There are chefs who cook and then there are chefs who, with their cooking, want to start a revolution. Daniel Patterson falls into the latter category. Not since the early 1970s, when Alice Waters at Chez Panisse forever changed California cuisine with her devotion to fresh and local produce, has there been a chef of more profound impact on the West Coast of the USA.
At his restaurant Coi in San Francisco, Patterson’s personal, cerebral brand of cooking has earned him two Michelin stars and a place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. And, more significantly, he has influenced a whole generation of chefs and helped to redefine contemporary California cuisine. He has been instrumental in the popularisation of countless culinary trends such as foraging, vegetable-centric dishes and serving tasting menus only, as well as using a ticketing over a traditional reservations system and showcasing bespoke, hand-crafted pottery with his dishes.
But Patterson is set to step away from the fine dining mecca he has worked so tirelessly to create to focus his attention in an entirely new direction. He is about to embark on arguably the most challenging project of his life: LocoL is a fast food concept with which he not only hopes to change the way people eat but also make a difference to parts of America that society has forgotten. But more on that later.
For now, diners will still have the chance to experience Patterson’s food at Coi for the next four months. His renowned cooking style comprises a unique blend of obsessively sourced, fiercely seasonal ingredients and modernist cooking techniques that results in dishes with incredibly clean, pure flavours. “What I look for is that extraordinary moment in the lifespan of an ingredient; that time when it’s just full of flavour and energy,” he explains. “Technique is really important but it’s always in service of making things more delicious and never for its own sake.”
Leaning heavily towards vegetables, dishes such as carrots roasted in coffee beans with raw carrot and mandarin juice, and roman mint (see recipe); or frozen whipped rhubarb, olive oil and spring herbs beautifully showcase a mutually giving relationship with the Bay Area’s surrounding land. But his dishes not only capture a sense of place, they also speak of memory and emotion.
“In 2005, my mother-in-law died of cancer,” Patterson reveals. “She lived in a very remote place in the Sierra Nevada. When she passed away, I drove up to be with the family, who were all grieving but, of course, they still needed to eat. For three days I cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for everyone in the house and to this day it was one of the most powerful things I have ever done. I felt extremely connected to why you feed people in the first place and I understood why I love to cook: you can make people feel just a little bit better, more comfortable. It is that sense of calm that I wanted to capture in my restaurant.” Indeed calm is what defines Coi. The word Coi (pronounced quoi) is an ancient French word meaning “quiet” or “tranquil” and it is fitting of both Patterson’s restaurant and food. But it is also fitting of the man himself, who, despite being tall and seemingly imposing, has a humble, quiet and mindful demeanour about him.
Patterson was born in Massachusetts; his father was a lawyer and his mother a French history teacher, who instilled in him the meaning of eating well. “My mother was very into cooking way before it was cool in the 1970s, and we never had junk in our house,” he recalls. His pivotal food moment came aged 14 when, while spending the summer in the South of France, he ate a turbot dish at a Michelin-starred restaurant. “That was the moment when I realised what restaurants are capable of in terms of transporting you to a different place or state of being,” he says. “That moment wasn’t just about the flavour, it was about a level of deliciousness and refinement that I had never experienced before.”
Patterson opened his first restaurant – Babette’s in the small, historic town of Sonoma in California’s wine country – in 1994, when he was just 25, never having been to culinary school, which he insists had both its drawbacks and advantages. “For a young cook a big thing is having a mentor; I never did and I always wanted one,” he says. “What you learn is not just about cooking, it’s about team work, how to handle produce, how the seasons flow through a menu. When I opened my first restaurant I didn’t really know anything. I had to figure things out for myself.” He adds, however, that this helped him find his own voice. “I didn’t feel very influenced by what was around me and, looking back on it, that was very fortunate for me. It was hard and slow but I learned to trust my instincts and to make decisions about what’s delicious based on specific products and techniques; and to develop a way of cooking that involves a from-the-ground-upward view of how you construct flavour.”
During his time at Babette’s, Patterson was named Best New Chef by national magazine Food & Wine. The success led him to move to San Francisco, where together with his then-wife Elisabeth Ramsey, he opened Elisabeth Daniel in 2000. There, the accolades continued, including a nomination for Best New Restaurant in the James Beard Awards in 2001.
In 2005, Patterson gained national attention for writing an article in the New York Times entitled ‘To the Moon, Alice’, in which he challenged Bay Area chefs’ tendency to copy the Chez Panisse mantra of letting ingredients speak for themselves. This, he argued, results in self-righteousness over produce and a lack of creativity, complexity, or technical finesse. By the time Coi opened in 2006, he had found his unique style and voice and the restaurant became an instant success, gaining its first Michelin star in 2007 and its second in 2008.
Over the years, Patterson has created a growing restaurant portfolio under his company DPG, which in addition to Coi comprises five locations, including modern neighbourhood restaurants Alta, and Aster in San Francisco; and Plum Bar + Restaurant, and Haven in Oakland. Each has its own executive chef managing the day-to-day running of operations and all of his restaurants serve elevated, modern American fare, with ingredient-driven cooking at their heart.
Come January next year, Patterson will hang up his whites at Coi, when Matthew Kirkley, the former head chef at Chicago’s two-Michelin-starred L20, will take over as executive chef. The decision to move away from Coi, he says, wasn’t one he made for himself but primarily for his family and other businesses. “I have a lot of responsibilities to a lot of people and when I balanced everything on measure, it seemed that this is what I needed to do because there was going to come the point where I would just fail everyone completely,” he explains. “I have had an incredible career, I have been able to cook the food I want to cook and be successful with it so I feel very fortunate and grateful for what I have achieved. I have no regrets.
“Matthew is young, driven and incredibly talented and shares our same values of hard work, humility and dedication to craft. The style of the food at Coi will change but the soul of the restaurant will stay the same.”
Patterson will continue to be involved in all of his restaurants but will concentrate his efforts on LocoL, a joint fast food venture with Los Angeles-based food truck aficionado Roy Choi of Kogi fame. A play on the words local and loco (crazy in Spanish) LocoL aims to revolutionise fast food by offering a more wholesome approach. The credo is serving healthy food that is as cheap and addictively delicious as a McDonald’s burger. So far, Patterson and Choi have raised just short of $130,000 through a crowd-funding page to help cover initial operational costs and have signed leases for two locations, which are set to open in Los Angeles at the end of this year, and San Francisco early next year. In time, they hope to expand across California and beyond.
For Patterson the initial idea for LocoL stems from a charity programme called the Cooking Project, which he runs in San Francisco’s notoriously rough area the Tenderloin. Dedicated to teaching kids and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds basic cooking skills, its ultimate goal is to help them connect with real food. “A lot of these kids grew up on fast food and industrial food so they don’t have the skills to feed themselves well,” Patterson says. “What I have realised is that living in America, more than a cooking problem, we have an eating problem. People don’t know the taste of real food anymore.”
LocoL’s menu will include burgers, chicken nuggets, sandwiches, “foldies” (a cross between a tortilla and a quesadilla) and bowls of pasta or rice with meat or vegetables, with prices between $2 and $6 as well as a 99c section offering healthy side dishes that “won’t fill you up but will the take the edge off if all you have is a $1”.
But Patterson doesn’t really want to talk about the food at LocoL. “It’s grandmother cooking. It’s slow-cooked stuff and deep, comforting flavours,” he says, almost dismissively. “I wish people would stop focusing on the food so much,” he adds, revealing that as the project has progressed and as he and Choi have moved closer towards opening their first outlet in Watts, one of the roughest neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, he has come to understand that there is a much bigger issue at stake than just feeding people.
“The biggest cliché about America is that it is the land of opportunity, where anyone can succeed no matter what their background. But the reality is that it is a land of opportunity only for some people, while for others the deck is stacked against them in a way that makes it almost impossible to surmount,” he says.
“We have run into failure after failure trying to open this restaurant in Watts because there are no services in place, there is no infrastructure, no investment. It is like a rotten onion and with every layer you peel away it gets worse. Structural discrimination in America is so big in our culture and there are communities that are actively being starved of resources. ” With this in mind, for Patterson the most important aspect of LocoL is no longer the food but the human element of his restaurants impacting the community they’re in by creating jobs and giving people a chance at making their own success. “We have an opportunity and we are taking it very seriously,” he insists.
Of course, the project may seem idealistic to some. But Patterson is leaving one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants to cook fast food in one of America’s poorest communities and he wants to make a tangible difference to people’s lives. This is his revolution.
This is an extract from an article I wrote for The Caterer. You can read the full version by visiting the thecaterer.com.