Saison

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I am proud to say that Josh Skenes is a graduate of The French Culinary Institute/ICC. There is no finer moment for a school than when a student becomes a master. The culinary world has discovered Josh these past few years for his unique San Francisco restaurant Saison, which has garnered 3 Michelin stars and number 27 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Other giants in the field recognize his unique talents. Eric Ripert shared with me in a recent interview on Chef’s Story radio that Josh is the most interesting and talented chef of the new generation. He was intrigued with Saison’s sophistication with wooded fire. Tyler Florence told me last month it was the best meal he had all year.

What separates Skenes from the pack of highly talented chefs? His micro- focus, discipline and constant quest to learn more. When I asked him what was important in his cooking he quickly said ‘really knowing the product’. But for Josh knowing the product is extreme skiing. He gave me for an example a shallot, if you use a shallot:

  • What time of year was the shallot harvested?
  • How fresh is it?
  • How was it stored?
  • What type of cut would you use on the shallot?
  • How quickly would you use the shallot after cutting since the oxidation of the shallot will affect the taste?

I was overwhelmed with that answer. I never even thought about anyone giving the humble shallot that much respect. I then delved into a conversation about technique. I asked Josh what was the hardest technique intensive dish he has created. Without hesitation he said ‘Seven Fishes’ (an ultimate ceviche)’! The process-understanding the season to know which fish to choose, who caught the fish and how, how the fish traveled, how quickly it made it to the restaurant, how the fish was stored at the restaurant. The temperature of the fish as you cut it and placed in on the plate with the other fish of perfect temperature. The precise way to cut each fish with the exact knife. How to angle the pieces of the fish on the plate, how quickly the plate was delivered to the table and so on.

Saison doesn’t do the dish anymore. Because he was the only one who could perfectly execute it. The restaurant is only open for dinner. It serves 36 diners but this one dish was too labor intensive from the moment of the intention of fishing for it in the sea to presenting it to one special diner.

Thanks Josh for the insight to a Master’s mind!

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Chef Joshua Skenes and a walk-in at Saison

Lucky me! I just spent the most amazing afternoon with Joshua Skenes (FCI culinary grad 2001) at the new home of Saison restaurant. It was amazing. The space itself looks like a Tribeca loft, beautifully clean, sparse and industrial but the soul is definitely Zen. Twenty six cooks and staff worked silently with incredible focus. The delicacy of the work was impressive. Each aspect of each garnish was getting VIP care.

When Saison took San Francisco by storm it had a lot to do with Josh’s mastery of a wood burning fire. The old Saison had one outdoor oven that rarely saw a pizza. Instead, a parade of smoke kissed vegetables, fowl and meats played center stage on the menu. It was Saison’s signature. I expected the hearth would still be the focal point of this restaurant. I could hardly find it. There is a major display of wood at the entrance but the fire itself is contained in the corner of the kitchen. Not to worry.

The Saison entrance

The fire in the Saison kitchen

Josh does things his way. He designs his space not from some text-perfect kitchen schematic but from his cooking voice. He draws inspiration from many places, but at the end of the day, follows his own iconoclastic instincts. Hence, in this elegant dining room he placed his five walk-in refrigerators! I salivated as they opened and closed with beautiful products inside. The dining tables weren’t herded in a separate “dining room” but actually flow into the kitchen, so the ballet of the kitchen staff is in your face. In a sense, as you dine, you’re part of the dance.

The Saison dining room and the walk-ins

Josh in the Saison kitchen

Josh may love fire but he is relentless with sourcing perfect product. He not only wants to find an extraordinary purveyor but is meticulous in using the product at the perfect point for delicious consumption. As he said to me, you could precut radishes to be ready for the on rush of service but it just doesn’t taste the same. They couldn’t do that.

Squab

Like a curator, Josh ages his own meats and fowls. He took me to see the squab closet. He hangs his squabs for weeks until their oils break and tenderize the breasts. He uses big old hens in their entirety just to make consommé. He wraps saddles of lamb in kidney fat, so the air does not spoil the meat. To have the chance to spend an afternoon and feel the passion of this man for his restaurant was a rare treat. If you can snag a reservation, it’s a special treat too.  Try, it’s definitely worth it!

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Chef Joshua Skenes

We are so proud that our grad, Joshua Skenes was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs this year.  FCI then had two things to celebrate on my visit to San Francisco last week.  We took the opportunity to toast the birthing of The French Culinary Institute/ICC (at the International Culinary Center) of California and Joshua’s great achievement.

Jacques Pepin and I hosted  a grand dinner for press and the San Fran chef community on June 20th, at Saison, Josh’s restaurant.  The menu was as exciting as delicious.  I love the simplicity of the restaurant and the fact that you not only peek into the kitchen but feel an extension of it.  One lusts after the Molteni stove. In the entrance alleyway, there is an outdoor bar with a brick pizza oven-like fire raging. (In San Francisco that is welcomed year round.) Josh loves to control the fire and play with it.  He started the menu with a slightly smoked California caviar. The bounty of the California farm basket was weaved in every dish.  Just look at the presentation!  And my favorite was the roasted popcorn ice cream. If you can get in, go there, it is fantastic.  And tell Josh Dorothy sent you!

(photos Marc Fiorito, GammaNine.com)

The pizza oven

Dorothy, Dean Jacques Pepin, Joshua Skenes

The French Culinary Institute of California Media Launch Event

Saison, San Francisco, June 20, 2011

Menu

Caviar

Wild Spot Prawn

Brassicas

Crustaceans

Pasternack’s Rabbit

Preserve Lemon

Popcorn Ice Cream

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