Saison in San Francisco might be the only Michelin three-star restaurant in the world to greet patrons with a free-standing wall of stacked, split logs. The 20-foot-long woodpile, just inside the front door, creates a foyer of sorts.
“We needed a way to separate the dining room from the lounge,” says chef and co-owner Joshua Skenes. “It’s also a statement of who we are.”
The statement? Here, elegant food is prepared through the most primitive method known to man: fire and smoke.
Listen to what Skenes and his team did with those two tools on the night I visited: Scarlet strips of mild Jimmy Nardello peppers, aromatic from a turn in the wood-burning oven, lay atop whipped buttermilk. Smoked pig fat went into a gelee of kelp underlying golden sturgeon caviar and aged seaweed. A tinge of flame infused the sweet meat of flash-grilled lobster claw chunks, which mated beautifully with a sauce made from lobster shells and brains.
Beets, of all things, were a wonder, as meaty and tender as filet mignon, thanks to a light smoking and drying that had concentrated them. A slice of duck, served rare, was velvety in texture, its skin perfectly crisped, the flavor enhanced by a seductive hint of fire and smoke. Dessert, smoked ice cream with salted caramel sauce, was simply insane, in a good way.
That’s just a few examples out of the 18 or so courses that the restaurant typically serves as part of its tasting-menu setup, but you get the idea. Saison takes smoke where no smoke has gone before.
Skenes, 35, grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., where he went hunting, fishing and camping a lot with his dad. It was memories of those camping trips that caused him to dig a hole one day in 2009, build a fire in it and grill a leek in the embers.
“I opened it up, and it was that smell,” he said, referring to the campfire. “I drizzled a little olive oil and sprinkled some salt and it was, ‘Wow.’ ”
Skenes, who trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York, had just spent three years as a restaurant consultant after working in such kitchens as Jean-Georges in New York, Troquet in Boston and Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern in Dana Point, Calif. But the grilled leek set him on a different track. “Since then,” he said, “I tried to refine the use of smoke and fire. It all goes back to my childhood.”
He opened Saison in 2009 in a San Francisco alley as a pop-up, but it stayed for years, and in 2011, Skenes was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine. In 2013, he and sommelier and co-owner Mark Bright opened Saison in its current location in the historic California Electric Light Company Building, a handsome brick edifice built in 1888. With its exposed brick, high ceilings, hardwood floors and lack of interior walls, the restaurant, with seating for just 18, is as open as a loft.
In addition to live-fire cooking, Skenes focuses on seasonality. “We adjust to the ingredient first, then the idea,” says Skenes, whose farm supplies Saison with most of its vegetables and herbs and even milk from its cows. “This is our guiding ethos.”
The third leg to his philosophical stool is Japanese flavors. Rather than rely on butter or olive oil, Skenes — a lifelong student of martial arts — ferments seaweed and uses heady broths to add depth to his food. “My goal is to look at the product and what it could become in its most concentrated form,” Skenes says, “to represent the original flavor and magnify it, but in a respectful way.”
He ties everything together around the hearth, an eight-foot-wide wood-fueled stove next to a wood-fired oven that sits in the back center of the kitchen, like a drummer in a band. The hearth, which he designed, keeps the beat of the Saison kitchen.
The afternoon after my first visit, I watched the drumming in action.
Skenes was out sick, but his influence was ever-present. His protege, Johnny Ortiz, an alum of Chicago’s famed Alinea who at 23 was the youngest person to win Eater’s Young Gun Award last year, made his name on the hearth. He is now sous-chef, and these days John Solari, 29, works the hearth. “It’s a huge learning experience,” Solari allows. “It’s difficult. You have to get it the first time.”
Lean and affable, Solari had started a raging fire on the right side of the fire-brick hearth. He poked at the split almond logs with a long-handled fireplace shovel to assure a good pyre of seasoned wood. Whole ducks hung from metal hooks on the far, or cool, side of the hearth, acquiring a whiff of smoke and rendering their fat into a pan.
Two cinder blocks separated the blazing fire on the far right from the rest of the hearth. Solari used a small-handled shovel to scoop the embers from the fire into little piles in a trough, providing different cooking zones. The amount and size of embers in each pile helped determine the degree of heat.
Perforated pans containing various foods rested on metal rods roughly four feet above the hearth, taking on a very light smoke and gently drying to concentrate their flavors. The method was the secret to those amazing beets, which were reconstituted using brown butter. Each food was strategically placed: Wedges of long squash, for example, were placed above the fire, while the beets were set farther away.
On a counter, charred wood floated in a pot of milk. The embers would be strained out and the milk transformed into the smoked ice cream I had swooned over in the dining room.
Solari kept a long-handled hand fan tucked into the back of his apron. Hunching over the embers, he judiciously fanned the coals to achieve the desired heat, sometimes clearing the ash off them to create a hotter fire, other times allowing ash to build, for a less-intense heat. He would do it all night.
The hand fan was the only instrument he used. There were no fancy gadgets, not even a thermometer. The cooking is all done by feel.
Even barbecue traditionalists these days use expensive instant-read thermometers and cook on double-insulated multi-thousand-dollar smokers. Here, at one of the most refined restaurants in the world, they use only their hand to judge the heat of the fire and their touch to assess the doneness of the food. The approach is, in its way, a rebuke to modernist cuisine. It affirms primitivism as a vehicle to achieve art.
Almost exclusively, Saison uses seasoned almond wood, which Skenes says burns mild and slow. On rare occasion, apple wood or grapevine wood is employed to add a different flavor. For the most part, though, the wood serves as fuel, and almond is neutral enough to not call attention to itself. A dish here and there may take on a delicate note of smoke or a faint flavor of fire, but primarily the grilling and smoking disappears into the background of the far more prominent flavors of the foods.
I watched as Solari took lobster chunks from the refrigerator, placed them on a screen over some embers and flash-grilled them for 30 seconds on one side, then, using chopsticks, turned them over and grilled them for about another 10 or 15 seconds, fanning the whole time. He removed the lobster and passed it on for the dish to be finished.
Afterward, he took one of the whole ducks down from its hook — what Skenes calls “fire in the sky” cooking — and placed it on a screen over one of the ember piles. Over another pile, he was toasting thick slabs of levain bread for a dish of “liquid toast” topped with sea urchin.
In the back of the hearth was a large bowl of hay. When the duck was finished cooking — it went back and forth to the hook and over the embers several times for even cooking — Solari moved it to the hay to rest. “More gentle than putting it on wood or brick, where it cools more quickly,” Solari explained. While the duck rested, Solari grilled mushrooms on a screen over a medium-hot fire while simultaneously grilling chunks of black cod, skin side down, in a perforated pan, pressing them down with a finger for even cooking.
Throughout service, Solari added split logs as necessary to keep the fire roaring and the embers coming. He fanned. He shoveled. He grilled and smoked at different temperatures (though heaven only knows what ones) and for different periods of times.
As he cooked, I took in the sight of the hearth. Vegetables sat in pans on rods far above the embers. Ducks hung on hooks. Another duck rested on a bowl of hay. A pan of Brussels sprouts, blistered over the embers, now rested atop the cinder blocks. Different items cooked over three small piles of embers while Solari fanned away. Beneath the hearth, the ash drawer kept filling, the spent embers to be used for roasting eggplant. The almond wood fire roared, its flames leaping.
It was a symphony of live fire cooking.
Where is the connection between Skenes’s childhood camping trips and grilled fish and smoked water sauce? “All I’m trying to do,” he told me, “is create honest food.”
I considered the many variations of smoked foods I have eaten over the years, from low-and-slow barbecue to hot-smoked salmon to grilled vegetables. And then I considered this restaurant, where a vinaigrette is made from smoke-warmed seaweed and “Saison Sauce” is concocted from fermented grilled grains, grilled fish bones and seaweed. I had never experienced food — smoked or otherwise — quite like it.
More than anything, Saison seems to be a glimpse into the dreams of an audacious imagination, made real through the ephemerality of smoke and made refined through the primitivism of fire. Tasting such exquisite food coming off the hearth is to experience a joyous paradox of the ancient past meeting its evolving future.