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Daniel Patterson on Community and Social Responsibility

In the first installment of our interview with Daniel Patterson, the San Francisco chef discussed his presentation at the MAD FoodCamp Festival, as well as his insistence on cooking in a way that is painstaking and doesn't cut any corners. Today, he takes on the question of how his cooking can be called progressive, the ways he differs from other naturalist chefs, and the community of cooks and thinkers of which he is proud to be a part.

A few minutes ago you described your restaurant as progressive. What does that mean to you, and how do you think you differ from people like Redzepi? I ask because it seems like there's a tendency to clump you guys together.
My focus or interest in cuisine of place is about the emotional connection with the people who come in — that's the most important thing. A relationship is created. If we were to cook doing things that no one understood or could relate to, no matter how good the food was, it wouldn't make people feel anything.

"Progressive" is a word that people are going to define differently. It's kind of a bland, nothing word, in a way. But I can say that I'm interested in a couple of things at Coi. First, making good food and making people happy. I think our job is to make food that is pleasing and contains a sense of discovery. A basic underlying tenet is to generate original material. We want to make things that people haven't seen before. I think that when you take something that is totally ubiquitous, that people see every day and make something new, that's a pretty powerful paradigm — and a different one than going out and getting an ingredient that no one has ever seen before. That shock of the new can come in two ways, and we use both.

And what about the tendency to group you together?
René and I share some underlying values that we came to differently and separately. The first time I met him was at Madrid Fusion in 2008. The dish I brought, which was before I knew who he was, was oxheart carrot, wood sorrel, pine needles, and candy cap mushrooms. I've always been cooking like this.

The other thing that I think is very similar, which is super interesting to me, is that social responsibility used to be related to simple, peasant cooking, and the high-end restaurants were seen as a frivolous luxury for rich people. Clearly there is a monetary element that is limiting in terms of how we cook, because there has to be. But what I see now is very different and very exciting. All of the cooks who were there don't just want to make amazing food and touch the people who come in, even though they of course want to trip people out and give them the experience of a lifetime. They look at the world around them and say, "How can I make the world a better place?" And that's a huge paradigm shift.

So as far as everyone getting clumped together, I think that has more to do with you guys in the media and that need to find a hero, especially after Ferran and the passing of the torch. Honestly, if it's going to be anyone, I love René and I love how he cooks. He's a beautiful person in terms of how he thinks about his responsibility to the community — not just Denmark, but to chefs and to the world. That's something that we all believe in.

I know all the guys who were at MAD, and every single one of them feels the same way. Every single one of those guys cares about creating original work, and all of them have distinctive voices. I can pick out an Alex Atala dish, an Andoni Aduriz dish, a René Redzepi dish, and they are all different to me.

I had some English journalists in last night, and they said that from everything they had read it seemed like the food would be very similar to Noma, but it turned out not to be. Another person came in and said, "I thought it would be more New Nordic." I'm not Nordic. Why would we do Nordic? I make American food. Period. There are similarities in ingredients — we work in similar climates — and aesthetic sensibilities, but if we did a dinner there would be no question whose dish was whose.

How was your visit to the Nordic Food Lab?
We were talking about a lot of different things. The Momofuku lab chef, Harold McGee, and Scott Boswell were there. We were talking about fermentation, and I wanted to talk to the Noma guys about seaweed. It's very neat. I'll talk about stuff that we are doing, and they'll talk about stuff that they are doing, and we all walk away a little smarter. We also talked about sharing knowledge and developing new ideas and ways of doing things.

That brings us to the question of community. Throughout the weekend you all were spending time together, sharing meals, debating, tweeting, and I wonder if you could explain how you view that sense of community.
If you could trace the origins of this way of working together, I would go back to Ferran and Albert and the way that they worked together and worked with other Spanish chefs to create a very powerful model for learning focused on creativity and new ideas. I think that a lot of the guys have grown up with that — René and Massimo Bottura were both at elBulli at the same time, for instance. That way of sharing information and creating a community of likeminded cooks has become something that is not only accepted but preferred amongst the chefs that I know.

So it's not really new. For me, the big one was Madrid Fusion, when I left my little bubble and ended up in this place where I was meeting all of these people for the very first time. I was amazed at how generous everyone was. It was astonishing to see how they wanted to help each other and share ideas. I hadn't developed that mentality yet, and it was wonderful to be exposed to that.

Then Cook It Raw in 2009 was an opportunity to meet a lot of people, like Massimo and Claude Bosi. That created a very strong bond between all of us. If any of us have questions or need anything or want to talk through something, we can call each other even though we're scattered across the world. This was kind of an extension of that, where I felt a heightened sense of responsibility to do something interesting and do my best. That sense of community is always strong, but it was even stronger at this event somehow.

It might not be possible to answer this yet, but what do you think you took away from the event?
So much comes to mind. Dave Chang talking about fermentation and regional microbes and what happens from place to place — is there a sense of terroir you can get with fermented foods that is similar to what you get with wine or bread? Alex Atala on ants that tasted like lemongrass. A presentation on urban gardening and a machine that can carbonize vegetable matter and turn it into something you can plant in. The idea of plants being sentient beings. I saw the presentation on bees and started thinking, "Why don't we have a beehive at Coi? I loved the idea of academics talking about things at a broad, global level, and then someone like Magnus Nilsson presenting on something so personal and small [the preservation techniques at his restaurant]. It was back-to-back-to-back amazing to see how everyone had something important and meaningful to talk about.

All of this is information will take time to process and aggregate. Part of the takeaway was meeting people like Stefano Mancuso, who I now want to visit in Florence to see what he's working on. Or getting to know someone like Ben Shewry, who was wonderful and is now a new friend, even though he's across the globe.

Being inspired by all of these people who are pushing themselves to learn, do more, and create something that is going to change the world in some way was special. If there is an evolving paradigm that is most important now, it's the growing sense that chefs feel to effect change in the wider community. That's really beautiful, and I believe in it very strongly. When I get together with a group of people who feel the same way, I come away feeling inspired and thinking that there is hope.

· Daniel Patterson on Beets and Doing It The Hard Way [-E-]
· All Daniel Patterson Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Mad FoodCamp Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]