Daniel Patterson’s 5 Essentials for Imaginative and Intuitive Cooking
Daniel Patterson is a self-taught chef and the owner of several Bay Area restaurants, notably the innovative and imaginative Coi in San Francisco which has earned two Michelin stars. But he is also a husband and father, someone who, when he can manage to be home for dinner, enjoys making roast chicken for his children. Read on for the five things Daniel feels are essential for home cooks to know and understand, along with some additional thoughts on the inner workings of a chef and restaurant, his just released cookbook Coi: Stories and Recipes and, of course, his preferred method for roasting a chicken.
Daniel has four restaurants in the Bay Area but Coi is his most conceptual and refined. (Pronounced qwah, Coi is an archaic French word used in the middle ages that means tranquil or quiet.) Dining there is an unique experience, where all five senses are engaged and delighted, where one can expect to be surprised and challenged and pay a pretty penny to do so. Or so I’ve heard. The tasting menu is running at $175 per person these days, which sadly isn’t in this writer’s budget.
So it may seem unlikely that a chef and owner of such a place can offer much for the simple home cook. But Daniel Patterson, like his food, is a man of many dimensions and surprises. He may be one of the most innovative chefs working today but as you can see from this video clip below, he is also a dad who cooks lunch with his kid. Granted they make a chilled, smoked eggplant soup garnished with vegetables and flowers, but it is instructive to see how an experienced chef works with a run-of-the-mill home kitchen and a very inquisitive child underfoot.
Daniel Patterson’s 5 Essentials for Imaginative and Intuitive Home Cooking
1. Use your hands. Your hands are your sensitive equipment. What they tell you about the doneness of meat, the development of gluten in pasta, or the tenderness of a vegetable is something no instrument can replicate. Everything you do in the kitchen, whether you’re picking herbs or whatever, your sense of touch is very important because its an immediate link to knowing whether you need to do something or not do something.
Our sense of touch is very closely linked to our sense of intuition, to our brain, to our heart, to everything. A machine is not going to increase your intuition, it’s going to increase your dependency on a machine. We all have our own internal computer which is going to take in that data and remember it. If you throw me into any kitchen in the world, I’ll be able to cook there, I’ll be able to figure it out, because the sense of touch and smell and taste are all internalized.
We can train ourselves and develop that internal sense and even when things go a little wrong, we will be making ourselves better, more intuitive cooks. This is about cooking in a very conscious way. It’s about knowing and understanding why you’re doing something in the kitchen, or selecting an ingredient or seasoning, and what the effect is going to be. Then you can make the decision if that’s what you want to do or not.
2. Salt is the most important seasoning, and seasoning is 90% of deliciousness. Learn to salt progressively — a little bit at a time — rather than all at once at the end. Season meats at least twenty minutes before cooking. Learn how salt interacts with sweet, sour and bitter. In the book I explain that salt pulls up acidity and pushes down sweet and bitter flavors. Acidity will push down salt, sweet, bitter and bitter will balance sweet. And sweet softens salt and acid and mutes bitter.
3. Cut herbs with a scissors to damage them less. Why do you cut an herb? Usually because it’s too big and you want smaller pieces of it in your dish. But what you don’t want to do is to diminish the flavor that’s in that smaller piece.
An herb is this matrix of cells that have chlorophyl and essential oils and all the other things that make them taste and smell like what they are, so you want to damage those call walls as little as possible. For example, if you just pick up a bunch of herbs and start chopping them one on top of the other so that they’re kind of smashed, you may notice that your cutting board has turned green. This means that all of the good stuff that’s in the herbs is now on your cutting board — and you’re not going to eat the cutting board! Snip them as small as possible and they will keep their vibrancy. If you want to smash them, use a mortar and pestle and do it right. Make a pesto and add oil to carry the flavor.
4. Understand spices. First, quality matters. Don’t buy your spices at a supermarket, buy tiny amounts of the best you can find. This includes black pepper. Second, don’t buy pre-ground. Grind them just before using.
At home we often use a small mortar and pestle to crush spices, occasionally a small coffee grinder, but usually the mortar and pestle. It’s beautiful, it’s sitting right there on the counter, you don’t have to plug it in, it’s easy. The process also connects you to thousands of years of civilization, so there’s something in the doing of it that really feels good.
5. Turn one meal into several. For example, roast a chicken, then after eating it, put the bones in water in a pot and cook slowly on the back of the stove overnight. In the morning, remove the bones, put in dried beans, cover, and put it back into a slow oven or a slow-cooker until tender.
How to roast a chicken. Salt the chicken and leave at room temperature about an hour or two to let the salt dissolve. Some people salt it overnight but I just don’t work that far in advance. Put it a 350 degree oven, maybe with some potatoes underneath it. If I have more time I’ll start it at 250 degree to get a soft coagulation in the protein and then turn it to 425 degree in the end to get the skin crisp. So go slow first, baste with the fat that has rendered from the bird and a little butter, get it nice and glossy, and then blast the heat up and the heat will interact with the fat to really crisp the skin.
On his new cookbook, cooking at Coi, and allowing for surprises. Coi: Stories and Recipes is the story of the first seven years of the restaurant. It’s difficult to pin down the restaurant and in that same way, it’s very difficult to pin down the book. So I didn’t even try. I let it go into a lot of areas to show how interrelated food is to all sorts of things: to nature, to culture, to art, to ideas, to the pleasures of the table, to family, to how we connect to other people around us. To the process of transformation, which is the human aspect when we interact with the ingredients. Cooking is a kind of mediation between what we plant and how we nurture it and what it grows into and how culture plays a role in creating expectation in what we think it elicits. Cooking is how we achieve those expectations.
So one part of it is where we get our expectations and the other part is how we achieve them and on top of that there’s another aspect which is a sense of discovery, which is another important theme in the book. I tried to convey that even I’m surprised by what happens at Coi sometimes, and that I allow myself to get surprised because I think that’s really important in life.
If we think we have all the answers then we will never learn anything more. That’s too bad because there’s so much to know in the world, so much more than any one person can ever hope to know. So having this perpectal sense of openness and wonder, an almost like a childlike fresh eyes on the world, is something that informs our cooking at Coi and something that inform how we approach everything, I guess.
Culturally we’re at a time where there is a strong bias towards a sense of certainty and bias against the kind of vulnerability that comes from not-knowing. But that vulnerability is at the heart of the discovery of new things and the evolution of ideas and new ways of looking at the world. So we always try to keep that very central at Coi.
On failure. Over time we’ve learned to contain our failure in the kitchen and not to serve it to our guests, which was much less the case when we first opened when things were very improvisational. But that being said, we still build in an expectation of failure, that a certain amount of dishes will get thrown out because we can’t make them work. We understand that nothing is ever quite perfect and maybe we can come in tomorrow and make it a little bit better than we made it today. Maybe we can come in tomorrow, and we can communicate with each other better than today. We can make our guests a little happier.
On home cooking. At home we cook simple food with good ingredients. We try to make things that taste good and we try to involve our kids whenever we can. We encourage respect for the table, for sharing a meal together, in addition to just the food. My wife very strongly participates in that and leads in that at home, especially at dinner because I’m often working. It’s hard with little kids but we make sure they know that when you get to spend time at the table with your family and friends, it’s a special time. So I think the food is important but I also think that respecting the ceremony of sitting down and sharing a meal is even more important.
Thank you, Daniel!
(Image: Maren Caruso)