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Daniel Patterson on Generosity, Tasting Menus, and the Rigorous Chef Life

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Photo: Carlo Cruz

In part two of this interview with San Francisco's Daniel Patterson (see part one here), the Coi chef talks about how he got into writing, the rewarding but also exhausting life he leads, and the debate about tasting menus: What makes a long-form degustation work? He also talks about his desire to open more restaurants and a new program he's involved in that aims to teach young kids how to cook delicious, healthful meals in a way that's cheaper than going for processed food. "The idea that you're either for processed food or for organic farmers market food doesn't make sense," says Patterson. To the interview:

You dropped out of college pretty early and went into a profession that tends to be pretty demanding and brutish, yet you've written for various publications and have a reputation for speaking well in public. How'd you manage to learn and educate yourself?
I'm not sure that I'm very well educated. My high school was very good. I was very fortunate to learn a lot there, and I always read a lot as a kid. I can't explain — I stopped writing between 19 or 20 and 35, aside from prep lists — but it was just a lucky situation for me because I wrote something for fun when I had time and was in between restaurants. A friend saw it and then it got passed to the New York Times, and then it got published. That's how it got started.

I think my initial learning was really through Amanda Hesser, my editor at the Times. She taught me an extraordinary amount about how to put together a meaningful story for a publication that does not provide an endless amount of words, to say something true in a concise way. A lot of people ask what the relationship is between writing and cooking, but I don't think they're that different. They are both ways of communication. I'm much better at communicating through cooking or writing, these solitary pursuits, than I am through communicating in person. I'm not really that socially adept. And I've tried to learn about that, too [laughs]. Things go a lot more smoothly if you can actually talk to people.

But the learning side of writing really has been through just doing it. By a chef's standards, I've done a lot. I've published like 25 things. I work really hard on them and try to learn from different editors. I'm lucky to have friends that are great writers and I've learned a lot from them. But I'm really not very good by my own standards. Writing is a craft like cooking, and I'm a very early point in a long continuum.

Just to make sure I'm getting you right: you said you're not that socially adept?
I did say that. Some people will agree and some people will argue, like my wife. Yeah, I think most people who end up in the kitchen feel a little bit of that awkwardness. I certainly do. There's a little bit of chicken and egg, because I've spent my whole life in the kitchen, basically. It's a very different environment and way of communicating than the rest of the world. I put real effort in being as positive and direct and pleasant as I can outside of the kitchen. It just doesn't come as naturally to me as other things do.

Right, a lot of chefs talk about how they went into the profession because they felt like they were a little — or plenty — weird and the kitchen gave them the opportunity to go into another world. But how do you negotiate that with growing a company, managing people, and appearing in public, as you do?
Yeah, and how do you stay a chef. It's hard. I work a lot, which is the first thing. My last vacation was four years ago. And in those four years, I've gotten about twelve days off. I typically work eighty hours a week, if not a bit more. I think that there are many, many criticisms of me that are accurate. But no one can say I don't work or try hard. I took a job that is already pretty full-time and added a bunch of other full-time jobs to it. As I've grown, I'm come to realize the importance of the team. I talked yesterday about the importance of the kitchen team, but there's also the crucial team at the restaurant group. Take Ron Boyd, who's my partner. He is so extraordinarily multitalented. The professionalism and work ethic and creativity that he has means that I can be in the kitchen more. If I didn't have him, I don't know what I would do. My ability to be in the kitchen and have restaurants is really dependent on the quality of the people that I work with. I think about Kim Alter, our chef at Haven, Manfred Wrembel at Plum — I'm lucky in that regard.

The hard thing is portioning out my time. Reading has gone by the wayside. I'll run into people who ask me what books I've been reading, and I just laugh. I have no real personal time. If I wanted to see a friend, it would have to be between the hours of 11PM or 2AM. I can't even spend time with them if they come into my restaurants. That being said, for me, the extraordinary part of it is to give people an opportunity to evolve and to watch people do well. I'm getting more pleasure out of that these days.

So the infrastructure is strong enough to the point where it's pleasurable and not exhausting?
I didn't say it wasn't exhausting [laughs]. I said it was pleasurable. I also have two children, who are two and four. My day starts at dawn and it ends around midnight or later. The reality is that I can't be everywhere doing everything, so I try to check in at the moments that are most important. If it's a day when we're changing the menu, I'll probably be in the kitchen from early until the end of service. But if it's another day, I may do things outside of the restaurant and come in in the afternoon. That doesn't mean I'm not exhausted, though.

At what point, then, do you decide to put family and getting back to things like reading first?
That's the $64,000 question. I think there are a couple of answers to that. One is that I'm not going to be working with this intensity forever, because my family needs me. I'm also not at the point I'm ready to walk away from cooking. I'm just starting to figure it out. It took me so long to just learn a couple of things. I think, as a cook, I still have a long career in front of me. I still feel pretty young and energetic. From a restaurant standpoint, I'm not exactly sitting on the type of bank account that would allow me to walk away. I guess I could go to some huge corporation and be a spokesperson, but I don't have any kind of real cachet. If I wanted to sell out, I'm not sure I could. There's no option besides doing what I'm doing right now, finding joy in it and trying to improve a little every day. If I can also spend time with family and friends, that's a pretty good life, right?

Do you have any thoughts on the tasting menu debate? After all, Coi only offers one set menu.
I don't have a response to any specific person who's written about tasting menus. I think José Andrés talked about this in a recent Eater interview, and man, how good is he in his second language? He brought up two points that were really valid. One is that no one is putting a gun to your head to eat at these restaurants. It's like going to the Louvre and trying to see everything all in one day and then complaining that there was too much art. We all have to take responsibility for our choices. For example, if you really want a big steak and you come to Coi, we don't have that. If I did, I'd make it for you. If you really want a Mercedes and you go to a Toyota dealership, they're not going to be able to give it to you. It's not right or wrong. It's just not there.

I've also thought about how I'd feel about this if I were a customer. I find that helpful, since it allows me to figure out what we're doing right and what we could be doing better as a restaurant. Where those menus work the best, where there is the same generosity of spirit that you would find in a neighborhood bistro or someone's home. That's the most important thing in a dining experience. And the more money you spend in a restaurant, the more you should expect to have that feeling — that warmth — amplified. We don't always make the right choices at the restaurants, but we are always working towards this idea that we should be taking care of people and making them comfortable and relaxed. If you come to my house, you'll see that it looks a lot like Coi. That's what we are going for, a place that feels a little like someone's home.

You can't have a restaurant that's one size fits all but also has a strong point of view. The people who do like it, they feel good here. We've settled on around eleven courses, because that's what we feel works. But even then, it can be too much for people. In those cases, we try to be flexible and see how people are feeling. You have to move towards the customer and make them happy. That's the most important thing in any kind of dining experience. The impetus can't be to show off. It has to be to take care of people. If there's a lack of that in high level dining, I think people notice it more acutely.

That makes sense, but are you convinced that the tasting menu is the best or only way for you to express yourself?
That's an important question. It's funny: when we opened, I think we were the only highly personal tasting menu restaurant in San Francisco. I wouldn't say people thought we were going to be a runaway success. Now I look around and there's a ton of them. Times change. When I think about when we started and where we are now, we've been pretty consistent. We've honed in on the form and substance of what we do. We always try to keep the form fresh, but at the same time, we haven't changed our basic structure because it works well for us and for our customers.

In no way would I say that it's the only way that I can cook, but it's the way I've been cooking for so long now that the plates are really designed for smaller portions. It's a little bit like saying, Could you write it with half as many chapters. I could, but it wouldn't really be the same thing, would it? No one ever says that. There are short story writers and there are novelists. Some crossover, but most don't. Look at Raymond Carver, who is known for his short stories. It just happens that where I feel more comfortable is in this format. At home I love making one-pot meals, but it's just not interesting to me as a professional cook.

Finally, what's on the horizon?
There's still lots. We're going to try not to open two places within a month of each other, like we did recently. But there will be more restaurants, and probably some other kinds of fun projects.

We're working on a program that I'm really excited about at the new San Francisco Cooking School. We're trying to develop a consistent program where kids can come and learn very, very basic skills about cooking. With the industrialization of food, people don't talk that much about the fact that people's food memories were taken away. People don't have memories about delicious, real food. I'm talking about people from less privileged backgrounds. Because the way that we eat connects to emotion and memory, if you grew up eating Cheetos when you're growing up, what's going to comfort you in times of stress is a bag of Cheetos and not kale. We want to change that. What we're trying to emphasize is fun and deliciousness, and health is a nice byproduct of that and not the upfront goal. These kids can get really surprised by how delicious some braised greens can taste, and how much fun it is to make things.

The weird thing is, I'd guess that a lot of people would associate what you're doing with a kind of out of touch elitism.
Yeah. Our thing is that everything needs to be available at a Safeway. This is not farmers market cooking. Beyond the idea of losing memories, we'd like people to understand how to make something and perhaps the lifecycle of the food. The elitist aspect is kind of ridiculous, because it is cheaper to feed yourself good food and not processed food. If you know how to cook. You can cook beans, rice, and bones with bits of meat for almost no money, and it can be delicious. People have been eating that way for a very long time. The idea that the only options are processed food or organic farmers market food doesn't make sense.

· Part One: Daniel Patterson on Coi and Honesty in Cooking [-E-]
· All Daniel Patterson Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Coi Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]


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