Skenes hard at work in the kitchen. [Photo: Saison]
After closing down their original location in the Mission's Stable Cafe back in November, chef Joshua Skenes and sommelier Mark Bright have announced a tentative opening date of Friday for Saison's new home in the historic Electric Light Company Building at 3rd and Townsend in SOMA. We'll have photos of the space and a full menu later on this week, but first, we checked in with Skenes to see how he's handling the move, his plans for the new menu, and the direction he's taking with his first-ever cocktail program.
What direction are you planning to take with the new menu? For us, it's simple. We want the food to be delicious, enjoyable, and nourishing, and we want you to feel good when you eat the meal. We are feeding human beings, after all, and I think that eating, even at a high level, should be something that's healthful, not full of a pound of butter and pig fat and all that other stuff. For us, it's more about looking at and finding the best of our ingredients—not just good ingredients, but truly exceptional ingredients that are really hard to find and get. For us, that especially means fish and meats. There are some spices and oils and other things we get individually: seaweeds harvested by a private diver who dives for us in Mendocino, or specific fishermen who catch only one thing for us at a given time of year.
Really, truly exceptional ingredients are just step one. If you're willing to pay the price, a lot of people can have access to that. The handling, the part afterwards, is very important. How do you care for something afterwards, to make sure that it's in its most perfect state after you get it? You can get the best [ingredient] in the world, but if you don't truly care for it, then it really doesn't matter, if it goes bad because of handling. When we cook the food, we want to honor the fundamental and inherent flavor of those ingredients, so our food is a little more subtle, and more based on the natural expression and fundamental flavors of whatever it may be. That's why we have our fire—the use of fire is the most genuine way to cook, in terms of flavor; the most genuine flavor you can get, or the most natural flavor you can get. And how to deepen those things. How do you really deepen or distill the furthest point in an ingredient's flavor without adding so much to it?
Was it challenging to get permitting to have live fire in the restaurant? It was expensive?
What kind of hoops did you have to jump through? It's always an issue, but we have such a talented kitchen designer that it wasn't much of an issue for us in terms of those things. Tim Harrison was phenomenal. He's someone that I'll probably remodel the restaurant with 100 times throughout the course of the next 30 years.
So you're planning to stay in this space long-term? Yeah, I think I'll be cooking here when I'm old and gray. That's the other part of it— it's really easy to fit in more than 18 seats. We could do 50 seats in this space, no problem. But that doesn't allow us to cook the way we want to cook, and I think there's a cap to how you can scale quality. I think quality doesn't scale after a certain point. For us, these 18 seats are nice, and it's a good point for creating the kind of quality that we'd like to create. It's not a business, really. This is my home, I literally live upstairs. The only thing I care about is quality, and people's enjoyment. I want people to come in, enjoy themselves, and have a great time. Eating is about celebration and enjoyment.
When did you move in above the restaurant? About the same time we got the space here. [The Saison team signed the lease on the space in August.]
What new ingredients or techniques have you been experimenting with? Now that we have this new physical space, we're not limited by our equipment and our workflow—we're only limited by ourselves, and we have a lot of great equipment. There's no big-bang factor, it's just a series of small things that make a really big difference. The temperature at which we cook something over the fire or the grill, really paying attention to resting a meat properly. We'll do it three or four times: sear something gently over the fire, then pull it off, put it back on, pull it off, put it back on. We're doing a coal-kissed fish, where we take live ambers from the fire, fan them off, and sear the skin directly with that coal. It was inspired by a sushi restaurant where they blowtorch the skin of the fish, but it always tastes like gas, so we wanted something further than that, more genuine in flavor. We sear scallops on a log: we take a live log that's burning, fan it off, and sear the scallop directly on there, and it impregnates the scallop with this beautiful sweet smoke. There's a long list of those items done on the fire.
This is the first time you've had a full bar. Can you tell me about the direction in which you're planning to take cocktails? I want the cocktail program to be fun. Same thing as the food: we're focusing on the highest-quality ingredients and liquors. It's a very small collection; we probably have about 100 bottles, and they're all the very best that exist.
Any focus in a particular spirit, or just a general representation of spirits? No, our program is about balance. We use the same ingredients in the bar that we use in the kitchen, with all the very best, and we've got a person in from Paris to do the cocktail menu for us. But I can't tell you the person's name, it's confidential. They're just in an advisory role; they put the menu together, and they're a friend of mine. We've been working together for a while to come up with a menu, and we put this menu together based on the ingredients we have available, the quality of stuff we have available. There's liquors like Willett, Pappy van Winkle, the best of everything.
Will the spirits be incorporated at all into pairings with the dishes? Yes, I think there'll be some, it just depends on the menu.
You've created a very unique space, with a fully open kitchen. You're not going to have many guests in there, but are you concerned about people walking into the kitchen? Nah, that's what we've got knives for. [Laughs.] No, we've done some test dinners, and people are always very respectful. You can see that it's a working environment. I don't foresee any issues.