My Dinner with Jacques

The one and only Jacques Pepin -- in town for dinner at Saison in San Francisco.

Monday night at Saison restaurant in San Francisco, I had dinner with Jacques Pepin.

OK, that would be me and 17 other people.

Still, it’s always an honor to be in the presence of such a formidable culinary figure, whose talent remains genuine and relevant even more so in this age of instant celebritism.

The occasion? A celebration of the French Culinary Institute’s new International Culinary Center of California in Campbell.

The New York-based culinary school has graduated the likes of Bobby Flay, Dan Barber, David Chang and Wylie Dufresne. It has been eager to establish a West Coast presence for a decade, and jumped at the chance when the former, five-year-old Professional Culinary Institute went up for sale this year, according to Brooke Schwartz, president of the new Campbell school.

Pepin, dean of special programs for the French Culinary Institute, was in town for the dinner soiree, along with other colleagues, including Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the founder of the institute.

A dozen food writers from around the Bay Area were invited, along with newest FCI deans, Chef David Kinch of Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos and Emily Luchetti, executive pastry chef of Waterbar and Farallon, both in San Francisco.

The Campbell school, which used to draw mainly from the local area, is now attracting students nationwide, Schwartz says. The school offers three core programs: Classic Culinary Arts, Classic Pastry Arts, and Intensive Sommelier Training (the first program in the world to be approved by the Court of Master Sommeliers). With Kinch’s involvement, culinary students will get a chance to visit Love Apple Farm in Santa Cruz, which grows exclusively for Manresa. And with Luchetti’s involvement, pastry students will get a chance to visit her restaurants for dessert tastings and kitchen tours. Additionally, the school offers a range of culinary, baking and wine classes for homecooks.

Saison Chef Joshua Skenes conferring with his cooks before the start of the dinner.Only the brave -- like this cook -- could take being by the roaring hearth on an unseasonably hot San Francisco day.

Saison’s Executive Chef Josh Skenes, an FCI grad, created the dinner. Saison’s Sommelier Mark Bright joked that the wine pairings were all French purely by accident, even if that seemed entirely appropriate to the occasion.

Skenes and Bright hope to move Saison to the Financial District in the near future — not because they want a larger space, but one more suitable for the ethereal, elegant fare the restaurant now turns out. It’s amazing to see how this former once-a-week, pop-up restaurant, housed in a quirky property in the Mission, has evolved since it opened two years ago.

Caviar starts off this special meal.

Dinner started with caviar accompanied by a tiny dollop of creme fraiche and sea urchin.

One prawn -- but prepared two ways.

That was followed by a giant spot prawn, the body of which was left raw, sashimi-style while the head had been roasted till crisp in the embers of the restaurant’s showpiece outdoor hearth.

Next, toasted grains hidden beneath a profusion of delicate mustard leaves that also had been cooked in the embers till potato chip-crisp. An intense bonito bouillon was poured over it all, tableside.

Mustard greens in bonito boullion.

Lobster, Dungeness crab and uni in an intense shellfish broth.

Hidden underneath? Rabbit and foie gras.

Then, a nugget of raw lobster rolled in cabbage to resemble a tiny maki roll, Dungeness crab, uni,  and Meyer lemon cream — all afloat in a broth heady with rich shellfish flavor.

The final savory course was moist, tender rabbit with foie gras and English peas.

A preserved Meyer lemon parfait.

A finale of popcorn ice cream.

A parfait of preserved lemon sorbet and lemon gelee was tangy and refreshing, with the beautiful touch of vivid yellow chrysanthemum leaves strewn over the top.

The finale was all whimsy — smooth, creamy, popcorn ice cream that had been made with roasted corn. It rightly put movie-theater popcorn to shame.

Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder of the French Culinary Institute, welcomes guests.

After filming so many KQED cooking shows in the city, Pepin says he considers San Francisco his second home.

But who cares what I thought of the meal. It’s Pepin’s verdict that really counts, right?

At the end of the meal, Pepin stood up to shake Skenes’ hand on a job well done.

“He lets the quality of the product show itself,” Pepin says. “The dishes are different than what I would — or could — cook. There is taste and vibrancy. I admire what he does.”

More: A First Visit to Saison

And: A Return Visit to Saison In Its Newest Incarnation

And: A Look at Love Apple Farm

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