of sensitivity over the food he cooks for them. For the past four years, Skenes, 33, has dedicated himself to a kind of New American dining experience that’s at once understated and elevated, naturalistic and labor-intensive, sourced in the wild and then babied in the kitchen, sometimes with ingredients passing just a few minutes between dirt and plate. Originally launched in 2009 as a pop-up with his business partner and sommelier, Mark Bright, the now brick-and-mortar Saison in some ways uses the old back-to-nature model—the move toward the handcrafted, the rural, and folksy in everything from fashion to music. Saison is Skenes’ presentation of those ideas for an adventurous food audience that not only wants front-row seats but a backstage pass. Without a door or partition of any kind, the dining room, dressed in reclaimed wood and custom glassware, is very much a part of the kitchen, allowing every guest to take in a sort of dinner concert. Though to be fair, if you were to compare the back of the house to stage arts, you might think of ballet: economical in movement, hushed, and hyper precise. While the performance in the kitchen may be on pointe, the flavors and presentation experienced at the table, are all anthemic folk, a Mumford and Sons concert: homespun and small-batch, yes, but as big as a bass drum.
Which is perhaps why no one acts surprised when the schoolgirl’s bowl of grilled truffle custard topped with braised winter melon, braised okra, truffle glaze, and shimmering gold leaf returns to the kitchen looking licked clean. Skenes—with red hair, a compact build, and thin lips that tighten when he’s concentrating—is too focused on finessing the next round anyway. “This seems significantly less tasty than yesterday,” says Skenes, who always seems to have a ball-point pen fit snugly behind his left ear. In hushed discussion with the chef de cuisine, Skenes troubleshoots the truffle glaze, dipping clean tablespoons to taste between several reseasonings with truffle juice and a house-made sauce made with grilled fish heads and bones. “We call it saison,” he says of the concoction, “and we use it more than salt in everything.” Without even a nod, a satisfied Skenes moves on to another station for the next round of inspection.
Like Balanchine’s Apollo, Skenes isn’t afraid of the means at his disposal, foraging miner’s lettuce in parks and along beaches, baking bread, smoking brassicas over embers, and long-aging proteins like fowl (32-days dry), fish (80-day tuna belly), and beef (a year!). “It’s not about adding stuff to something to make it better. It’s about the variables we can control to make it taste its best,” says Skenes. This is something he says a lot, driving home a point he feels most people miss.
Despite accolades from Michelin (two stars two years in a row now) and a nod as a Best New Chef from Food & Wine magazine, he’s been accused in local and some national media of being totally out of his mind when it comes to his business scheme. That is, no more than 30 covers a night, each dish made with the freshest, most perfect-looking and –tasting ingredients manipulated more often than not with live fire to push flavors to greater depths. Other times, he might boil sea slugs in ocean water and spend days toying with the just-right cooking time so that they arrive to guests’ settings in a state to his liking—and hopefully theirs as well. “I’m most concerned with making something the most delicious it can possibly be. And you sacrifice something—an attention to detail, cooking time, whatever—each time you add on a new cover,” says Skenes.
Among his colleagues, he’s sometimes thought of as distant and elusive. (He’s also the first one to say that he can “come off as an asshole sometimes. But so what.”) “I don’t really know Josh well. I know he is driven and dedicated to his vision,” says Tartine Bakery’s and Bar Tartine’s Chad Robertson, another Mission restaurateur. “He’s always in the kitchen, so unless you work at Saison, you aren’t going to know the guy. I’ve eaten his food, and it’s very distinct and well edited. He takes primal, bold ideas—especially bold for Michelin-striving restaurants—and works them into refined and focused flavors. You know exactly what you’re eating with every bite.”
Skenes’ resoluteness in the kitchen has taken him out of Jacksonville, Florida, where he grew up hunting with slingshots, fishing, cooking water snakes over campfires, and snacking on berries in the back woods. He balks at the buzzy foraging movement, explaining that when he was a kid in the northern part of the state that’s practically Deep South Georgia, they simply called it “getting dinner.” He says he’d spend weeks at a time by himself, packing little more than a knife and a sleeping bag and either eating greens and fruits he found off the trail or roasting whatever he caught. It was here, he’s adamant to say, that his taste buds snapped to: “You’re so stripped of everything, alone out there, that even the most basic things taste incredible. Your senses become so acute.”
It’s this same awakening to heightened perception that brought him to the booming restaurant scene in San Francisco, where he’s now known for his nuanced compositions. All his produce is sourced through a combination of daily farmers’ markets throughout the Bay Area, a small on-site garden, and foraging by one of the cooks. Near the windmill at the start of Ocean Beach, mint geraniums, mallow petals, and ice plants are gathered for a salad the house suggests eating sans utensils. Five minutes away, by the bay at Land’s End, a new-growth patch of New Zealand spinach reveals itself next to sand dollar–sized nasturtiums used for color in the salad. The spinach has a delicate sweetness about it. Veering inland, miner’s lettuce, mildly peppery, spreads beside the path. After everything’s gathered and put into damp cloth-lined trays that sit in front of the car’s air conditioner until their arrival at the kitchen, they’re plunged into ice water, dried, and refrigerated until service hours later.
There’s a highly disciplined quality to the whole process, something that’s echoed throughout the kitchen by way of short mantras tacked onto the walls, reminding staff that “without a genuine respect for our ingredients, we can never become good cooks. Without pristine products we cannot create great food.” Or instructions to “slow down.” Another sign quotes Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
That discipline began when he was 6, starting out in the martial art of Baguazhang. Every day, he found much-needed mental focus in his practice. Later, at 15, when he took his first job at a Japanese restaurant, he discovered the other kind of discipline that working in a kitchen demands. It also exposed him to a wild group of cooks “who would tempura anything.” He was hooked, though he worried that cooking would distract him from a life completely devoted to martial arts. After high school, he moved to Boston to go to art school but never made it after coming across a flier on a bus for The French Culinary Institute in New York City. “Something about it called out to me,” he says, though he couldn’t tell you what. For the next few years, he was under the tutelage of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, which led to stints at Troquet and Ambrosia back in Boston. At 24, he talked his way into the executive chef position at Chez TJ in Mountain View, California, a job, he admits, he had no business filling. “It was incredible. I didn’t have a food budget whatsoever. So I did whatever I wanted, bought whatever I wanted,” says Skenes. It gave him a taste of what might be possible if given carte blanche—that is, complete artistic freedom.
Between jobs, he taught martial arts, never fully committing to either the kitchen or the studio. Eventually, he opened Stonehill Tavern in Southern California for Michael Mina. It was here that he first connected with Bright—over drinks, of course. The first night they talked after service, they fantasized about their dream restaurant, brainstorming the tenets, look, and feel of what would eventually become Saison. “We both wanted a small restaurant with as few covers as possible while giving the best experience we can,” says Bright with a full, frequent smile. “It was more about principles than anything.”
The two kept in touch, even after Skenes’ contract with Mina ended and he took off for China to study with his adopted Baguazhang teachers. For six months, he traveled throughout the country, stopping in Beijing, where one day he heard the crackling of fire while out on a walk. At the same time, the aroma of slow-roasted duck wafted past his freckled nose, and he turned toward a smoke-filled alleyway nearby. “I walked around the corner, and my mouth just started salivating,” he recalls. “It was this guy with a pole, standing there turning the meat that was actually behind the fire. He’d been doing it so long—third or fourth generation—slow-roasting duck with real basic seasoning. And it was amazing. It was his solitary focus, so precise even though it looked rustic. I think that there’s incredible depth, a craft, to that kind of cooking.”
At that point, he says, he saw how the discipline he practiced in martial arts could be one and the same in the kitchen. He returned to San Francisco and told Bright it was time. He didn’t want to wait any longer for their restaurant. By then it was 2009, at the height of the city’s food cart phase, and Bright and Skenes pulled together their savings of a few thousand dollars and opened a weekly pop-up in an underused space behind a coffee shop on a gritty stretch of the Mission. Early buzz was good, and a year later, they went half- and then later full-time, offering a single, daily changing tasting menu six nights a week and installing a gorgeous Molteni cooking suite.
As accolades came in, they experimented with a few add-ons to their original idea, namely a short-lived bar menu that allowed guests to order à la carte. It proved to be too much of a distraction for the staff, which struggled to run from the main kitchen to the hearth in the covered patio throughout service. They needed to re-streamline the process and downsize their offerings. And in return, the menu price crept up—to $198 and another $118 for a wine pairing in the dining room and $498 with pairings at the chef’s counter this past fall. The thing is, their approach of making the handcrafted and small-batch less accessible only seemed to have worked to their benefit. If Saison’s tech patronage is of any indication, you could argue that Skenes’ and Bright’s newest model actually demanded an audience willing to give them that carte blanche Skenes had once enjoyed at Chez TJ, whether by prepaid diners or direct investment via frequent guests such as Jack Dorsey.
Soon, Bright and Skenes felt they were outgrowing their space. Since every station cooks at least one thing in the hearth (whether it be to roast beets to go alongside bone marrow fritters or to sear fish on a hot almond wood plank), the walk between the kitchen and the fire continued to take away from Skenes’ helm in terms of time and the cooks’ rhythm and communication. “It was terrible,” says Skenes, who can turn flush when he begins to list the other problems with Saison’s Mission home. There was also the occasional sewage flood in the restaurant, a dishwasher next to the dining room, and flickering lights. (Often, when Skenes needs to let off such work-related steam, he takes it out on an old muk yan jong wooden martial arts dummy kept in a corner.)
The Mission location, which saw little foot traffic and stood on a dark gritty block, wasn’t really in line with Skenes’ vision either. For sure, he wasn’t the only modern fine dining room with a lackluster location: see Corey Lee’s Benu in an abandoned-feeling alley and Daniel Patterson’s Coi in the rough drug-addled Tenderloin neighborhood. “I think that it’s wonderful to see chefs like Josh and Corey opening ambitious restaurants in San Francisco and expanding our shared culinary language,” says Patterson. “When Coi opened, we were really the only modern tasting menu–only restaurant, so it’s great to have company!”
Last fall, with $2.2 million in investments in hand, Skenes and Bright signed a lease on a historic brick warehouse once occupied by an electric light company in tech ground zero: San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. Between the birthplace of Twitter in South Park and the gateway to Silicon Valley (aka the Caltrain commuter station) stands what Skenes most fittingly refers Web-style to as Saison 3.0 (2.0 came after a 2010 spruce-up of the Mission location). Tim Harrison, who counts The French Laundry renovations, Per Se in New York City, L20 in Chicago, and Lee’s Benu (also in the SoMa) among his credits, designed and oufitted the 35-foot-high build-out. “Josh is one of those new young guys who really has a lot of influence, and I think it’s really showing,” says Harrison. “He’s doing his own thing. He’s not following a model that has existed for a 100 years or 50 years.”
Harrison’s biggest task from his client: bring the fire indoors. “Josh’s idea was to make more and more products on the hearth, to make it a central part of the operation,” says Harrison. “So we custom-designed a five-deck wood-fired oven from Miwe in Germany. We’d go higher, but you can only go so tall or you can’t reach the oven anymore.”
Even more than a central hearth, Skenes wanted a more open kitchen. “The kitchen is the space, and we’re just going to put diners in the center of it,” says Harrison, who leaned into the idea, using about a third of the space for a gleaming white kitchen where guests could sit and eat, right alongside the staff cooking. As stark as the white kitchen might glow, the dining room comes wrapped in a cozy fog-like gray. In the middle of the restaurant is a wall of stainless-steel refrigerators behind warm reclaimed walnut tables for two and four, offsetting the cool modern look of the appliances. To the right, a copper mirror bar and an accompanying lounge next to floor-to-ceiling windows with a hanging herb garden—think of it as a living, growing curtain. Everything, from the trays that line the drawers to the appliances to the woodwork to the tools that replace the paper fan that once encouraged the embers cooking leeks, is custom-made.
“If you look at Thomas Keller back in the mid-’90s when we started the renovations of The French Laundry or whether it’s Josh today, you know those guys all had off-shelf refrigerators and tables because they didn’t have the money when they first started out. But when they acquired some success, they could adapt a space to their specific menus,” says Harrison. “You know, as opposed to him working a kitchen that was designed for some other chef, and he took it over.”
The custom build-out has been greatly anticipated—and the opening delayed, moved from November, to December, to January, to finally February. “The whole endeavor has a singular purpose,” says Robertson. “Whatever influence he has or will have on the fine dining scene will be there for all to see in the next year.”
On December 1, Saison 2.0 closed its final service just before midnight. Bright and Skenes stayed on through the early morning packing everything up themselves—the wine, copper pots, foodstuffs, artisan-made serving pieces and glassware, computers. Everything was stacked neatly in boxes on the floor, consumables on top. Around 8 a.m., water began to pool around a drain, slowly at first, then very, very quickly. In 15 minutes, they were three feet under sewage water. By the time the movers arrived, hours later, nearly everything was soaked, though salvageable. All except for Skenes’ collection of black moleskin notebooks that contained every recipe he’d written since culinary school. Every middle-of-the-night idea. Side notes. Recipe sketches. All now a pungent-smelling series of smudged watercolors he’d never get back.
Exhausted and beat, he went home and free-fell onto his bed. Lying there, face-up on his back, he asked aloud over and over, “What do I do? Where do I go from here? What do I do? After a long time, I finally realized there’s only one thing I can do. That’s begin over again. It’ll be OK. All I can do is hit restart and go.”