Daniel Patterson | West Coast Culinaire

08 Jun 2015
5 min read
Daniel Patterson might just be the most influential Californian chef – who happens to be from Massachusetts – since Alice Waters, writes Kerry Spencer for FOUR USA
Wild & Cultivated

Not since Alice Waters denounced fast food and all that it stood for in the 1970s, has there been a chef of greater influence in California.

However, it wasn’t love at first sight for Daniel Patterson and his adopted state. More of a slow burner—it took Daniel 16 years to fall head over heels. Daniel moved to California from Massachusetts in 1989, first stopping in San Francisco, then on to Sonoma in the heart of California’s wine region in 1991. While these days the wine country is brimming with every type and scale of restaurant, it wasn’t back then, and Daniel lacked the connection to the locality he was searching for, although it did give him a taster of things to come.

“Sonoma wasn’t much of a food town then, but it was an agrarian paradise, far from the pressures of the city. The social isolation, proximity to farms, and the freedom to experiment as [the] chef of my own kitchen allowed me to begin to develop my cooking voice,” Daniel reveals inCoi Stories and Recipes (Phaidon Press).

So, what changed for Patterson from those early years of uncertainty? It was on a journey to visit his now-wife Alexandra Foote’s family in 2005, roughly 170 miles north of San Francisco, “through part of the state where orchards still outnumber people,” Daniel says in his ode to California in the book. Spurred on, whipped up by a frenzy of fresh northern Californian carrots, seaweed, and abalone, Daniel was roused into what has so far been a 10-year love affair; a mutually giving relationship with the surrounding land’s history, culture, and produce that has resulted in Coi. “I think that my cooking has become simpler and more direct. I can pull better flavor out of the ingredients. I edit myself better. It’s become a little easier to understand and work within our style,” he says.

Daniel’s attitude towards not only the ingredients he uses but also the history of a place and its connection to the land is incredibly unique: “I am also inspired by traditional foods and other cultural perspectives. For example, after I had a great trip to Mexico City two years ago, I put a dish on the menu that was grilled musk melon, seasoned with lime and salt and wrapped in nasturtium petals, that was eaten like tacos.

“I think it’s important to really understand traditional foods, why people have been eating the way they have for hundreds and thousands of years. Sometimes those techniques—like how Native Americans in our area work with acorns—make it onto our menu as well, albeit in a more modern form.”

Coi offers one tasting menu, which changes frequently, allowing the kitchen the luxury of focusing solely on the eight courses at hand. “It allows us to serve only what is best in each season,” Daniel explains. “In a way, it’s hard when there are so many amazing ingredients in our area—there’s always something that we’re not using. So we use different products from year to year, to keep the staff engaged and excited.

“Serving only one menu also allows me to create a narrative flow through the menu that is cohesive, so that each dish makes sense and the menu is balanced, with a mixture of temperatures, textures and flavors.”

Each dish at Coi is treated with the greatest respect— from the labor of love that goes into farming, foraging, or cultivating the ingredients to the technique and manpower appliedinthekitchen.Onesuchexampleisabeetandgoat’s cheese tart, which recently featured on the menu. Daniel explains the dish: “The crust on top is a delicate wafer of dried and ground rye bread, barely held together with isomalt, that is sprinkled carefully on a sheet tray and baked, then

broken into little pieces. Under that is goat’s cheese aerated in a siphon and beets that have been roasted in their skins, peeled, and then finely ground and mixed with beet purée, lemon, vinegar, and oil. Then there is a dill-walnut pesto that is made in a mortar and pestle at the bottom. It looks very simple but there is a lot of work involved.”

There is undoubtedly a great deal of work involved within the kitchen. However, it is the quality of the ingredient that is the most important factor in any dish. “Whatever is great right now, whatever speaks to me in some way, we try and do something different with that ingredient—a new technique or perspective, that creates a sense of discovery, that shows the ingredient in a fresh way. That is very important for our menu,” Daniel says.

As with a growing number of fine-dining restaurants in the US, such as Alinea in Chicago, Coi changed their reservation policy to a ticketing system last year. Upon making a reservation guests also pay, therefore committing the party to their booking. Although the new system is still in its infancy, so far it is working well. For Daniel and the management team, the new reservation system removes the stress of no-shows and allows the chefs to focus on what is important to them and their guests. “We have had some resistance, but that’s true of anything new. It has been very interesting and has taught us more about our customers and their preferences. I think that it will ultimately make us a better restaurant,” Daniel says.

Daniel’s next venture is a street food concept in partnership with LA-based chef Roy Choi. Just like Waters did before him, Patterson is taking on the fast food giants of today’s corporate America in his own unique culinary way. Working with Roy, Patterson announced the launch of loco’l, an antithesis to fast food, at this year’s MAD4 gathering in Copenhagen. The first loco’l will open in San Franciscothis spring, followed shortly after by a second branch in LA. In a joint statement at last year’s MAD4, Patterson and Choi declared: “loco’l is the whole idea of local but loco to change. Local meaning family and caring for each other and the world; loco for not taking the shit that’s being passed down and perpetuated on us. It’s this push and pull of honesty, love and revolt.” Daniel adds: “For the same price as customers would pay in corporate chains, it is possible to create delicious dishes that also offer nutrition value, too.”

While Roy is more the face of loco’l, Daniel handles much of the behind-the-scenes-work—the business model and recipe development. “Roy and I have a great working relationship. We’re both old enough to know what we are and aren’t good at.”

Daniel has attended MAD for the past few years. “Those events [MAD] are certainly great for learning about how other chefs look at food and for inspiration. But even more important are the relationships. The relationships that I have with other chefs around the world are very important to me. As a community we support each other and help each other grow,” Daniel reveals.

The 2014 symposium saw Daniel kept busy, both cooking and presenting, although he did get to experience Copenhagen’s most famous restaurant, Noma, during his stay: “I had an amazing meal at Noma. I was again struck by how they are always pushing to get better… and such nice people! I [also] loved the talks at MAD4 by Olivier Roellinger, Ron Finley and San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino. In particular, I thought that Chris talked very honestly and directly about a difficult subject (Chris’s talk, ‘Be Careful What You Wish For,’ saw him talk candidly about his own experience of appearing as a celebrity chef in the US). It was moving. I think that we need more honesty in our profession.”

A true reflection of Daniel finally finding his “cooking voice” are the number of awards that have rolled in since opening Coi in 2006, including two Michelin stars, a regular place on The World’s Best Restaurant list and four stars by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Harold McGee, an American author who writes about the history of food and cooking, wrote a foreword for Coi Stories and Recipes, perfectly summarizing Daniel’s humility and hunger to continually evolve and please as a chef: “Daniel is constantly looking beyond what he already knows to find fresh facets of deliciousness and meaning… his dishes reward attentive savoring. They also simply reward!”