Coi: Stories and Recipes, the new book from Chef Daniel Patterson, is not a traditional cookbook. It’s Daniel’s personal story, and the narrative he’s built at his iconic San Francisco restaurant, Coi. In the book, he describes how he lived and cooked in the Bay Area for 16 years before it really began to feel like home; then slowly, he started exploring California’s history, environment and culture in an effort to know and understand the place. Eventually he opened Coi, where he creates thoughtful, emotional tasting menus with innovative techniques and native (often unfamiliar) ingredients.
To celebrate the release of Coi: Stories and Recipes, we’re thrilled to be hosting Daniel at two upcoming in-store events:
Come by to meet Daniel and have him sign a copy of your book, and see him demonstrate a recipe!
We also talked to the chef all about the book, about his version of “California” cuisine, and what he’s eating for dinner tonight (hint: he’s dining out with another famous chef). Read on for his responses and a sample recipe from Coi: Stories and Recipes.
“Coi” means tranquil or quiet; how is that reflected in your food and restaurant?
The name really refers to the environment of the restaurant, which is in an active neighborhood. The place itself has a really nice insulated feel.
You’ve described your food as “Californian” — what does California cuisine mean to you?
We’re in California; we work with California ingredients. I think that descriptor has a lot of different meanings, but the way I think of it is that our food reflects the natural setting around us and the diverse cultural influences in our area.
It took you some time to acclimate to living in California. What were some of the challenges, and how has cooking at Coi changed your relationship with the place where you live?
There were so many. As a person, the culture is very different, and as cook, the ingredients are different. The way that people understand food is different. One of the great things right now about cooking in San Francisco is that the clientele is amazing — sophisticated, open-minded — some of the best customers in the world.
I feel fortunate to be very well supported. Coi definitely, for all kinds of reasons, made me feel more comfortable in California, and being married to someone who was born and raised in California gave me a better understanding of the state as well. Now I have kids, too, who are native Californians.
What native ingredients have you come to love and use often at Coi?
There are so many, but if I had to pick I would say three iconic ones. Wild fennel flowers, which are everywhere. Wild bay, which has a flavor like nothing else; it’s very different from other bay trees, with a piercing menthol-eucalyptus aroma. And sea beans, which grow all along the coast and have this great taste of the ocean even though they grow in the ground.
In the book, wild fennel flowers are in the abalone dish [Monterey Bay Abalone with Nettle-Dandelion Salsa Verde, Spicy Breadcrumbs]; the bay is in the beef encrusted in lichen [Prather Ranch Beef Encrusted in Lichen with Wild Spinach, Chanterelles, Bordelaise Infused with Native Spices]; the sea beans are in the tomato-cucumber dish [Earth and Sea: Tofu Coagulated with Seawater, Cherry Tomato, Fresh Seaweeds, Sylverleaf Olive Oil]. Those are just some of the ways we use them.
Describe the recipes in the book. You separate specific quantities from instructions; why?
A big part of that is readability. The book is a very nice size for reading, and functionally we couldn’t fit everything on the page because it was too many words.
Also, because it is more of a reading book — it’s not like you’re going to go home from work with half an hour and start cooking straight out of the book. It’s a more explicit acknowledgment of what people will most use the book for: as a reading and looking book more than a cookbook, although you can cook out of it. But I think reading the recipes before you get into actual quantities is a good exercise and gives you a better understanding.
How do you hope people use the book?
For me, there is a lot in there that is applicable to home cooking. The sunchoke soup has sunchokes, vegetable stock and brown butter – it could not be more simple. There are also simple techniques, like cooking things to tenderness before you puree them, or when and how you season food. A lot of the components of the dishes would be great in home environment; the Dandelion Nettle Salsa Verde is great on pasta and chicken.
Walk us through the development of a dish at Coi — what’s the inspiration, and how does it come to life?
It varies, and in the book I talk about that a lot. We’re very sensitive to the seasons; as ingredients change, as the temperature shifts and light changes — all of these things factor into our thinking. We always start with the ingredients that have the deepest flavors and work from there. Once we have the ingredients, we start to think about how we want to treat it, look at it in the context of the menu and give each dish sense of discovery so that people aren’t getting the same dish they’ve seen a million times before. A good dish needs all of those parameters.
You divide the recipes into years. How have the dishes and menus at Coi evolved over time?
A lot. The style we evolved is distinctive, and it took a long time and a lot of effort to figure out what the parameters are and what we feel comfortable with. Writing the menu is much easier now. It’s like creating a language and working within that language; you begin to understand it better and speak more fluently. The evolution, in broad strokes, has been towards finding more consistency and clarity of expression within a constantly changing set of parameters in terms of the environment and ingredients.
How do you approach the balance between honoring ingredients and surroundings while still using modern culinary techniques?
I think there’s some confusion about modern techniques. They are there to express ingredients in a certain way. We’re looking for a certain texture and flavor, and the technique is only the medium. What we think about is what’s special about the ingredient and how we want to express it. From there, we choose the best way to actualize it. Sometimes it’s with our hands or a mortar and pestle, and sometimes it’s with a more specialized piece of equipment. It’s not “why would we use a technique?” but “how do we work with our ingredients with all of these options available to us?” We try to use the option that’s most effective and gives us the most delicious results.
At Coi, you go beyond seasonal cooking to truly cook “in the moment.” How do you source ingredients, and how does that approach affect your process at the restaurant?
We’ve been working with a lot of the same farmers and ranches for many years. We understand what thety plant, what they’re best at, and what we like out of what they do. Beyond that, we allow ourselves to be surprised, and they may come to us with something new that’s amazing. It’s about being on farms, at farmers’ markets, in forests and fields, tasting things. We work really hard at our sourcing and paying attention to what we’re working with, and that drives a lot of our decision making around what we do with the menu.
Why tasting menus? What are some examples of the narratives you tell with yours?
It’s very difficult to express a lot of complex ideas in one plate of food. It’s like writing a novel versus a short story; there are different things you can do, even though it’s all using words. A series of smaller plates allows for a means of expression that’s a deeper look at a set of understandings of how we think about a lot of things: ingredients, the place we live, a moment in time.
Do you cook at home? If so, what are some go-to meals?
Not as much as I’d like to, but it’s all very simple food — pasta, roast chicken, a lot of vegetables. I have two young kids who love pasta and potatoes. They’re adventurous when we’re out but less so at home. But we make dinner and they have to eat what’s there. We try and make food that’s not too challenging. A lot of one-pot meals; we’ll make a stock and put in a bunch of vegetables and beans and greens, and a bowl of that will be dinner.
What’s for dinner tonight?
I’m going somewhere with Gabrielle Hamilton; she gets to choose. I’m going to eat whatever’s put in front of me.
– 500g vegetable or corn oil
– 1 kg popcorn
– 750g water
– 100g butter
– buttered popcorn
It’s amazing to me how many well-traveled, well-trained cooks have no idea how to pop popcorn. Give them a bag of gellan and they’ll spew out ratios. Give them a bag of popcorn and they’ll look confused.
So here’s what I’ve learned: stat with good popcorn. Get an heirloom variety if you can. They taste better, even if sometimes they don’t pop as uniformly. Red, purple, black, yellow, it doesn’t matter, although I’m partial to yellow for this dish. Also popcorn doesn’t fry open, it steams, so there has to be enough moisture in the popcorn to work. No stale corn.
Popcorn requires a lot of heat and a lot of oil. In a large pot (the one I use at the restaurant can pop an entire recipe of popcorn at a time), heat a generous amount of vegetable or corn oil to smoking. Add a thin but solid layer of kernels, cover, and shake the pot a few times until you hear the corn starting to pop. Lower the heat to medium-high, shaking often so there are no hot spots, and listen – it’s the only way to know when to pull the popcorn. When the popping starts to trickle, remove the pot from the heat and let it stand one minute. Uncover and pour the popcorn into a bowl, watching for any burnt pieces on the bottom, which should be discarded. If the corn tastes burnt, the grits will taste burnt.
Bring the water, butter and some salt to a simmer. Throw in a big handful of popped kernels, simmer for 30 seconds to a minute, until the corn has softened, and strain through a fine mesh sieve. Transfer the liquid that strains through back to the pot, and bring to a simmer. Add more popcorn. Repeat until all the corn is gone. Add water as necessary, although you shouldn’t need to add too much.
Press the softened kernels through a medium strainer basket, discarding the hulls and seeds that cannot be pushed through. Transfer the strained corn, which will look like stuff grits, into a pot. Add the reserved cooking liquid, which should be slightly thickened from the corn starch, and should taste like popcorn (on its own, this makes a nice sauce for steamed fish). Add butter and more water as necessary to make a grits-like texture – we find that slightly on the thicket side is better. It should taste like a cross between grits and a movie theater. Serve with a bowl of buttered popcorn on the side. (You don’t need a recipe for that, do you? Good.)
Recipe from Coi: Stories and Recipes by Daniel Patterson (Phaidon, October 2013)