Joshua Skenes Has a Fleet of Fish­er­men and an Abalone Farmer on Re­tainer


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“On any given night there might be weird and bumpy or oth­er­wise amor­phous crea­tures on the menu.

THE FLUKE IS KELP-BROWN AND SPECK­LED, SHINY, STILL WET from the tank. It strains against the cut­ting board, thrust­ing up its head and tail to con­vulse into a taut, fu­ri­ous U. The spiny rays of its fins rip­ple, as if try­ing to find trac­tion against cur­rents of air— an im­pos­si­ble es­cape. Its splayed eyes look des­per­ate.

We’re at the seafood butch­ery sta­tion, un­der a tall, frosted-glass win­dow that looks out onto a South of Mar­ket al­ley­way in San Francisco, flood­ing light on the fluke slowly ex­pir­ing on its wooden board. With a down­ward lunge of his blue-gloved hands, Joshua Skenes drives the tip of a chef’s knife into a spot be­hind the head that ex­pe­ri­ence has mapped. His fea­tures com­press with the ef­fort. “You go through the brain,” he says, “to par­a­lyze the nerves.” Skenes stead­ies the fish un­der one hand and severs the cau­dal fin with the other, then snakes a thin wire into a cav­ity in the flesh. “This pre­vents rigor mor­tis,” he tells me. “You’re bleed­ing the fish, but in a way where the heart’s still pump­ing all the shit out. It’s pretty straight­for­ward.” Noth­ing about it looks that way.

Skenes is the chef and owner of Saison, a res­tau­rant with three Miche­lin stars and a 10-course tast­ing menu that is one of the most ex­pen­sive in the coun­try ($395 a pop, $546 per per­son if you opt for wine), where a dozen cooks are prep­ping for tonight’s ser­vice. A din­ner there can check off the boxes on a ros­ter of tast­ing-menu tropes (lob­ster, caviar, Krug cham­pagne). But what makes Saison dif­fer­ent is that Skenes has what no­body else does: the frigid wa­ters of Cal­i­for­nia’s cen­tral coast, in­clud­ing the rivers, es­tu­ar­ies, deltas, and tidal pools, which prac­ti­cally run through his veins like salt­wa­ter through a sub­mersible pump in a reef aquar­ium; his own abalone farmer, sea har­vester, and fish­er­man—just for the res­tau­rant; and a se­ries of tanks into which these farm­ers di­rectly haul their live goods. “I would say I’m very con­nected to the ocean,” he says.

Twice I no­tice him throw his arms out to stretch, like his chef’s jacket is stran­gling him. He seems con­fined in­doors, which makes sense for a chef who is as pas­sion­ate about fish­ing and hunt­ing as he is cook­ing. Saison’s menu ro­tates be­tween fin fish such as di­a­mond tur­bot and black cod, abalone, and so many lobes of uni packed onto Saison’s sig­na­ture toast course that they come to the ta­ble look­ing like a sin­gle fat, or­ange ruf­fle. On any given night there might be weird and bumpy or oth­er­wise amor­phous crea­tures such as sea cu­cum­bers, moon jel­ly­fish, and, the home­li­est of all, box crabs—things that few chefs ever see, much less work to un­der­stand. Even the meat course on the menu one night—a grilled, aged T-bone from a pronghorn an­te­lope, served next to a plump bar­be­cued quail—felt like a tem­po­rary di­ver­sion from seafood rather than a red-meat an­chor.

Skenes says his com­mit­ment to serv­ing a range of oceanic crea­tures and hav­ing them de­liv­ered live to the kitchen is an ethos, a set of prin­ci­ples. “With ev­ery sin­gle piece of sea life, not just fish but all of the crus­taceans and bi­valves and shell­fish and sea­weeds— you can keep that pris­tine fla­vor up only un­til a cer­tain point.” His cer­tainty about those points makes a meal at Saison feel like a set of or­ches­trated move­ments of the sea.

He plans to ap­ply them this sum­mer to An­gler, a new res­tau­rant with two lo­ca­tions (one in San Francisco, the other LA) ded­i­cated to seafood. They’ll be more ca­sual than Saison—and def­i­nitely less pricey— but built on a sim­i­lar schematic as the one he has worked out over the past eight years: cook­ing in a 32-foot fire­place and hold­ing the catch from lo­cal sup­pli­ers in about 20 feet of live tanks. Sea­son­ally there might be cured Pa­cific rock­fish with Meyer lemon, spot prawns grilled over a bed of sea­weeds, or steamed Cal­i­for­nia king crab served with but­ter churned from the milk of Skenes’ own cows (he has a farm north of the res­tau­rant, in Sonoma County). Other dishes will re­flect Skenes’ pas­sion for hunt­ing, in­clud­ing Hopi corn­bread with boar fat and elk steak. “It’s a very sim­ple res­tau­rant,” the chef says, “based on cel­e­bra­tion and plea­sure and fun and very sim­ple food.”

Spend an hour in Saison’s kitchen one af­ter­noon, as a dozen cooks fo­cused on prep for the evening menu dart around you, and the in­tri­cate work of cook­ing “sim­ple” dishes is clear. But the true heart of the res­tau­rant isn’t in the broad, open kitchen : It’s at one end of the loft­like din­ing room, in a nar­row workspace called the lab. That’s where the bulk of the ocean har­vest—fish bones and skin, as well as hum­bler crea­tures such as her­ring and sar­dines—is distilled, smoked, in­fused, and fer­mented into sauces, essences, and salts, the back­bone of Skenes’ cook­ing. So much of what hap­pens here touches fire, at some care­fully con­trolled de­gree of in­ten­sity. It’s the engine of trans­for­ma­tion.

SAISON BE­GAN IN 2009 AS A SUN­DAY NIGHT POP-UP IN THE Mis­sion District, in a lit­tle kitchen next to a pa­tio with a big open fire­place. It was there, ex­per­i­ment­ing with cook­ing over flame, that Skenes says the world split open for him. He pre­served toma­toes and cooked veg­eta­bles slowly, sus­pended high above a gen­tle fire, ab­sorb­ing low, nudg­ing heat. “Some things were ac­ci­den­tal, some were intentiona­l—all these lit­tle meth­ods started to hap­pen. Since then we’ve been de­vel­op­ing this pantry of our own method­ol­ogy. It opens up the world.”

One es­sen­tial technique that fu­els Saison’s lab is “fire in the sky,” which sounds apoc­a­lyp­tic but ac­tu­ally calls for pa­tience: slowly dry­ing in­gre­di­ents on metal racks high above the fire in the kitchen hearth. To­day, there are shiny, dark-ringed slices of red abalone un­der­go­ing fire in the sky. Once dried, they’ll cure for about a week in jars, and end up with the deep, funk-tinged earthy smell of white truf­fles.

The chefs make salt from sea­wa­ter pumped from the Pa­cific be­yond the mouth of Mon­terey Bay, evap­o­rat­ing it in troughs over burn­ing al­mond wood. Over days it takes on a sub­tle smok­i­ness, an oceanic fresh­ness with the warmth of fire. The re­sult­ing salt is used to cure Saison’s caviar, har­vested from stur­geon raised near Sacra­mento. Saison sauce—a pale-whiskey-col­ored sea­son­ing, sim­i­lar to fish sauce—is made from dry­ing and smok­ing the bones of flat­fish over fire, then brewed four quarts at a time. “We use it at least as much, maybe more, than we use salt,” says Jonathan Dewolf, Saison’s culi­nary di­rec­tor. “It’s an elixir.”

Skenes mists some from a small plas­tic

spray bot­tle onto rip­pled glasslike cubes of moon jel­ly­fish he’s just taken from a tank. On its own, the jelly tastes like clean sea­wa­ter. With Saison sauce, it gains di­men­sion, like peer­ing into clear ocean wa­ter and sens­ing the depths in the dark­ness below. THE LIGHT BLEACHES THE SANDS OF DEL MONTE BEACH where it sweeps south to meet Mon­terey’s mu­nic­i­pal wharf, curv­ing like some mam­moth bone left long ago to blanch in the sun. Here, a lit­tle more than a hun­dred miles south of Saison, on Cal­i­for­nia’s cen­tral coast, I meet Art Seavey in front of the Mon­terey Abalone Com­pany. Seavey, 60, is lean and pro­fes­so­rial, with sil­ver­white hair that looks sculpted by on­shore breezes. He and Trevor Fay own this small aquacultur­e and ma­rine har­vest­ing com­pany, which sup­plies Skenes with farmed red abalone, wild moon jel­ly­fish, sea veg­eta­bles, and oc­ca­sional buck­ets of ocean wa­ter (for poach­ing, mostly), pumped from the depths off Point Pi­nos.

It’s this re­la­tion­ship with the ocean it­self that an­i­mates Saison, feed­ing its con­nec­tion to the coast in ways both vis­i­ble and hid­den. Most chefs rely on whole­salers or seafood bro­kers to tell them what’s avail­able. Skenes talks di­rectly with aqua­cul­tur­ists—ma­rine farm­ers—and har­vesters of wild sea life. There’s a feel­ing of ac­tive main­te­nance of the sea here, the same way farm­ers en­gaged in sus­tain­able prac­tice talk as much about cul­ti­vat­ing healthy soil as they do the sweet­ness of this year’s crop of Seas­cape straw­ber­ries.

Seavey is a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist who turned to aquacultur­e to prove it could be sus­tain­able: a way to feed the planet’s grow­ing taste for seafood in a way that doesn’t stress the oceans. Skenes cred­its Fay with chang­ing his thinking about seafood (Saison used to source from Tokyo’s Tsuk­iji mar­ket), ex­pand­ing his palette of ed­i­ble sea life, and an­chor­ing the kitchen to Cal­i­for­nia’s coastal wa­ters.

I fol­low Seavey through a hatch in the pier, down a lad­der to a dark world of wooden plat­forms that de­scend into lu­mi­nous green wa­ter. The walk­ways are in sec­tions, hinged, folded up when the hu­mans leave to keep sea lions from hoist­ing themselves up to loll. This is the place where abalone grow, in dish­washer-size cages teth­ered by ropes to the pier, sus­pended in the bay.

Cal­i­for­nia’s com­mer­cial abalone fish­ery shut­tered in 1997 due to per­sis­tent pop­u­la­tion de­cline. Sport har­vest­ing was al­lowed on the coast north of San Francisco un­til last year, when state of­fi­cials no­ticed a shortage of kelp. It stayed closed this year, and prob­a­bly won’t open in 2019 (See “A De­li­cious Plague,” p. 52). “It’s tough,” Seavey says. “There’s a tremen­dous amount of la­bor, es­pe­cially the way we farm.” Abalone are slow-grow­ing and can have a longer life span than we do. “They can be over 100 years old when they’re 10 inches or greater,” Seavey says. But, he says, “We feel like we’re in­volved with pro­duc­ing sus­tain­able food, lo­cally pro­duced food, that’s an iconic food for Cal­i­for­nia.”

Later that night, at Saison, Dewolf serves me one of the abalone that spent four years feed­ing on kelp un­der the Mon­terey pier. A flat bowl con­tains a huge abalone shell, its iri­des­cent mother-of-pearl lin­ing flash­ing with re­flected light. Inside the shell, un­der a loose thatch of braised seaweed, are three thick slices of abalone, col­ored a beau­ti­ful shade of caramel from the grill. There’s a bit of clar­i­fied seaweed but­ter on top, and on the ta­ble, a small bowl of brown but­ter sauce con­tain­ing the abalone’s liver.

I’m only five cour­ses into the menu and al­ready a lit­tle buzzed on cham­pagne, sake, and grüner velt­liner, poured by wait­ers so stealthy that I note only pe­riph­er­ally how wine keeps seep­ing back into my glass. Phil Collins is singing to take a look at him now (Skenes told me he makes a point of blast­ing “shitty ’80s mu­sic” to get din­ers drop­ping four fig­ures on din­ner to loosen up). The abalone’s tex­ture is firm enough so it ac­tu­ally feels good to send my teeth through it, yet smooth as bur­rata. The fla­vor reads like an am­bered re­flec­tion of the sea, saline pu­rity with a faint over­lay of smoke and rich­ness, as if the whole struc­ture of Skenes’ res­tau­rant— the cooks, the cus­tom Molteni range, and the tanks, the hearth, and the nar­row lit­tle lab up­stairs—ex­ist solely as some elab­o­rate ma­chine to re­veal to me the pure, raw taste of the sea.

Clock­wise from top left: Pre­serves tucked in a cor­ner of the kitchen at Saison; a sous chef breaks down a fil­let of black cod; an abalone shell.

Skenes plucks a box crab from one of Saison’s salt­wa­ter tanks.

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