Joshua Skenes — Playing with Fire (#156)

Photo: The Chronicle
Photo: The Chronicle

“The answer is either yes or no. If it’s ‘no,’ then I have to start over.” Joshua Skenes

Joshua Skenes (IG: @jskenes) has become famous for his use of fire.

As chef-owner of Saison in San Francisco (three Michelin stars), he has classical training and loves his high-end Japanese Nenohi knives, but nothing captures his imagination quite like the open flame. The back of his business card sports three words, stark on ivory stock:

Play with fire.

In this episode, we explore his obsessions: simplicity, food, and martial arts.

We became friends during the collaboration of The 4-Hour Chef, and this was a long overdue catch-up.  Enjoy!

If you only have five minutes, listen to how he dealt with a last-minute catastrophe involving a sewage water flood.

#156: Joshua Skenes -- Playing with Fire

Want to hear another podcast where I discuss food with a world-class chef? — Listen to my conversation with Andrew Zimmern. In this episode, we discuss his meditation practice, morning routines, and creative process (stream below or right-click here to download):

Ep 40: Andrew Zimmern on Simple Cooking Tricks, Developing TV, and Addiction

This episode is brought to you by Headspace, the world’s most popular meditation app (more than 4,000,000 users).  It’s used in more than 150 countries, and many of my closest friends swear by it.  Try Headspace’s free Take10 program —  10 minutes of guided meditation a day for 10 days. It’s like a warm bath for your mind. Meditation doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive, and it’s had a huge impact on my life. Try Headspace for free for a few days and see what I mean.

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What questions about food or nutrition would you like me to cover in future podcast episodes or blog posts? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…


Selected Links from the Episode

Saison | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook

Show Notes

  • What does the back of your business card currently say? [5:08]
  • Earliest memories of martial arts combined with cooking [6:22]
  • How do you use fire and why do you use it? [9:15]
  • Defining freshness in food [10:57]
  • On hunting, becoming a vegan, and returning to meat [13:05]
  • On studying bagua [18:19]
  • The impact of martial arts on Joshua Skenes’s cooking [22:53]
  • On reducing and simplifying [25:29]
  • What do you say to yourself when you get good or bad reviews? [29:08]
  • Describing the most exciting developments in cooking now [31:00]
  • Joshua Skenes’s biggest influences or mentors [33:46]
  • Starting Saison, the toughest times and catastrophe management [37:07]
  • Training and prep-talk for new members of the Saison staff [45:30]
  • The subway story [49:03]
  • Thoughts on Francis Mallmann and Chef’s Table [50:05]
  • Most gifted books [53:50]
  • When you think of the word ‘successful,’ who is the first person who comes to mind and why? [56:18]
  • What is the most joy that you’ve felt in recent memory [57:35]
  • If you could pick anywhere outside the US to immerse yourself in the woods, where would you pick? [58:50]
  • Morning rituals [1:04:35]
  • Discussing the value of martial arts and becoming an immovable mountain [1:05:57]
  • Advice to your thirty-year-old self [1:17:20]
  • Where would you like to have food that you have not yet had food? [1:22:00]
  • Why the 80’s? You’re always playing 80’s music [1:28:31]

People Mentioned


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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42 Replies to “Joshua Skenes — Playing with Fire (#156)”

  1. With the movement towards healthy non alcoholic drinks and for the millions in recovery what are some amazing and tasty drink concoctions that would tantalize the nonalcoholic palette. Take care Dave

  2. Tim,

    It’s been said that your book “The 4-Hour Body” is 10-20 years ahead of the mainstream.

    If you want to do something that will be *50-75* years ahead of the mainstream, why not look into the whole business of energy/chi development? I know, I know, “Woo-woo alert!”, right? But when you look into it you find that it really isn’t, and that there are many credible people working within the field. Just because science can’t measure bio-energy yet it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – after all, before they learned how to detect electrons with the electron microscope, electrons still existed! Well I’m sure that at some point in the future they’ll find out how to detect chi and then suddenly *its* existence will be taken as so self-evident that anyone who *doesn’t* believe in it will be the “woo woos”, and they’ll wonder how people in the past could ever have doubted its reality.

    The two guys you want to look into, in my opinion, are Bruce Frantzis and Master Lam Kam Chuen. They are not at all “woo woo” – in fact they’re both solid martial artists. Why not check out the following of their books:

    Bruce Frantzis: “Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body” and “The Power of Internal Martial Arts”

    Master Lam Kam Chuen: “The Way of Energy” and “Chi Kung: Way of Power”

    It’s just a (slightly sycophantic) hunch, but I think with your ability to question assumptions and test hypotheses through self-experimentation, you could really make a contribution to this field.

  3. Tim, I’m a reader of your books and I like the way you approach problems etc.

    But I have to say your website does not reflect the usual clarity you bring to other topics. It’s not very well designed and organised!

    This is just a suggestion, but why don’t you sit down sometime and re-conceptualise the whole thing from first principles? Have one main website and sections within it for Blog, Podcasts, Books, Forums etc? Why not implement a more consistent look and feel across all the pages? Work out what forums you want and organise and moderate them properly?

    For example, I sometimes download your podcasts as MP3s. The actual content is great, but I can’t help but notice that every MP3 file I get seems to have a different naming and meta-tag convention (different ones filled in, and different information in them etc). It would be much better to standardise things and name/tag them all in the same way, e.g. call them:




    I just think you’d give yourself more credibility with a more consistent approach.

    I’m sure if you put the word out that you were redesigning your site you’d have an army of people willing to do it for you for free.

  4. you said on a recent podcast that china study has been wrong and you can get cancer from a plant base duet. Please let me know the study you got that from?

  5. Re: questions about nutrition…

    Are toxins complete bullshit?

    All sorts of quack diets and cleanses claim to remove toxins. I always thought this was just fuzzy thinking and didn’t amount to anything. Recently, I heard Wim Hof – whom I respect – mention toxin release as a result of his method.

    So – is this a real thing? Does your body release toxins? Why? Is that good? Is “toxin” as used here even a definable concept? I’d love your thoughts.

      1. Tim… Please answer this! I was wondering about the exercises too. I have used yoga and it helped me tremendously along with plyometrics. But I would like to know other technics that would perhaps lessen the impact on the knees. Hopefully, I can adapt your exercises into a new program.

      2. Hi Tim,

        Always love the show!

        I also have dodgy knees. Any info you have on exercises that could help would be awesome.


  6. How about an episode on how to make your own favorite take out foods? Chef secrets… (I have yet to perfect a fabulous stir fry or chicken tikka, but I will keep trying.)

  7. Hey Tim, can you talk about diets involving food combining like the Gracie Diet or the Popovitch Diet? Thanks! And also, thanks for all your awesome books and podcast episodes!

  8. Another fantastic podcast Tim.

    Fantastic to hear your Chinese pronunciation and amazing to see how your breadth of experience allows you to find common points of discussion with so many guests. Another fascinating podcast with another amazing guest with a breadth of interests – the ‘side gig’ podcast sounds fantastic to me.

    Would love you to consider interviewing some people (or another solo podcast) where you really dig deeply into one of the many hobbies you have studied deeply (like Japanese or Tango). If you were going to talk about Tango for example I would love to hear not only about how you 80:20’d the process but also what the plateaus were like, how your focus changed as you improved, what you looked like 3-months in, your self-talk prior to big performances, how you maximized your chances of success, how the hobby now figures in your life today (or how it has moved into other areas like Acro Yoga).

    You have provided so many amazing resources for learning these varied things but I’d love to really hear about your own ‘hero’s journey’ in some of these areas…

    All the best


  9. When I saw the title to this podcast my first thought was I wonder if Tim has heard of Francis Mallmann.

    Of course I should have guessed he probably would have.

    I got given Francis’ book Seven Fires a few years ago when we took our whippersnappers to Bariloche for a couple of months.

    Beautiful book. Beautiful place. Awesome cooking.

    The diversity of guests you keep getting is great Tim.

    Continues to open up new realms of ideas and though.

    I have a 3 hour drive each week to work and this is the got to for podcasts.


  10. Just listened to the Charles Poloquin podcast and was wondering what his thoughts were on the best nutrition plan for health as well as performance in sport such as Crossfit or weightlifting. I think a great podcast would be with a crossfire athlete such as Rich Froning or another champion or coach. I really enjoy the nutrition podcasts.

  11. Do you value nutrition over flavour?

    Do you ever start cooking and realise you feel uninspired and unable to perform at your usual standard? If so then how do you deal with this so you can ‘turn on’?

  12. I’d love to know more about your nutrition research & experiments for post-lyme & post-antibiotic recovery. You’ve dropped tantalizing bits like “cycling creatine & ubiquinol” that have me wanting to know more–did it work, and if so what was the dose and protocol? You’re not the only one dealing with these issues!

  13. After a life of not smoking, regular sports practice, and conscious eating I was diagnosed with a sizable tumor and stage 2 breast cancer (lymph nodes affected) two years ago at age 40. I have a lovely husband and two small girls (age 3 and 5) and after having successfully pushed my body through chemo, radical surgery and radiation all I want is to stay around as long as possible and not get cancer again. I am now wondering what you would do regarding figuring out what the best nutrition going forward is. I have banned meat and processed meat as well as cow milk already. However, there seem to be basically two “schools”: one is the ketogenic fraction (D’Agostino, Attia) who advocate fat, fat, fat and also eating plenty of animal protein – carbs are almost toxic in their view for cancer patients. I have tried to eat like that, but it does not feel right to me. The other side is represented by the totally opposite plant-based diet community (Dr. Greger and his fabulous website, the China Study), which, however, advocates eating whole grain carbohydrates. Both have valid arguments pro and con. I am so frustrated that my (top notch) oncologists here in Germany have nowhere to point me to and insist that I should eat “healthy”. If I knew that there is valid scientific evidence that cutting carbs COMPLETELY from my diet could prevent the cancer from coming back I think I could push myself to do that. But unless I know that I just like my morning muesli, homemade cake (with natural sweeteners like honey, dates) and whole grain bread too much to cut carbs completely from my diet. Maybe you could get two representatives of the two “schools” together for a discussion that we could follow? Thank you and kind regards from a fellow ex-St. Pauli

    1. Hi Doro, I’ve lost my close family members to cancer in early ages, so I made a lot of research about healthy diet. One summer I met a scientist who was doing research about cancer. He said “Fish, olive oil, tomato and yogurt”. You need to have these four things in your diet regularly. It is basically Mediterranean diet. By fish, go for the sea fish, not ocean fish. Ocean fish can do more bad than good. Sardines are the best. Have some type of tomato in your diet. Cooked tomato is better than raw. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on everything you eat. Buy it in can (not in glass bottle) and keep it in a dark place to keep its nutrition values. And yes have some plain, organic yogurt every week. Needless to say they all need to be organic. Don’t go for the cheap brands. Go for the rare, expensive brands. They are the real deal. People keep saying eating healthy is expensive, but they don’t mind buying a new phone every year or going for manicure every two weeks. It is all about your priorities. Health is more important than anything else. Cut your luxury spending and buy the good, organic stuff. When you visit doctors as their patient, they don’t educate you, they don’t give a sh*t. You are just another patient. When my father visited a doctor for coughing many years ago, the doctor diagnosed it as common cold and sent him back home with some cold medicine. His coughing got worse, he collapsed one day and rushed to emergency. Only then we found out he had lung cancer and only 6 months to live. Tim Ferriss shared an article on twitter the other day about how many people die because of wrong diagnosis. I was like “No kidding”. I have other real life examples of doctor screw ups. You need to do your own research. Anything that comes from nature is good for you. Stay away from processed food. Cook your own food at home. You don’t need to worry about any of those diets you mentioned in your comment. Just listen your body. For example, I can’t eat burgers. I just don’t like them. I feel my body rejects them. While traveling, people go for a burger, I go for a protein bar or a bag of unsalted peanuts. In restaurants people usually go for a steak or some fried crap, I always go for the baked fish. At home, sometimes I cook turkey meatballs (baked), or turkey chili and have it with salad. If you want to eat sweets, eat fruit. Pomegranates, watermelon, black grapes, apples. They are all good for you. Like I said, listen to your body, if you feel something is not right for you, then it is not. I am not an expert on any of this. At least, I don’t claim to be. I don’t follow any particular diet fad. I evaluate every food individually. Should I eat this or not? I do enjoy my thin-crust pizza and chocolate cake occasionally, but they key word is “occasionally”. You don’t need to complicate it. It is really simple. Just eat whatever comes from nature. And eat a lot of sardines. Good luck with everything.

  14. I became fascinated by the Stoics by listening to your podcast. You seem to really resonate with the teachings of Seneca while for me its M. Aurelius. I’m blown away by how relevant their ancient philosophy is and how well it has stood up to the test of time. I was wondering if you could find a lively guest who is well versed in Stoicism. One who could help your listeners (myself included) to understand how to put their teachings into practice including in the areas of interpersonal relationships, at work, and finally about dealing with issues related to how to live a more healthy, meaningful, and transformative life.

  15. Hi Tim & Co.

    My first podcast and J. Skenes brought me here.

    I was lucky enough to work at Saison in the old space. Josh may have difficulty recalling any mentors that have had an impact on his philosophy and cooking but I’d definitely consider him one of mine.

    It is interesting to see how his approach to cooking and ingredients has evolved over time. But the constant has always been to simplify and focus on flavour. The techniques were always used to highlight and it was always drilled into us from the start that if it didn’t taste like the best strawberry, aji, etc. that you’ve ever had, we should revisit and make it better.

    He’s an interesting character, a good storyteller, and makes delicious food.

    Thanks for getting him on the show and look forward to tuning in again.

  16. What he says around minute 32 is exactly the philosophy of Sukiyabashi Jiro (Jiro Dreams of Sushi).

  17. I, for one – but probably not just one, want to encourage the ‘Side Gig’ podcast. What a great idea!

  18. In the episode you mentioned prehab and stability exercises. Can you elaborate?

    I’ve just started running again from desk bound and could use the help.

  19. I loved that Joshua’s place to go in the world would be BC. I grew up there, in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains. With a Japanese father and back-to-nature mother, it was definitely a unique childhood, complete with summers taking sheep into the alpine meadows and, I kid you not, moose head for Thanksgiving dinner. I no longer live in Canada, but that’s where I’d go too!

    Thanks for the podcast, I really enjoy it. It helps me focus while doing mundane tasks so my brain doesn’t fly off in 300 different direction.

  20. Tim,

    You probably get a million comments like this a day (rightly so), and I do wish I could tell you in person, but I can’t, and I still feel the need to express myself. I just wanted to thank you, with every bit of gratitude in my body, for everything you do for us (your readers and listeners.) You are impacting my life more than you could could ever imagine, and I appreciate your hard work, vulnerability and modesty so deeply. Thank you so much.

  21. Tim,

    Several of my family and I have followed you since 4HWW, the books, the blog, et al.

    The verbose profanity that now fills all you do, and all that you encourage is quite immature. It shows a great lack of well-thought vocabulary (although you obviously have a great one). It is very trendy by the nouveau riche and all the big thinkers and world changers. A sad statement since you are trying to make headway in so many areas of life and personal pursuits.

    I listened to your latest blog post in my car last evening and there was barely a mile that passed that you didn’t sling more slime. I would hope that with all the resources and intelligence you have garnered, that your delivery system would reflect more couthe.


    1. Please Tim

      Don’t follow Mike’s advice

      Keep doing exactly what you have been doing

      To do so would kill the spontaneity

  22. It was great hearing Joshua and Tim talking about the importance and significance of hunting. But when OH when OH when will Tim get Steve Rinella on the podcast???

  23. Hi Tim,

    Just wondering if you had any links/references to the prehab exercises you did for knee stability with Chris Sommer (am guessing on the spelling) that you mentioned? I’m currently trying to rehab a torn ACL with severe atrophy. I’m working very hard on strength and mobility everyday so would love some further insight on specific techniques to help with stability if you don’t mind sharing.

    Thank you kindly in advance and thank you more-so for the work you do, it has been a HUGE influence in my life and I can’t thank you enough!

    Keep up the fantastic work!

  24. Tim,

    Love the podcast. You have a great interview style and great guests. As a foodie and a farmer, I really enjoyed listening to Joshua. He is taking local to a new level. I did take exception to some of his comments about American agriculture. As a farmer, I am aware of the challenges farmers face dealing with weather, food prices and ever changing pest pressure. I would love to hear you interview a top performer in agriculture. Farming is a high-tech, high stakes industry that every person in the world is dependent on. And here in America, we take our food all too much for granted.

    -Just a request

    Keep up the great work.