Spend an hour in Saison’s kitchen one afternoon, as a dozen cooks focused on prep for the evening menu dart around you, and the intricate work of cooking “simple” dishes is clear. But the true heart of the restaurant isn’t in the broad, open kitchen : It’s at one end of the loftlike dining room, in a narrow workspace called the lab. That’s where the bulk of the ocean harvest—fish bones and skin, as well as humbler creatures such as herring and sardines—is distilled, smoked, infused, and fermented into sauces, essences, and salts, the backbone of Skenes’ cooking. So much of what happens here touches fire, at some carefully controlled degree of intensity. It’s the engine of transformation.
Saison began in 2009 as a Sunday night pop-up in the Mission District, in a little kitchen next to a patio with a big open fireplace. It was there, experimenting with cooking over flame, that Skenes says the world split open for him. He preserved tomatoes and cooked vegetables slowly, suspended high above a gentle fire, absorbing low, nudging heat. “Some things were accidental, some were intentional—all these little methods started to happen. Since then we’ve been developing this pantry of our own methodology. It opens up the world.”
One essential technique that fuels Saison’s lab is “fire in the sky,” which sounds apocalyptic but actually calls for patience: slowly drying ingredients on metal racks high above the fire in the kitchen hearth. Today, there are shiny, dark-ringed slices of red abalone undergoing fire in the sky. Once dried, they’ll cure for about a week in jars, and end up with the deep, funk-tinged earthy smell of white truffles.