Interview: Alta Group founder Daniel Patterson

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Chef Oakland

Daniel Patterson popped up at Taco Maria in Costa Mesa last fall. [Anne Watson]

Daniel Patterson has become one of California’s leading culinary figures in the past two decades. He opened Babette’s in Sonoma back in 1994 before taking a turn toward San Francisco (and fine dining). Coi helped to establish the city’s modern fine dining template. In recent years, he’s committed to more casual concepts, and to mentoring emerging culinary voices, most recently with Heena Patel on Besharam, Reem Assil on Dyafa, and Nigel Jones on Kaya. LocoL was his first L.A. foray, a community minded collaboration with Roy Choi. Now he’s opened two businesses in evolving West Adams, the breakfast and lunch focused Adams Coffee Shop, and dinner minded Alta Adams. Both concepts feature LocoL alum (and Watts native) Keith Corbin. Patterson recently shared insights into his evolving role and approach.

Josh Lurie: Are you still a chef, or have you transitioned to more of a businessman and mentor? How has your role changed over the years, what factors led to this transformation, and why was this shift so important? 

Daniel Patterson: There’s a lot in this question! I am not running a kitchen right now, but I am still a chef at heart and find inspiration in sharing my experiences with up-and-coming talent to support their growth. Being a mentor is part of being a chef. I learned about business because I had to. At Coi we created a business model that didn’t exist in order to support an environment in which we could do creative work at a high level and also take care of people and make them happy. Serving one menu a night with no choices, ambitious food combined with a casual, neighborhood restaurant vibe, hyper-local and often foraged ingredients, blurring traditional distinctions between haute cuisine and traditional cooking, mostly vegetable dishes, paying employees a high hourly wage instead of relying on tips, all these were not normal in high end restaurants in 2006. Even though they became common in Bay Area fine dining restaurants, I wasn’t trying to create a new business model for its own sake; that was a by-product. Everything I’ve done has been an evolution, and I’m constantly thinking about finding new ways to approach how we look at restaurants and food.

JL: Watts and West Adams are completely different neighborhoods, and the concepts are distinct, but what lessons can you take from LocoL and apply to Alta Adams to help ensure L.A. success?

DP: The business models are completely different, so it’s hard to compare. There are some points of comparison of course, but I don’t think you can compare Watts to West Adams, nor Locol to Alta Adams. We have some folks from Watts working with us here at Adams, so there is some continuity of spirit, but Alta Adams and Adams Coffee Shop were crafted with a different vision and the surrounding West Adams neighborhood in mind.

JL: In the Bay Area, you’ve partnered with Heena Patel on Besharam, Reem Assil on Dyafa, and Nigel Jones on Kaya. Was it always important for you to provide business opportunities for people of color? Was there a moment or realization that led to you becoming more inclusive?

DP: It wasn’t always something I thought about consciously, but at Alta Group we organically had women and people of color in leadership positions, because we created a culture that valued diversity. The work at LocoL and then with Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) has helped us to become more intentional in our processes. Over the last few years our Alta Group leadership team has reconstructed our restaurant operations, installing systems that remove implicit bias to create equity in hiring, training and advancement. It’s inevitable that any movement toward greater equity will inevitably arrive at the question of ownership and representation, so we have tried to address that as well.

JL: How has diversity played into the restaurant and corporate hiring process at Alta Group?

DP: Gabriel Barba, our Training and Development Director, has taken the lead with spearheading the evolution of our hiring, training and development practices. The goal is to remove some of the artificial barriers to entry and advancement that exist in our industry. Through re-entry and job training programs, we find diverse candidates from varying backgrounds who are considered and evaluated not only by experience, but also by aptitude and a passion for learning and growing with us.

JL: How do you and your chef-partners balance authenticity with innovation at Alta Group restaurants?

DP: Every chef has a different approach to innovation, but we are more interested in authentic personal expression and creating a delicious and memorable culinary experience for our guests. A lot of the innovation is in how we structure and run the businesses. The goal is to create a new model that others can consider implementing in their restaurants.

JL: At what point in your career did you feel like you found your culinary voice? Was there a particular eureka moment, or was it more of a progression?

DP: Mostly progression driven by constant re-evaluation and the idea that everything can always be better — something that still drives what we do at Alta Group. At Coi we wanted to create our own language through that told a story about a moment in time within the context of the Bay Area. It took nearly seven years — until the cookbook — to arrive at a place where that language felt cohesive. Now the language we created has entered the vernacular, so it’s lost its element of surprise, which was always important. The energy of the moment of discovery was always important, for for both the restaurant team and the guests.

JL: How strong is your voice in the creative process for Alta Group dishes at this point?

DP: Not very and that is intentional. My role is akin to the relationship that an editor has with a writer: to guide, but not change the nature or heart behind the dishes.

JL: Tell me the story about the most recent dish you created. This could be a collaboration. What was your inspiration and approach?

DP: The inspiration for the dishes at each of our Alta Group restaurants comes from the chef leading the culinary direction. It’s not my place to say how or if I influenced their food, because their personal experiences are the driver. It’s their vision; I just provide support.

JL: What are the criteria for a dish to make the Alta Adams menu?

DP: Delicious and authentic to Keith’s vision. It’s grounded by the great ingredients that are available to us in Southern California.

JL: Pulling from all of the dishes currently on the menus at Alta Group restaurants, construct a dream dinner for yourself. Also, which people would join you at the table?

DP: Coi and Aster are composed tasting menu experiences that are meant to be experienced within the context of the whole menu. It’s hard to remove singular items from that construct. From the other restaurants, my ideal meal would include Nigel Jones’s jerk chicken at Kaya, Heena Patel’s pav bhaji at Besharam, Reem Assil’s hummus kawarma at Dyafa, and Keith Corbin’s black eyed pea fritters at Alta Adams. I would be joined by my family and a few friends.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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