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Elite Traveler Speaks to Joshua Skenes

by Emily Mathieson

Starting life as a humble pop-up and winning its third Michelin star last year, San Francisco’s Saison is a force to be reckoned with.

Head Chef Joshua Skenes trained with the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Anthony Ambrose and is one of the most impressive young talents of his generation.

We caught up with the rising star about fine dining, farms and plans for an as-yet-unnamed noodle restaurant.

Congratulations on Saison being featured in the Elite Traveler Top 100 Restaurants 2015 and being shortlisted for Young Chef of the Year. Our list is voted for by our jetsetting readers rather than food critics or industry insiders. How does it feel to be recognized by the public in this way? 

It’s great. We cook for a lot of reasons but certainly one of the most important reasons is our guests so it’s very important.

Do you think there is a difference between being voted for by the public and being voted for by critics in awards like Michelin? 

Well, let’s just say that if awards didn’t exist, it’s the public who would fill your restaurant and put asses on seats, so it’s great.

11th Course: Brussels & CabbageWhere did your love of cooking and fine dining come from? 

It’s been around for a long time. I remember watching shows like Great Chefs, Great Cities when I was a kid in the eighties so I guess it was always there. I remember being in the woods, playing alligators and snakes and fishing, camping and building fires so it’s also kind of a nostalgic smell and memory. Possibly from there. It’s hard to answer directly because I don’t really know. It’s always been around.

How would you describe your culinary approach and was it inspired by any particular chef or location?  

We’re all inspired by things indirectly – sights, smells and the things we experience. I guess it’s looking at the product, saying what can we do to it, trying to understand it and seeing how we can cook it to make it taste the best.

What is the secret to your success? Was the pop-up part of it or separate? 

I don’t know, I think I look at it in terms of just needing to wake up every day and wanting to do better than the day before and I think that if we take that attitude it makes us work hard and continue to learn so that’s my recipe.

Is there a dish at Saison that really stands out to you at the moment? 

We create, just like most great restaurants, all of our food from things from our location in the Bay Area. In order to do that, we have to go back and redo all of our standard rota items like soy sauce, which we make by using inoculated grains, rather than soy beans. We have our Saison stamp on it so we grill the grains instead of putting them in raw. But I would say the vegetables, because of our farm, are very exciting.

You have your own farm? 

We do have our own farm. It’s in the mountains about 45 minutes from the restaurant. We have cows so we make all our own butter, crème fraiche and ice creams. We have ducks, we have chickens, we have pigs – all that stuff.

I think everyone should have a farm. You pick the lettuce, you serve the lettuce, that’s what makes it taste good.

What are your plans for the future? 

We certainly haven’t arrived in the final resting place for Saison so, just like I mentioned, there was always an image in my mind from the pop-up. I still feel we’re not in that state, we have a long way to go.

What does your final image look like?

Well, that’s a secret, I can’t tell you. It’s, er, who knows? Over time I always wanted the restaurant to become smaller and more handcrafted in every way, you know? So, we’ll see where the road takes us.

I’ve read about a noodle restaurant – is that still happening?

Yes it is, it’s opening in the summertime – a hand-pulled Chinese noodle joint about a mile from the restaurant.

Saison Can you reveal the name?

Well, I don’t know if we’re going to have to change it all, I’m not sure yet but you know, regardless, the name’s not what’s important. They can have the name and we’ll do better food.

What are your predictions for gastronomic trends or emerging gourmet destinations?

I don’t know about trends but I know what I’d like to see and what I want for myself. I have a yearning to get back to the woods; I have had for years, actually and I would love to get back into the woods, into some land and just, you know: pick the lettuce, serve the lettuce, and so I think it would be nice to see restaurants, especially in America, become less [about] commodity and more [about] earnest honest food.

What is the proudest moment in your career to date?

I would say getting three stars in terms of awards, but opening the new location of Saison was a proud moment, I look at it in a few different ways – the team and the awards. In terms of general accomplishments, to see our team grow and develop into a strong group of individuals who are all becoming very successful in their own right is probably my proudest moment.

Can you tell us about your best and worst meals/restaurant experiences of the last year? e.g. who else would you tip and where is really over-rated?

I can’t tell you the worst but my favourite would be Matsu Kawa in Tokyo, because of the delicateness, the balance, the subtlety. One of my favorite things about eating in Japan – and I’ve only been there once – is the sense of restraint. Here we have such a tendency to commodify things because we’re afraid that people need more flavor, more spice, more this, more that, but I certainly want to cook the opposite – where it’s never too much but never not enough so it’s delicate and you’re eating good food but by the time you get to the end of the meal you feel good, it feels light but it’s full of flavor and depth and just nature.