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Haute and Bothered

Vanessa Rancaño | December 21, 2013 | Story Profiles

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.”

Page two: "He's one of the brightest of his generation. He's a futurist."

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

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