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Angler Chef Joshua Skenes’ Unending Drive for Pure, Uncomplicated Dishes

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The lauded Bay Area chef thinks about every tactile experience at his new LA restaurant

Joshua Skenes
Bonjwing Lee

Angler is about to open for the media and other guests on a relaxed Monday afternoon. Joshua Skenes, the chef and proprietor of the restaurant, is taking calls in a tight-fitting pink baseball cap and casual clothes. But his eyes focused, switching to various parts of the restaurant to make sure everything is in place. We sit down at the lounge instead one of Angler’s tables to discuss the state of this second location of his San Francisco place, which opened last fall in Embarcadero to wide acclaim.

Angler, Skenes’ second restaurant after the celebrated tasting menu establishment Saison, already earned a Michelin star in its short life span, with the James Beard Award Foundation, Esquire, and GQ naming it within the ranks of the country’s best new restaurants. Skenes stepped away from any involvement at Saison last year, focusing on his ranch in Washington State, and opening Angler in LA and eventually Seattle.

And this is despite a recent feature in the San Francisco Chronicle that claims that the San Francisco chef almost regretted opening this location in Los Angeles. In fact, Skenes said in the feature that he “never should have agreed” to doing Angler in LA. But Angler is here, and it’s already been open for almost two weeks. Eater sits down with Skenes to discuss his iconoclastic approach to cooking and his unending drive for pure, unfettered ingredients.

On why he chose Los Angeles for Angler’s second location:

“My wife is from Orange County so I’ve been coming here for the past ten years. I’m originally from Florida so that sub-tropical, tropical environment is in my DNA. I love this city. It’s so diverse and there’s so many different people. Sometimes I feel like San Francisco is...well, you know about San Francisco. I just like it down here.”

On the key differences between Angler in San Francisco and in Los Angeles:

“Down here as the water gets warmer, you’re able to get some different things you can’t get up north. It’s always exciting to be able to work with different products. There are just some species that are different. You can get sheepshead, some flatfish like starry flounder. Basically anything you can get in live. But the whole system [of seafood] is broken, most of the time they catch things, package it off and send it somewhere. Most wholesale systems are terrible.

The best you can do is get stuff live, and there’s a willingness here for that. We want to get everything on the [fishing] line or on small vessels. Angler is built on getting good products, cooking it over fire, and having a fun place. The restaurant is just meant for hospitality. Of course the look and feel and things you come into contact with are important. The service has to be warm, inviting, and fun. The products need to be simple and taste good. Just getting live fish from around here in has been next to impossible. That was step one.”

On his approach with cooking at Angler:

“The menu is built off of a straightforward, simple kind of a way. It gives you a result that’s actually pleasurable when you put in your mouth. Not stuff on a plate. I don’t like composed dishes. I don’t like a bunch of shit on it. Just a simple product that’s grilled, steamed, or poached. It’s built around the idea that it’s just supposed to be food. It’s supposed to taste good. It’s supposed to be good for you. And then after that, it might be interesting.”

At this point, I make the observation that this kind of approach has a lot of similar to Cantonese cooking, or Chinese cuisine as a whole. On the Cantonese restaurant vibe of Skene’s cooking:

“The Chinese have been doing it forever. I mean, how many thousands of years? Chinese food is built around TCM (traditional Chinese medicine). You can’t help but relate to that when you eat it. I grew up around Chinese food and martial arts, which I started when I was kid. There’s a lot of sensibilities that are similar. I think whatever type of food it is, I think it all relates back to the cleanliness of taste.”

Angler Los Angeles
Warmed Angler Reserve caviar with barbecue banana peel butter on grilled banana waffles
Wonho Frank Lee

On the holistic idea of taste balance, and why a simple bowl of seaweed soup can be great:

“At the end of the day Angler is built for taste. You start with the idea of taste balance. The things that register to me isn’t the dish, it’s the experience of putting it in your mouth. Is there proper taste balance in the temperature, texture, aroma, mouthfeel, aftertaste, mid-palate? Is it instantaneously pleasurable? Does it make you feel okay after you eat it? Is there that cleanliness of taste? That’s how you make dishes. That’s the way I think about food. When I go to Kyoto, Japan and drink that little bowl of seaweed soup. What I love is that you taste the broth, all those years and decades of experience of that chef. That pure taste, that’s the most fascinating thing I find about food. It’s not what you add to a dish, or how it looks, or any of those things.

It’s those really simple tastes are what’s exciting to me. When seaweed has the right depth of flavor. The water, which is a hugely overlooked factor in our food. It’s all those those data points. Things with deep taste.”

On the struggle of finding great ingredients for a restaurant that’s so particular about the quality of its product:

“It’s nature. It’s not going to be the same every day. That’s the biggest curve ball in cooking. Every single day, every product will change unless you grow it in a hot house and all the nutrient inputs are controlled. If not, it’s going to change. That’s just part of cooking, so it comes down to tasting [the ingredients]. It’s an inevitable struggle in food.”

On the subject of blankets on every single one of the chairs in the dining room:

“The blankets are there for comfort. That’s what I mean when I said that the restaurant is built for having a good time. I don’t really care about anything else. Most places you go to, you don’t have a great time. You don’t have simple, good-tasting food. It’s funny because half the tables at the end of the night have the blankets on. They’re just having a good time. It’s comfortable when you sit back on the chair. It’s all of the little experience-design stuff that’s really important. You pick up a glass — it’s small, it’s thin, it maybe feels better than a big chunky glass. The silverware is designed at an angle that fits right in your hand. All those little things to me add to the experience.”

Angler Los Angeles
Dining room at Angler LA
Wonho Frank Lee

On whether or not Angler, which has a Michelin star in San Francisco, can achieve the same mark in LA:

“I don’t know. I don’t care to be honest. That’s the very last of my goals. I mean, yes of course it can [earn a star], but that’s up to judges who probably have no idea what they’re eating anyway. Marco [Pierre White] had it figured out a long time ago. We should save this for another article, and I’ll spill all the beans on it. The reality is that you can judge people up to a certain level. You can have your own preferences.

But at a certain point, quality becomes objective. [The Michelin Guide] is not what Angler LA is built for. It’s great for business, but it’s not our goal. My goal is that the guests that come in here have a great time. When I was at Saison, I had three Michelin stars for five years, and then I left. That was enough for me. It was never really about that. Right before we got our third star, I literally had my bags packed, I was going to the woods. I had a little place in escrow. I was going to get out and build a ranch. That’s how long ago that was.”

On the changes from Angler in San Francisco to LA:

“LA is LA. You can’t go into a place and do the same thing. You have to try to understand the city. This city is very different. The biggest compliment we got during the previews was a person from LA who said, ‘you guys nailed it, but most importantly, you nailed it for LA.’ One of the things we adjusted was the pace. The measure for me is always, are people actually enjoying themselves. Things here need to be more casual. In general I want things a little faster paced, a little more fun. Turn the music up just a touch. Speed up the service a little bit, take away the unnecessary things in service. Do you need a bread plate or is just in the way?”

On Skenes’s favorite places to eat in LA:

“I like casual stuff. It’s hard to come up with restaurants that I really like. I like really simple food. I want to go to Bolsa [Avenue, in Westminster] in Orange County and get catfish. I want to SGV and get some Sichuan food. I don’t like fancy restaurants because they’re too complicated. I don’t really like composed food. My preference is always to eat really simple. I had some delicious food at Hayato. I like going to Manpuku [Japanese barbecue] down the street. I love Park’s Barbecue. Jenee [Kim] takes such good care of us.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Angler. 8500 Beverly Blvd Suite 117, Los Angeles, CA 90048.

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