Daniel Patterson, renowned chef of Coi in San Francisco, was recently in Copenhagen to present at the "Planting Thoughts" symposium of the inaugural Mad FoodCamp Festival. In the following interview, the first in a two-part series, the chef describes his presentation on the beet and then explains why he insists on doing things "the stupid way" — what others might actually call "the hard way."
What was the idea behind your presentation?
The whole program was basically about vegetation in different forms, and I wanted to do something that wasn't getting covered. I'm very interested in the socio-cultural aspects of food and what food tells us about ourselves, and how we understand the world around us and how that expresses itself through what we eat and cook.
So I took one culturally important ingredient — when I say "culturally important" I mean both globally and within my area specifically — and wanted to look at a couple of important aspects of cooking through the lens of this one thing, the beet, which has a long and interesting history and has been a part of cooking in a lot of different ways. I briefly touched on the historical stuff, from making borscht in the 14th century in Russia to sugar juice to feeding cattle. I also talked a little bit about my personal experience with it, since my mom's side of the family was Russian and I grew up eating borscht.
I also talked about it in the context of cooking in the Bay Area, as something that has become emblematic of an evolving way of looking at food. I and almost everyone else in America grew up with canned beets, and we can see the difference between something commercial and something fresh — it's like the difference between shitty tomato sauce and a beautiful tomato. Forty years ago, when they started cooking fresh beets and cooking them with goat cheese, goat cheese wasn't produced in this country and everyone thought the beet was just canned. So it was a bit of a revelation, and it has become symbolic of this cuisine based on fresh ingredients and simple ways of cooking.
You also presented different ways you approach the ingredient at Coi. Can you talk a bit about that?
I asked myself, "Why would you cook with it and how would you cook with it in a progressive restaurant?" That was the second part, talking about how using something traditional and using the emotional value that comes along with something people know very intimately actually provides a lot of freedom for doing creative work. You have something new, but contained within it is something familiar.
One of the things that struck me was your comment about the "Beet Rose" dish. You mentioned how people will often dismiss your restaurant and say you can get the same thing elsewhere for much less money.
There's this great article from Food and Wine a few years ago. In it the author was talking to Ferran Adrià about how you can basically get elBulli technique for a lot cheaper in Barcelona. So why not go there, since they're doing such great work, she asked? And he sort of raised his eyebrow and said, "Where do you think they get their ideas?"
There's a natural and really wonderful progression in cooking of a few places generating source material and then other places being able to adapt that in different ways. That's how the dialogue around food grows and evolves. If you rely on the second generation to generate first generation material, it's not going to happen. They don't have the resources, they don't have the drive, and to be honest, they typically don't have the ability. I think it's a very alluring message to say, "Hey, all of these things can be democratized for much less money and given to everyone," but I think that negates the sheer volume of person hours that go into producing some of these things that can trickle down in other ways into other restaurants.
There's a really positive symbiotic relationship that has been happening ever since the beginning of any advanced cuisine. To say that only the secondary part matters is one of the things that seems happen every time we have an economic downturn, and it's just kind of annoying.
How did that "Beet Rose" dish come to be?
I remember when I was coming up with the dish that the cooks looked at me like I was a total nutcase, which happens a lot. They'll look at me sometimes like, "OK. Maybe it's time to get the chef some help." I came up with this technique which I kind of love, since it's deliberately, obtusely difficult. Like ridiculous. Who makes food like that? Each step of the process has to be perfect: you have to start with good fucking beets, they have to be cooked perfectly, the beet juice has to be reduced perfectly, you have to cut them by hand at a precise thickness — no wiggle room. And then you put them together by hand. We had that thing on the menu for three months, and despite the fact that other cooks made more of them than I in terms of volume, I still couldn't manage to teach any one of them to do it exactly how I wanted it. There's a certain relationship between the person putting something together and the thing itself that you can't put in the recipe.
Video: "Beet Rose"
So I came back later that night, and they had come up with a more "efficient" way of doing it. Are you fucking shitting me? Do you not think that I could have found a more efficient way of doing it? Efficiency is not the point. The point is that we are going to do this for a number of reasons — this method gives us a result that you can't get to any other way. That's what our cooking is: to do stuff that looks super, super simple but is ridiculously hard. If we do it right, it looks like any monkey could do it, but if we do it wrong, it's a complete disaster. It's a stupid way of cooking. If I had any brains whatsoever, I'd do something that looks really, really hard but is actually very simple to produce. Maybe I'm not evolved enough.
For me, as the dish was evolving and as I was working with it, it kind of occurred to me that it was a response to that whole "Why can't you get a Rolls Royce for the price of a Yugo?" way of thinking. We have no secrets. We'll give stages ratios, exactly how we do everything, because if they can go to another restaurant and replicate it, good luck. So if they can take it and do it better than we do, then they can have my job. I could go off on vacation and spend time with my kids. It would be great. But who really is going to spend that much time on one thing?
How hard was it to teach the staff to make that?
Very. Not because they're not talented, but because it requires a lot of explanation and a lot of coaching. It's totally handmade. The easiest thing to do is to pour something into a mold or use a squeeze bottle.Take the way we sauce: much of the way we sauce is by hand, in these fluid lines that show your hand perfectly; you either do it right or you do it wrong, whereas if you're doing nice little dots out of the squeeze bottle, it's a lot easier to produce.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part two, in which Patterson talks more about Coi, Mad FoodCamp, and the international community of chefs.