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.