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The victories and struggles of Chef Daniel Patterson

s one of the most celebrated restaurants in San Francisco, Chef Daniel Patterson's Coi has been both a diner's favorite and a great training ground for aspiring chefs. Throughout the years, both the restaurant and its driving force have won countless awards respectively—including Food & Wine Magazine's 1997 Best New Chef, San Francisco Magazine's 2007 Chef of the Year, James Beard Foundation's 2009/2010 Best Chef: Pacific (nominee), two Michelin stars, and more.

He took a curious path to his current success as a self-taught chef. Growing up in Massachusetts, he started working in restaurants when he was 14 and “just forgot to get a real job.” For him, cooking is always an act of generosity, a way to connect and communicate with other people. It is also a non-verbal way to share emotional energies between the guests and chefs.

Ever since he stepped foot in a kitchen, Chef Patterson has been on a journey to find out how to make people happy. “That’s at the core of everything that I’ve done. How do you bring joy to other people? How do you create a moment that they’ll remember forever?” he says.

So, starting as a dishwasher, he slowly worked his way up in the old-school kitchen hierarchy: from prep cook, to line cook, and then sous chef. Eventually, at 25 years old, he opened his first restaurant, called Babettes, in Sonoma, California. And he has owned restaurants since then.

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One of the key things that he came to realize early on was that so much of running a restaurant is about expectation fulfillment. The diners and chefs both need to know why they are there. Once there is an agreement, it has to be honored. At Coi, the most important aspect is a sense of discovery. 

Different from the formal, expensive environment with tasting menus, people visit the restaurant to experience something they have not before. That could mean a familiar ingredient expressed in a new way or a brand-new product or flavor the guests have never previously tried. They get all of that while being well taken-care-of, “like an overachieving neighborhood restaurant.” The warmth, a touch of casualness, plus creativity thus became the backbone of the restaurant. Once that was clear, it was then about working every day to do things incrementally better than the day before.

When it comes to creativity, Chef Patterson and his team were doing things that were fresh and exclusive. Not only did this philosophy impact each dish, it was also applied to the overall concept. He is often credited as the pioneer of the new California cuisine, with elements like foraging, aromas, essential oils, and house-made ingredients playing major parts.

"It's just the way my brain works," he says. "I see the world in a more beginner's mind kind of way—even if I've seen something a thousand times, every time I look at it, I think, 'Have I seen this before? Is it the same as the last time? What's new about it? What can I learn?'"
– Chef Daniel Patterson

He thought about the history of California, which led to foraging that stemmed from learning about different plants and flavors from experts. His use of essential oils and aromas, like edible perfumes, was a result of working with Mandy Aftel in the early 2000’s on their book Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Foods and Fragrance. He found that much of what we eat and how we experience the world is what we smell.

Imagine smelling a certain kind of rose growing up in a happy home. Decades later, that person could walk by the same type of rose and the smell would bring them back to those happy times. Understanding the power of the olfactory and thinking consciously about how it could be used to connect people further generated new techniques and allowed for deeper dives on different ingredients. As a result, he started to cook with fragrance and incorporated scents in his food.

On an individual dish level, unusual and inventive things were tried and lots of experiments were executed. Some were spectacular failures while others became great hits. Popcorn grits, one of Coi’s signature dishes, is undoubtedly the latter.

While attempting to make a combination from fresh corn and potatoes, he tried to make the corn into a sauce. The need to separate the seeds in the purée inspired an experiment with popped corn. That led to softening the product by adding water and butter before straining; which then came out like grits. That, in turn, prompted the thought of first popping the corn, cooking them with water and butter, then straining and reconstituting with the cooking liquid.

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“So, it started out as [a dish] with morels and popcorn and potatoes… But the real thing that came out of it was almost like an accident of just seeing what was in front of us,” he says. “That was one of the dishes that was great because… it’s very familiar [yet different].”

Even though creativity plays such a big role in Chef Patterson’s food, he thinks that chefs should not necessarily think of themselves as artists. To him, cooking is more of a craft than an artform. In his mind, any craft can be done artistically. Cooking can be dull with lots of the same things done over and over—boring, grinding work. Spiritually speaking, a cook is someone who makes food for others. Hard work and a commitment to doing things the right way is the basis is for everything. Craft and artistry are built upon repetition and practice with a humble mentality.

In addition to putting in the work, a cook’s palette is another aspect that is oft-ignored but no less important. It is not flashy. It is neither Instagrammable nor could one do a TikTok video about it. But that is where the real magic happens. The seasoning, the flavor, the aroma, even the serving temperature all impact the final product. From the excitement of the first bite to the subtle changes in the middle and ultimately the finish, Chef Patterson compares them to fragrance creation.

“A base note might be braised short ribs. And a mid-note might be some sauteed spinach, broccoli, or some kind of vegetable. And your top note might be some lime zest, some chili, a little bit of cilantro. Each one of those things on its own is simple but all of them together are complex,” he says.

Through its existence, his restaurant is known as a proving ground for great chefs. Evan and Sarah Rich of Rich Table, James Syhabout of Commis, Katy Millard of Coquine, Matt Tinder of Saboteur Bakery, Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria… the alumni list goes on and on. He thinks that having high standards and cooking innovative food are reasons why. Most importantly, however, is that “there was an energy in the restaurant… that came from the group of people that were there,” he says. “We always thought about why we would do things. It was a very collaborative workspace.”

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Chef Patterson helped a lot of people by really pushing them so that they would have the confidence and an understanding of how to make a place successful. In addition, people left his kitchen feeling like they could achieve what they dreamed of.

The success he has had did not come without challenges. He stepped down as the chef at Coi in 2015 due to various reasons. Chief among them was to deal with his mental health. Having worked 80 to 100 hours a week throughout his whole life, in part to hide certain psychological damages, he needed a break. In 2016, he showed tremendous courage by writing “Speaking Out”, an article that shared his inner struggles. “No one wants to be the poster child for depression,” Chef Patterson says. “But I knew it was something that I was struggling with… that I didn’t really understand. But I also knew it was something that a lot of other people in my profession were struggling with.”

Since his article in 2016, things have improved in the restaurant business on that front. More attention is being paid to properly processing emotions to de-escalate situations. People are more cognizant of how to deal with a work environment that is historically based on an undervalued labor force. And efforts have been made so that people can feel valued and earn livable wages with fairness and accountability.

After stepping down, he briefly worked on Locol, a partnership with Chef Roy Choi, and was able to spend more time with his kids. He continues to run “Cooking Project,” a nonprofit that is now going into its eleventh year. Though that also presented its own challenges. Firstly, the limit of his power to address problems that are much larger in scope, and secondly, hiring the right people to work with.

Speaking of personnel, after 2015, he hired Executive Chefs Matthew Kirkley and Erik Anderson for Coi in succession. He also works with Keith Corbin, the chef and partner at his new ventures Alta Adams and Louella’s. Eventually, he returned to the Coi kitchen in 2019. Then COVID hit.

Since the pandemic, he has spent a lot of time perfecting his recipes for fried chicken and barbecue brisket. He also has a high-level draft of a dish made with charcoal-roasted beets that are marinated in a bright pickled plum-and-miso purée. It would be served with almonds, herbs, yogurt, and lemon.

In general, he thinks that there is a lot of creativity in the food and beverage industry right now. To him, a lot of people desire some kind of connection and they crave a sense of well-being. The public is also interested in authenticity—not from a cultural perspective—but the authenticity of the humans who are making the food, whatever their expression is. He sees a lot of chefs that are communicating themselves in a way that is honest to them.

“The great thing about food is that no matter how long you do it… [it] is like a drop in the ocean. So, it’s constant learning. And it’s very, very complex,” he says. ” And that’s really exciting… because I don’t think there’s anything better than cooking.”

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TrooRa Magazine | December 2021
Text Cary Wong
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