2/04/2013 11:05:00 AM

Joshua Skenes On Saison 3.0, Tasting Menus and Cooking Honestly

Joshua Skenes has won national accolades for his restaurant Saison in San Francisco, a tasting menu-only eatery where everything is cooked over some element of live fire. Last Friday, Skenes opened up his third and final incarnation of the restaurant, an ambitious built-to-spec SoMa venue in which there are no walls between the cooks and the intimate 18-seat dining room. We caught up with Skenes the morning after opening night to hear what he had to say about the so-called tyranny of tasting menus, the problem with a prepaid ticketing system and the importance of being earnest.

Zagat: Tasting menus have been a subject of debate lately in food media; clearly you're a fan. What did you think of Corby Kummer's argument that the tasting menu isn't reflective of the customer's wants/needs?
JS: I think it’s very narrow-minded. If you’re not looking to sit down and experience enjoying high-quality food, you don’t have to. You have a choice to go where you like. No one says, “Hey you son of a b*tch, you better come to my restaurant now.” People can go where they please. Sure, it can become torturous if you wait too long between courses or it’s filled with a lot of butter, but if a tasting menu is designed keeping in mind that you’re feeding human beings, the diner can get through the meal satisfied and have a great time.

Tasting menus are designed with delivering the very best quality in mind. There are a lot of variables in a restaurant, and in order to control some of the variables, you put together one menu and then you find the very best of everything that’s humanly possible. If you look at any restaurant across the world that really truly buys the very best things, they’re all just one menu a night. It’s not because anyone wants to say no. It’s the exact opposite. We kill ourselves only to give people the very best experience. It’s about the quality and the enjoyment people get when they come here. You can’t expect to have an à la carte menu, where you have a lot of choices and some things get ordered and others don’t. The cost is too high. So we’re not going to try to be everything for everyone. We just focus on some of things we do best, and then do them to our very best.

Zagat: How do you strike a balance between diner preferences and a chef's vision?  
JS: You don’t. Ok, well, you do. Our responsibility as a chef is to understand the ingredients and bring out their fundamental flavors without adding too much. So there are restaurants that you go to where you have to trust the chef. You should leave it in their hands because they’ve gotten to know the ingredients over the course of their professional lives, and hopefully they treat and serve them with respect so they taste good. That why we only have 18 seats. So do a lot of restaurants in the world. You go to Japan, they have eight seats, 10 seats. That's because you can only buy so much of that one ingredient, and you can only serve so many people; it’s not really scalable. 

Ultimately, it’s the diner’s vote. If you don’t like a tasting menu, then they can choose to go somewhere else. Half the time, when I go out, I want to go somewhere fun and have an extended experience where I relax with friends or family and enjoy the food. And there are those times when I just want a salad or a grilled piece of fish and get in and out. Therein lies the beauty of variety. There’s plenty out there. 

Zagat: How did using a prepaid ticketing system affect your business? And why did you ultimately abandon it?
JS: When we first opened Saison, we were doing a kind of prepaid thing; we were selling seats online, and it worked really well. But this time, it just didn’t work out, so we abandoned it. It’s more a logistical issue with the technology. We’re still considering making something really simple, whether you call or go online. But we haven’t found that ease of use for the guests yet. I don’t want people to have to go through 17 steps to make a reservation.

Zagat: What chefs do you consider to be the greatest innovators in the U.S. right now?
JS: Innovation isn’t what’s important to me, honesty is. How do you cook honestly? Whether it’s a bowl of hand-pulled noodles that you get for seven kuai on the street of Beijing or a high-end restaurant that charges $500 a person, it still boils down to the honesty of the meal. What’s interesting to me are the cooks who push for their own honesty - not their own in the sense of, “Oh, I’m creative,” but their own in the sense of looking at their surrounding area and just doing something representative of that, whatever that means to them. There are a lot of people doing that. Guenter Seeger used to be one of my favorite chefs in America. Laurent Gras is another one. Chez Panisse Café is a great example of a place that just does simple and honest preparation. Consider a bulb of fennel. You buy it that day and use it that day. You don’t put it in a refrigerator for a couple of days and then slice it ahead of time to do more covers. And when you get an order of fennel salad, you slice and put it on the plate. That’s honesty.

Zagat: Cooking over live fire has become a bit trendy of late, but you were one of its earliest pioneers. What’s the greatest appeal of that type of cooking for you, where did you first discover it and how are you using it in the new restaurant?
JS: It’s in every single dish here in some way or another. Flavor - that’s what it’s about. If you grill something, it usually tastes better than if you don’t grill it. My dad used to take me camping and fishing, where I’d catch things like crawfish and snakes. Obviously when you’re camping, what are you cooking over? So it’s a connection to my childhood. But it also just tastes better. 

Zagat: What’s the biggest difference between Saison 3.0 and what you were doing in the old Folsom space?
JS: The major difference is the space. We outgrew that last space about one and a half years ago, and we were always struggling to make it better. You do hit a wall in terms of limitation, in terms of workflow. Now we don’t have those limitations. We have everything we need to be able to execute perfectly. It’s not just about the cooking; it’s about the whole restaurant experience. It’s about walking in the door, to sitting down at the bar, your table being set with flatware, everything. At the end of day it’s purely about the enjoyment of our guests, nothing else. 

Zagat: When you first opened, Saison attracted an edgy, almost underground clientele. Now that your tasting menu costs $248 per person, you obviously attract a different milieu of diners. How do you feel about being a restaurant that only the elite can really afford? 
JS: I don’t think that’s accurate. The elite are not our only clientele. We get a lot of different people. A lot come from the industry. As a cook in a restaurant, if you’re smart and save your money, once every month you could go spend on a good meal at a restaurant. It’s not how much money you make; it’s about money management. Look, I don’t want an elite restaurant. I want anybody to come here. I would love to serve everything for zip; I really would. For me, this is not about making money at Saison. It’s about a craft. Value and price are two different things, and they’re not related. Two hundred forty-eight dollars is a bargain relative to the value. The cost we may spend on a dinner for food alone may be 50%; the average food cost in a restaurant is generally no more than 30%. Our prices are purely dictated by our costs.

Zagat: Mark Bright’s wine list has always been a focal point of the Saison experience. Why did you decide to add a cocktail program?
JS: It’s just a great amenity for our guests. We wanted them to be able to come in and have an apéritif or digestive before the meal. It’s also something that I was interested in because it was something different. The bar program focuses on the same thing as the kitchen - using the very best ingredients we can find. We're crafting delicate, balanced cocktails so we can do pairings with the food. Mark’s also put together a phenomenal wine list from the best cellars in the world. Ultimately, we ask the same question for the cocktails and wine list as for the food - does it taste delicious? You can dork out about it as much as you want, but when you drink it, does it taste delicious?

Zagat: How has winning national accolades affected you? 
JS: It’s great. Certainly it brings recognition to the restaurant and allows more people to come to it, which is a great thing, but for our day-to-day, it’s always the same push. It’s a series of small things that wind up to making a very big difference. Every time we stop one thing and move onto the next thing, we ask, what can we do better, and how can we have done that last thing even better? Those are the questions.

Zagat: On your night off, where in San Francisco can we find you eating? 
JS: My what? I don’t get many nights off those these days. When I do go out on Sundays [when the restaurant is closed] I usually always go for sushi, Vietnamese, some good Sichuan like Z & Y or something simple like Chez Panisse Café or Zuni for brunch. I’m not telling you my sushi spot. I like things that are fresh. I’m like a rabbit sometimes. I eat a lot of leaves. 

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