Men Who Cook: Table for One

The Singular Obsessions of a Master Chef

by vanessa rancaño

 

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-star Michelin 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 out the soup, retreating hastily. 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 returns, I ask what the matter is. “The second worst thing you can do in cooking is to under-season food,” he says. “The worst thing you can do is to over-season. Under-seasoning is impreciseness. It’s an absence; it’s a little bit of a void. Over-seasoning 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 René Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, was voted best in the world three years in a row. Alta CA, the newest of Patterson’s five local restaurants, just opened next to the Twitter offices in San Francisco’s red-hot mid-Market district. And he is an accomplished writer whose new book, Coi: Stories and Recipes, was recently 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 is unhappy with the local media, believing that they have failed to recognize the significance of his contributions. He says that he gets his worst reception right here, where his restaurants are. If they were in New York or Europe, he believes, his talents would be acknowledged.

Patterson has always been loyal to his own exacting vision; he does not cater to popular taste. His cuisine is often described as cerebral, intense, minimalist—food that mirrors his personality. “His cooking is not just for giving people tasty food,” says his friend and longtime collaborator, cheesemaker Soyoung Scanlan. “He’s an artist. He expresses himself through his food. He always transfers the food into a more intellectual level.” Scanlan compares Patterson’s cuisine to cubist painting, in that it’s more demanding—and rewarding—than most. “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 Patterson’s close friend James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee. “His type of cuisine is not the normal path for a San Francisco chef. If Coi were somewhere else, it would be much harder to get a seat.”

Obsessive, demanding, perfectionistic, 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 long struggled to resolve.

The Making of a Chef

Daniel Patterson grew up in Manchester, Massachusetts, a coastal town of 5,000 people. He curtly deflects questions about his childhood, saying, “I was raised by wolves. The rest is just a big lie.” 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, hide, and lie on the ground listening to birds and the sound of branches swaying in the wind. 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. (Memory, particularly its evocation through taste, is something that he thinks about a lot.)

Before he turned 15, Patterson worked at a restaurant as a dishwasher, moving up over time to prep cook and then line cook. He entered Duke University but dropped out after a year when he realized that he felt more comfortable in the kitchen than in the classroom—and that he wanted to become a chef.

Patterson didn’t learn to cook at home, and he never went to culinary school. Cooks who have worked under him for years know little about how he learned his trade. In a world where chefs wear big-name mentors like badges, he is quiet about his training, referring to himself as an autodidact.

Patterson is more forthcoming about the culinary influences of his family background. He describes his grandmother, a Russian Jew whose parents fled the pogroms to America, as having an unusual ability to transfer 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 around us. If I make something for you and put it in your body, you don’t get any more closeness than that.” He learned from his grandfather that he could rely on restaurants to offer a brighter version of the world. “The front door of a restaurant is a looking glass, and on the other side lies the promise of a better life,” he wrote in a 2012 Lucky Peach article.

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 the 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 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 had 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 the owners felt that it didn’t suit the lounge-like tone of the space, and he was fired 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 challenging Bay Area chefs’ obeisance to the ubiquitous Chez Panisse “let the ingredient speak for itself” dogma, and daring them to push the frontiers of their craft. His own cuisine, with its use of essential oils, foams, unusual ingredients, and techniques of molecular gastronomy, is a radical departure from the Chez Panisse philosophy, far closer in spirit to the avant-garde offerings of European temples like Spain’s elBulli and England’s The Fat Duck. By 2006, when he opened Coi, his third restaurant, Patterson had established himself as a unique voice in the local 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. “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.”

PHOTOGRAPH BY MAREN CARUSO

Pursuing an Epiphany

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, in addition to his newest restaurant, Alta CA. 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 going home to see his wife and children afterward. “He’s like a machine.”

Patterson demands as much of other people as he does of himself, which is a 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, Patterson’s Oakland restaurant, 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 and 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 the dismissed chefs. Two cooks did walk, but a new menu rolled out that night nonetheless. “He tends to burn bridges,” a local chef tells me. “It’s a tough restaurant,” concurs Bill Corbett, a former pastry chef at 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.”

I learn from personal experience that Patterson does not suffer fools gladly. When I meet him at Coi one rainy night, an umbrella that I’d leaned against the wall clatters to the floor. Patterson picks it up and 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 having been 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: 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.

Patterson is lanky and moves with the self-consciousness of an adolescent adjusting to a newly changed body. 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 over 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.

The more one gets to know Patterson, the more the richness of that inner universe becomes apparent. 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, 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.”

A Futurist

Patterson’s pursuit of that epiphany has made him a visionary in the rarefied world of international chefdom. “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 had 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. “He’s helping to change the food culture in San Francisco and pushing it to a different level,” says Evan Rich, a former chef de cuisine at Coi and co-owner of the restaurant Rich Table. “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. When he couldn’t find any, he asked his abalone farmers to bring him some samples. 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, including sea lettuce, whose ocean flavors he uses to create harmony in seafood dishes like abalone over cooked escarole with a sea lettuce vinaigrette.

Patterson’s ideas for new techniques and ingredients often spring from trips, but sometimes his source of inspiration is more mundane. One night before a monthly wine dinner at Coi, Patterson and his chef de cuisine,  Andrew Miller, stand in the 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 center of the plate. Then another idea hits him: “What about caramel corn with popped sorghum?” 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, he 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 jell. 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,” says David Baron, one of Patterson’s sous chefs. Baron 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, 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.

Laid Bare

These days, Patterson feels most at peace in the forest. On walks in the Oakland Hills with his two young children, he forages for forest foods, like Douglas fir tips, that have an important place on his menu. He cooks and dehydrates pine needles and lichen, turning them into powders for preparations like lichen-infused beef.

Back in the kitchen at Coi, Patterson hunches over a rectangular plate, painting a wave of wheatgrass sauce on it with the back of a spoon. He places a single spear of asparagus—cooked in asparagus juice to amplify its flavor—over the trail of green and tops it with a little salad of shaved asparagus. Next to it he sets an oyster, out of its shell, and beside that, a quenelle of the oyster juice gel. It’s not technical or flashy, Patterson says, but it requires perfect attention to detail. “You’re not layering or masking anything,” he tells me. “There’s a vulnerability there. You’re saying this is what it is. It has to be perfect, and if it’s not, there’s just nothing there. I love that challenge.”

What makes Patterson a supremely talented chef, says Italian food writer Andrea Petrini, is his vulnerability, his willingness to bare his inner world through his cooking. “It’s not just cooking for the sake of cooking,” Petrini says. “It’s very deep, there’s a lot of love. There’s this perfect balance between the research and the emotion, the intuition, which makes for a gentle and inspiring and open-minded kind of cuisine. When his waiters deliver the dish, part of his soul is in it.”

 (A different version of this story was published in San Francisco magazine.)