#OutsidePerspective is when...
...chefs descend on an absurdly nice beach to cook, and ponder the state of their industry.
July 31, 2015
Three hours after a lamb is threaded onto a makeshift hand-crank spit set over two cement-block columns—and four hours thirty-seven minutes after the initial set-up crew hauling in wood and hotel pans full of corn realizes that this is a nude beach—groups of two and three begin to snake over the rocky pass that leads to the cove.
It’s billed as a “secret” beach in the invitation they have all received, and with its glittering surf and trees with coastal wildflowers at their roots, it does feel clandestine. It’s mostly a very nice backyard to those who live in the clean wooden cabanas with big picture windows and salt-roughened buoys on their porches.
The people scrambling over the rocks (past the leathery nudists who squint at the proceedings with curiosity and maybe mild disapproval) are chefs, mixed in with the occasional friend of a friend, or toddler in a frilly pink bathing suit, or Harold McGee, the universally-loved food scientist who is taller than you might expect. They’ve come for a few reasons: one, to get out of the city. Two, to see what was meant when the words “Outside Perspective” first rose off those invitations like mythical smoke. And three, chef Joshua Skenes is someone they admire and perhaps do not quite fully understand, and they are curious.
The idea is a collaboration between Skenes, of San Francisco’s monster hit Saison and, ahem, a little collective of people you may be familiar with called "ChefsFeed." Or, “chef’s feet,” if you’re on a telephone! (This might get very meta, but bear with us.) Skenes is usually mentioned in the same breath as the price of his menu, which is typical. People, the kind of people who know about these things, also mention the spine-tingling technique, the pragmatism of his kitchen, the purity of the ingredients.
The ingredients part is important—it’s why this absurdly talented group is trickling onto a sandy inlet in Northern California on a Monday. You don’t have to cook things much when you pluck them from the water, or give them over to bare flames. Today is meant as a reminder.
For all intents, Outside Perspective is a chance to disconnect, to eat alongside someone who is usually found cooking on the opposite side of town, to clear the mind. Because these are chefs, it’s also a cook-out. Since one man and one beach does not a cook-out make, Skenes calls upon three fellows he knows have built their careers around extracting the highest flavors from the land and the sea, as he has: James Syhabout (Commis, Hawker Fare), Mark Sullivan (Spruce, The Village Pub), and Charlie Hallowell (Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service, Penrose). These are all people who could make wind taste good, if you asked them to.
They arrive in the morning, before the rest of the group, when the sun beats down on the rocks. The only sounds are the waves, the whir of Sullivan's line being cast, and the primordial cracks of the fire being coaxed to life.
An onlooker saunters by. “Imagine if this was your frickin’ backyard?” she crows. Imagine indeed. She asks if there’s still time to buy tickets. There is not. There are no tickets! Time is a construct of modern life that has no place here! which is something one of the nudists says, probably.
Hallowell lights a rollie.
A beach mise is different. Low-stakes, simple. A stack of bowls here. A collection of essentials are all crammed together in a small bain; a splash of seawater and a bare hand cleans the cutting board.
“This is way more fun than cooking in a kitchen. You don’t have to worry about things falling on the floor, you can get dirty…” Skenes says.
“That sounds too easy, Chef!” his sous, Chris, says, somewhere by the lamb.
“I’m getting old, easy sounds great,” Skenes replies, head down over an anemone Syhabout helped him gather from the flurry of tidepools to their right. Sorry Chris. The lamb pops and spits.
A rainbow trout, which spent a few minutes on a bed of seaweed, on top of a log, under the lamb, hits the table. Syhabout sprinkles sea salt, Skenes checks the temperature—fingers in cavity, clinical, probing; “Little rare in the center still, just magical,”—and Hallowell decks it out with slices of lemons and limes. Jolts of citrus pierce the air (see: making wind taste good), mingled with smoke and spray-on sunscreen. A pocket knife flicks open to make the initial cut. This is not even a little bit bad, Hallowell notes, to no one in particular. Sullivan watches the spot where his fishing line meets the sea, a beer balanced in a notch in the rock beside him.
Three hours or so before the group of sixty-odd chefs realizes they'll have to cross the rocks back to their cars in waist-deep high-tide water, they all hover around the fire-pit. It pulls them in right away, effortless, hypnotic. Most begin by standing on the periphery, shy, kids dying to go to bat. When they jump in, turning the veg on the grill grate that's propped on a few rocks, shaving off bits of lamb for waiting hands, every muscle in their body relaxes.
There are no plates, no napkins, no forks. The group rips charred boules into misshapen chunks and picks over carcasses with eager fingers. Sauces and sticky rum cocktails are licked from palms. Hands swish in the ocean, then get wiped vigorously on jeans. They discuss work, but not in a mundane hello-yes-how-are-you-it's-all-fine kind of way.
The surf gets louder, the light begins to leave the tiny cove. Reggae, tinny on someone’s phone, plays. The dull thunk of machete cutting through bone echoes off the rock face. As the food dwindles, the group draws closer around the table, tighter, and tighter. The wind is picking up with the tide, but no one seems to notice.
Outside Perspective is a chance to disconnect, and so they have.
Words by Cassandra Landry. Photography by Blake Smith and Luis Arnold.