Daniel Patterson was raised in New England and worked in kitchens around the Boston area. But he made his name on the West Coast, when, at 19, he followed a girlfriend to San Francisco. He has become one of the city’s most notable chefs and restaurateurs. His well-regarded Coi has received two Michelin stars and is on San Pellegrino’s world’s best restaurants list. His new book, “Coi: Stories and Recipes,” takes a deeper look at life at the restaurant. “I finally got an idea about a kind of book that I would be comfortable doing,” says Patterson, 45, who has written essays for publications like the Financial Times (“Carrots are the new caviar”). “I didn’t want to write a traditional cookbook. It just wasn’t that interesting to me. I think there’s enough of them in the world, and from a writing perspective, I wanted to do something a little bit ambitious and, at the same time, stress the restaurant in a very honest way.”
Q. What kind of freedom were you given when writing this book?
A. What I really liked is that the publisher said to me, “Don’t give me a book that I’ve seen before. Give me something that we haven’t seen before.” Which is really wonderful because it’s not typically what publishing houses say. Typically, they say, “Give me something that we’ve seen before but a little bit different.” So I wanted to do something that I felt was interesting, that represented the restaurant, but was also a bit of a challenge, too. The book itself I improvised along the way. There was no book proposal or plan. I’d been working with the photographer on these light-box pictures that are in the book and we had one idea about visual aesthetic. Then we decided for each recipe, I wanted to write an essay and write the recipe in a very conversational way to kind of get more information into it, like how I’d describe it to a cook when we talk about it in the kitchen. And then I showed the images to a friend and they said, “Yeah, but your food doesn’t really look like that at the restaurant,” and I said, “Aha, you’re right, we should do one menu from the restaurant.” So that became a chapter. And as I was writing, I realized there was so much that needed an explanation, so I wrote a section about the kitchen, kind of the underlying philosophy and technique.
Q. Will New Englanders face challenges adapting some of these signature California recipes?
A. It doesn’t travel well at all in the very literal sense, because the products are very different. But the ideas underlying the dishes are very universal. The idea is that people take the ingredients that they have in their place and adopt the recipes toward them. So maybe there’s no abalone, but you could cook a piece of fish the same way, with a little flour. Sear it and glaze it with lemon juice and butter and it’s a very classic technique. Almost all of [the recipes] are malleable to the ingredients that are available wherever you are. But I think the big thing about New England, if I were cooking there, is it would be more meat, more dairy, probably less vegetables. And there’s no citrus there, so acidity would come from cultured milk, vinegars, things like that.
Q. Coming from a New England cooking background, did you face challenges when you moved to the West Coast?
A. California is a state of immigrants, basically. There’s very, very few people that are native to California. So it seems unusual but it’s pretty normal. Some of the people who have had the biggest effect on the state have moved here from somewhere else.
Q. Where do you eat when you come back to the Boston area?
A. I am really sorry to say but I just haven’t been spending very much time in Boston. This time around, I decided to eat at Tony Maws’s place [Craigie on Main]. I want to eat at Clio, o ya. I know I’m not going to have enough time to go everywhere, but it’s amazing to me to see how the [restaurant] landscape has evolved. But for me, with my childhood memories of eating there, it’s lobster with butter, clam chowder, more simple kinds of food. And definitely steamers. I would say that’s something that pretty much every time I go back, I will find some place that has steamers.
Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at email@example.com.