This Oddball Chef Wants to Serve You Wild Animals
Joshua Skenes ran one of the most expensive restaurants in San Francisco, with industry accolades and three Michelin stars. Still, he felt unfulfilled. Enter a top secret new venture where, if you’re lucky, you can have the best meal of your life for free.
One afternoon on a Northern California ranch, as wildfires threatened around the state and the power company shut off electricity to prevent new flare-ups, chef Joshua Skenes woke from a nap and decided he wanted to shoot something.
Fair-haired and barrel-chested at 40, and already on the short list of the world’s great chefs, Skenes rubbed his bleary blue eyes, slipped his feet into delicate white sneakers, and walked outside to the enormous truck he jokingly called Rambo. Under the back seat, he had a machete, a samurai sword, and a double-bladed battle-ax—“street-fighting stuff,” he told me with a chuckle, knowing exactly how insane that sounded.
Street fighting didn’t appear to be imminent, so Skenes opened Rambo’s camper shell and, between yawns, grabbed a carbon-fiber rifle fitted with a scope, ballistic range finder, and bipod—like something a professional assassin might get for Christmas. He placed the rifle in firing position on a picnic table and took a seat behind it with a box of very large bullets.
Nearby sat Jonathan De Wolf, the shambolic culinary director of the company Skenes founded, Saison Hospitality, and also Ilya Fushman, a physicist and big-time venture capitalist who happened to be Skenes’s regular hunting and fishing buddy.
Earlier that day, Skenes and his pals had shot a mess of quail after driving three hours from San Francisco to the ranch, a private hunting operation called Red Bank Ale & Quail Outfitters: as in, drink ale, shoot quail—ideally not in that order. After checking in, they’d dropped their luggage in a bunkhouse and listened to warnings about fire danger so extreme that cigarette smoking was forbidden everywhere but on the concrete patio, which also included a grill. As for that grill—a steel and brick firebox built into the wooden framing that supported the patio’s roof—Skenes was well aware of the danger that might pose.
At Ale & Quail, customers book in advance and tell the owner what they want to shoot: bobwhite quail, chukar, pheasant, whatever. Early on the morning of a customer’s hunt, a game-bird hatchery delivers the target critters; Ale & Quail employees then release those birds into bushes and trees. (Skenes would later insist that normally he doesn’t hunt like this, and that if I hadn’t been along he would have done something more serious.) It isn’t cheap—$785 per person for a day of fun—but such outings have become popular with California’s tech crowd. During their hunt, Skenes and the boys only had to load their shotguns and follow a guide with a pair of dogs—a German shorthair to find the birds and a black Labrador to flush them.
Every time a bird flapped, shotguns swung and I dove. De Wolf had a rough time, couldn’t hit a thing. Fushman did great, averaging maybe 60 percent. Skenes never missed. Whenever he pulled the trigger, a bird died. “I don’t know what to tell you,” Skenes said. “I shoot and they fall.”
Now the birds lay on the patio, waiting for Skenes to pluck, gut, and grill them—a tantalizing thought, given his reputation as heavyweight champion of the open flame. The fire-centric fine-dining establishment that made Skenes famous, called Saison, has long been one of the most expensive in San Francisco—at one point, dinner for two, ballpark, could run $1,800—and his new restaurants, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, both called Angler, are dedicated to the not so simple pleasures treasured by every serious hunter and fisherman: proteins rare and pure, expertly killed and cooked over fire.
More important, after one of the most meteoric rises in culinary history, and before the coronavirus pandemic shattered the restaurant industry, Skenes plotted a change in direction. Hunting trips like this one served as inspiration for a mysterious venture he was calling Skenes Ranch, the website for which offers only a single photograph of an elk herd and a link to request an invitation.
But before Skenes grilled those birds, he was in the mood for a little sniper practice. Hence the bipodded rifle on the picnic table. The wild grass beyond his muzzle looked parched enough to burst into flames if you glanced at it wrong. On the far side, 450 yards away, a dirt bluff rose a hundred feet. Word had it that a metal plate six inches wide hung from a chain somewhere on the bluff, for target shooting, but we were too far away to tell for sure.
Skenes scanned with binoculars, then looked through the rifle scope. He made some fine adjustments to the bipod. He chambered a shell and said, “This is going to be loud.”
A thunderous boom concussed lungs and ears and was met instantaneously by a metallic clang! Bull’s-eye.
Skenes chambered another shell, did it again: boom-clang!
He looked back at us with a faint smile, as if to say, OK, skills intact. Skenes encouraged his friends to try.
De Wolf: boom-thud. At least he’d hit the bluff.
Fushman: boom-clink. Hit the chain supporting the plate—not bad.
Skenes chambered another shell. Boom-clang!
Skenes evades direct questions about his background like a man who spent so many years struggling with his incendiary self that he prefers now to focus on the future. The few details he does offer conjure a lifelong battle between inflamed ambition and the fierce self-discipline necessary to keep it from raging out of control.
Skenes was born in 1979 in Jacksonville, Florida. His mother was an artist, and his father served in Vietnam before becoming, as Skenes put it, a “militant hippie” devoted to martial arts and healthy eating. Skenes was eight years old when his parents divorced. He didn’t see much of his father after that, and recalls spending his childhood with friends “running around in the woods with sticks and swords, slingshots and BB guns. I’d get a squirrel here and there, or a rabbit. I’d eat an alligator, kill some snakes, or wait in a tree with a spear for a hog.”
Skenes emulated his absent father by taking up martial arts, practicing countless hours a day, six days a week, right through adolescence—“like a monk,” he says. When he was a teenager, money was tight at home. “So I did dumb shit and sold drugs and tried to make ends meet that way,” he says. Skenes told me he was arrested and served time in juvenile detention, an experience, he says, that “gives you humility. Like, ‘Wow, I was really fucking stupid.’”
To get back on track, he decided to rededicate his life to martial arts. In 1995, at 16, he dropped out of high school and lived for a while in a Japanese Buddhist temple in Atlanta. Eventually, Skenes moved in with relatives in Boston. Throughout those years, he worked various restaurant jobs but struggled with the impingement on his martial arts time.
“I’d be like, Fuck it, I can’t do this, and then I’d quit and go to the woods and practice—literally sleep on a park bench and do martial arts.”
“You mean… homeless?” I asked.
“I don’t want to make it sound like I was actually homeless. There were places I probably could have gone. But yeah, living in the park.”
During a separate conversation, Skenes told me that he considered moving to the Wudang Mountains, in China, to study martial arts. I asked what he was running from.
“I was running toward myself,” he said. “In martial arts, you get kicked in the face or you don’t. If you do, you say, OK, what do I fix?”
“So you were like a fighting monk?”
“Did you walk around like Kung Fu, looking for people to help?”
“Absolutely,” he said, laughing. “I was a vigilante.” With evident embarrassment, he recounted the time a guy from another dojo challenged him to a duel. The two met in a park at night among friends, according to Skenes, and fought to a draw.
“I used to crave that stuff,” he says. “Now that I’m older, sparring is more about health, longevity, feeling good. But back then it felt so good to punch somebody in the fuckin’ face, just finding a kink in their armor.”
Instead of becoming a full-time fighting monk, Skenes enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. He graduated in 2001, cooked in Boston for a couple of years, then moved to California. In 2004, Skenes took over Chez TJ, an upscale restaurant in Silicon Valley that gave him his first look at serious tech money. Next he worked with Michael Mina, a San Francisco superchef with an international empire of more than 40 restaurants. Finally, in 2009, just before the second tech boom rocketed out of the Great Recession, Skenes decided to open a place of his own.
In those earliest days of the American pop-up-restaurant explosion, Skenes took over the back of a modest San Francisco café on Sunday nights and called it Saison. He built an outdoor fireplace to try cooking over embers, and so loved the effect that he started to cook everything that way, quickly mastering dozens of old fire-cooking techniques and inventing new ones. He hung giant beets over the fireplace for days, smoked fish carcasses to add umami to sauces, and along the way created an utterly unique style.
Curiously, Skenes’s peers are reluctant to speak on the record about him. Plausible explanations include his ferocious personality and unconventional path. Ambitious chefs typically cut their teeth through years of grinding apprenticeship in big-name restaurants around the world, honing others’ methods before striking out on their own. They also typically forge close alliances with colleagues. Skenes skipped most of that and somehow still rocketed to the top of the game.
Saison would eventually get a rave review in The New York Times, while Bon Appétit called it “food-baller.” Thomas McNaughton, chef-owner of several of San Francisco’s finest restaurants and an avid hunter and fisherman, recalls being dazzled by Skenes’s combined commitment to the highest-quality wild ingredients and ruthlessly simple techniques. “That approach leaves a chef nowhere to hide,” says McNaughton. “It was so righteous to see Joshua catch that bug and be fascinated by it.”
Before long, Twitter zillionaire Jack Dorsey and self-optimization guru Tim Ferriss helped fund a new location for Saison, with a $1 million kitchen. Opened in early 2013, that second iteration eventually brought in its own fisherman, abalone farmer, and sea-vegetable forager; aquariums for live diamond turbot, moon jellyfish, and box crabs; vast open fireplaces for cooking; and relationships with ranchers for quail and bison. Skenes roasted elk T-bones over coals, served Hopi corn bread with boar fat, and made his own salt by evaporating seawater over a wood fire.
Ambitious chefs typically cut their teeth through years of grinding apprenticeship in big-name restaurants around the world, honing others’ methods before striking out on their own. Skenes skipped most of that and somehow still rocketed to the top of the game.
Steven Rinella, host of Netflix’s MeatEater and author of The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game, dined at Saison and recalls being struck by two things: Skenes’s unusual sense of time (he will, for example, slow-roast a pineapple over embers for two days while basting it persistently with butter) and his refusal to abide by the norms of which kinds of meat and fish are considered good eating.
“Josh doesn’t care about things that are supposed to be good or not good,” Rinella says. “Like, Dungeness crab, good; box crab, not good. He doesn’t give a shit. He comes to his own conclusions. He’ll bring out what from a market perspective is a subpar fish, but he’s got it swimming there live, and he’s serving you every part, right down to seaweed salad made from the guts.”
Saison was culturally on point, too, with no dress code—T-shirts and sneakers welcome. Like most ultra-luxe restaurants at the time, it offered a fixed-price menu with nearly two dozen small courses. Skenes announced the menu for each evening a few days in advance, but reservations were booked months ahead. Skenes also demanded a credit card number for every reservation and charged full price to anybody who canceled with less than three days’ notice. For the first couple of weeks, if customers arrived more than 15 minutes late, he started without them.
In 2014, when Skenes was only 35, Saison was awarded three Michelin stars, the highest rating possible and the achievement of a lifetime for most chefs. (To this day, not a single restaurant in Southern California has ever won that honor.) Saison received even greater recognition in 2016, when the World’s Fifty Best Restaurants, an annual list voted on by more than 1,000 culinary pros, ranked it number 27, ahead of all but three other American eateries. By that point, Skenes had gone from justified obscurity as a Floridian martial arts weirdo to the very apex of the American food scene.
But Skenes was fixated on making his food radically better still. Friends showed the way by dropping off wild duck, geese, and venison they’d shot. “I would cook them and eat them,” Skenes says, “and I’d go, Fuck, this is the pinnacle.”
There was only one problem: state and federal laws made it nearly impossible to legally sell wild game in a restaurant.
“Bring us some caviar,” Skenes said, ordering dinner for both of us at the Angler on the San Francisco waterfront. “And… amberjack, antelope, tuna, spot prawns. Actually, add fluke to the raw stuff so I can taste it. And then, ah… blowfish, quail. And let’s do some urchin, too.”
Skenes opened that first Angler in 2018; the L.A. location followed in 2019. He has a third in the works for Bellevue, Washington, likely in 2022. The name Angler seems to reflect a shift in Skenes’s focus from rarefied dining to an idiosyncratic mysto-survivalism. He enjoys referring to the place as an updated fish shack, but the one in San Francisco struck me more like a tech baron’s fantasy version of the world’s most exclusive fly-fishing and hunting lodge. Big animal heads and trophy fish hung on the walls, a full-size bear snarled in a corner, and a 32-foot-long cooking hearth burned under metal racks laden with wild boar hams and octopus legs. Sixteen-foot-long glass tanks supported a marine ecosystem complete with seaweeds curated by consultants from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Rockfish, turbot, and fluke swam lazily among gooseneck barnacles, geoduck clams, oysters, abalones, and sea cucumbers.
The menu read like a Rosetta stone for West Coast tech culture, a world in which twenty- and thirtysomethings have endless cash for pricey condos and fast cars but are far more interested in self-optimization and authentic experiences. In terms of fine dining, that means moving away from showy luxury goods like Kobe beef and foie gras, which require zero taste or imagination, and toward pristine wild proteins that you almost have to understand to appreciate. Skenesian riffs on standards included fried quail instead of chicken and raw antelope instead of beef. But the most telling concept was something like the culinary equivalent of Alaskan heli-skiing: whole king crab for $128 per pound, with the average specimen in Angler’s tanks weighing north of eight pounds. It takes a particular sensibility, and bank account, to drop $1,000 on a single crustacean that you eat with your hands.
During my meal with Skenes, every dish arrived with elemental simplicity, like the four local spot prawns yanked alive from the aquarium, briefly grilled over embers, and served minimally seasoned, to the tune of $64. That price would clearly blow the minds of anyone not open to the idea that such scarce critters served so insanely fresh is an experience worth twice that. The appetizer of raw fluke, too: baked into the cost was the fact that each order prompted a cook to net a swimming fish from its tank, brain it with a spike, and run a steel wire through its spinal column to incapacitate the muscles and leave the meat tender, then fillet it, slice it, and send it out.
Skenes presided over all that splendor in a downmarket sartorial style consisting of basic blue pants, an Army green cotton overshirt, and a hoodie that read more auto mechanic gone fishing than chef-owner. He talked about Angler as a means to a still greater end—the same one he’d been chasing since the earliest days of Saison, when friends dropped by with fresh game.
If he wanted more wild meat in his life, Skenes realized, he would have to start killing it himself.
Skenes’s first outing, in 2013, was a boar hunt in central California. He managed to hit one but confesses that his aim was imperfect, and the animal didn’t die quickly. Skenes hated that. “The whole point, for me,” he said, “is instant death.”
In his signature way, Skenes dedicated himself to becoming a superpredator, hunting and fishing all over the West and taking courses from former military snipers until he could place a bullet in the instant-death zone, behind an animal’s ear, from 500 yards away.
In 2016, Skenes rented a rural property in Sonoma County and began staging secretive small-group dinners that were rumored to include stuff he had shot and hooked alongside rare finds like 13-year-old grass-fed bison that had been eating flowers so long, its fat was canary yellow. The addition of Krug champagne, bagpipers, and baskets of live monarch butterflies—released like doves—pushed the price past $1,000 per guest. (Skenes declined to comment on whether he was serving wild game; if he was, it’s hard to imagine how this would have been legal.) But he still felt unsatisfied.
That’s when Skenes made a move that, in light of pandemic social distancing, looks brilliant: he and two partners bought nearly 100 acres on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, with a mile of river surrounded by national forest. In February 2019, he had his public relations team send out a press release describing a “working ranch and farm, a ‘restaurant,’ a hunting & fishing lodge, a lab, a school” and promising “private dinners, fly fishing excursions, hosted travel,” and “foraging and grilling master classes.” Not long after that, Skenes told a reporter—with cryptic flair—that Skenes Ranch might turn out to be wherever he found himself at any given moment.
Back at Angler, he said that construction was already underway—roughly a dozen buildings, including hot and cold smokehouses, fermentation units, and a brewing operation for liquor and beer made from wild ingredients sourced from the surrounding land.
It sounded a lot like a restaurant, but Skenes resisted that characterization. “I’m not selling food or beverage,” he explained. “I’m inviting people into my living room so I can share wild game. I just want to share the food I like to eat. There’s only one table. Four people, six, eight—that’s it. And that’s on occasion.”
Walmart bourbon and spicy pork rinds kept the mood high on the concrete patio at Red Bank Ale & Quail while Skenes and his buddies yanked handfuls of feathers out of dead birds. The grill had an undercabinet, with Kingsford charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid, but oak firewood sat nearby for the bunkhouse’s heating stove. Skenes threw a few logs into the grill’s firebox, exuberantly drenched them in lighter fluid, stepped way the hell back, lit a match, and tossed it in. Flames detonated up toward the wooden framing of the bunkhouse roof, which extended over the grill and patio.
Skenes used a knife to slit each bird’s belly, then grabbed the entrails and yanked. He grilled the birds over raging heat until browned, deboned them in the kitchen, and then dropped the carcasses into simmering water with spices.
Fushman appeared and said, calmly, that the grill appeared to be on fire.
Skenes stepped to the door. Flames leaped upward toward the patio’s roof. Fushman opened the cabinet beneath and grill and bravely removed the lighter fluid and bag of charcoal, now smoldering.
Skenes jogged to the sink, filled a pot with water, and dumped it over the fire. He repeated this sequence until the fire seemed to be out, then went back to the kitchen. After a couple of hours of simmering and whiskey sipping, Skenes strained the broth into bowls of freshly cooked noodles to make game-bird pho: hot, dark soup, intensely savory and aromatic, with rich breast and leg meat and fresh, bright flavors from chopped cilantro and scallion. He whipped together minced jalapeño, lime juice, and fermented fish broth to make a drizzling sauce. Then we sat around an indoor picnic table to eat.
Skenes dedicated himself to becoming a superpredator, hunting and fishing all over the West and taking courses from former military snipers until he could place a bullet in the instant-death zone, behind an animal’s ear, from 500 yards away.
My first mouthful felt like delicious, joyful strength and ease rushing through my veins. My second and third—and every mouthful thereafter—made me want to get down on my knees and pray with weeping gratitude to whatever god made game birds and lunatic chefs and my own palate all so beautifully suited to one another.
Once I’d calmed a little, I asked Skenes what animals he hoped to have on his ranch. He described a complete menagerie, with grazing bison that gnawed grass and stomped their own feces to fertilize soil, a game-bird hatchery, trout and salmon in the river, plus, as Skenes put it, “a lot of tweety birds, songbirds, bears, elk, deer, coyote, moose, ground rodents—Jumanji, basically.”
My next question was about where people would stay.
Skenes said there would be guest cabins.
Something in that last bit, combined with his earlier remark about dinners in his living room, brought the picture into focus: Ferociously ambitious chef reaches top of culinary world and realizes he can hit a still higher target only by hunting and killing wild animals and serving them at the source. Stymied by law and regulation, he cobbles together a workaround. He buys and builds a wilderness estate where he can live in rural splendor doing what he loves most: hunting and fishing and foraging. He includes a laboratory element that coincidentally involves support staff and cooking facilities that are the equal of the world’s finest restaurants, then adds gorgeous guest cabins spaced widely over the property and charges some totally bonkers price per night so he can “invite” those guests to his own spectacular manor-home for the greatest “free” dinners ever eaten by human beings.
(Later, Skenes appeared to change course, saying there would also be a traditional high-end restaurant at the Ranch, and that would be the main focus.)
Looking around the bunkhouse table at Ale & Quail as Skenes and Fushman slurped noodles and plucked bird shot from their mouths, something else occurred to me: even big-name chefs are in the service business, expected to bow and scrape at the tables of plutocrats. But to dine at Skenes Ranch, billionaires will have to request an invitation. Skenes will finally be on equal, or superior, social footing with his richest clients. He’ll be more like an awesome friend, in fact—a crazy, eccentric Lord of the Backwoods throwing the world’s coolest dinner parties. And while this will be undeniably great for Skenes, it might be even better for affluent people sick of false pomp and phony transactional hospitality, and more than ready for the ultimate anti-celebrity chef, a survivalist underground maestro revered by cognoscenti.
As for the business model, I was reminded of my conversation with McNaughton, the San Francisco restaurateur. Upon being told about Skenes Ranch, he said, without hesitation, “He’s going to kill it.”
“Hey, Josh?” said Fushman, standing at the open bunkhouse door and looking back inside. “That grill’s really burning now.” We ran to Fushman’s side and saw eight-foot flames jumping out of the frame around the firebox, licking the dry knotty-pine paneling on the underside of the patio roof.
I grabbed a fire extinguisher, squeezed the trigger, and released a white cloud of retardant—to absolutely zero effect. We had maybe ten minutes before the bunkhouse went up and set the whole state ablaze.
I bolted inside, grabbed my bags, and shuttled them to Rambo, noticing a garden hose along the way. I cranked the spigot and dragged the hose to the patio, where Skenes took over and sprayed water onto the flames.
Suddenly, a truck growled across the gravel. The owner’s nephew, Cody Riley, jumped out wearing red basketball shorts and a pair of suede bedroom slippers. He grinned at Skenes and said, “Never a dull moment, huh Josh?”
Riley grabbed the hose while Skenes dashed over to Rambo and returned with the most beautiful handmade timber ax I’d ever seen. Riley sprayed hundreds of gallons of water onto the hissing flames while Skenes swung like a competitive wood splitter, smashing the crap out of the grill until the whole thing was obliterated and soaking wet. The fire was out.
Skenes and Riley then stepped into the bunkhouse, flopped onto couches with the last of the whiskey, and chatted happily, as if this was the most fun they’d had in ages.
The next morning, Riley’s uncle surveyed the carnage with a facial expression that said, I almost lost everything last night.
To Skenes, he said, “Josh, that grill wasn’t built for oak. It does fine with charcoal.”
“It shouldn’t have been framed with wood,” Skenes said. “I’ll help you design a new one.”
“We’ve had that thing for years, Josh. We’ve only had problems twice,” the owner said.
“You need a stand-alone steel unit on wheels. I’ll help you design it,” Skenes said.
With that he tossed his keys to De Wolf, got in Rambo’s back seat, and had himself ferried first to a Starbucks, and then to a McDonald’s drive-through, where he bought three breakfast sandwiches, devoured them all, and fell asleep for the ride home.