Joshua Skenes never wavered about his career choice. He enrolled in The French Culinary Institute in New York directly after graduating from high school in Jacksonville, Florida and has since thrown himself into the kitchen and his passion. While in school, Skenes managed to balance his courses with a full-time position in the kitchen of famed Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
After his 2001 graduation Skenes moved to Boston to help open Troquet and to work under Anthony Ambrose at Ambrosia. Two years later, Skenes moved to San Francisco and quickly secured a position as the executive chef at the acclaimed restaurant Chez TJ in Mountain View. The San Francisco Chronicle awarded Skenes three and a half stars out of a possible four.
Chef Michael Mina recruited Skenes to help open Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach in 2005, where Skenes won more stars for his innovative approach to modern American cooking. After leaving Stonehill Tavern in 2006, Skenes returned to San Francisco and served as consultant on menu and recipe development and overall concept with various restaurants.
Skenes has also spent significant time cultivating his own concept, Saison, which started out as a pop-up restaurant where he was able to serve his uber-seasonal dishes to a handful of tables a few nights a week. Chef Skenes believes that for ingredients to reach their fullest flavors, they should be prepared with components from the native land and sea from which they were harvested, thus recreating their natural habitat. The concept has proved so popular that Skenes and his partners are rolling out Saison to be open five nights a week. In early 2010 The San Francisco Chronicle named Skenes a Rising Star Chef.
Interview with Chef Joshua Skenes of Saison – San Francisco, CA
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Joshua Skenes: I've always been around food but I can't think of a reason why I started cooking. It was the first job I had, as a dishwasher when I was 15 in Jacksonville, FL. That was to support my beer habit, not that I had one back then. Ever since then I've been working in restaurants. I went to Boston when I was 18 and was going to go to art school. I started thinking about culinary school because I always worked in restaurants. I picked up a brochure for FCI and realized it was what I wanted to do. Can't think of one reason why I started cooking, I fell into it.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
JS: There are two trains of thought: you can go to a good culinary school and get a jump start or work in the best kitchens. In the end, it winds up being the same thing.
AB: What advice would you offer to young chefs just getting started?
JS: Patience. Just go cook at the best places, stay at the best places, put your time in. I've never worked anywhere for long. That’s why it’s important. I've worked at a bunch of places for a short time, but never anywhere long enough to say someone is my mentor. A lot was experience after that. I went to Chez TJ (before Chris Kostow was there). I look back on the first dish I did that night and cringe—huge experiment time. I was off the radar back then; I had the opportunity to play around for a while.
AB: What’s your philosophy on food and dining?
JS: Food, I would say, it’s kind of going towards purity and depth of flavor. Take, for instance, the turnip. The best turnip—how do you make that turnip a little better?
Ambrosia was a great place, Troquet, in Boston, but I don't know. [Philosophy] comes from reading and learning and trying to constantly learn.
AB: An amalgamation of experiences?
JS: It’s obviously all of them. There are experiences like at Ambrosia with Anthony Ambrose, they had this really cool sauce station—you would have bases, meat juices, fish juices, classical, non-classical, a row of infused oils, a row of infused vinegars, a spice drawer, a herb drawer, so we would build all these sauces on the line. It gave vibrancy to everything. No matter how busy it was, it was always really vibrant and alive and the food was interesting.
AB: What goes into creating a dish?
JS: I think it's flavor and memory, building upon your memory. We all have a catalogue of things we've done, things we like. It’s a combination of those, outside influences, and seeing things that are inspiring from other people.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JS: It's been pretty damned fun. Everything is a challenge. The biggest mental challenge was going through a couple of years when I took off, went to go open a restaurant for Michael Mina, Stonehill Tavern in 2006. It was supposed to be temporary job, he was going to fund a restaurant for me here. The economy tanked. Not cooking was the hardest thing for me. Then this place came into being. A commercial kitchen, it was a catering space. I decided to throw Sunday nights at Saison, just one night a week, then three, then we wanted to take over this space. We're finally signing a contract and taking over the space. We're going to turn the front driveway into a big kitchen that opens up totally to the dining room. Before that this was a random event space—yoga or someone’s bar mitzvah.
AB: If you could do one thing again or over again what would it be?
JS: I would probably go work for the people that I am really influenced by now, I'd go to France and cook in Europe.
AB: What has been your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
JS: I think Saison so far. Actually I think the remodel, which hasn’t happened yet, and unwrapping the box when the Molteni comes in the door will be my proudest moment.
AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
JS: Right here. Playing with fire. Maybe Saison Hong Kong, but we'll be here. We've got a biodynamic garden growing; it’s a really cool space. The idea is to take this whole space and turn it into a little micro-economy. Do a wood-burning oven to make all of the bread with a bakery and a giant hearth for ember and ash cooking in a really unique way.