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Daniel Patterson on Coi, His New Cookbook, and Honesty in Cooking

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Photo: Carlo Cruz

In October, Phaidon will release San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson's restaurant cookbook Coi. Phaidon has been in the market of high-minded restaurant books for the last decade or so — putting out works by Ferran Adrià, Magnus Nilsson, and Andoni Luis Aduriz — but Patterson's will actually be the first one they release from an American chef. In the first part of a recent interview, Patterson talked about the text he's devised, something that isn't a cookbook as much as it is the story of his restaurant through its food. "It's a little weird," he says. That topic led to a discussion on Coi over the years, how Patterson views the word "deliciousness," and how the urge to declare something better than another thing perhaps isn't the most valuable phenomenon in the world of gastronomy.

Tell me about the book.
The book started back in 2009 when an article called "Carrots Are The New Caviar" came out in the Financial Times. I never thought I'd write a cookbook. To be honest, I didn't think that anything I was doing was particularly interesting. But the editorial director of Phaidon, Emilia Terragni, saw that article — I had already met her at an international event — and she wrote me saying we should explore the possibility of doing a book together.

That year, a few months later, a very, very talented local photographer I had previously worked with, Maren Caruso, suggested we mess around in her studio and take some shots. So, the book just evolved from those pictures and my conversations with Phaidon.

How would you describe it?
I didn't know what it was going to be when I started. I had no idea. After I'd written the first draft, a friend of mine whom I asked for feedback on the work called it "formally inventive." I think that means it's a little weird.

There are sixty-eight dishes in the book. There's an essay for each one, as well as a recipe that reads kind of the way I'd talk to a cook. There are lots of parentheticals, and I go off on little tangents here and there. I really wanted to make it fun to read.

On the one hand, it's Phaidon. The images are stunning. I felt a lot of pressure to make it interesting to read, as well. That's what I've been focusing on for months.

Did you go for that intuitively, or did you devise a plan?
A little of both. I don't think I can really describe it accurately, but basically it's written in a structure that's different from most cookbooks. Because of that, I feel like it has to be a little bit better, in a way: you're asking people to engage in a thing that, as I describe it in the introduction, isn't a cookbook as much as it is the story of Coi written through the food.

It's been a really consuming and incredibly positive process. The pressure I feel most is to make it so that my staff and the people that have supported the restaurant feel that it's an honest representation of who we are. It's like cooking, in a way. A friend of mine, who's a far more advanced writer than I, said that you should treat your reader with the same generosity of spirit as you would a guest in your restaurant or home. I try to think about that a lot. It not only has to be worth the money, but also worth the time. Time means a lot to people.

There are lots of cookbooks out there. There are lots of Phaidon cookbooks out there. Have you worried about making the book distinguish itself and making sure your ideas are interesting enough?
There's not much about getting older that's good, but maybe one of the good things about it is that you come to understand certain things a little bit more. From what you're talking about, there are really two things I've become interested in. It doesn't seem like this will answer your question, but I think it will. The first thing is honesty. For me, as a chef, the most important thing that I can do is be honest about how I cook. You want a clarity of expression and a context that allows for that.

The other thing for me is openness. Let's just say we have Restaurant A and Restaurant B, two places that are the same level of restaurant but with different styles. It's easy for someone who likes the style of Restaurant A to go into Restaurant B and declare that it's not as good as A and that they therefore didn't like it as much. There's a lot of that now. I don't think it's productive or true. I think the true statement would be, "Restaurant B is just as good as Restaurant A, but I don't prefer it because their palate is different than mine."

I think that deliciousness is subjective, and we forget that. I'm not sure that talking about what's better, what's best is a good context for food. I think that when you get to a certain level of food — in a way, any level of food — it's about recognizing something that is honest for what it is. If Restaurant A and Restaurant B are both true to themselves, it's just a matter of what you prefer. Sometimes I'll go to a restaurant where it isn't my thing, but it's perfect for what it is, and I really enjoy that. Openness to other perspectives is important.

I'd like you to discuss that a bit further. I interviewed Andoni Aduriz, who has a lot to say about how problematic the word "delicious" can be.
Well, I'd love to talk about my own context and not other people, because I don't see that going anywhere good for me [laughs]. Speaking for myself and how we use it in the kitchen, there's a section on Deliciousness that's the very first thing in the book. The beginning, the middle, and the end of every conversation we have about food in our kitchen is deliciousness. It is the most important thing we talk about in the kitchen. We define deliciousness in a certain way within our kitchen, which may be different than how another kitchen sees it.

I think that cooks need to think about deliciousness. If you are talented enough to make something, let's just say, challenging, that goes against the palate they are working with to elicit a response, that means that that person still understands those parameters of deliciousness.

How would you describe how you view deliciousness at Coi?
I think that the parameters of deliciousness we use do fit, generally, within the context of our culture in California. These are flavors that are light. I love flavors of concentration and depth, but with a lot of acidity. There's a lot of natural sweetness to the food here, especially in the vegetables. We do a lot of plant-based cooking, so that needs to be balanced with either bitter or sour flavors.

One thing that's interesting that came up in a talk I did with Harold McGee recently — and I hadn't really thought about it before — was the idea that all of my colleagues spread across the world have the same sense of seasoning when it comes to salt. I've never gone to DOM, Ko, Noma, or Osteria Francescana and thought that something lacked salt or went overboard with it. It's exactly the same. The other things, the expression of flavor and balance of sweet, sour, bitter was personal. Everything but the salt level was totally variable, which is interesting to me.

Now let's talk about how those parameters have evolved over the years at your restaurant, which will soon turn seven.
Though the restaurant has evolved a lot, I don't think my palate has changed much. We have a dish on the menu now that is brassica grilled with a little dandelion-potato purée, charred onion broth, and new olive oil. The first time I made that dish was 1992, when I was twenty-three and didn't know anything. I've done a lot of different versions of that dish. Now, we're cooking the vegetables in seawater, which gives it the perfect seasoning and a nice minerality. The broth is a little better, the seasoning more precise, the flavor a little more savory. It reflects an evolution, a progression. The lineage is consistent, but we're cooking the best versions ever. Our chef de cuisine, Andrew Miller, is extraordinary. He has settled into the kitchen very quickly and adapted to the way that we season, which is somewhat different. Matt Tinder, our pastry chef, is in my opinion the best pastry chef in the country.

Even our stages have blown me away. Everyone is complaining about how the young kids don't know how to cook, but these kids come in, keep their heads down, and learn. I'm not saying 100 percent, but many of them.

What I'm trying to say is that it's not necessarily about me getting better. It's that our team has grown and improved.

You'll hear a lot of your colleagues talk about creativity and the need to keep it alive.
My opinion on that has changed over the years.

How so?
I used to think everyone should be creative. I don't think so anymore. I think there should be an emphasis on honesty. If you're a creative person, then be creative. But if you're not a creative person, you shouldn't feel pressure. Speaking for myself, if I tried to make mainstream food, that would be a mistake. At the same time, if I tried to make super avant-garde food, that would be a mistake.

So where do you fall?
The way we cook right now is pretty well defined. It's quite simple in terms of its form. We do end up doing things that are not usual, but not because that's the goal. It's because we're pursuing flavor, trying to do our best, and we occasionally stumble into something new. The only pressure that we feel in our kitchen, though, is pressure to do our best. We know we can't give our guests something commonplace, because that's not what they come in for. It's not part of the contract. But other restaurants can provide something extraordinary with tradition as the vehicle. There isn't a one size fits all answer here.

· All Daniel Patterson Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Coi Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

Coi

373 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133

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