08 Nov How Daniel Patterson’s Partnerships On Dyafa, Kaya, and Bes…
For more than a decade, Daniel Patterson has been considered one of the country’s great modernist chefs. He made his name at Coi in San Francisco, where an inspired, technique-driven approach to cooking Northern California cuisine earned him Michelin stars, a James Beard award, and scores of imitators. Graduates of the Coi kitchen include some of the region’s most celebrated restaurateurs, including James Syhabout of Commis, Evan and Sarah Rich of Rich Table, and Brett Cooper, formerly of Aster and Outerlands. Patterson became a regular on the international culinary circuit, frequently appearing at gastronomical events like the MAD Symposium, described as a mashup of TED, Burning Man, and SXSW, but with René Redzepi and David Chang as roguish camp counselors encouraging community-building hijinks and cutting-edge restaurant discourse under a big tent. An intensely cerebral chef, he has also written or co-written well-received books about cooking, aroma, and flavor.
In recent years, Patterson has worked to transcend his elite chef mantle, turning his fondness for a contrarian point of view — he famously critiqued Alice Waters in the New York Times for smothering California cuisine — into something more transformative. In 2013, along with Sasha Skon, Patterson co-founded the Cooking Project, a Bay Area nonprofit that teaches kitchen skills to underprivileged youth. Since 2016, he’s worked with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit worker advocacy organization, to reduce racial bias and improve racial equity in his restaurants and beyond. In 2015, he handed over the reins at Coi to have more bandwidth to devote to building both a more equitable food system and a more inclusive, sustainable restaurant industry. He’s been uncommonly candid about his struggles with depression; condemned the effects of Big Fast Food on local communities; and railed against the structural and financial barriers faced by women and people of color in restaurants. Using his stature, skills, and connections, Patterson helped force many of these issues to the forefront of conversations about the future of the industry.
Most notably, in 2016, Patterson and LA chef Roy Choi opened Locol, an alternative fast-food chain that sought to offer access to affordable, high-quality food and provide employment in neighborhoods that lacked both. Locol began with branches in LA’s Watts neighborhood and in Oakland, with the idea that it would expand to hundreds of outlets across the country. While the Watts branch earned a Restaurant of the Year mantle in 2017 from late Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, inside of three years, it was all but shuttered, surviving only as a catering business. Debates still rage about what killed it: a disconnect with the communities it tried to serve, a patchy business plan, a scathing New York Times review of the Oakland location, perhaps all of the above? But it’s clear when listening to Patterson talk that the project had a big impact on him. “Spending time in Watts working with the people there changed me, and maybe these experiences pushed me to try things beyond what I should have,” he wrote in an email this spring.
In the wake of Locol’s demise, Patterson’s focus returned to the Bay Area, where he looked to address structural inequities that have resulted in a lack of diversity in restaurant ownership and leadership, particularly in rapidly gentrifying cities like San Francisco and Oakland. Though he didn’t set out with a grand plan, within the first six months of 2018, he forged a series of widely heralded partnerships with rising chefs of color in the Bay Area, offering his own former restaurant spaces, along with operational support and other resources, to Nigel Jones, of the Caribbean hit Kingston 11 in Oakland; Reem Assil, of the acclaimed Arab bakery Reem’s California, also based in Oakland; and Heena Patel, who developed a loyal following for her Gujarati cuisine at the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers Market. With these partnerships, Patterson’s reputation as a progressive trailblazer in the restaurant industry became fully cemented, and he was hailed as a “socially conscious avatar of California gastronomy.”
Then, nearly as quickly as it all came together, it all seemed to fall apart. This past spring, Patel announced that she was “assuming full control of my restaurant,” alluding to wanting to present her “vision unconstrained.” A few weeks later, Assil announced that she too was parting ways with him. “Maybe I was naive in thinking I’d be a valuable partner in bringing this vision to life,” she said shortly after. “All I was doing was reconcepting [Patterson’s] restaurant, and he needed a face for that.” Most dramatically, Jones closed his restaurant and sued Patterson, accusing him of breach of contract, fraud, failing to pay suppliers, and other misdeeds. The lawsuit is not about money, Jones says. “I don’t want to see anyone else get fucked the way I did.”
Patterson denies all the allegations in Jones’s lawsuit, which is still pending as their lawyers continue to negotiate, but speaking generally about the end of these relationships, he wrote in an email this spring: “I made mistakes, and I own those mistakes. I pushed for partnerships in a rushed way, and I did not spend enough time on communication. I take responsibility for how these mistakes impacted the businesses and I am sorry for that.”
He seems perplexed by this turn of events: a lawsuit and a closure at one venue, the departure of an award-winning chef at another, and a severing of relations at a third; the resulting publicity has only added to his distress. Industry friends have expressed concern about him.
Few dispute that the restaurant industry needs to address its structural issues, increase the representation of marginalized communities in its highest ranks, and disrupt the industry’s mostly white, mostly male gatekeepers. And given such necessary upheaval, some messiness can be expected along the way to an industry-altering course correction. Depending on who one talks to, though, Patterson’s collaborations with Jones, Assil, and Patel were either daring attempts to redistribute opportunity and capital in an industry that systematically reserves those resources for the most privileged, or merely marriages of convenience, a chance to fill seats in troubled restaurant locations. “It’s pretty clear that he had a number of restaurant spaces that were underachieving for a while,” Jones says. “He saw an opportunity in terms of where growth in the market was in the Bay Area. Californian cuisine, American restaurants are a dime a dozen here, but culturally diverse restaurants with a unique menu are sought after, and there’s less competition. It’s not a coincidence that all his partnerships were with people of color.
“There’s a pattern here,” Jones says. “The common thread in the narrative is Patterson. This was not an unintentional act of goodwill that went bad. He wanted to use me/us as a way to keep his restaurant sites operating, generating much-needed cash flow for himself, and it gave him a good social-justice story to boost his carefully crafted media image.”
At the end of 2013, Patterson did something not very unusual for him: He took a chance on a restaurant, opening a casual, mid-size spot called Alta on a still-transitional stretch of Market Street in San Francisco. One of the first higher-end establishments in the area, it was something of a “trial balloon” for the then-burgeoning Mid-Market neighborhood, the expectation being that hordes of handsomely compensated Twitter and Uber employees, whose generously tax-subsidized headquarters were across the street, would…