Cooking LessonsMARCH 30, 2017Disillusioned with fine dining, one of the world’s great chefs took on fast food. It has been harder than he ever imagined.By Daniel DuanePhotographs by Sasha Arutyunova
A dish at Patterson’s flagship restaurant Coi in San Francisco
… [Daniel] Patterson’s stature abroad, however, never quite translated into unconditional love from San Francisco’s dining public and food critics. His intensity, artistic seriousness, and austere intellectualism would likely have gone over better in New York or Chicago, where they might have read as symptoms of admirable ambition rather than insufficient mindfulness. His food may have also played a role; always thrilling and deeply satisfying, it had an abstracted originality that could make an evening at Coi feel less like hedonistic feasting than high culture — experimental chamber music, perhaps …So, Patterson gets depressed and then decides that what would cheer him up is partnering with Los Angeles Korean food celebrity Roy Choi in opening a fast food restaurant in Watts in South-Central L.A.
Patterson’s trainees were almost entirely from Jordan Downs, the 714-unit public housing project in Watts. Many had never been employed before, and those with prior cooking experience had worked mostly in conventional fast food or prison cafeterias. They paid rapt attention as Patterson showed them how to weigh out patty-size balls of Locol’s signature burger blend, a pale pink combination of ground beef, tofu, barley, quinoa, and seaweed. …What public housing resident in Watts hasn’t said to himself or herself: “You know what would make my Big Mac better? Less beef in the patties and more tofu, barley, quinoa, and seaweed! They should sell it in grocery stores under the name Hipster Helper. I’d buy that!”Seriously, why is replacing 100% beef with carbs-infused patties considered healthy? If you are on a low carb diet, you can order a McDonald’s cheeseburger and throw away the buns, but you can’t cut out the carbs with this guy’s “healthy” cheeseburger.
Patterson and Choi were too culturally sophisticated to come out and say their expansion plans targeted other low-income African American communities, but that is what the list had come to look like. After East 103rd and Anzac, they hoped to build on the other side of Watts near the Nickerson Gardens housing project, then maybe nearby in Compton, then East Oakland, South Side Chicago, Detroit, and Ferguson, Missouri …What about East St. Louis and Gary, Indiana?
A wounded outsider at heart, involuntarily hunting for dishonesty, deception, and insult in the eyes of everyone he meets, Patterson responded to a distinctive emotional style in Watts, an impulse to judge people on the sincerity of their self-presentation: Don’t lie about who you are and we’re more likely to accept whoever you might be.That sense of belonging was coupled with a conviction that his Watts employees’ competence and work ethic were more impressive than what he’d seen in most restaurants, and he found himself thinking, “Well, of course! All you have to grant me is that Watts has a perfectly average human distribution of talent and intelligence and that no company ever skimmed off the cream for staff, and so how could it be any other way?”Million dollar bills lying on the sidewalk of Watts!
… LOCOL SOLD MORE than a thousand burgers in Watts on opening day, and long lines persisted for weeks as curious outsiders kept coming. Food & Wine named it Best New Restaurant of 2016, and Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold placed Locol at number 58 on his 101 Best Restaurants list. Eventually, however, those lines faded. At about the four-month mark, I dropped by during the lunch hour to find a sparse crowd that included the vice principal of the elementary school across the street; four 30-something white women; Los Angeles chief of police Charlie Beck, who dined out back with his deputy chief and a plainclothes security detail; and few Watts residents.Then they finally found a local who liked the food:
Several employees told me the new items were selling well, and Friend said the first Watts resident to become a truly devoted regular was a cousin of Corbin’s named Raymond Arnold, a 31-year-old father of five known alternately as “Ray-Ray” and “Mafia,” who always ordered O.J.’s Burrito.But customer retention in South-Central has challenges that restaurateurs in Napa Valley don’t face:
Last summer, Arnold went for a haircut at a salon on Crenshaw Boulevard and was shot during an argument.At the end, Patterson lets his best local employee, who had learned to cook working in the kitchen while he was in prison, develop a new item more appealing to poor South-Central blacks (many of whom have ancestral roots in Louisiana):
develop a new shrimp-and-grits item for the revamped Locol menu on which nearly all evidence of Patterson’s culinary innovations were erased in favor of straightforward Americana: double cheeseburger, chili cheeseburger, waffles ’n’ wings, chili cheese fries. Patterson insisted this was merely an evolution and not a retreat from Locol’s original conception. It was true that every burger on the new menu had a veggie option and green juice was still available. On the other hand, Patterson had initially hoped never to serve fries.A quarter century ago, basketball star Magic Johnson made a lot of money with the opposite strategy: pick out the least poor black neighborhoods and bring them national name brands like Starbucks that blacks crave and that the big corporations behind the brands would moderately subsidize to show they are down with the community.In contrast to Patterson’s vision, here’s an insightful fictional portrait of a successful black restaurateur:In general, blacks, since the days of Pullman porters, do pretty well working for giant corporations in travel and hospitality-related businesses where customers want a nationally standardized product or service, where every procedure is written down in a three-ring binder.African-Americans don’t do well in creative, idiosyncratic boutique-scale businesses, however.A lot of libertarians think African-Americans should become entrepreneurs, but the real world evidence for this common suggestion is very discouraging. American blacks who try to open some small retail outlets tend to get crushed by immigrant competitors, who usually have more reliable relatives to employ. South Koreans, for example, absolutely eradicated American blacks in Chicago from the business of retailing black hair care products to blacks.Instead, African Americans tend to do best in big bureaucratic organizations like the Army and McDonalds.