Chef Joshua Skenes
Photography by Cindy Loughridge | Words Chandara K. Phanachone
Joshua Skenes was only ten years old when he encountered his first water moccasin. However, instead of running in the opposite direction, Skenes did the unthinkable: he skinned it, removed its poison glands, fileted and sautéed it over an open fire, and proceeded to feed it to his fellow campers.
Skenes’s accolades, much like his relationship with food, can be summed up with one word : “Captivating.” From working in the kitchens of culinary luminaries such as Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten to being lauded by Food and Wine magazine as one of the “Best New Chefs” in 2011, Skenes’s glowing career trajectory in the realm of fine dining doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. “Cooking has always been something I gravitated towards [as a boy]. Cooking is a commune with nature, and I love nature,” remarks Skenes, thinking back to his childhood days that he spent with his father hunting for wild game using spears, bows, and arrows in the marshes of Florida. “My father had a friend named Silver Fox, an old Native American, who we would visit often. There was a general ethos of respecting the kill and only taking what is needed,” he notes, extolling the importance in the sanctity of food.
Upon graduating from high school in Boston, Massachusetts, Skenes moved to New York and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute. It was here that Skenes trained under the most astute chefs in the art of French culinary technique, an experience that underscored a deep reverence for the utmost discipline, integrity, and quality in food preparation – all essential ingredients in the art of cooking. It was also here that he developed the foundation for his personal culinary philosophy: “A cook does not make great food – great ingredients make great food; the cook learns how to coax the best [out] of those ingredients,” emphasizes Skenes, and “from there, creativity happens.”
It is definitely not a fluke that Skenes would open his very own restaurant. In 2009, he launched Saison, which means “seasons” in French, as an innovative pop-up restaurant in an alley of the Mission District neighborhood of San Francisco. “I knew for many years before [opening] Saison [of ] what I wanted to do. I had an image in mind; it’s one that I still chase to this day and will probably [continue to] chase forever,” he notes. In 2013, the restaurant relocated to its current location, a century-old, exposed brick building located a few blocks from AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Since its opening, Saison has earned three stars by the Michelin Guide for 2015. “Saison represents our commitment to constant evolution and change; with the wind, with the seasons, we go. We serve the best ingredients simply so that the fundamental flavors are enhanced. Our goal is pleasure – pleasure in the hospitality, the beverage, the materials, and in the food,” Skenes proudly notes. Indeed, Skenes is a master when it comes to creating a dish that presents a singular tasting note with every bite, that, when layered together, culminates in a euphoric experience unlike any other – even for the most seasoned palate. But the cornerstone of Skenes’s culinary genius is his technique of incorporating fire in each meal. “Fire provides an honest flavor and enhances the deepest points,” he says. Whether he is roasting a slice of kelp over embers, or searing the skin of a fish with white charcoal that kisses food with the hint of coal to caramelize and tenderize the protein, it’s the precision of the stove with the flavor of the fire that creates a sinuous harmony of deliciousness.
However, first-time guests of the restaurant may be pleasantly surprised to learn that, despite a five-star dining experience, the dress code is one that Skenes describes as a “come as you are” policy whereby “If you are comfortable in tennis shoes and a t-shirt, then that’s what we want you to wear – because Saison is about hospitality and the pleasure derived from one’s experience.”
At the end of the day, there isn’t a def init ive secret to Skenes’s success, but learning to “find your own voice by asking yourself what you genuinely want to achieve in life and how it relates to the world around you is critical,” notes Skenes. “ You must believe in it wholeheartedly. Fads come and go, but if [you] create a product that is truly focused on quality, it will never grow old.” Skenes’s barometer for excellence, inspired by what the Japanese refer to as “kaizen” or a practice that emphasizes continuous improvement, consists of asking, “What can be better than yesterday? Is it delicious? Is it the most enjoyable version of that ingredient you have ever had? If not, try again.” With dishes that are simple, flavors that are intensely exquisite, and Skenes’s execution that is simply brilliant, we certainly cannot imagine what more would require further refinement.
“Saison represents our commitment to constant evolution and change; with the wind, with the seasons, we go. We serve the best ingredients simply so that the fundamental flavors are enhanced. Our goal is pleasure – pleasure in the hospitality, the beverage, the materials, and in the food.” says Skenes.
Read more in Issue 03