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Joshua Skenes on Pricing and Calling a Spade a Spade

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Photo: Ulterior Epicure

In the concluding installment of our interview (see part one here), Saison chef Joshua Skenes talks about pricing at his restaurant. He explains why it's a relative bargain to charge $198 for a regular menu and $498 dollars for a chef's counter tasting (it's the quality of the ingredients, he argues). He also discusses the restaurant's ticketing system and its goals for the future.

You mentioned that you spent a lot of time reading about fire cooking in other cultures. Do you look at places like the asadores in Spain or the parrillas in South America as important influences?
There's fire cooking everywhere, and the two you've just mentioned have always been fascinating to me. China is also a big deal in this regard. I make regular trips to China, but once I went into a back alley in Beijing and there were these guys there that have been roasting ducks for generations and generations. When you walk up to the place, you smell all the roasting meat and the fire wood — that's all they do, roast ducks. That kind of specialization is pretty magic. They have it in Japan, where one person will do sushi, one will do ramen. But it also extends to Spain and France, where people spend a lifetime mastering a skill. That's what speaks to me.

Now it's time to talk about pricing. Is it a challenge to get people to shell out hundreds of dollars for that kind of food?
It's pretty simple. Before we even talk about the cooking, I need to say that the ingredients we buy — I have to be honest with you — I haven't seen many restaurants use the ingredients that we use. A quarter of the price of the menu is the caviar, since I'm giving you half an ounce. When we buy fish, we buy the very best of that one fish available. There is no better in America. Period.

That in and of itself is more than a bargain. My food cost has been on average in the high forties these last three or four months. There's maybe one or two other restaurants that do this.

When you say you haven't seen many restaurants with that quality, are you talking about the United States or globally?
I've eaten at a lot of places, but I can't speak for the rest of the world. I have been to a lot of the high end places in the United States, and the proof is in the pudding. There's no hiding that. We have an open kitchen, and anyone can come in and see what we serve. I love showing people around.

It's absolutely a great bargain if you look at our food costs versus the price of the menu, especially if you compare it to other restaurants. For us it's never been about making money. It's about doing what we believe in, which is sort of a lifelong thing.

I can't help but think that saying something like that gets you heat from your peers.
That's okay. Absolutely, it does. I've observed it for a really long time and at some point you have to say something. All these other restaurants, based on their costs, I think they're good restaurants, too. I was just at Brooklyn Fare and at Masa, and they use really amazing stuff and the price reflects that. Ingredients are so expensive these days, as is labor. Restaurateurs and chefs, unless they have a really high volume restaurant, aren't making tons of money off of their guests. The point is that it isn't about profitability at this level. Look at Manresa, at Coi, at Meadowood: those guys are just doing what they want to do, and they don't really care if they're not making a ton of money.

You've spent time talking to me about your method and intentions, but don't you think a sound bite like that can come off as cocky?
I don't look at it as a negative thing. It's not cocky. I'm trying to approach it at face value. I had a Japanese couple the other day eating at the counter. They were so free and willing to talk about things at face value. Or what they perceive as face value. None of us really have the answers, and as I said, I'm young and have a whole lot to learn. We're all on a journey here. But what struck me is that they would compare things openly as far as quality is concerned. You can't really argue quality. You can argue likes and dislikes. If you go somewhere and see a fish that is shitty and one that looks really good, it's obvious.

They were talking freely about differences between Saison and other restaurants they had been to. They were talking openly. It wasn't negative, just conversation. Maybe that's why quality is so much better in Japan. Maybe it's much easier to call a spade a spade there. Restaurants here are much more for profitability in America, and it's probably the same across the world, to some degree. But there's always going to be a handful of craftsmen and artisans that want to do the best at their thing.

It's not about "Mine's better than yours!" It's about being free to discuss it openly. I definitely don't look at it as mine being better than theirs. It's really great to see other people's interpretations of how they cook food — what they use, how they do it — and you can't necessarily say that because you use the best fish it's better than someone who uses the best carrot. It has to be neutral, I think. You have to stay away from judging other people aside from yourself. I'm not here to judge anyone or to call anything other than what it is.

Can you talk a bit about the decision to scale back the price increase?
We didn't roll anything back. It was always $498. There's some confusion on everyone's part. I just let it go and said, "Fuck it, it's fine. Not a big deal."

Can you set the record straight, then?
It was simply an internal error on our part. I think some paperwork got away from us and that briefly it went up to $651 or something like that on the SeatMe website, and it wasn't supposed to. It was corrected right away. It was always $498 in my mind.

So Ryan Sutton's writings had nothing to do with the decision?
No, it had nothing to do with that. It was always supposed to be $498. I noticed the fact that it went up to $651 after he wrote that, and we corrected it. That wasn't the influence. The influence was that it was supposed to be $498 always.

How are people responding to that price?
We've done well so far. People have been receptive to it. We have a lot of people that have been exposed to food and have eaten around the world. It's also great that we are in San Francisco, which is a great dining community. That is the cheapest we could do this menu at. If we made it any cheaper, we couldn't be open as a restaurant.

Finally, let's talk about adopting a ticketing system. You're the second important restaurant to adopt that — Next in Chicago being the first.
We were actually the first. When we opened Saison, we were the first people to do it. We did it for a year, since day one, at Saison.

I had no idea.
Most people don't, but we try to let them know. It was said in the press release when we let it go, but no one pays attention to that part. When we first opened Saison, it was a ticketing system and everything was pre-paid. The problem was that we didn't have the right platform. So we went to normal reservations, because it was too difficult for the guests. Now, we've got SeatMe.

Finally, looking ahead, what are the objectives? What are the major goals you have in mind?
For us, this is about cooking day in and day out and making the best thing possible. It's about mastering a skill and learning about what's in front of you. And that takes a lifetime.

· Joshua Skenes on Fire Cooking and Pure Flavor [-E-]
· All Saison Coverage [-E-]
· All San Francisco Coverage [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]


2124 Folsom Street San Francisco, CA 94110