The 2016 Roux Scholar Harry Guy chose to stage in the internationally renowned kitchen of Saison under chef-patron Joshua Skenes as part of his prize. Andrew Fairlie, the inaugural winner of the Roux Scholarship, caught up with Guy towards the end of his three-month placement at the three-Michelin-starred San Franciscan restaurant
Harry Guy is the third Roux Scholar to choose California as the destination for his three-month stage, and it just so happened that the biennial Roux Scholars’ trip – an educational tour orchestrated by the Roux family – took me there too so I was able to catch up with him at Saison, where he was studying under the three-Michelin-starred phenomenon Joshua Skenes.
We had eaten an extraordinary dinner there the night before my interview with him – a meal full of new interpretations and brilliant inventions – and I was keen to talk to both Guy and his chef mentor.
Andrew Fairlie, Harry Guy and Joshua Skenes
Guy, formerly support and development chef for the Eden Collection and who is currently seeking a new challenge, follows in the footsteps of previous Roux Scholars Hrishikesh Desai, who went to the French Laundry in nearby Yountville, and Ian Scaramuzza, who went to Benu last year, which is a stone’s throw from Saison. As part of our amazing trip, we were able to take in all three restaurants in as many days, as well as Meadowood, the final of the four three-starred restaurants in the region.
California has always had a strong chef culture, which goes back many decades. The great Alice Waters, whose iconic restaurant Chez Panisse was also on our list, started a movement of farm to fork in 1971 and in the process inspired not just one but many generations of chefs who have come along since.
One of those chefs is Skenes, who has quickly risen to the top of modern American cooking. Saison started out as a pop-up by Skenes and served ultra-seasonal produce in a simple way using traditional techniques.
Today’s restaurant contains an unusual open fire which doubles as a smoker to flavour food as well as to provide cooking heat.
The restaurant, which was awarded three Michelin stars in 2014, has a unique design where the kitchen and dining room are one room – the so-called ‘no walls’ design. This makes the open kitchen an integral part of the whole dining experience.
I was intrigued to know more about Guy’s fascination with Saison. “I was attracted to the natural flavours and the use of the fire,” Guy tells me after we sit down at one of the handcrafted deep redwood tables that are such a mark of Saison and all it stands for.
“Saison has a very distinct cooking style that isn’t being done in the UK. I love chef Joshua’s philosophy on nature, his absolute vision on getting as close to nature and sourcing the best produce without compromise. I’ve been following the restaurant for a number of years. It’s been the most incredible experience and to be part of it every day really has been brilliant.”
The scholarship has changed a lot over the time that I have been involved. When the scholarship started (I won in 1984), the winner’s choice of stage was restricted only to France and, certainly at that time, French kitchens were deemed to be the best in the world. It would be fair to say that it took a bit of persuading for these kitchens to accept a young British chef, and in the early days it wasn’t so easy for the scholars to integrate into French brigades. However, this has changed entirely and today’s scholars can choose a three-Michelin-starred restaurant anywhere in the world to complete their stage.
For Skenes, welcoming a Roux scholar into his brigade was a no-brainer. “Who’d say no to Michel Roux?” he says. “I’ve followed the scholarship for a number of years. I think it’s a wonderful thing and to have a scholar here has been great for us; Harry has done a fantastic job.”
Equally, Guy is enthusiastic about the way he has been treated. “They really took me in,” he says. “I was part of the commis team to begin with, but later they brought me down to the main kitchen and let me try everything. Everyone starts as a commis here and you have to spend your time starting from scratch.
“Even the head chef started here as the commis. It’s tough starting at 6am and it’s a long day, but I’ve learned so much, so it’s been worth it. Plus I love living in San Francisco – the food culture here is so diverse; it really has been a life-changing experience.”
That is the one thing as scholars that we are in total agreement about – winning the scholarship changes your life as a chef. It’s one thing to win the competition, it’s another thing completely to go on a stage – but really that is just the start of being a scholar. It’s the access to the Roux family and the other scholars that really makes being a part of the club so valuable, but it can take time to become aware of that benefit.
“I suppose I was aware of the broader benefits of becoming a scholar,” he says, “but it wasn’t until I saw 11 scholars plus Michel and Alain Roux and Brian Turner sitting in the restaurant that it hit home to me what I am now a part of. That feels incredible and makes me feel like I’ve got a lot of help at hand as I progress. It also makes me feel very humble.”
Our experience at Saison the night before was incredible. It was wonderful to be so close to the kitchen, watching the show, seeing Guy in the thick of it and having fun. We tasted some amazing dishes and I wanted to find out more about the chef behind it.
Skenes has not had a traditional rise to the top. Before attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York, he toyed with the idea of pursuing his other great passion and teaching martial arts as a profession.
On first meeting Skenes, he seems a little uncomfortable talking about himself and, given the choice, would rather be out hunting or fishing, which, by his own admission, is his true passion. But when he joins us at the table, I get the sense that underneath the chef is a good, old-fashioned, American frontiersman – who loves the wild of nature, and who wants to capture the essence of what America once tasted like to the first settlers.
“My food has been one of trial and error,” he tells us, candidly. “I never cooked long enough with other chefs to be a disciple. Over the last 10 years my food has changed a lot. I don’t think I have a clear vision. I just let the food do the talking and I just continue to experiment.”
He goes on to tell us about a place in the woods that he has been planning for some time – a project he has been collaborating on for over a decade now – which he is hoping to reveal next year.
“I’m really excited about it. I want to get closer to the products. Go outside and catch a trout from the stream or go to the tidal pool and find some sea urchin and use it a few minutes later. That taste of nature is what I’m after, whether here or later when I get to do my place in the woods. It’s all about the product and how it tastes in its natural environment. “I want to do what is genuinely natural,” he continues. “I went to Japan on my honeymoon and I was amazed by their Zen-like approach to food and seasonality – it was just so honest. You can taste the difference between one restaurant’s lobster and another – I love that.
“We want to make the most honest restaurant experience here. Take an elk chop that has come from an animal that has been eating berries its whole life, for example, and cook it close to the fire like you would in nature. This is what I am after.”
I think Guy has chosen his stage well. Skenes’ food may appear complicated, but it really isn’t – it’s simply an effort to recreate something that unlocks the keys to nature and that’s something all chefs can learn from.
Entries for the 2017 Roux Scholarship will close on 31 January. To enter now, visit www.rouxscholarship.co.uk. Chefs must be aged between 22 and 30 to apply.
The Roux Scholarship prize pot
The winner receives £6,000 to support their career development and an invitation to cook and train under the supervision of a leading chef at a prestigious three-Michelin-starred restaurant, anywhere in the world, for up to three months, as well as many unique prizes all related to food and hospitality.