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How Cooking With Honesty Led Saison's Joshua Skenes to Three Michelin Stars

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Plus, new intel about his fast-casual concept Fat Noodle.

Skenes/Bonjwing Lee; Saison/Molly DeCoudreaux

Two weeks ago, San Francisco chef Joshua Skenes received word he'd earned one of the most prestigious honors in the restaurant world: His restaurant Saison was bestowed with a much-coveted third star in the 2015 Michelin guide. "It's an overwhelming feeling of many different things," Skenes laughs, recounting the moment he heard about the third star. Skenes had planned to surprise his staff with the news during that day's line-up, "but then somebody leaked the news at like, 2p.m.," he says. "They kind of messed up those plans, but that's okay. Everybody was elated... We wound up just reconvening after service and celebrating into the night."

Now that Michelin madness has died down a bit, Skenes chats with Eater about the Michelin accolade, Saison's newish Test Kitchen (which gives diners an insider's taste at how the team "catalogu[es] our own way of cooking"), and how cooking with honesty is infused into everything Skenes does — whether it's at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant or his upcoming fast-casual project Fat Noodle. "Whatever I do, it's just based on the desire to do something delicious," Skenes says. "That's really it, for me."

I know it's only been a couple weeks, but did the third Michelin star lead to a bump in business?
I think we saw an immediate difference in the volume of phone calls. For reservations, luckily and thankfully, we have been very busy, especially recently. The actual reservations — it's still early. So, we'll see. But most important is just the electricity of the staff and the whole team. It's a wonderful validation for everyone that works so hard.

You've said in the past that you can't go star-chasing and be successful. But after you earn two stars, is that something that's always in the back of your mind to at least retain?
Well yes, of course, in a sense. But most importantly, and this year especially, it was the first year that I tried to not think about it at all, and tried to do what we felt was the most honest thing and most important thing with the food. So, we're very happy that it paid off and that we were rewarded for that hard work.

Photo: Molly DeCoudreaux

I've noticed that you often use the words "honesty" and "sincerity" when talking about your approach. What does honesty in cooking mean to you exactly?
For me, it means a lot of things: It primarily means using the very best ingredients, really and truly. You get a product in and are obsessing over each product that comes in the door, tasting it when it comes in, and saying, "Is this really the best one that I've ever had?" If not, then you have to find a better one.

After that, there's the handling [of the product] and the timing of serving something. It's easy sometimes for chefs to do things that are a little easier so perhaps they can do a couple more covers, or something along those lines. For instance, you probably shouldn't slice your vegetables and store them in water ahead of time: It takes away from the flavor. It's those kinds of things, a lot of small things, that add up to a big difference. How you serve something is another thing I feel contributes to the honesty of cooking, realizing the fact that we're feeding human beings. So, trying to keep it light and more pure in flavor so it's more delicate, and when you're finished with your meal, you wind up feeling good and not overly stuffed. For me, it means not too much fat, not too much butter, and focusing more on depth of flavor than on weightiness or heaviness.

You mention some of the shortcuts that people might take, when you're making business decisions. But how do you strike a balance between maintaining that level of honesty with also being a business owner?
It's just the choice you make before you open your establishment. You have to decide. Everybody can do whatever they like, but for me, I want to do it this way.

One of the things that Saison is known for is your willingness to evolve and take chances. Where do you think that impulse comes from?

"You have to wake up every day like someone's going to take it away from you."
I think that you have to wake up every day like someone's going to take it away from you. You need to go into your day making sure that you do better than your previous self on the previous day. That's really it. It's a simple thing to say, but if you really stop and kind of think about that and think through the things we do in our days, that contributes to everything around us and constant evolution.

Is that where the idea of these Test Kitchen dinners came from?
The Test Kitchen dinners were actually a way to provide something that was fun and a little crazy. We've been, for years now, cataloguing our own way of cooking, our own language, especially with our use of fire and the way that we preserve products, age them, store them. It's all interesting. So, I just wanted to share that with people before it was a final dish. At Saison, there's a huge responsibility to the people who come and eat to serve very nourishing, delicious food... food that's pure, wholesome, and meant to be eaten by human beings. But at the Test Kitchen, we just wanted to have a little fun... It's been great. Everybody's been really cool, and I think we're blessed to have a really great group of people who come and eat at the restaurant. The most important thing is that people come to enjoy their time.

Photo: Molly DeCoudreaux

What are your goals for Saison moving forward?

"Being hands-on in that process of production and creation and evolution: For me, that's what it's going to be."
Since the very beginning, it's always been the same. As time goes on and as Fat Noodle opens, or as anything else I do opens, my plan has always been to spend more time at Saison. So it's almost been the reverse: to maybe make Saison a little smaller as time goes by. To me, the pleasure that I derive from cooking comes from having my hands in the dirt at the farm, going to the restaurant and cooking those vegetables, and being a part of that process. Being hands-on in that process of production and creation and evolution: For me, that's what it's going to be. Eventually, it'll probably be an eight-seat restaurant, and I'll be trying to cook everything myself, when I'm 70. That's it. It's the repetition of doing those same things day-to-day and really just enjoying yourself.

I'm glad you mentioned Fat Noodle. I talked to [Fat Noodle partner] Adam Fleischman a few weeks ago about the bones of the concept. Is there anything else you can share?
It's a very simple concept. I wanted a place to go eat Szechuan and Shaanxi flavors, the flavors of Western China. I love and am addicted to those flavors and sauces and things. It's in the neighborhood, it's close, and I just wanted a place like that that had great products attached to it.

So the menu R&D is complete?
I started this concept in 2007, and I was going to do it back then, but it didn't work out for one reason or another. So I went and R&D'd all the noodles and I went to every single place in Beijing and Shanghai, searching out my favorite noodles and getting all of those classical sauces: mala sauces, all that stuff. So, a good portion of it has been done.

Is early 2015 still the timeline?
Definitely. The sooner the better, because I'm hungry when I get off work. [Laughs] And the cool thing, too, is Mark [Bright, Saison's sommelier] is putting together a really exceptional wine list. It's great wine, but it's all really inexpensive wine. And there are a bunch of beers that I love from China that they don't have here. I want people to be able to come later at night, have a great time, and actually drink good wine with this good food, but at a very low price point.

So how does the idea of honesty translate to Fat Noodle, where you won't be there to have your hands on every dish?
You do your very best for what you can afford. Each restaurant, [we want it] to be the best of its genre and you do what you can with what you have. But for me, at Fat Noodle, we're still buying great products from the farm, and you just cook them simply. This is a different kind of food. This is the kind of simple [process] where you get something in and you cook it right away, and you serve it right away. So, it's very simply prepared. I think at the lower level like that, it's just about having decent, good products, prepared deliciously.

"It's just about having decent, good products, prepared deliciously."

I'm curious to know — and I know this is a problematic word sometimes — but where does "authenticity" intersect with that idea of "honesty" for you?
What is authenticity? When you go try hand-pulled noodles at 10 different places in Beijing, 10 different places in Shanghai, they all have their own way of doing it. The same thing for each one of the sauces. So to me, it's more about honoring those classic flavors, just looking toward tradition and learning from that, and recreating a classic flavor, a traditional flavor. It's really tradition we're looking at and learning from. Authenticity is such an interesting word and a long conversation.

Saison

178 Townsend Street, , CA 94107 (415) 828-7990 Visit Website

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