An interview with Thomas Keller’s chef de cuisine at Bouchon Beverly Hills

This is an extract from a posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.

British-born David Hands is the chef de cuisine at Bouchon Beverly Hills, Thomas Keller’s French bistro in Los Angeles’ most exclusive neighbourhood. He talks about his journey from winning student competitions at Birmingham College to working with one of the most celebrated chefs in the world and what it is like to live and work in LA.

Tell me about your background and starting your culinary career in the UK.
I attended Birmingham College of Food [Tourism and Creative Studies], where I was entered into a number of competitions. I won the Egon Ronay Student Chef of the Year in 2001 and Birmingham College of Food Student of the Year in 2002 and I also won a gold medal in the Culinary Star of Europe national finals in 2002. The competitions opened a lot of doors for me and while I was studying I worked at a number of different gastropubs. But my first real experience of fine dining came when I moved to Gidleigh Park in Devon. I spent almost five years there, starting as a commis and leaving as a sous chef. I learned everything I needed to know about being in a professional kitchen and understanding flavours at Gidleigh Park. Michael [Caines] was a huge mentor, who really set the path for me.

When did you decide to move to the USA?
Gidleigh Park closed for an 11-month refurbishment at the beginning of 2006 and I went to New York on holiday and knocked on the door of Per Se offering to work for free until my money ran out. I spent five weeks at the restaurant and then they offered me a job as chef de partie. Of course I jumped at the chance!

How did you get a US work visa?
I was one of the last people to get a J1 visa [a visa for cultural and educational exchange] for two years. I had to return to the UK to sort out the paperwork and it wasn’t until August the following year that I got to go back to New York. I worked on every station at Per Se, which was an incredible experience, and then just as my visa was about to run out, Thomas Keller asked me if I’d like to move to Los Angeles to open a new Bouchon. I had to go back to the UK for eight months while my O1 visa [a visa for outstanding abilities], which Thomas sponsored, was being processed. Bouchon Beverly Hills opened in November 2009, with me as a sous chef. Two months later I was promoted to executive sous chef and in 2012 I became chef de cuisine.

What’s it like working for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG)?
It’s a very special company. If you don’t buy into its culture then it’s not for you but if you do then it’s an incredible place to work. It’s a chef driven company and there’s a philosophy of only buying the best produce, no matter what the cost, which is fantastic. Thomas is an incredible role model who really gets the most out of people and empowers you without being controlling. He really enables me to be creative and let my talent come through but I also get to have him as a mentor and a guiding hand and someone I can bounce ideas of.

What kind of restaurant is Bouchon? Dining Room
The first Bouchon in Yountville was designed for chefs from the French Laundry to come to after a busy service and eat well. And it’s still like that. The menu is classic French bistro fare, modelled on the bouchons in Lyon. It changes four times a year according to the seasons, although there are core items like the roast chicken, the pâtés, the mussels and the steak frites. Right now we’ve just launched our summer menu with dishes like tomato consommé, asparagus salad with hollandaise sauce and swordfish with pepper stew, fennel bulb, summer squash and olive tapenade. It’s not fine dining but we really focus on getting the best possible ingredients and letting them shine.

What are the main differences of working as a chef in the USA compared to working in the UK?
Not just in the USA but in TKRG things seem a lot more structured. We have power in numbers and never struggle for staff and it’s very organised in the sense that money is spent where it is needed. The biggest difference, of course, lies in the labour laws. In England it was all about the long hours – as a young chef you had to work 16-hour days and that really drilled into me the importance of getting your job done before you go home. In the USA with the eight-hour labour laws, it’s different. Half the jobs take eight hours to do and you might be in the middle of teaching a young chef something and then his shift is up and he has to go home, which can be tough.

LA is known around the world for its great weather, which also means that there is phenomenal fresh produce here. But are there any ingredients from the UK that you miss?
The strawberries here don’t compare. I still love English strawberries – they’re the best! Things here are pretty much available all year round and I can get strawberries even in December. In England having that wait and anticipation for the season to start around Wimbledon is what makes it so special. That’s the only thing I really miss here: if LA could be perfect it would be seasonal.

LA’s food scene has, until recently, not had a particularly great reputation but there seems to have been a real transformation. What do you most love about the industry here?
The food culture in LA has exploded, which I am extremely relieved about. When I moved here five years ago, I looked at it thinking: “Wow, there’s nothing here!” But it’s changed so much. There’s competition now, which is great. It’s friendly competition and I love that there are more and more chefs coming in and we all share the same passion. The scene in LA is very casual, it’s refined food in a relaxed setting. To me that’s amazing because it breaks the boundaries and people aren’t intimated to come through the doors. The other side of it is that without all the frills the costs are reduced so you can really concentrate on the quality of the food and service.

 

LA Restaurant Review: Bestia

This is an extract from an article I wrote for Caterer and Hotelkeeper. You can read the full version by visiting catererandhotelkeeper.co.uk

08_ww-us-la-bestia-08Until very recently, LA diners weren’t known to be adventurous. Nose-to-tail cooking was a largely foreign concept and it was more about playing it safe – pizza, burgers and steaks were de rigueur. But as the city’s dining scene is fast evolving, so are people’s palates. And if there’s one restaurant that has helped to push boundaries and lure Angelenos to try new things, it’s Bestia.

Opened at the end of 2012, Bestia is an Italian restaurant from restaurateur Bill Chait and husband-and-wife chef and pastry chef team Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis. It’s all about rustic dishes, gutsy flavours and plenty of meat. Right from the start it was a runaway success, serving up to 400 covers a night in the 150-seat dining room. And 18 months on, Bestia remains one of the hottest tickets in LA.

06_ww-us-la-bestia-06From the outside, the restaurant looks like a warehouse, but once you make your way through the courtyard and into the dining room, you discover a vibrant space with bare rafters, stripped brick and Edison lightbulbs.

Although this is Menashe’s first restaurant as chef-proprietor, he’s done stints at some of LA’s most celebrated Italian restaurants, including Angelini Osteria
and Pizzeria Mozza.

Open for dinner only, everything at Bestia is made in-house. From the sourdough bread, pizza dough and pasta, to homemade ricotta, pickles, oils, vinegars and a changing selection of more than 50 different types of charcuterie, very little is bought in. “Most of our dishes require a lot of preparation, but the execution is quick and easy,” Menashe says. “We start service at 9am and make everything from scratch for that night. The menu changes in part every day, depending on what I find on the market.”

Charcuterie options may include rabbit terrine, chicken liver pâté, lamb pancetta, coppa di testa, salami and a range of different sausages, with a chef’s selection complete with homemade pickles and mustard ($15/£9).

130123 Angeleno-Bestia3873There are 10 varieties of pasta, including squid ink, porcini, pistachio and saffron, as well as stinging nettle parpadelle, which is served with Colorado lamb ragù, mixed mushrooms, Fiore Sardo cheese and topped with fried nettles ($22/£13). “We boil and purée the nettles and fold them into the pasta dough, which then sits in the fridge for a day,” explains the chef. “The lamb ragù is made with a stock from the bones of the whole animal, lots of red wine, porcini mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots, onions and celery and herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage. The cheese gives it a gamey taste.”

More adventurous dishes include grilled lamb heart with pickled chillies, Marcona almonds, rocket, pickled shallots and chillies ($14/£8.50); or panroasted chicken gizzards with roasted beets, Belgian endive and aged Capra Sarda, a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese ($14/£8.50). “I love offal because it’s always available very fresh,” says Menashe. “The chicken gizzard dish is one of my favourites – I never get bored of it. I confit the gizzards in orange, chillies, garlic and thyme, and then sauté them so they’re nice and crispy before serving them with a mushroom vinaigrette and an aged balsamic reduction.”

Desserts are overseen by Menashe’s wife Gergis, who trained at Chez Panisse with Alice Waters. “Genevieve loves sweet but she loves savoury too, so a lot of desserts balance the two. Each dessert has a touch of salt,” Menashe says. A case in point is a chocolate budino tart, salted caramel, cacao crust, olive oil and sea salt ($12/£7), which is sophisticated without being flashy.

The wine list, put together by sommelier Maxwell Leer, offers a mix of unusual varieties almost exclusively from Europe, with a focus on natural and biodynamic wines.

Bestia combines rustic flavours and accomplished cooking with a great atmosphere. With Menashe planning a Middle Eastern restaurant later this year, LA diners have much to look forward to.

Bestia
2121 E 7th Place
Los Angeles
CA 90021, USA
www.bestiala.com
@bestiaDTLA

James Beard award winning chef Dan Barber on his book The Third Plate

“As a chef you can’t be a flavour evangelist without being an environmentalist.”

This was the message from Dan Barber, co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and author of The Third Plate – Field Notes on the Future of Food.

In conversation with Evan Kleinman, host of the KCRW radio show Good Food, which has played a central role in bringing together LA County’s food community, the James Beard award winning chef and food activist discussed his vision for a new future of sustainable eating in America.

Based on a decade of researching farming communities around the world, Barber explained how his book The Third Plate proposes a radical new way of thinking about food that is rooted in utilising the whole farm, comprising an integrated system of vegetable, grain and livestock production.

The Third PlateBarber discussed the history of American cuisine and the the traditional “first plate” way of eating, in which a large cut of meat takes centre stage. He went on to say that the farm-to-table movement has championed the “second plate” way of eating, where the meat is from free-range animals and the vegetables are locally sourced. Although undoubtedly better for the environment, the second plate philosophy too is damaging as it continues to disrupt the ecological balances of the planet, and is ultimately not a sustainable way to farm or eat.

The solution, explained Barber, lies in the “third plate”, an integrated system of vegetable, grain, and livestock production that is fully supported by what we choose to cook for dinner. The third plate is where good farming and good food intersect, he insisted.

“The farm-to-table movement needs to be flipped on its head,” Barber said. “Instead of farmers growing what they know consumers will buy, the land should dictate what they grow and thus what we eat. Our diet should be responsive to the environment and not the other way round.”

While the third plate is a novelty in America, in Old World communities this way of eating is rooted in age old tradition. Barber described his visits to the southern Spanish dehesa, a region producing high-grade olives, acorns and the world-famous Jamón Ibérico. Here a farmer has been able to produce natural foie gras as his geese feed on the abundance of the land.

“The system is so delicate and evolved, which really fascinated me,” Barber explained. “The foie gras – so incredibly delicious – is a byproduct of the overproduction of nature and ultimately of farming in the right way.”

While Kleinman failed to really interview Barber and merely got him to discuss what he’d written in his book, which to those having already read The Third Plate would have been slightly boring as there was no opportunity to ask questions, members of the audience new to his philosophy would no doubt have had a fascinating evening.

Buy The Third Plate on Amazon.

Follow Dan Barber on Twitter @DanBarber