Daniel Patterson, COI, San Francisco

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th December 2013
Daniel Patterson is the chef-owner of two-Michelin-starred COI restaurant in San Francisco. He is a self-taught chef who, by the age of 25, had already opened his first restaurant, Babettes in Sonoma, California. Daniel opened COI in 2006 and quickly gained two Michelin stars for his fresh, light, ingredient-centred cooking. The Staff Canteen caught up with the 45-year-old chef on a trip to London to promote his new cookery book, COI. From self-taught chef to restaurant owner by age 25: how did you progress so quickly? I’m self-taught but obviously I learned from everyone I worked with. Everyone in a kitchen comes with their own experience and they all contribute in their own ways. It might be how you fold a towel or how to sharpen a knife. What I learned early on was about the culture of kitchens and the culture of cooks and even though they weren’t always the same calibre of cooks that I deal with now, a lot of the basic values are similar – hard work, humility, generosity – these are things that I think all cooks share. When you opened your first restaurant, Babettes, were you prepared for that kind of responsibility and pressure? Hell no, I don’t think it’s possible to be prepared. I think you do it because you’re young and stupid and you don’t know how hard it’s going to be, and it was very hard. I know a lot more now but it’s still very hard. It’s just a very tough profession; there’s no two ways around it, but at the same time it was very rewarding. I learned as I went. I was always in the kitchen and I was in a place, Sonoma, with a lot of agricultural land around it, so I was growing my own fruit and vegetables and I learned a lot about how things grow, so on an ingredient level it was an incredibly valuable experience. You say in your book, COI, that one of the principles of your cooking is to create food that has energy and life in a metaphysical sense; could you expand on that? The cells in a plant degrade minute by minute so the amount of life they have when they’re in the ground and the amount of life they have an hour or five hours or a day later is diminished, so in a literal sense there is that kind of energy. I also like food that is bright, that has a lot of acidity, that doesn’t necessarily rely heavily on fats, that has very clear, direct flavour. It’s kind of like meeting a person – you might say they have high energy or low energy – I feel the same way when I eat food; in a dish you might see a lot of bright colours; you see dimension to it, an aesthetic dimension as well as the colours inviting you in; and when you taste it, it just kind of jumps in the mouth a little bit. You also mention that you like to keep your ingredients quite limited because you would rather explore deeply than broadly; why is that? We like to take a basic idea and then evolve it and evolve it. It’s just a way of working that we’ve come to. It takes a long time to really learn about something’s nature. It’s like a person; when you get to know them, right at the beginning they show you one thing and then little by little you get to know them more and more – their background, their strengths and weaknesses – you become more sensitive to them, and out of that sensitivity comes a connection that gets increasingly deep. You could have got to know a hundred people in the time you took to get to know this one person deeply. Some people would prefer to get to know a hundred people superficially but I would prefer to know this one person completely; there’s more fulfilment in that. You use a lot of vegetables, more vegetables than meat; could you ever see yourself opening a fully vegetarian restaurant? No, we’ll cook a vegetarian dinner but we’re not about – in that regard – extremes. I have no problem cooking with animals; I have no philosophical problem with it; I have a philosophical problem with wasting their lives or encouraging an industry that treats animals badly. How we handle the animal is very important, but I think a meal with just a little bit of perfectly cooked meat is enough for me. We’ve found that if you take that away, people’s enjoyment goes down, and our business is to make people happy. You talk a lot about ‘deliciousness’ being central to everything you do. Do you think a lot of modern gastronomy is too much about challenging the diner and not enough about deliciousness? I think it’s dangerous to generalise but within our own restaurant that’s a hundred per cent of our focus. Everyday people come in the door and pay us money and they’ve given us a huge responsibility, a huge trust; they didn’t come in for not-delicious food. How that gets defined is very individual but we try and be as clear as possible with our customers about what the dining experience is. At the end of the day we work very hard to find ingredients that are good and to pull out those good qualities and express them on the plate, so that what people get is a fusion of what the ingredient brings and what our cooking brings. You use essential oils in your cooking and in the restaurant; was aromatherapy something you were interested in separately, or did you come to it through cooking? I wrote a book in 2004 called Aroma with a natural perfumer in Berkeley [Mandy Aftel] who was interested in the relationship between food and smell and that was the first time I started using these things. No one had used essential oils in cooking before that so I had no point of reference; now of course you can find them in all kinds of restaurants and bars. It’s not the predominant aspect of our food but it does lend a certain dimension that it’s hard to get another way. One example of how we use it on the menu would be the frozen lime marshmallow with coal-toasted lime meringue. The meringue is scented with an essential oil which is cold pressed from the skin of the lime, giving a very pure expression with no bitterness and it’s very aromatic. Just a very tiny bit of that in the meringue gives it a lovely perfume. What is the next challenge and the next goal for you? To make the restaurant better and to spend more time with my family – those are my two main goals. View Daniel's recipe for his CLAM bull kelp, wild fennel, meyer lemon here View Daniel's recipe for his INVERTED FROMAGE BLANC TART fennel, wheatgrass here here

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th December 2013

Daniel Patterson, COI, San Francisco