Joshua Skenes makes a statement on the culinary scene with his distinctive cuisine at Saison in San Francisco. The casual vibe of the restaurant, with its open kitchen and an ‘80’s soundtrack, is misleading because there is nothing laid-back about the spectacular food. Served on bare tables, cooked over fire and embers in view of the diners with the aromas wafting through the dining room, it is a study in contrasts. Similar to the visuals of drying Hachiya persimmons suspended from the unfinished ceiling of the modern dining room during the Japanese celebration in fall. This idiosyncratic chef’s plates exemplify his refined and minimalistic approach to cooking, his food veering towards Asian sensibilities.
Skenes’ Instagram feed highlights his hunting to prepare his nature-inspired modern American fare. A post featuring a bloody bison heart posed next to a kilo of caviar for proportion raises eyebrows. People reacted similarly when he raised the tasting menu price tag at Saison to $398 per person, making it one of the country’s most expensive dining experiences. The price tag includes not only the meticulously prepared food but also the service fee, as is the trend in many high-end Bay Area restaurants. Beginning with the daintily served infusion through the 15 to 20 courses that miht include mountain ram tartare or sea cucumbers grilled over embers, the experience justifies the price tag. The heaping bowl of house-cured caviar with Parker House rolls made with flour milled in-house to begin the tasting is itself enough to reel in guests for repeat visits.
The restaurant earned its third Michelin star in 2014, and if that weren’t reason enough to celebrate, it also ranked 29th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016. Last year, during the 50 Best Restaurant Awards, as some of the most famous faces in the culinary world milled about in the NoMad Library bar in New York City, I asked Skenes if such awards were the ultimate goal for chefs these days. He said, “You don’t cook and try to be your best for awards or lists because then you are doing it for the wrong reasons and wind up creating the wrong things with wrong tastes. According to me, it’s not the right way to look at things and it can’t be the reason for what you do —though it’s great and exciting to win.”
This year, Skenes is nominated yet again for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef West award, but this nonchalant chef will probably not be waiting with fingers crossed for the results — though, as he says, winning is not too bad.
After stints at Jean-Georges Vongerichten during his time at the French Culinary Institute in New York, Skenes began to get noticed at Chez TJ in Mountain View, California. After a short detour to Southern California to open Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern, he was back in the Bay Area. Saison, now in its third iteration, has come a long way from the initial weekly popup in a garage. A series of popups morphed into an eight-seat restaurant. The current space, opened in 2013, has an 18-seat dining area, with room for 14 more at the bar, and a private dining area.