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Joshua Skenes on Fire Cooking and Pure Flavor

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Photo: Adam Goldberg/A Life Worth Eating

Joshua Skenes is among a group of chefs making Northern California one of the most compelling dining destinations in the world. At his restaurant Saison, in San Francisco's Mission, he has earned acclaim (two Michelin stars, a Food & Wine Best New Chefs award) and developed a style of cooking that relies principally on the hearth and the fire. In part one of our interview, the chef talks about how Saison came about, the nature of his cooking, the constant learning process, and what it means to find pure flavor.

Can you explain how Saison and the method of cooking you do now came about?
The idea of Saison started a while ago, in 2007. Mark Bright and I took a lot of time to look at spaces and didn't really find anything until 2009. We were both doing stuff that didn't want to be doing at the time and decided that since we were in a recession, we might as well be broke and happy instead of broke and unhappy. So we found the space kind of on a whim. It was a random space — a gallery and communal kitchen — and it started out only on Sunday nights.

The interesting part about it is that it's always been genuine in the sense that I wanted to just be back in the kitchen and Mark wanted to be back working in a restaurant. From the time we thought about the idea to the time we opened was about two weeks. We put in about ten grand and bought a bunch of pots and pans.

It wasn't really a restaurant, so we didn't have any constraints. That's how I think the idea of the fire cooking came about, from doing essentially what we wanted to. There was no hotel or any force above us dictating what the food costs were or anything like that.

Talk more about the fire cooking.
We were at a point when we were roasting chickens in the oven and getting these beautiful pieces of meat. We were cooking it perfectly, we were tempering, roasting, and resting. The skin was great and crispy, the meat was moist and perfect. But I could still taste the gas. I kind of went home and asked myself, "What's beyond this?" That's how the fire cooking came about. I had been reading a bunch of old books in 2007 about cultures cooking over fire, and so we started to experiment with that.

There are a number of principles that resonate throughout the menu: if I buy a piece of fish or meat, it has to be the best specimen possible of that product. It has to be the best I've had in my life. If it's not, I need to keep looking for it. It's the same with the cooking process. If I tasted something and it's not at that level, we need to keep searching for it.

You said that before Saison, you and Mark were doing things you didn't want to be doing. What were they?
I was doing some consulting work, some traveling, and some partying. I was taking time off to think about things and was ready to be back in a serious kitchen. But the thing is that during my time off, the recession hit. We started Saison on the tail of that.

Does what you do at Saison resemble anything you picked up at other restaurants?
No. It doesn't. I think that Saison is completely new for me, for us, for everyone, since I don't think there is anyone doing this in the country. I don't want to come off as arrogant saying that. I'm young and have a ton to learn.

The turn to fire cooking was gradual?
Yeah, it's been a long process. I think there are elements that date back to my childhood. I think that cooking is always a category of memories, tastes, dislikes, preferences. That's how chefs cook. I grew up in the woods, camping, and fishing. I think all of those things have an impact on the way I cook now, which is simple and unadorned. It's that side of simplicity that is deceptive. It's the campfire, basically. That smell of the fire and waking up early in the woods — that's the biggest influence on my food. I didn't realize that until a year ago.

You say it's simple and unadorned, but judging by the dish descriptions and photos, you seem to really be going for a level of precision and refinement. This isn't just grilling stuff.
No, it definitely is ultra-refined and ultra-precise.

So how do you negotiate rusticity and refinement when this cooking probably has so many variables? What you describe sounds an awful lot like what people who do barbecue deal with.
To a degree, there are many variables. Fire is a very live thing. Once you get used to it, you can understand it. The fire is volatile and live. You take a shovel of embers, and the heat is completely uneven. We've learned to mix ash with embers to make a perfect heat, we've learned the correct distance to put the grate to make a meat not dry out and look like it's been fried, yet it's just been slow-roasted for three hours. We've learned the right temperature to roast a bird over the fire and how to turn it and how to stop the fat from creating flames that carbonize the meat. We've developed these techniques over time.

That's what I think is interesting. It's a very primitive thing. We've developed this stuff over time, so we learn something new every day. At least one major component from everything we have on the menu comes from the fire. It's as simply as roasting a simple piece of meat over the week — which can be tricky to get perfectly — but we've also created new things like searing a piece of fish on a white-hot log. Once the log is red-hot, we'll brush off the embers, brush the fish with a bit of oil, and sear it directly on there.

It's amazing how gentle it becomes when you start to figure this all out. It's not about flame cooking. It's about using the embers. They transfer the flavor and give you a more delicate cooking method. The whole menu is delicate. It has real flavor, which is what we are after. We're not looking to add things. We're looking to take things away until we find the purest flavor for the components. For us it's about the deepest point in flavor possible, which is the purest.

Do you stick to the fire cooking or can you bend the rules?
We stick to it 100%. We stick to it because it's about flavor and enjoyment, You take a steak and grill it — is there anything more delicious than that? You can put it in the oven and it's taste great, but there's something special about grilling it. It's that simple flavor profile that makes it better.

We want to stick with it, too, because it forces us to find new things. What do we do with dessert? We'll smoke the raw milk to make the ice cream and sometimes we'll grill fruits, which brings this amazing flavor that we never knew that ingredient could have. You grill a piece of quince on the fire and it's pretty magical. So, we try to stick it to it for our learning, so we can evolve as a restaurant.

Have you ever wished you could turn to other techniques not involving the fire at all?
No, because I think that technique is highest on the food chain. It's simple, it's volatile, it turns out being the most delicious, and there's something very interesting to me about harnessing this fire. It's not easy, and that's what makes it. We do have a kitchen, of course, and we do meet in the middle with a lot of these things. For instance, we'll take the bones of meat to make a sauce. We'll roast the bones and then take them inside and slowly simmer them to a reduction into consommé. Most things we'll do totally over the fire, but it's an interesting mix in that we can, for certain dishes, keep going back and forth.

We've been developing new tools and equipments for the fire, based on the the techniques that we find. Sometimes we bury things in the ash, sometimes we cook over the embers, sometimes we cook in a wood oven, some things are cold-smoking, some things are hot-smoking, we use different kinds of woods. You can bury stuff in embers and lay a burlap sack soaked in water or some sort of liquid or alcohol to have it steam as if in an oven. There's so much stuff.

The other thing that seems to mark your cooking is the lack of butter.
Mostly, yeah. We don't use very much butter at all. We're looking for depth of flavor, and so many people can use salt, sugar, and butter as a crutch. For me, real flavor is about layering and finding the inherent taste of the product and magnifying it. For me, it's about finding balance, restraint, and purity.

Don't get me wrong, butter is delicious on a lot of things. At the same time, though, food needs to be nourishing; you need to feel good after you eat. I've gone out to many excellent places where you feel like shit after the meal. I don't want guests to feel that way. I really think food is supposed to be real and good for you.

About magnifying the flavor: you're exploring upping the intensity and funk of ingredients, right? You gave Ulterior Epicure the "old-ass" birds, for instance.
Yeah, we've explored aging and things like that a lot. Back then, we were going to the extremes, but now, we've dialed that back a bit. Now we've sort of found the best point for intensity. We've found the right temperatures and humidity levels to age these birds, where at a certain moment the chemical structure of the oils inside start to change and the meat and skin begin to tenderize. So it doesn't end up funky, really. It ends up with tender meat and crackly skin, and all we're doing is cooking a bird. That's it.

Do you keep logs of all of this?
Yeah, we definitely do, but I don't want this to be a recipe restaurant. You can give a cook a recipe, and that's great, but it's more a teach a man how to fish thing.

So it's intuitive, basically?
Exactly. I think intuitive cooking, especially when you are dealing with fire, is the best cooking.

Tomorrow, in part two, Skenes talks about cockiness, pricing, Michelin stars, and the future.

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