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Haute and Bothered
Vanessa Rancaño | Photo: Maren Caruso | December 20, 2013
Daniel Patterson is one of the most brilliant and accomplished chefs in this food-obsessed town. So why the long face?
Daniel Patterson has a cold. His eyes are bloodshot and his short hair sleep-mussed. After greeting me in the dining room of his Oakland restaurant, the two-Michelin starred chef goes into the kitchen to order a bowl of chicken soup. A few minutes later, as we sit near the front window, a nervous-looking cook brings over the soup, retreating in a hurry. Patterson takes a taste and his face hardens. He drops his spoon in disgust, throws up his hands, and gives the ceiling a long, pained look that says, “Why must I be surrounded by idiots?” Taking the disdained bowl, he stalks back to the kitchen, and I hear him giving his chef de cuisine a hushed lecture.
When Patterson comes back, I ask what the matter is. "The second-worst thing you can do in cooking is to underseason food," he says. "The worst thing you can do is to overseason. Underseasoning is impreciseness. It's an absence; it's a little bit of a void. Overseasoning is punishing; it's aggressive; it's heading toward torture." The offending cook nowhere in sight, the chef de cuisine brings another bowl of soup, leaning away from his boss like a person approaching a land mine. Patterson's affable Thanks, dude" doesn't seem to make him any more comfortable.
Daniel Patterson does not make easy food, and he is not an easy person. Among the Bay Area’s most celebrated and innovative chefs, he is one of very few with an international reputation. His signature high-end restaurant on Broadway in San Francisco, Coi, holds the coveted two-star Michelin rating. He hobnobs with jet-set culinary superstars like Danish chef Rene Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, was voted best in the world three years in a row. Alta CA, the newest of Patterson’s four local restaurants, just opened next to the Twitter offices in San Francisco’s mid-Market district. And he is an accomplished writer whose new book, Coi: Stories and Recipes, was just published by Phaidon.
Yet this impressive résumé has not mellowed Patterson. An intense and complex man, he has several large chips on his shoulder—chief among them the fact that he feels unappreciated in his own town. He tells me that he is unhappy with the local media, believing that they have failed to recognize the significance of his contributions. He says that he gets the worst reception right here, where his restaurants are. If they were in New York or Europe, he believes, his talents would be acknowledged.
Patterson’s international peers may regard Coi as one of the finest restaurants in the country, but that recognition has not translated into full bookings. On weeknights, Patterson’s flagship is often half full. Compared to other restaurants that offer fine dining in the Bay Area, like Benu, the French Laundry, or Manresa, it’s easy to get a reservation at Coi, even at peak times on weekend nights.
Patterson’s travails stem in part from the fact that the chef has always been loyal to his own exacting vision; he does not cater to popular tastes. The restaurant’s cuisine is often described as cerebral, intense, minimalist—food that mirrors Patterson’s personality. “His cooking is not just for giving people tasty food,” says cheesemaker Soyoung Scanlan, a longtime friend and collaborator. “He’s an artist. He expresses himself through his food. He always takes the food to a more intellectual level.” Scanlan compares Patterson’s cuisine to cubist painting, calling it more demanding—and rewarding—than most food. “People sometimes think his food is very difficult. But it’s who he is. He’s very certain. He’s never really tried to be someone else. He has that kind of integrity.”
“He’s not trying to please everybody, and that’s part of Daniel’s cross to bear,” says his close friend James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee.
Obsessive, demanding, perfectionist, Patterson is an artist who lives in his own creative world. But the business of purveying his food to the public requires compromise—dealing with employees who don’t live up to his high standards, critics who fail to appreciate his originality, and customers who don’t always respond positively to his cuisine. It’s a paradox that Patterson has always struggled to resolve.
In this light, Patterson’s newest venture, Alta CA, can be seen as something of a watershed, as the multifaceted chef attempts to embrace his more relaxed, mellower side—and establish a San Francisco restaurant that is an unequivocal popular success. Patterson and his partner, Ron Boyd, intend to make that happen by applying the business acumen acquired from operating their other restaurants, notably the East Bay kitchens that have become their enterprise’s profit center. And although Patterson has given chefs at those restaurants a relatively free hand, it’s significant that he is giving up control of the kitchen at a high-profile launch in a red-hot neighborhood in San Francisco. It’s time, he says, to nurture a younger generation of chefs. But the question remains: Can a brilliant, driven iconoclast who describes himself as a “totally OCD control freak” really learn to let go?
Daniel Patterson curtly deflects questions about his childhood, saying, “I was raised by wolves. The rest is just a big lie.” He grew up in Manchester, Massachusetts,a coastal town of 5,000 people. His mother was a French and history teacher, his father a lawyer. His earliest memory is of standing in his neighbor’s yard when he was four, watching his family home burn down.
Patterson’s two-year-old sister was seriously hurt in the fire, requiring intermittent hospitalizations for a few years, and his parents were consumed with her medical needs. Patterson spent much of his childhood in the woods behind his house, rebuilt by his parents on the same lot. He’d play and amble, lie on the ground listening to birds and the sound of branches swaying in the wind, and hide. In his book, he writes that the forest gave him solace in a world where little felt dependable.
During the ’70s, Patterson spent summers in France with his family. He was 14 and living in a small town on the southern coast of France the first time that he ate at a Michelin-starred restaurant. He remembers being struck by one dish in particular, a mild white fish with beurre blanc, a classic butter sauce with an acidic tang. The turbot was perfectly cooked, the sauce delicate but vibrant. Fish was hardly new to Patterson, but the finesse of this preparation was eye-opening. At that moment, he realized that food could be good enough to create lasting memories. (The evocation of memory through taste is something that Patterson thinks about a lot.)
Before he turned 15, Patterson was working at a restaurant as a dishwasher, moving up to prep cook and then line cook over time. He entered Duke University but dropped out after a year, having realized that he felt more comfortable in the kitchen than in the classroom—and that he wanted to become a chef.
Patterson never went to culinary school. In a world where chefs display big-name mentors like badges, he is quiet about his training, referring to himself as an autodidact. Cooks who have worked under him for years know little about how he learned his trade.
Patterson is more forthcoming when describing his earliest mentor, his grandmother. A Russian Jew whose parents fled the pogroms for America, she had an unusual ability to convey emotion through food—an ability that he shares. “Some people’s cooking makes you feel things more intensely than others’,” he says. “It’s the way that we understand and connect to each other and the world. If I make something for you and put it in your body, you don’t get any more closeness than that.”
“I think he forged his own path, and that’s been important to his food,” says his former pastry chef at Coi, Bill Corbett, now executive pastry chef at Absinthe. Because Patterson wasn’t shaped by the traditional French model, Corbett adds, he feels no loyalty to it. “He does what he wants.”
Patterson’s road to culinary eminence has not been free of potholes. In 1989, when he was 20, he moved to San Francisco. There he met his first wife, Elisabeth Ramsey, who managed a restaurant where he worked. Two years later the couple moved to Sonoma, where they opened a small restaurant called Babette’s. Babette’s received positive reviews—Food and Wine gave Patterson a Best New Chef nod in 1997—but it closed when the lease expired.
Patterson and Ramsey moved back to San Francisco and opened Elisabeth Daniel, a small place in the financial district with only 16 tables. Although the restaurant was nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant award and garnered widespread critical approval, it sank in the post–September 11 economy.
In 2004, Patterson was hired as the chef at a new hybrid night club–restaurant called Frisson. He’d just published a book with perfumer Mandy Aftel that explored the use of essential oils in food, and his menu reflected the new ideas. Again, his food got high marks from critics, but it didn’t suit the owners’ loungey conception of the place, and he left after a year or so. Meanwhile, he and Ramsey had divorced. He later married lawyer Alexandra Foote; the couple have two children.
In 2005, Patterson received national attention for writing a New York Times Magazine essay that challenged Bay Area chefs’ obeisance to the Chez Panisse dogma of letting ingredients speak for themselves and dared them to push the frontiers of their craft. By 2006, when he opened Coi, his third restaurant, he had established himself as a unique voice in the food world.
“Patterson was an iconoclast; he was far out,” says chef Chris Young, coauthor of the contemporary cooking tome Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. Patterson was using wild ingredients like oxalis, the yellow-flowered “sour straws” that many locals sucked on as kids, long before foraging became commonplace. His cuisine, with its use of essential oils and foams, its unusual ingredients, and its molecular gastronomy techniques, is kindred in spirit to the avant-garde cuisine of European temples like Spain’s elBulli and England’s the Fat Duck. “He’s got guts, big-time,” Redzepi says. “Daniel’s always been sort of ahead of the game somehow, but secretly. Nobody really knows about him.”
Redzepi’s comment raises some obvious questions: Why isn’t Patterson more celebrated here? Is a provincial and risk-averse local food community to blame? Or is it something else? These questions seem to haunt Patterson, ever the sensitive artist, at every step.
Patterson typically works at least 70 hours a week. He dedicates most of his time to Coi, but also oversees operations at his Oakland ventures—the casual Plum, the neighboring Plum Bar, and Haven, an upscale spot on the waterfront. At the same time, he’s working on Alta and helping to raise his two young children. It’s a brutal schedule, but one that he seems to relish. After international business trips, one of his sous chefs tells me, he routinely heads straight to Coi from the airport, only afterward going home to see his family. “He’s like a machine.”
Patterson demands as much of other people as he does of himself, which is one big reason for his sometimes contentious reputation in the San Francisco food community. Few in that small world are willing to speak on the record, but local chefs relate anecdotes about Patterson berating farmers’ market vendors who didn’t have produce that he was counting on, or ignoring colleagues who came to eat in his restaurant and pay their regards. Former employees tell stories of ruptured relationships with longtime employees and describe a dysfunctional culture of fear and overwork at Patterson’s restaurants—a culture that they blame for a turnover rate that’s remarkably high even in an industry notorious for churning through employees.
In less than three years, Plum has seen no fewer than six head chefs. On one occasion, a former employee tells me, servers arrived for their shift to find that the chef of more than a year, Rob Dort, and the sous chef had been replaced. An extra pair of Coi cooks were on hand in case other members of the kitchen crew decided to bail in solidarity with Dort. Two cooks did walk, but a new menu rolled out that night nonetheless. “Patterson tends to burn bridges,” one local chef tells me. “It’s a tough restaurant,” Corbett says of Coi. “You put in 13-hour days, you feel as a cook that you’ve done everything right—and then you go through the tasting process, and Daniel picks it apart and wants you to start again.”