Fire Dragon Breathing On Beetroot may not be a martial arts fighting stance, but it kind of describes Joshua Skenes - a nod to his kung fu instructor past and his mastery of a primitive cooking form that is key to the painstakingly crafted compositions that land on the tables of his restaurant Saison in San Francisco.
Case in point: the humble beetroot - cooked and suspended for two days over the perpetually glowing embers of the kitchen hearth until dehydrated, then cooked in beetroot juice until it rehydrates and achieves an amazing, intensely-flavoured chewy, gummy bear-like texture. Paired with roasted bone marrow, sour red berries and fir needles, it's a crimson-hued still life on a plate and an epiphany in the mouth.
Mind you, it was already dish number 10 in a long evening of highs at a restaurant once dissed for serving pricey US$248 menus but which now offers US$398 Discovery menus without a whisper of dissent. Now that Saison has been named 'the one to watch' at this year's World's 50 Best Awards, it's getting a lot more buzz, not that it affects Chef Skenes in any way. Instead, he's much more interested in perfecting his craft and sourcing the best ingredients, whether it's vegetables grown on the restaurant's own farm, or fish and abalone caught and harvested specially for them.
Taking locavorism as far as he can, Chef Skenes is obsessed with using ingredients only from the Bay area. "To me, it's thoroughly representative of where we are. It's been very difficult to find all of these items and we have been sourcing for the last 10 years, even though Saison has only been open for five."
Even though he uses ingredients such as shoyu, seaweed, bonito, fish sauce and miso which are associated with Japan and Asia, he doesn't buy any of his ingredients from there. "We make everything here. The dashi is not dashi, the shoyu is not shoyu, and so on." His soya sauce, for example, is made from fermented grilled grains and salt; fish sauce is made from smoked and raw fish; kombu (seaweed)comes from Mendocino and is dried according to his specifications; and so on.
Ironically, it was a recent trip to Japan where, even though he was introduced to some of the best fish suppliers, Chef Skenes "made the decision that when I got back I was going to drop everything from Japan and elsewhere and only use products from the Bay Area".
Although he uses Japanese-inspired ingredients, "I don't see (my cooking)as Japanese in any way," he says. "I see presentation as a shape, arrangement of negative space and as a way to show the natural beauty of a product and its materials. And to present it in a way that makes it easiest to enjoy its taste (for example, little dishes on the side so as not to mix flavours."
In that sense, it's a highly disciplined approach - perhaps honed by his childhood training in martial arts and his years spent as an instructor before he decided to cook full-time. With his emphasis on purity of flavour, using a wood fire as his main heat source rather than pan frying or oven roasting, his raison d'etre is to be as natural as possible, but also delicious.