“Everything you make has to have a connection to tradition[…]At the International Culinary Center I felt like I connected to the tradition of French cooking.”
Hometown: Jacksonville, FL
Current city: San Francisco, CA
Course of study: Classic Culinary Arts
Graduation year: 2001
One food/beverage you can’t live without? I couldn’t possibly choose
Describe your culinary POV in three words: purity, balance, restraint
Best meal of all time? In an alley in Beijing I had a meal cooked over a fire by a friend of a friend, a chef. It was the total experience—the ingredients, the place, the fire.
What would your last meal consist of? Sukiyabashi Jiro, a sushi place in Tokyo
When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
It’s something I’ve always had in mind. There are pictures of me making mud pies in the backyard wearing a stupid hat and an apron. Later it became a way of communing with nature. When I was 17 years old, I grew herbs in my garden and used them to cook omelets. I don’t know why.
When did you decide to go to the International Culinary Center?
I was living in Boston. It was right after high school, and I was going to go to college. I remember picking up a brochure, and it just kind of hit me: Let’s do this. So I moved to New York.
Did you look at other schools?
I did, but ICC was obviously the most attractive. I liked the emphasis on French technique. And New York, of course, is amazing, the culinary capital of America, along with San Francisco, I’d argue.
What was the biggest lesson you learned at ICC?
The discipline, honestly. I was a rambunctious little kid, so to come to a structured place was important. With the classic French chefs, that’s really how it is: “Oui, chef. Non, chef.” Learning that at a young age proved key in my working life.
How else does your experience at ICC play into your cooking today?
Everything you make has to have a connection to tradition. It has to be rooted in substance, depth, and soul. It’s your personal tradition—the catalogue of memories, tastes, flavors, likes, and dislikes—but it’s also culinary tradition. At the International Culinary Center I felt like I connected to the tradition of French cooking.
Can you talk about your transition after school?
In 2003 I came out to San Francisco. When I was 24, I started as an executive chef. In retrospect it’s ridiculous, but it worked out. I made a lot of stuff I wouldn’t make any more. Then I got poached by Michael Mina and we opened a restaurant. I knew nothing about the business of restaurants, so it was amazing to work with those guys.
How did your own restaurant, Saison, come about?
We started one day a week in 2009. It was a pop-up thing, even though we had no idea what a pop-up was. I developed a unique way of cooking, a synthesis of the primitive and the modern. We do a lot of cooking with fire. We forage in the wild. We grow our own vegetables. We get wild fish and meat and game. We were one of the lucky ones. The place worked from day one, and so we expanded to three days. And now here we are, a full restaurant, open five days a week. In six months we’re going to expand our space with a move to Jackson Square.
You said you earlier that San Francisco rivaled New York as the food capital of America. What did you mean by that?
You know, New York is obviously the restaurant capital, but I’d say San Francisco is the capital for ingredients, in terms of flavor and purity. Each year I’m out here I discover a new tangerine. I bite into it and think, “This is the best tangerine I’ve ever eaten.” Then it happens again the next year. I’ve been here seven years and had a better tangerine every year. There are some great restaurants in New York, but if you put them here they’d be 100 times better.
Any advice for International Culinary Center grads who aspire to open their own restaurants?
Go to work for the best people and put in your time—but make sure you put in serious time. And don’t settle for just anything. Work with the best and you’ll become the best.