Bay Area chef Daniel Patterson recently traded in his Michelin-rated job as chef of Coi to run fast food chain LocoL in Oakland and Los Angeles and neighborhood fast casual restaurant Alta in San Francisco. Earlier this month, Patterson stopped by Food Republic headquarters to tell our podcast listeners all about his new The Art of Flavor and what he’s planning with Alta and LocoL. Read the conversation below.
You recently returned to the kitchen at Coi to cook a dinner with the co-author of your new book, The Art of Flavor, perfumer Mandy Aftel. What was that like?
It was great. We had a very nice event, people were very enthusiastic. I traded courses with Matt Kirkley, the chef, and it was fun.
What dishes did you make from the cookbook?
None. The book is really home cooking. When people are coming to a fancy restaurant for dinner, I want to make restaurant food. But, the book is about flavor, so really anything that we made was going to involve some of the principals of the book. So that’s what we really talked about, even though Matt’s food is a little different in style, the underlying principles are very similar.
It’s a cool concept, working with somebody who’s a trained nose and focusing on the sensual aspect of food. Some of the recipes in the book are funny. Like, my least favorite spice, cinnamon, shows up in a spaghetti sauce. You’ve got carrots being cooked with coffee beans. Where did you come up with this stuff and how did it come together?
The carrot and coffee beans is actually recipe from 2011 from Coi. It came out of a time when I was cooking for a magazine with Rene Redzepi. We were in my house, I was going to make coffee, he was holding a squash, said “What should we do with this?” I looked at the coffee and I’m like, “What about coffee?” And he was like, “We bury it in coffee beans!” That kind of started that thinking. I went back to my kitchen and cooked carrots in coffee. He went back and buried things in spices and roasted them. A lot of the book is about just paying attention and allowing the sensory input that you get through what you smell, through what you sense, but also through what you remember, to guide these kind of jumps of inspiration, which seem really weird but then once you kind of think about it and break it apart, it makes sense. Carrots: sweet, earthy. Coffee’s kind of bitter and earthy. They link together to create a flavor that’s neither one nor the other. The cinnamon, which you hate, has a completely different effect on tomatoes. You might go to, for example, Greece and find a tomato sauce with cinnamon. What’s interesting is that you think about tomatoes and basil, right? Well, basil and cinnamon share an aromatic molecule, so there’s actually a recipe in there with duck breast with cinnamon in it and it’s garnished with basil. The two things play off of each other. So, in a way, even cinnamon and basil are not as far as you think.
Given the season, how does pumpkin spice fit into everything?
[laughs] I don’t deal with pumpkin spice.
[laughs] Alright. Good answer. So it’s old news now that you’ve handed off the head chef job at Coi after earning two Michelin stars. With Alta and LocoL, you’re focused less on stars and accolades and more on feeding people better. Would you say that’s correct?
What does it take to make that transition? Philosophically in your head, you’re going from cooking very high-end food to trying to make something that people are going to relate to more immediately.
I can see how that would seem like a very strange or distant step, but for me, it’s all the same. From cooking a tasting menu or if I’m flipping burgers, it all really comes down to this feeling of love and connection, the desire to feed people. For me it’s like there’s a continuum, and things on different points of the spectrum, but they’re all linked together. It’s all feeding people to me.
What about LocaL? Can you give us an update on how that’s going? We’ve been pretty obsessed with the mission you and Roy Choi have, to create fast food establishments in places that are maybe underserved and trying to help people have access to affordable food.
It’s going great. So, now we’re in the phase where we’re refining systems, figuring out what works best, how to streamline things. The team is great. We’re had an amazing response, especially in L.A. The truck has really taken off. We do a lot of catering and we do a lot of parties. So that’s really fun for the team because they get to go all over the city and engage with a lot of different kinds of people.
Does it still, in your opinion, have the ability to become a vehicle of change, to actually improve access to food in food deserts?
Definitely. So there are two things: one is about how people eat and the other is access to economic opportunity. The hiring aspect and the training aspect is just as important, and maybe in some respects, maybe more important. For example, at Alta, we have four people that started at LocoL, who are now working with us: the bartender, the kitchen manager, sauté cook, a server. So, it’s not an end in itself, it’s a beginning. It’s something that can lead to something else because if I look down the road, what I’d love to see — and what I think is going to happen — is that people will start at LocoL, they will rise and eventually, the ones with the drive and the creativity, they’ll move on and start their own businesses. They then start their own micro-universes, they do their own hiring, they run their businesses in their own way. Through that spread into the ecosystem that there’s not a lot of opportunity right now to get there.
On the West Coast, I’m sure everybody knows your story a lot better, but for the rest of us in the country, can you explain a little bit about Alta and what your mission is there, what kind of food you’re creating and maybe share some news about it? I think you’re about to open in Los Angeles soon?
Alta is meant to be a really good neighborhood restaurant. It’s fun, good food and drinks, not too expensive and really designed as a gathering place, a communal place where everyone feels comfortable. It’s based on the same principles as LocoL. We actually worked with a non-profit called ROC United, which is based in New York but it’s kind of a national non-profit that works with low-income workers and a lot of people in the restaurant industry to create more opportunity. We worked on a racial equity program, which systematizes a solution to an industry-wide problem to lack of good jobs and how that’s kind of limiting. The same principles that exist in Locol are also in Alta, with a different focus of being really good neighborhood fine dining casual restaurant.
Can you talk about commitment to Oakland and how the city and the community has evolved over the years you’ve lived and worked there?
That’s a great question. Obviously, a lot of people from San Francisco are moving to Oakland now. It’s changing in ways that I don’t even know how to describe. I’ve lived there for a long time. I love Oakland, I love the people there, it’s my hometown. Its soul, its heart is so strong, in terms of what is going to be as it becomes more, let’s just say attractive, for people moving from more affluent areas and as housing prices increase and all of that. I don’t know. For right now, it’s an amazing place.
How has that growth around the whole area affected the restaurant scene? Bay Area real estate issues have been in the top of the news nationwide. What does it mean for the restaurant scene in the Bay Area?
Honestly, it’s made it more difficult. The costs coming up have not been met with a similar enthusiasm on the costumer side to pay more money for things. For us, we’re partnering with a hotel called The Grant. It’s on 7th Street and Market Street. It’s about three blocks away from our original location. Locating with a restaurant downstairs and a rooftop bar upstairs, feeding off the 200 people per night that are going to stay there, plus the surrounding community, that’s one way I think we can be a little insulated or create a little more traffic flow. The Los Angeles restaurant that you mentioned earlier in the West Adams community, we’re really excited about that as well, to kind of expand into other cities. As for what the future holds, I’m not sure, but it’s definitely changed a lot.
A lot of chefs are known for hard-partying lifestyles. You’re more known as a cerebral chef and thinker. How do you feel about that reputation?
You mean I don’t drink enough. [laughs]
You said it. [laughs]
Yeah, I’m really boring. It’s true. I think people are going to think what they think. We’re in a culture that really revolves around branding, labeling, creating narratives that are easy to understand. I’m more concerned about the people around that are around me and am I taking care of them, am I communicating well. What the outside world thinks, I don’t know.
You described cooking, before, as being more egalitarian than I maybe would’ve imagined. Do you ever feel like you have to dumb down things for diners to get them to eat something that may be better for them?
Not at all. I think as a cook, if you’re thinking that the people you’re cooking for are dumb, I don’t even know how to think about that perspective. You want to meet people where they’re at. Maybe different groups of people, different cultural backgrounds have different expectations. I want people to be happy. If I know that certain ways of cooking are going to make someone more happy, then I’m going to gravitate towards that. I don’t think about it as an intelligent test, people just like what they like.
Can you describe a day when you took a day off and what did you do?
[laughs] No. Let me think about that. I don’t take a lot of days off, more like an hour here and there. One time, maybe about a month ago, I went away with my family. We had an entire day off. I turned my phone off and that was really wonderful to spend time with my wife and two children in a really concentrated way without the outside world coming in.