“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.”