Josh Skenes and Mark Bright are about to wrap up a run of just over three years at 2124 Folsom Street in the Mission. Three years that have seen Saison restaurant rise from a humble pop-up to a world-renowned, two-Michelin-starred destination. This morning, Eater got on the phone with Skenes to find out how they're saying goodbye to Saison on Folsom Street, what he really thinks of Michelin stars, and how the experience of Saison will change with a state-of-the-art, fully customized new kitchen and restaurant in SoMa.
Will you be doing anything special to say goodbye to the current space? We'll be doing finale dinners*, serving the classics of Saison and returning to our roots a as a pop-up. It should be really fun.
Will you miss anything about the existing space? No.
You're sticking with 18 seats at the new location, so the format must be going well? Is this a number of seats you'll stay with for the long haul? There's a point in cooking where things are not scalable. We have twenty-some courses, and we do twenty people per night. That's 400 plates of food. Considering we have a relatively small staff, and we want to keep the quality as high as possible, 18 is a good number for us.
Is there a dish you can describe to illustrate the level of quality you can deliver at 18 seats? There is a bridge we have to create to real quality and integrity. In a restaurant, it all comes down to timing. We have this dish called flight of fish that I've actually been honing for eight years, since [Chez] TJ's. Its current state is five to seven pieces of fish served on a rectangle plate. It's simple, but a lengthy process. We determine the best area to source that species, in the right season, caught in the right method, and the correct shipping and handling for that particular type of fish. It's not just seasonality, it's part of a bigger thing we're going for where each ingredient is treated such that we can bring out the purest form of flavor at its point in time. These principles apply to every single ingredient we use, and it is something we'll continue to explore and push forward.
I imagine you are shooting for three Michelin stars at the new incarnation? Yes. I absolutely want that as a short term goal, and as a long term goal to keep. I'll be cooking in this space until I'm 80 years old, so it's really most important for me to evolve. We're doing this because it's what we know and love. The Michelin ratings are just one thing that's very motivational. Certainly [laughing] I think not having to go outside into the cold to get to the bathroom will help.
Why did you set out to find a new space to begin with? There were work flow issues with the old space. It's something we put together with no budget and just decided to slowly build over time. I'm looking forward to having a space that's physically the best we could get. We really honed in on comfort and work flow. Eating out should be a celebration and about enjoyment. We are going for a sensory experience. Similar to our approach to food, it's about using the best materials for your enjoyment. Aesthetics are important, but they're not everything. We have been meticulous about sourcing everything according to feel and touch as well: beautiful wood tables, balanced china, linens, hand-blown glassware, and throws. We are asking, how does it feel when you run your hand over the wood table? Is it smooth as a baby's ass?
So, I hear you have some new toys to play with in the kitchen? We have new everything. There isn't anything that isn't custom in the new space. The only thing we're bringing over is the Molteni stove. It's the Ferrari of kitchens. Just to see everything get installed was very interesting. There's a new eight foot hearth which we've redesigned based on experience. It has all sorts of little tools and gadgets to help us cook with fire. We also have a German-engineered Miwe wood-burning oven with five decks, each controlled by different temperatures. It's self regulating, a really precise baking oven with fire. We'll make macarons, caneles, and all of our bread in there.
It sounds like the experience of eating at Saison will change significantly. There will be little bumps and little increases in quality throughout. We'll take away five seconds here, and five seconds there and it will certainly increase the effectiveness of service. You will notice. We're no longer bound by physical limitations now, we are only limited by ourselves.
How much was the new project? We did it for 2.2 million, and that's 18 seats. We will have that bar though, but it's only for sitting.
On that subject, you tried out an a la carte, more casual format for a bit with Dcantr, and I thought it was great because it reduced the barriers to entry for your food. Will you do something like that again here at the bar, possibly? We are going to start as small as possible from the beginning until we get our muscle memory in the new space. We might start serving food in the bar, but I just don't know yet. It could be a great way to connect with a la carte items, or we may offer a different bar menu, or the full twenty courses. I have to wait and see what people want there.
Ok, so let's talk about those cocktails. What will the program be like? Delicious. With wine pairings we look to create magical moments, a seamless pairing. There should be a complete circle, no corners—rather than a square where it may jump to harsh points. We'll do the same here with cocktails. We'll experiment with some pairings. But some food is ruined by alcohol, and we have some items that are too subtle to have with it. We will create some delicate non-alcoholic drinks to go with those dishes. For the cocktails, we'll use all the fire elements to bring into smoking, bitters, making bases, maybe stewing a confit of quince for 12 hours so it absorbs the flavors over fire, so it's almost imperceptible.
You mentioned that you are scrapping the chef's counter, and you're looking for a new way to connect closely with guests. How will that play out? I always wanted a place that's completely open, completely integrated, with zero walls. That's very expensive to do because there are no seams, especially in the kitchen. It could have easily cost 3.5 million, but I didn't worry about finishes. Seating is scattered about, and some is literally in the kitchen, in a comfortable place. There is one table smack dab in the middle, and there are a few off to the right for those who don't want to be so close. The idea is that this is my home, and diners should participate in the sights, touches, sounds and smells of what it takes to make a meal. There are so many parts of the cooking process to share, from the ingredients to the tools we use.
So there won't be one more expensive, more exclusive option as you had before? The whole experience is exclusive in a very down-to-earth way. We want that comfort level. We want our entire staff to be genuine and fun.
[*The "homage" items at Saison on Folsom Street, such as "Little Leeks, roasted over the embers with wild caviar and Meyer lemon," will be woven into the regular tasting menus, beginning Tuesday, November 6, and lasting until November 30, the final day on Folsom Street. Each dish will be explained with Skenes' personal notes, recalling the items' debut date and specific memories surrounding it. Book now by calling the restaurant at (415) 828-7990.]
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[Photos courtesy of Saison]