“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.”