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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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Chris Cosentino and staff

I heard him before I saw him. I was trying to find how to get into Incanto in San Francisco to interview Chef Chris Cosentino for my radio program Chef’s Story, which airs on Heritage Radio Network. The restaurant’s door was locked and there was not an obvious side door. I spied someone smoking and thought, that must be a restaurant worker…and lo and behold it was. And the door right near them had a staircase going into the basement. Halfway down the stairs I heard the booming voice. “that’s it…slice it slowly..that’s it.” I couldn’t believe at five in the evening, a star chef like Chris was actually in the kitchen prepping with his staff.

He gave me a big hello but asked if I could wait, he had to get his staff through family meal. I was happy to wait. And it was an education. Chris Cosentino’s passion just explodes in his kitchen. It is so raw and honest, all you can do is smile. I heard him talk about the night’s menu to the waitstaff. He had them tasting. He was as good a teacher as I have ever seen. And I was lusting for their food.

Incanto and Chris are known for offal, in fact Chris even has his own website Offal Good, where you can learn more about Chris and offal. At Incanto, you can get pulverized tuna heart, crudo cow stomach muscle, lamb’s liver. Chris refuses to throw away any part of an animal, it’s the whole animal philosophy….and he butchers them all himself.

Incanto is in a class of its own. Cosentino is a gift…and his philosophy is infectious. You got to love him. (That’s Chris in glasses leaning against the wall).

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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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