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Inside Jacques Pépin's Dinner At Saison in Honor of the French Culinary Institue's new California Campus

See entire Flickr gallery here. [Photo: Courtney Cochran]

In scorching heat, contributor Courtney Cochran took in the French Culinary Institute’s gala dinner Monday at Saison, celebrating the launch of its first California campus in Campbell. A dozen or so Bay Area food writers gathered to bask in the glow of FCI honorary chef Jacques Pépin. Also on hand were FCI deans David Kinch of Manresa and Emily Luchetti, pastry chef at Waterbar and Farallon. Needless to say, shop was talked, caviar was downed and many a pinkie was raised in deference to the greats on hand.

1) Outdoor temperatures were en fuego, but inside the Saison boundaries, the heat came mostly from the accumulated food glitterati. Chef Josh Skenes—an FCI grad—murmured that he was “humbled” by the opportunity to cook for the occasion. Later Pépin said—not in so many words—that he can’t cook in Skenes’ innovative style. The chef demurred, “we’re just trying to make something delicious.”

2) Courses kicked off on a luxe note with a caviar, crème fraîche and sea urchin starter, and went on to include a giant spot prawn served partially fried, partially sashimi-style. Food Gal has a lovely photo recap of most dishes, including rabbit two ways with foie gras and English peas. The highlight for me, an unapologetic sweet tooth, was easily pastry chef Matt Tinder’s extraordinarily flavorful popcorn ice cream made with roasted corn. Its flavors recalled the finish of the excellent 2009 Pascal Bouchard Chablis sommelier Mark Bright selected, in a wine lineup of French pours.

3) Compliments unfurled madly post-meal. Pépin said he wanted “to go back in the kitchen and be an apprentice and learn from [Skenes].” A pretty big ego boost for a guy whose appointment as a Food & Wine Best New Chef of 2011 was just recently announced.

4) FCI founder and CEO Dorothy Cann Hamilton said numerous times throughout the evening that the school aims to provide a “foundation” in classic French technique that can then be interpreted—read: riffed on—by the various talents it graduates, including Bobby Flay, Daisy Martinez, Andrew Burnham of Cyrus and Sophie Brickman of the Chron. “We want to be part of your community,” she implored. “We want to be relevant, we want to be respectful.” Those wishes appear to be underscored in her promise to build a curriculum that takes advantage of local produce, seafood, wine, dairy and more. We shall see.

5) Also announced: FCI is the first teaching organization to be officially "approved" by the American Court of Master Sommeliers for its wine curriculum. FCI, in fact, will offer a specialized education program that dovetails with the Court's Certified Sommelier exam, an industry standard that’s gaining broader credibility each year. The conjoining of this practical step with a curriculum is a good one. Well done, FCI.

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