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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?
I learn from personal experience that Patterson does not suffer fools gladly. When I meet him at Coi one night, an umbrella that I’ve leaned against the wall clatters to the floor. Patterson holds it in front of me, irritably explaining that the handle outweighs the tip and that given the way gravity works, the heavier part should be set on the ground. “This is what I do all day—teach people common sense,” he snarls.
Indeed, social grace is not Patterson’s strong suit. He notices minute inconsistencies in his cooks’ mise en place—one former sous chef recalls being scolded over a discrepancy of a couple of millimeters in the length of her chive batons—but emotional cues often seem lost on him. “Part of me feels like Larry David and Daniel have a lot in common,” Corbett says. “The human part is the most elusive part for Daniel,” his friend Freeman observes. “I think he struggles to connect to people. Making something interesting and pleasing is a way he has to connect.”
Patterson knows this about himself. One night at Coi, I am surprised to see him carrying a dish out to the dining room. He tells me that some days he can’t stand to talk to anyone, but that when he’s up to it, he visits every table because he knows that diners like it. Standing in the tight kitchen, he suddenly turns to me. “I learned this thing,” he says, and gives me a broad smile. When I smile in response, he says, “See, you smiled.” He tells me that after enough uncomfortable trips to the dining room, he realized that if he smiled at his guests, they returned the expression. “Now I do it at gas stations and stuff,” he says.
His wife, Patterson says, calls him a “black box” because he takes in everything and keeps it sealed tightly inside, saving the data for an emergency. So far “there have been no crashes,” he says, so he keeps recording in silence. When his mother-in-law died in 2005, he was bewildered by his wife’s grief. As he writes in his new book, her raw emotion overwhelmed him, so he did the only thing that he knew how to do: He cooked, for days, for his wife’s family. In his late mother-in-law’s kitchen, using her pans, rooting through her pantry, he felt a connection with her, he says, and he shared his love and sympathy with her family through the meals that he made.
The better one gets to know Patterson, the more the richness of his inner universe becomes apparent. He is a lanky man, moving with the self-consciousness of an adolescent adjusting to a newly changed body. His dark eyes are intense. As he leans over plates in the kitchen, placing flowers and bits of herbs with tweezers, he stands with his feet close together, the tip of one shoe resting on the other, one knee angled gently inward. He could be that elementary school kid who plays alone at recess, absorbed in his own make-believe world.
One afternoon, a Patterson meditation on work and creativity climaxes in an almost Joycean soliloquy. “Everyone has a different relationship with the world around them,” he says. “For me, it’s just very hard to be in the world. Whether it’s cooking or writing, you trudge along and it’s hard. You spend most of your time in any kind of creative pursuit mired in this cold, gray, muddy kind of wasteland. And then, every once in a while, you have this moment where something happens that is so extraordinary, so transcendent, that it obliterates all of the tedium of the world. A light so bright that it just wipes out everything else around it. And then it’s gone, and you’re back in that muck again. But that moment of epiphany is so extraordinary that you endure all of the other stuff to find it. The act of pursuing a moment of creativity is itself obliterating because it’s all-consuming. Anything that you don’t want to think about then is pushed away, because all you can do is pursue this one thing. It’s a very effective way of not being in the world.”
As with many creative people, Patterson’s lone-wolf disposition is inseparable from his pursuit of those moments of epiphany. And he has found them often enough that his peers in the rarefied world of international chefdom consider him a visionary. “He’s one of the brightest of his generation,” Redzepi tells me. “He’s a futurist.”
Patterson’s international reputation is evident at Coi. On most nights, half the diners are from outside the Bay Area, a quarter are international, and many are fellow chefs, Patterson tells me when I visit him at the restaurant. The night before, he’d served two chefs from Los Angeles, one from Vancouver, one from Hong Kong, and famed Brazilian chef Alex Atala, who had extended his trip to accommodate the dinner.
And then there’s the outsize footprint that Patterson has left on the Bay Area culinary scene. Many of the region’s best-known restaurateurs, including James Syhabout of Commis, Sarah and Evan Rich of Rich Table, and Brett Cooper of Outerlands, are graduates of the Coi kitchen. “He’s helping to change the food culture in San Francisco and pushing it to a different level,” says Evan Rich, former chef de cuisine at Coi. “He’s making it more acceptable for people like me to do what we’re doing.”
One of the hallmarks of Patterson’s cuisine is its use of unusual ingredients, many of which are prepared in ways that he invented. Seaweed is a case in point. Years ago, after a trip to Japan, Patterson decided to cook with local seaweeds. He couldn’t find any, so he asked his abalone farmers to bring him some. At first, the cooked seaweed turned slimy. It took a lot of experimenting before he realized that he could thwart the ooze by soaking the cooked seaweed in water and then rinsing it. But the effort gave him a palette of new ingredients, like sea lettuce, whose ocean flavors he uses to create harmony in his seafood dishes. For example, he says, in abalone over cooked escarole with a sea lettuce vinaigrette, the sea lettuce creates a rapport between the sweet abalone and the bitter escarole.
Patterson’s ideas for new techniques and ingredients often spring from trips, but sometimes his source of inspiration is more mundane. Last year, he was staring at some coffee beans while making a cappuccino when he turned to Redzepi, who happened to be cooking with him in his Oakland kitchen, and said, “We should cook something with coffee.” Redzepi was holding a winter squash and suggested that they cover it with coffee beans and roast it to see if it would take on the flavor. Soon Patterson was roasting carrots in coffee beans at Coi, and back in Copenhagen, Redzepi was roasting roots buried in whole spices. Patterson marvels at the possibilities: Carrots in coriander? Rutabagas in black pepper? Fennel in fennel seed?
It’s the night before a monthly wine dinner at Coi, and Patterson and his chef de cuisine, Andrew Miller, stand in the cramped kitchen discussing the menu. They need something to finish a dish—a texture to bridge what chefs call the mouthfeel of the various components. Patterson leans against a stainless steel worktable, holding a clipboard, while Miller stands across from him, arms crossed. It could be turnip, Patterson says, or onion. “What about acidulated onion?” Miller offers. “What about onion and…?” Patterson drops his head back and looks at the ceiling while he thinks. After a moment he suggests onion and sorghum, an idea that sets him in motion. He grabs a plate, sets it on the counter, and starts describing the dish with his hands: “…cut off the bone, slice, slice, slice,” he says as he runs his fingers across the plate.
Then another idea hits him: “What about caramel corn with popped sorghum?” Through a friend with a fancy popcorn machine, he’d learned that sorghum grain can be popped like corn. He calls across the kitchen to his pastry chef, Matt Tinder, to get his opinion on using caramelized sorghum syrup. Tinder says that it would work. “We’re going to create a new product,” Patterson tells me, eyes wide.
After he and Miller finalize the menu for the next night, Patterson turns to the dinner service that is about to start. While a cook stirs a bowl of clearish oyster juice, Patterson tastes it and adds a pinch of sugar, a pinch of salt, and a little lemon juice. As the juice turns to a gel, Patterson explains, the seasonings will diminish. He takes over the mixing from his cook and tastes again, seasons again, tastes again, then places the metal bowl over an ice bath. “Now you want to try it again,” he instructs the cook. “It’s the last chance.” A second later, as he stirs vigorously, the juice starts to gel. In a swift movement he pulls the bowl from the ice water and guides the gel into a plastic container.
“No one ever tastes how we taste at Coi,” one of Patterson’s sous chefs, David Baron, tells me. He has worked at a number of high-end restaurants in the United States and France, and he says that he’s never been pressed to engage his palate so intensely. Patterson expects his cooks to rely on their senses: Because no two carrots are the same, he says, they have to adjust to what’s in front of them. But Patterson also has an uncanny sense of taste. “His palate is one I’ve never seen before,” says Baron, noting that Patterson often orders seasoning adjustments in grains of salt and drops of vinegar. Baron has tried to trick him just to see if he’d actually notice. “There have been times when I’ve thought, in this huge bowl of purée, how are you going to taste two grains of salt?” But Patterson can always tell. He cooks with the leaves of only one bay tree, near his home in the Oakland Hills. When his cooks come back from foraging with leaves from another tree, he notices the difference—the leaves don’t have the same menthol perfume.
Alta CA is a far more mainstream, low-stakes effort than Coi. The restaurant came about because a friend from Boston, a Twitter employee, complained to Patterson about the lack of decent restaurants in the neighborhood around Ninth and Market Streets—and suggested that he open one. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You raise the money, I’ll open the restaurant,’” the chef recalls. “And he did, so then I had to open a restaurant.” The name Alta CA is a nod to state history: Alta California was the name of the Spanish (and later Mexican) territory that included what is now California, as well as the title of a legendary San Francisco newspaper where Mark Twain once worked. It’s a small restaurant—only 65 seats—and its single, high-ceilinged room is centered on a bar. The design blurs the division between kitchen and dining room, separating the two with a ceiling-high shelving unit.
The concept is “totally unpretentious and a little boisterous,” Patterson says. He wants the food to be approachable, “the kind of food that cooks want to make for themselves on their days off.” For Patterson and Alta chef Yoni Levy, that means deep, savory flavors and an unaffected style of presentation that integrates the components of a dish, making each bite dynamic. The menu features appetizers like beef tendon puffs ($6) and entrées like slow-cooked pork shoulder with clams ($23), a burger ($16), and a dish of chickpeas and oxtail fritters ($16), a play on the creation that impressed Patterson enough to give Levy the job.
Alta CA is intended to be a commercial success. But you could also see it as the embodiment of Patterson’s human, connected side—one that’s also manifested in his engagement with various charitable and educational projects, like the Cooking Project, which he cofounded to teach cooking skills to underprivileged youth.
It’s hard to imagine Patterson relinquishing creative control, but that’s exactly what he says he’s doing. He belongs in the kitchen at Coi, he says, and his role in his other restaurants is to support his young chefs and help them develop their own culinary language. “I’ve reached a point at which I’m not that important myself,” he says. “I hope that I can contribute to a group of people who are much stronger than I could ever be on my own.” It’s a side of Patterson that is hard to square with the driven perfectionist who follows his own muse. But as cheesemaker Scanlan observes, “He is not an easy topic. He is very complex.”
I’m sitting in the front room at Coi with Patterson, Levy, and Ben Hetzel, Alta’s general manager, when I ask Levy how much freedom Patterson is really giving him. “He set the framework pretty tight,” Levy says, “but it’s 100 percent my food, and he’s been really awesome about that and supportive.” After a moment he adds, “I just hope that my food is exactly what he wants.”
Originally published in the January Issue of San Francisco