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I meet Daniel Patterson in the sleek dining room of his flagship restaurant, San Francisco’s Coi. The 2 Michelin-starred chef is having a busy day – he had to postpone our meeting twice and he’s obviously in a rush – but as soon as he sits down for the interview he's completely focused. He ponders my questions and talks with precision and intensity, showing the same degree of attention to detail he puts in his cerebral, flawless cuisine. When I ask him about his cooking philosophy – a question he’s probably answered dozens of times – he mulls it over in silence for the best of a minute. "I try to make delicious food" he proclaims at last, before pausing again.
"Wait, let me start again. It’s such, in a way, an easy question, and a hard question at the same time. I try to make food that expresses both my personal point of view and also the natural world and the culture around me. We work only with products from our area - not because they’re better, but because they’re ours. I moved to California 25 years ago - I didn’t grow up here so I had to study and learn about its history and its wild food. At the same time, my own palate is that I like clean flavors and I like things that are bright: so a tomato should taste like a tomato. Also the dishes must be balanced, and on top of that there’s meaning behind them, a reference point".
What do you mean by that?
"We try to mix familiar and unfamiliar things in a way that triggers memory in all our customers. They come from all over the world, and I want everyone to have the kind of experience they still remember three years after. So I know the menu is good is when everyone has a different favorite dish. Sometimes I’ll have people that grew up thousands of miles away who said that a dish reminded them of their childhood."
How does that happen?
"It’s about ingredients, technique, the thought of the dish. Take popcorn grit: grits are a very traditional Southern dish, while popcorn – well, everyone knows popcorn. Yet, popcorn has been a staple food for 6000 years in America: it is very light, and Native Americans would carry it from place to place. It has a very deep cultural meaning but also it reminds you of the movie theater. So I made something with the texture of grits but made by popcorn. Also, what I like about that dish is that it’s just two ingredients: popcorn and butter. If you give someone two very common ingredients and say “make a dish that’s never been done before”, it’s very difficult. The sense of surprise, of something new, is always connected to something familiar. Everyone can recognize something: maybe an herb, a texture, or a flavor, but it’s combined with something they’ve never seen before. Familiarity is comfort, home, while the sense of discovery gives you a rush of excitement. These two things combined are a very powerful paradigm."
You are a self-taught chef. How does that set you apart from your peers?
"I guess I’m not as well trained," he chuckles. "If I could have had a choice, I would have chosen to work for a great chef, but I didn’t have that choice. I opened my first restaurant at 25, and not only I’d never worked in a starred restaurant, I also only ate in one in my entire life until I was 27. So what I had was my imagination. I read about these great chefs, and I knew that what I wanted to do was create the kind of experience that allowed people to transcend their daily life for a few hours. So I read a lot, I worked a lot, I tried a lot of different things. I ended up with a kind of cooking that’s very personal. So if we look at how we do everything in my kitchen, down to how we make stock, how we cut things – it’s different. Everything has my own touch on it, for better or for worse."
My feeling is that, when a chef reaches a certain level of maturity, having a different background can translate into interesting results.
"That’s the point - maturity. You have to have the right palate, and you have to be willing to fail a lot, and keep trying and trying, and after time you could do good work. There’s a lot of catching up to do: it took me so much more time to learn."
Speaking of learning, how did you get into foraging?
"One day in 1994, a farmer came on the back door of my first restaurant bringing wild lettuce. I’d never seen it before. He explained to me that it’s indigenous to California, it grows in the winter when it rains, it’s called miner’s lettuce because when people came out for the Gold Rush they would eat it in the winter in order not to get scurvy. The idea that you would take something that was growing in the wild and eat it surprised me. That was like a light bulb. Years later, shortly before we opened Coi, I got to spent a lot of time with my wife’s mother, who studied Native American culture. She lived in a very remote place, 3 hours north of San Francisco, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. She was dying of cancer, so we would visit a lot, and we would take long walks together. She would pick things and give them to me to try: we ate everything from acorns to fir tips. We ate trees. The flavors were extraordinary, so different and in a way so much more compelling than anything cultivated. At Coi I knew I wanted to make a cuisine that people who live here would recognize, incorporating on the plate the smells they grew up with. I thought: they’ll recognize that. And so I started studying, I worked with an herbalist, and gradually I came to understand that there are thousands of edible plants in California. That’s how wild food came in my cooking – it was never the basis. It’s present in the same way there is wilderness in the city of San Francisco: it coexists, it doesn’t dominate."
Apart from foraging, which other trends do you see in cooking, both in California and elsewhere?
"The one trend in my area is that the food here is getting so, so good right now across all kinds of price levels and cultural influences. San Francisco excels at very small, personal restaurants, with high level of ingredients and a lot of care in food. What I’ve seen in the world is that people are more interested in their own culture. Everywhere, it used to be that if you had a nice restaurant it would be a French, or European, restaurant, while the local food would have no value. Now people are starting to appreciate their own ingredients and their own culture: you see it in Peru, you see it in Mexico and Brasil and that’s inspiring. People are discovering and celebrating their own culture – food is an expression of culture, and culture is all of us. I see a time, not too far in the future, when all cuisines will be considered equal."
This has been a great award season for you – you entered the World’s 50 Best, you won the James Beard award for Best Chef in the West.
"It’s wonderful. The best part is sharing it with my team – they work very hard and they’re incredibly talented. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, in particular, is an award for the whole restaurant, not just for me. I feel I have accomplished everything that I wanted to do in my life. I’m very focused now on developing more as a chef – I’m pushing my team to do better, I have the best front of the house team we’ve ever had. We sure got a lot busier because of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List – it’s the most powerful award that I’ve ever seen, it’s been incredible.