Foodie Features

Daniel Patterson – Coi: Stories and Recipes

By Rosie Birkett

Rosie Birkett travels to San Francisco to talk to Daniel Patterson about his debut recipe book Coi: Stories and Recipes and why it’s so much more than that.

This is not a cookbook. This is the story of Coi, written through food. It’s a little bit my story as well,” declares Daniel Patterson in the introduction to Coi: Stories and Recipes, published by Phaidon back in October, 2012. It’s an unusual way for a chef to begin a collection of recipes but then, as he tells me from across the table in Coi’s private dining room, one balmy San Franciscan afternoon: “it is a very unusual book.”

Those who’ve met him will understand. As softly spoken as he is fiercely intelligent, he’s a man who exudes an almost monkish intensity in person, bringing his beautifully made dishes to the table at Coi with a sweetly humble reverence. In print, he is more forthright; anyone who’s read his thought provoking, influential and at times controversial food writing – he once notably decried the ‘tyranny of Chez Panisse’ in a piece on the culinary conservatism of California – would agree that as much as he is a chef of haute cuisine, who dropped out of college in Massachusetts to live the kitchen life, Patterson is a scholar.

In Coi: Stories and Recipes, Patterson has created a work that not only engages readers from a culinary standpoint, but also from a literary and – thanks to the beautiful, powerful photography of Maren Caruso that features throughout – a visual one.

There aren’t many cookbooks that discuss grief, mental illness and professional failure alongside tips on how to cook abalone, or make the perfect stock. “Generally cookbooks don’t talk about death, depression or sadness, but I think that cooking and food is a very complex expression of the human condition – and the human condition has its own complexity to it” explains the chef. “It’s what you would expect in a literary book, but is a surprise in a book about cooking, which maybe it shouldn’t be.”

The book’s format is fittingly unconventional; after an introduction about his adopted home, California and what it’s meant to him personally and professionally, Patterson takes the reader into the Coi kitchen, where he discusses everything from cleanliness and deliciousness to ingredients, equipment (special and prosaic) and technique.

After this, it’s on to the ‘recipes’: everything from ‘Inverted cherry tomato tart’, to ‘Morels roasted in butter with just-harvested potatoes, popcorn and basil’.

These are written as sixty-three individual essays which, whilst catholic in their content – including everything from practical tips on how to handle certain ingredients, to documentary-style details of how the kitchen works at Coi – cleverly and cadently weave together dishes from the restaurant’s evolution, with stories about Patterson’s own experiences, feelings, development and that of his restaurant.

The nuts and bolts of measurements, weights and ratios are left until a separate section at the back of the book. “The book itself is very cross-platform,” he says. “It fuses together a couple of different forms of expression into something that’s new or different. But you can cook from it. You can cook every dish. Now the book is out, I refer my staff to it and they will go and look at the ratios and do it exactly. Will it work for everyone, under every condition, with every ingredient? No, but in some ways you’ll get more information than from a normal cookbook.”

In this sense, it serves one better to read this work in full, rather than dipping in and out of it – as you might with most cookery writing. It’s peppered with Patterson’s strong and authoritative views on the industry, be it from musing on the role of the chef in society (“much the same as it was 100 years ago, make sure that the food that comes out of the kitchen tastes great”) to the importance of mastering sauces: “sauce is the backbone of a dish. It’s the glue that connects disparate components, or amplifies focused flavours.”

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Though he protests that when it comes to writing, “I’m very, very novice”, this is not the chef’s first shot as an author – he co-wrote a remarkably insightful book on cooking with essential oils in Aroma: The magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance – but this is his first solely authored work dedicated purely to his cuisine and what he’s been doing at Coi (pronounced ‘kwa’) since it opened in 2006.

And it was some time in the offing. “I didn’t want to write a cookbook,” he explains. “I wasn’t ready and I didn’t know what I would say, so I said no, no, no, no and then, I guess it was 2011 – two and a half years later – that I picked up the conversation with Phaidon and said ‘maybe we can start talking about it.’ I wanted it as way to communicate what the restaurant is about a little bit more.”

It was crucial to him, given his strong views on food publishing, that this be anything but a conventional cookbook. “I wanted to do something that you haven’t already seen a million times, because there has to be a reason to bring a new cookbook into the world at this point. If you want to know how to make roasted broccoli with chilli, lemon and olive oil, there’s ten thousand recipes already out there. I mean the internet, as an aggregator of recipes, is incredibly effective.

“So now I think if you’re going to publish a cookbook, it should mean and say something – something more than a couple of measurements that will lead to an edible result.’”

In the ‘The Coi Kitchen’ section at the start of the book, in his note about ‘Deliciousness’, Patterson lays out what he defines as his food, or culinary ‘voice’: “food that follows these principles: fresh and light, concentrated, balanced flavours, plants more than animal and – in a metaphysical sense – food with energy and life.”

Throughout, he stresses that food at his (two Michelin-starred) level should offer more than a pleasant meal to guests, citing the importance of ‘thinking chefs’ and a more cerebral approach to cuisine – particularly emphasising the role of sensory memory in cooking. “We have to make food that somehow triggers primal memories in all of the diners, using shared experience to create something new, something that will linger long after the dinner is over. After all, what’s more important, the three hours they spend at the table, or the ten or twenty years the memory stays with them, glowing in their mind?”

Why is it so important to him that his food provokes on such a deep level?

“What’s always been true of haute cuisine and the expectation attached to that standard of cooking, is that you’re going to see something that’s alchemy, that’s magic, that you’ve never seen before – and so it’s actually a very traditional approach. At this level, my expectation is the same as I would have out of some kind of performance, or artwork, or something like that – which is not to equate food with art, but to say that there is a moment of epiphany that doesn’t always happen, but is always the goal. I want people to leave just floating – like something extraordinary has happened.

“I think that’s the difference between very good cooking and haute cuisine. I use a French word there, but it’s the same thing – whether you’re in France, Italy, Scandinavia or South America – it’s the same desire.”

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