Chef Profile: Daniel Patterson

14190933703_2d39198096_kThere are chefs who cook and then there are chefs who, with their cooking, want to start a revolution. Daniel Patterson falls into the latter category. Not since the early 1970s, when Alice Waters at Chez Panisse forever changed California cuisine with her devotion to fresh and local produce, has there been a chef of more profound impact on the West Coast of the USA.

At his restaurant Coi in San Francisco, Patterson’s personal, cerebral brand of cooking has earned him two Michelin stars and a place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. And, more significantly, he has influenced a whole generation of chefs and helped to redefine contemporary California cuisine. He has been instrumental in the popularisation of countless culinary trends such as foraging, vegetable-centric dishes and serving tasting menus only, as well as using a ticketing over a traditional reservations system and showcasing bespoke, hand-crafted pottery with his dishes.

But Patterson is set to step away from the fine dining mecca he has worked so tirelessly to create to focus his attention in an entirely new direction. He is about to embark on arguably the most challenging project of his life: LocoL is a fast food concept with which he not only hopes to change the way people eat but also make a difference to parts of America that society has forgotten. But more on that later.

12824198654_f0b1c458e3_zFor now, diners will still have the chance to experience Patterson’s food at Coi for the next four months. His renowned cooking style comprises a unique blend of obsessively sourced, fiercely seasonal ingredients and modernist cooking techniques that results in dishes with incredibly clean, pure flavours. “What I look for is that extraordinary moment in the lifespan of an ingredient; that time when it’s just full of flavour and energy,” he explains. “Technique is really important but it’s always in service of making things more delicious and never for its own sake.”

Leaning heavily towards vegetables, dishes such as carrots roasted in coffee beans with raw carrot and mandarin juice, and roman mint (see recipe); or frozen whipped rhubarb, olive oil and spring herbs beautifully showcase a mutually giving relationship with the Bay Area’s surrounding land. But his dishes not only capture a sense of place, they also speak of memory and emotion.

“In 2005, my mother-in-law died of cancer,” Patterson reveals. “She lived in a very remote place in the Sierra Nevada. When she passed away, I drove up to be with the family, who were all grieving but, of course, they still needed to eat. For three days I cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for everyone in the house and to this day it was one of the most powerful things I have ever done. I felt extremely connected to why you feed people in the first place and I understood why I love to cook: you can make people feel just a little bit better, more comfortable. It is that sense of calm that I wanted to capture in my restaurant.” Indeed calm is what defines Coi. The word Coi (pronounced quoi) is an ancient French word meaning “quiet” or “tranquil” and it is fitting of both Patterson’s restaurant and food. But it is also fitting of the man himself, who, despite being tall and seemingly imposing, has a humble, quiet and mindful demeanour about him.

Patterson was born in Massachusetts; his father was a lawyer and his mother a French history teacher, who instilled in him the meaning of eating well. “My mother was very into cooking way before it was cool in the 1970s, and we never had junk in our house,” he recalls. His pivotal food moment came aged 14 when, while spending the summer in the South of France, he ate a turbot dish at a Michelin-starred restaurant. “That was the moment when I realised what restaurants are capable of in terms of transporting you to a different place or state of being,” he says. “That moment wasn’t just about the flavour, it was about a level of deliciousness and refinement that I had never experienced before.”

Patterson opened his first restaurant – Babette’s in the small, historic town of Sonoma in California’s wine country – in 1994, when he was just 25, never having been to culinary school, which he insists had both its drawbacks and advantages. “For a young cook a big thing is having a mentor; I never did and I always wanted one,” he says. “What you learn is not just about cooking, it’s about team work, how to handle produce, how the seasons flow through a menu. When I opened my first restaurant I didn’t really know anything. I had to figure things out for myself.” He adds, however, that this helped him find his own voice. “I didn’t feel very influenced by what was around me and, looking back on it, that was very fortunate for me. It was hard and slow but I learned to trust my instincts and to make decisions about what’s delicious based on specific products and techniques; and to develop a way of cooking that involves a from-the-ground-upward view of how you construct flavour.”

During his time at Babette’s, Patterson was named Best New Chef by national magazine Food & Wine. The success led him to move to San Francisco, where together with his then-wife Elisabeth Ramsey, he opened Elisabeth Daniel in 2000. There, the accolades continued, including a nomination for Best New Restaurant in the James Beard Awards in 2001.

12823737943_f79b469cb6_zIn 2005, Patterson gained national attention for writing an article in the New York Times entitled ‘To the Moon, Alice’, in which he challenged Bay Area chefs’ tendency to copy the Chez Panisse mantra of letting ingredients speak for themselves. This, he argued, results in self-righteousness over produce and a lack of creativity, complexity, or technical finesse. By the time Coi opened in 2006, he had found his unique style and voice and the restaurant became an instant success, gaining its first Michelin star in 2007 and its second in 2008.

Over the years, Patterson has created a growing restaurant portfolio under his company DPG, which in addition to Coi comprises five locations, including modern neighbourhood restaurants Alta, and Aster in San Francisco; and Plum Bar + Restaurant, and Haven in Oakland. Each has its own executive chef managing the day-to-day running of operations and all of his restaurants serve elevated, modern American fare, with ingredient-driven cooking at their heart.

Come January next year, Patterson will hang up his whites at Coi, when Matthew Kirkley, the former head chef at Chicago’s two-Michelin-starred L20, will take over as executive chef. The decision to move away from Coi, he says, wasn’t one he made for himself but primarily for his family and other businesses. “I have a lot of responsibilities to a lot of people and when I balanced everything on measure, it seemed that this is what I needed to do because there was going to come the point where I would just fail everyone completely,” he explains. “I have had an incredible career, I have been able to cook the food I want to cook and be successful with it so I feel very fortunate and grateful for what I have achieved. I have no regrets.

“Matthew is young, driven and incredibly talented and shares our same values of hard work, humility and dedication to craft. The style of the food at Coi will change but the soul of the restaurant will stay the same.”

Patterson will continue to be involved in all of his restaurants but will concentrate his efforts on LocoL, a joint fast food venture with Los Angeles-based food truck aficionado Roy Choi of Kogi fame. A play on the words local and loco (crazy in Spanish) LocoL aims to revolutionise fast food by offering a more wholesome approach. The credo is serving healthy food that is as cheap and addictively delicious as a McDonald’s burger. So far, Patterson and Choi have raised just short of $130,000 through a crowd-funding page to help cover initial operational costs and have signed leases for two locations, which are set to open in Los Angeles at the end of this year, and San Francisco early next year. In time, they hope to expand across California and beyond.

TartineChad-DP-RC-ReneRedFor Patterson the initial idea for LocoL stems from a charity programme called the Cooking Project, which he runs in San Francisco’s notoriously rough area the Tenderloin. Dedicated to teaching kids and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds basic cooking skills, its ultimate goal is to help them connect with real food. “A lot of these kids grew up on fast food and industrial food so they don’t have the skills to feed themselves well,” Patterson says. “What I have realised is that living in America, more than a cooking problem, we have an eating problem. People don’t know the taste of real food anymore.”

LocoL’s menu will include burgers, chicken nuggets, sandwiches, “foldies” (a cross between a tortilla and a quesadilla) and bowls of pasta or rice with meat or vegetables, with prices between $2 and $6 as well as a 99c section offering healthy side dishes that “won’t fill you up but will the take the edge off if all you have is a $1”.

But Patterson doesn’t really want to talk about the food at LocoL. “It’s grandmother cooking. It’s slow-cooked stuff and deep, comforting flavours,” he says, almost dismissively. “I wish people would stop focusing on the food so much,” he adds, revealing that as the project has progressed and as he and Choi have moved closer towards opening their first outlet in Watts, one of the roughest neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, he has come to understand that there is a much bigger issue at stake than just feeding people.

“The biggest cliché about America is that it is the land of opportunity, where anyone can succeed no matter what their background. But the reality is that it is a land of opportunity only for some people, while for others the deck is stacked against them in a way that makes it almost impossible to surmount,” he says.

“We have run into failure after failure trying to open this restaurant in Watts because there are no services in place, there is no infrastructure, no investment. It is like a rotten onion and with every layer you peel away it gets worse. Structural discrimination in America is so big in our culture and there are communities that are actively being starved of resources. ” With this in mind, for Patterson the most important aspect of LocoL is no longer the food but the human element of his restaurants impacting the community they’re in by creating jobs and giving people a chance at making their own success. “We have an opportunity and we are taking it very seriously,” he insists.

Of course, the project may seem idealistic to some. But Patterson is leaving one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants to cook fast food in one of America’s poorest communities and he wants to make a tangible difference to people’s lives. This is his revolution.

This is an extract from an article I wrote for The Caterer. You can read the full version by visiting the thecaterer.com.

LA Restaurant Review: Plant Food & Wine

Patio_ Photo credit EricaRaeBrown-2In Los Angeles vegan restaurants are a bit like fish and chip shops in London: there are a lot of them but really good ones are few and far between. They’re usually all about kale salad, raw juices and meat substitutes like tempeh, seitan or tofu. As a non-veggie, quite frankly, I’d rather eat the real thing so vegan dining hasn’t played a major part in my culinary outings here. Until now.

Plant Food & Wine is an innovative vegan restaurant, which recently opened in Venice Beach. It’s the new flagship from celebrity chef Matthew Kenney, a raw food guru who has been a James Beard Award nominee and runs a number of restaurants in the USA, as well as a raw food culinary academy with outlets in California, Florida and Thailand. The ethos at Plant Food & Wine is serving upscale vegan cuisine showcasing the best, seasonal produce from Southern California alongside a wine list of organic and biodynamic varietals.

Located at the far end of Abbot Kinney Boulevard, the “coolest block in the USA” according to GQ Magazine, the restaurant embodies a sense of calm, although its sleek interior, with white walls, reclaimed stone and wooden floors, is a little bit sterile. But what the interior lacks in soul, the exterior makes up for in the form of an expansive patio. Complete with herb garden, olive trees and string lights it is just about one the loveliest outdoor dining spaces I’ve seen in LA.

Open for lunch and dinner everyday and brunch on the weekends, the kitchen at Plant Food & Wine is headed up by Scott Winegard, whose team creates a market-driven menu that flows with the seasons. While a nine-course tasting menu is available at $75 a head, the main menu is divided into snacks, cheese, sharing plates, main courses and desserts. That said, all of it lends itself to sharing, so when I dined at Plant Food & Wine with two girlfriends, we ordered a bunch of different dishes for the table.

The first thing that came out from the snacks section was a mushroom pâté served with pickles, mustard and sour dough toast. Made from “any old mushrooms we have in the kitchen” according to Winegard, they’re blitzed in a high-speed blender along with walnuts and seasoning and then set with agar. The result is a firm yet smooth pâté with a seriously moreish earthy flavour.

ZuchiniCacioePepe_Panzanella_Tight_PFW_hisres_EricaRaeBrown_7.30.15-2Right now at the height of the California summer, tomatoes are at their very best – lusciously sweet and juicy – and at Plant Food & Wine they are served in a panzanella salad. Heirloom tomatoes are tossed with bread, torn shiso and basil leaves and a vinaigrette with a hint of horseradish. It’s a dish so simple yet so divine with the tomatoes so full of life, every mouthful reminds you why living in California is a food lover’s dream.

The same goes for avocados, which nowhere else in the world taste as good as in California. For years I paid a fortune for the perfectly ripe avocados from Waitrose but they were never perfect and very rarely ripe. Here they’re both: soft, buttery, nutty and so tasty they deserve an entire dish dedicated to them. Like at Plant Food & Wine, where a whole avocado is dressed with lemon vinaigrette and green tahini and served with watermelon radish, sprouts and dehydrated black olives. Again the innovation lies in the simplicity of the dish, which really helps to underline the beauty of the main ingredient.

Main courses were a little hit and miss. Grilled millet, cooked in a vegetable stock and served like a polenta cake with heirloom beans prepared in a smoky dashi, as well as summer squash, grilled baby bok choy and a roasted carrot tahini sauce divided the table. While I didn’t like the mouth feel of the millet and also thought it was a bit tasteless, my friend loved the texture and subtle umami of the dish.

Instead the highlight of the meal for me was Cacio e Pepe, a vegan take on the Roman pasta dish, consisting of raw zucchini and spicy greens tossed in a sauce made from sunflower cream with lashings of black
pepper and lemon, and topped with sprouts and a black olive crumb. It’s light and fresh, peppery and creamy and nobody needs dairy when it is served like this.

ChashewRaclette_Overhead_Tight_PFW_hires_EricaRaeBrown_7.30.15-2There is also a whole section of vegan cheeses at Plant Food & Wine, all made in-house. Cashew and macadamia nut cream is fermented with a probiotic for up to 48 hours and then flavoured with things like mixed herbs, white truffle or peppercorns and aged between 36 hours and three months depending on the variety. Cheese courses include cashew raclette, which is served hot in a small cast iron pan accompanied by bread
and a radish and parsley salad with lemon juice and zest.

Desserts are lovely too. Chocolate is aerated in a whipped cream dispenser and then frozen ensuing in a light, airy texture. It comes with a hazelnut brittle and is served on top of a strawberry sauce with sliced fresh strawberries. It’s a dainty, delicate dessert perfect for the health-conscious ladies who lunch on Abbot Kinney. A more robust dessert, meanwhile, is Plant Food & Wine’s version of a banana split. Ice cream is made from coconut and cashew cream with flavours of superfoods like chocolate mocha, strawberry goji, and vanilla hemp, and instead of fresh banana it is served with a dehydrated banana tuile, chocolate and strawberry sauces, candied pecans and coconut whipped cream.

Plant Food & Wine has raised the bar of vegan restaurants in Los Angeles. It epitomises what meatless dining should be all about, with the emphasis not on fake meat substitutes but on fresh, seasonal vegetables that are so full of flavour and energy they don’t need any kind of protein to be complete. While I’ll never give up eating meat, this restaurant has opened my eyes to a different way of dining and it is no less delicious or satisfying.

Plant Food & Wine
1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice, CA 90291
+1 310 450 1009
Dinner for three, including wine, excluding service: $198

This is the latest posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.

Daniel Boulud wins International Achievement award at the Cateys

Daniel Boulud_courtesy_daniel_kriegerIconic chef-restaurateur Daniel Boulud has been awarded the International Outstanding Achievement Award at this year’s Cateys, the UK’s top hospitality awards run by The Caterer magazine.

Daniel is one of the world’s most celebrated chefs, whose Dinex Group spans across three continents, with restaurants across the USA, Canada, Singapore and London, where he opened Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in 2010.

After growing up in France, where he worked with some of the country’s most prominent chefs, including the late Roger Vergé, Georges Blanc and Michel Guérard, Daniel moved to the USA in 1982, where he became the private chef to the European Commission in Washington DC.

A move to New York, saw him hold positions at some of the city’s most renowned restaurants, including executive chef at Le Cirque, before branching out on his own in 1993 to open Daniel, his flagship restaurant that would go on to win three Michelin stars. From here, is empire grew at a pace: he gradually opened more casual restaurants around New York and the USA, before expanding internationally.

CateysThe author of nine cookbooks and the recipient of multiple James Beard Foundation awards as well as a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government and the Chef of the Year award from the Culinary Institute of America, Daniel Boulud was honoured with his award at the Cateys, which took place at London’s Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel, this evening (Tuesday 7 July).

Other winners on the night included Sat Bains, chef proprietor of the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms in Nottingham, who won the Chef Catey this year; legendary chef Nico Ladenis, who received the Lifetime Achievement award; Karam, Jyotin and Sue Sethi of JKS Restaurants, who run the Michelin-starred Indian restaurants Trsihna and Gymkhana; and former Michelin-starred chef Kenny Atkinson, who got the Newcomer award for his first solo restaurant House of Tides.

You can see the full list of award winners from this year’s Cateys at The Caterer.

Meet Courtney Guerra, LA urban culinary farmer extraordinaire

IMG_1412In California farm-to-table dining is the mantra that governs gastronomy. A philosophy which Alice Waters began at Chez Panisse in 1971, with the then ground-breaking notion of embracing local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients, it is a credo that continues to define California cuisine to this day. In Los Angeles Courtney Guerra has taken the idea of farm-to-table a step further. She’s not just farming, she’s urban culinary farming, growing produce and herbs for the kitchen of one of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants, Alma.

Guerra’s urban culinary farm is located in one of the most unlikely areas of LA, just off the busy Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. Set in a typical suburban street – aptly called Flower Avenue – it comprises an eclectic mix of raised beds, a makeshift greenhouse full of micro-herbs, and hydroponic grow towers sprouting salads. At the height of spring, Guerra’s farm is blooming in full force. As she guides me through her garden, picking flowers and leaves for me to taste and smell, she explains things with encyclopaedic knowledge. Red Malabar spinach is at the end of its season but still climbs up the wire fence on the edge of the property, while lettuces are growing, gherkins are flowering, and an assortment of fragrant herbs powerfully scents the air. Among a host of other things, Guerra grows rau ram, a Vietnamese coriander; za’atar, a Middle Eastern oregano; epazote, an aromatic Mexican herb; and Hyssop, a mountain herb, whose intense mint flavour shoots right up my nose.

IMG_1398For what Guerra farms for Alma are not the kinds of cultivars you’d find at the farmers market. It’s a collection of unusual herbs, a taste of the unfamiliar. “I made the decision very early on that I don’t want to compete with the farmers market, it’s just not possible for me to grow things in those quantities,” she insists. “What I do is much more esoteric; it’s there to be an added component to Alma’s menu development and brand, a part of its story.”

Blonde, tall, toned and tanned, Guerra epitomises the stereotype of the California beach babe. In fact she was a professional beach volleyball player for six years, touring the globe following university. “It allowed me to travel and see the world and after I was done playing I thought: ‘That was my one chance of doing something I’m truly passionate about.’” But after ending her volleyball career and going down the traditional route of getting an office job, Guerra quickly realised that sitting behind a desk from nine to five was not for her. She needed to find a new passion.

Her love of food and cooking, instilled in her by her late grandmother, inspired her to enrol in the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in Napa Valley. “It was like Disneyland for chefs and foodies,” she recalls. During her studies, she worked in the kitchen and garden of Napa’s three-Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood, which opened her eyes to the possibilities of culinary farming. And upon graduating in 2012, she knew she didn’t want to work as a chef: “I decided I wanted to move to LA and start a farm.”

Guerra rented the back studio of an old friend’s property in Venice, whose front yard was filled with junk. “He was a bachelor and hoarder,” she laughs. “I cleaned it all up, which was highly appreciated by the neighbours, and turned it into my urban farm.” She adds: “It was a huge risk – I’d put all my money into this project – and there were many moments when I was really scared of what I was about to do. But I absolutely had to give it a go because I felt so sure that I would find a chef, who would understand what I was trying to achieve and share my vision.”

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetThat chef is Ari Taymor, who together with partner Ashleigh Parsons, opened Alma in Downtown LA at the end of 2012. “Ari and Ashleigh instantly got it,” Guerra says. “They had a very strong vision of what they wanted Alma to be and I fitted into that vision just as much as Alma fitted into mine.” The relationship between the urban culinary farm and restaurant began in January 2013 and virtually overnight Alma became a runaway success. Taymor’s inventive, ingredient-led cooking complimented by Guerra’s maverick approach to growing produce – best exemplified through Alma’s signature Flower Avenue garden salad (pictured) – turned the tiny 39-seat venture into the darling of LA’s restaurant industry. In August 2013, Bon Appetit crowned Alma the best new restaurant in America; in April 2014 Food and Wine named Taymor America’s best new chef; and this year, he was shortlisted for a James Beard Award. “The hype and huge success allowed us to really do what we wanted,” admits Guerra. “Now that things have calmed down a bit, we need to continue to push that creativity.”

Today, Guerra not only provides Alma with salad leaves, greens, micro-greens, edible flowers and herbs from her urban farm, she also spends one day a week foraging for herbs and coastal grasses on a 600-acre private ranch in Santa Barbara. “Foraging is a huge part of what I do and even more of an expression of what I want to do in the future,” she adds. Nature is what drives Guerra and her work is way more than a job to her. Next to farming and foraging for Alma, she also forms an integral part of the restaurant’s community outreach programme, which educates young kids at underprivileged schools across LA about gardening. She works with a family shelter in Santa Monica, advises Los Angeles Trade-Tech College’s culinary department on creating a farm-to-table curriculum, and has partnered with acclaimed Venice-based café Superba Food and Bread’s new event space, which has been designed around a farm. “I don’t want to believe in complete exclusivity [with Alma] because there is such a big need for what I do in LA,” she insists. “It would be selfish to keep it all to one restaurant.” She’s taken the farm-to-table philosophy and turned into an urban reality.

This is the latest posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.

El Celler de Can Roca regains title of the World’s Best Restaurant

roca brothersSpanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca has reclaimed its crown as the World’s Best Restaurant.

After winning the title in 2013 but losing out to Copenhagen’s Noma last year, El Celler de Can Roca, which is run by brothers Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca (pictured), has regained the number one spot in this year’s rankings of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, placed second this year, after two years occupying third place, which is now held by four-time winner Noma. In fourth position is Central in Lima, Peru, and the top five is completed by Eleven Madison Park in New York, whose chef Daniel Humm also won the Chefs’ Choice Award.

As the winner, the three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona is one of seven Spanish eateries included in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. The second highest placing is Mugaritz at number six.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is the UK’s highest ranking restaurant in seventh position, with Narisawa in Tokyo ranking as the top Asian restaurant in eighth place, and D.O.M. in Sao Paulo (ninth), and Gaggan in Bangkok (10th) completing this year’s top 10.

Newcomers to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants this year include White Rabbit in Moscow, which was named Highest New Entry in 23rd place, as well as Tickets in Barcelona, which debuted in 42nd place and is run by Ferran Adria’s brother Albert, who also won the World’s Best Pastry Chef award.

Other special awards included: Daniel Boulud picking up Lifetime Achievement; Helene Darroze winning Best Female Chef; and Relae in Copenhagen taking the Sustainable Restaurant Award.

The USA has six restaurants on the list overall and one new entry, with Eleven Madison Park claiming the Best Restaurant in North America title. Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns outside New York has made its first appearance on the list at number 49.

France meanwhile has five restaurants in the 50 Best with Mirazur remaining in 11th place for the second year running, followed by L’Arpege in Paris in 12th place.

South America now has nine restaurants on the list – with new entries including Boragó in Santiago, Chile; Maido in Lima, Peru; and Quintonil and Biko in Mexico City – and Asia has seven, including a new entry at number 24 in the form of Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet in Shanghai, China.

Africa’s only listed restaurant in the top 50 is the Test Kitchen in Cape Town, South Africa, in 28th place; while Australia’s sole restaurant is Ben Shewry’s Attica in Melbourne.

The results were announced at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards, sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, at London’s Guildhall today. Next year, for the first time in the 14-year history of the awards, the ceremony will take place in New York.

The top 10 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants:
1 El Celler de Can Roca Girona, Spain
2 Osteria Francescana Modena, Italy
3 Noma Copenhagen, Denmark
4 Central, Lima, Peru
5 Eleven Madison Park New York, US
6 Mugaritz San Sebastián, Spain
7 Dinner by Heston Blumenthal London, UK
8 Narisawa, Tokyo, Japan
9 DOM São Paulo, Brazil
10 Gaggan, Bangkok, Thailand

See the full list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants here.

LA’s top taco truck

TACO TRUCKS

food trucks in Venice BeachLos Angeles is the city of food trucks. There are literally hundreds of them roaming the streets each and every day and although their food offer is as diverse as the city’s population, ranging from German currywurst to Vietnamese banh mi, it’s the Mexican taco trucks that dominate the scene.

For in LA there are two very different tiers of food trucks: the up-market, social media-friendly trucks that charge a premium for their often chef-driven menus (think Roy Choi’s Kogi), and the Mexican loncheros, which set up shop on a daily basis, serving their local community the burritos, tacos, sopes, mulitas and quesadillas the city is fuelled by.

First launched to cater for construction workers, these taco stands can be found in virtually every neighbourhood across LA. In fact every person living in LA has a “local” – their own favourite taco truck (mine is Tacos Arizas), which loyally provides many Latino families with their nightly dinner and offers revellers a much needed snack in the wee hours after a night on the booze. With cheap, fresh and delicious food, taco trucks are a tasty alternative to the fast food giants that still govern LA’s casual restaurant industry.

LA TACO MADNESS

TACO-MadnessLA’s taco trucks are such a big part of the city’s cultural identity, every year there’s a dedicated event that celebrates them in all their glory. Since 2009, LA Taco Madness, organised by art and culture website LA Taco, has pitted some of the city’s best tacos against one another in a taco-tastic tournament.

The event’s committee of nine of the city’s best experts on tacos submits a list of their favourites, from which a shortlist is drawn. This year, organisers divided contestants into four categories according to the most popular ingredients: asada, pork, mariscos, and a wild card for all those that don’t quite fit into the first three.

The LA Taco Madness committee then cut them down to four in each category, with eight of them battling it out for the title in the 2015 LA Taco Madness final. More than 10,000 members of LA’s taco-loving public then voted for their favourite online.

GUERRILLA TACOS

sweetpotato_tacoThe 2015 winner was Guerrilla Tacos, a truck that serves a menu so innovative, revered LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold described it as “a kind of tasting-menu restaurant whose dishes happen to be composed on tortillas instead of on fancy plates”.

Led by chef Wesley Avila, who studied at the California School of Culinary Arts and trained under Alain Ducasse in Paris, his carefully sourced ingredients may include the likes of fresh sea urchin or scallops, alongside vegetables from the farmer’s market.

Tacos feature toppings such as braised oxtail and foie gras with pickled onions, almond chilli and coriander; oasted sweet potato with braised leek, Oaxacan cheese and red pepper chilli (pictured); or bacon with chili de arbol, scrambled eggs, fried Brussels sprouts and queso fresco.

With other dishes such as Hawaiian-style raw-fish poke with pickled pineapple, habanero, avocado and lime; or a burrito of braised lamb shank with root vegetables, feta cheese and tomato chilli, this truck’s menu may be a far cry from the traditional loncheros but it is certainly a worthy winner of this year’s taco truck of the year award, who really stands out from the crowd.

A Ducasse disciple cooking up a storm in a taco truck parked on a street corner? That’s something you will only find in LA.

This is the latest posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.

Grand Central Market – one of LA’s most historic and cultural gems

Grand Central MarketAt nearly 100 years old, Grand Central Market is one of Los Angeles’ most historic venues and cultural gems and a recent revival has seen it turn into one of the city’s culinary hotspots, too.

The 30,000sq ft market first opened in 1917 and has been in continuous operation since, reflecting Downtown Los Angeles’ ever-changing population. In the early days, vendors included the likes of green grocers, fishmongers, Jewish delis and butchers and over time, it became a popular destination for the city’s large Latino community, with Mexican food vendors and spice stalls joining the market.

In 1984, property developer Ira Yellin bought Grand Central Market with the aim of preserving this historic Downtown site and turning it into a vibrant, contemporary food spot. He passed away in 2002 and since then his widow Adele has continued to champion his vision.

In the past two years, Grand Central Market, much like the rest of Downtown LA, has seen a remarkable transformation. Less than a decade ago, it was mainly about tacos and fresh produce and, although authentic, it was a bit rough around the edges and not exactly a hang out for the food loving masses.

Today, more and more contemporary operators are joining the market, in a complete overhaul of its offering. Ranging from a BBQ restaurant to an artisan cheese vendor, hipster coffee shop, gourmet pizza place and a healthy juice store, what once was a destination for blue collar workers in search of a hearty lunch, the market now also draws in a crowd of suits from the nearby financial district and foodies from across town.

Some of the traditional operators – like the 56-year-old China Café, a handful of Latino vendors, a green grocer and two spice stores – remain but many have been replaced by an increasing number of modern concepts. While some critical voices argue that the gentrification of the market takes away its historic value, others insist the new wave of operators is giving those long-standing vendors exposure they would never otherwise have had, including a place in food mag Bon Appetit’s top 10 hottest restaurants in America.

What’s clear is that Grand Central Market is now more popular than ever before. Its rich diversity of food stalls epitomises Los Angeles as a whole and not only makes it a unique culinary destination but also the most fascinating of all the food halls in the USA today.

Here’s a highlight of some of my favourite Grand Central Market vendors.

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BelCampoBelcampo Meat Co.
A full-service butcher-shop-cum-restaurant serving 100% natural, organic, grass-fed meat and poultry raised on a 10,000-acre ranch in Northern California. All meat is butchered on site and what doesn’t sell, gets cooks up in the kitchen, meaning there’s virtually no food waste.
What to order: The cheeseburger is the pièce de résistance here: a patty made from dry-aged beef, served medium-rare and covered with caramelised onions and cheddar. At $12.50 it ain’t cheap but it’s worth every cent.

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EggSlutEggslut
This kiosk bills itself as a ‘chef driven, gourmet food concept’ that celebrates the humble egg. The ovo-centric menu takes classic comfort food and gives it a modern twist, including sandwiches on house-made brioche buns, burgers and salads. Eggs aren’t just for breakfast at this place but for lunch, dinner and any other time of day, everyday.
What to order:The namesake signature dish comprises a coddled egg on top of a smooth potato purée, poached in a glass jar and served with a demi baguette ($9). It’s an ingenious balance of comfort and innovation.

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McconnellsMcConnell’s Fine Ice Cream
Founded in Santa Barbara in 1949, McConnell’s makes its fine ice cream from scratch using the milk and cream from Central Coast grass-grazing cows, which it pasteurises at its own creamery. It sources local, sustainable and organic ingredients from farms and artisan producers and ice cream flavours range from chocolate covered strawberries, to sea salt cream and cookies, and toasted coconut almond chip.
What to order: Eureka lemon and marionberries is one of the most delicious flavours. Oregon marionberries are cooked to jammy perfection and folded into tart and tangy, Eureka lemon, milk and cream.

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Oyster_GourmetThe Oyster Gourmet
Run by Frenchman Christophe Happillon, who bills himself as Los Angeles’ only Master Ecailler (shellfish master), this is GCM’s most upmarket and unique venue. Serving sustainable seafood from around the USA, with a focus on oysters, it’s as much its menu as it is its unique design that draws in the punters. The 14-seat circular bar comprises a wooden structure designed to resemble a clam. Featuring canvas wings that can be pulled up and down, they create a sense of space and openness when up and completely close in the bar when down.
What to order: Oysters aside, the tuna poke is a must try. A generous portion of cubed raw tuna is seasoned with sesame oil, soy sauce and chopped chillies and heaped on a scallop shell ($10). Paired with a cold glass of Sancerre, it’s heaven.

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StickyRice(1)Sticky Rice
This Thai street food concept was the first to join the market as part of the ascending wave of new operators. Sticky Rice, which started as a stand at the Altadena Farmer’s Market featuring food from chef Johnny Lee, is a counter worth sitting at both for the food and to watch the chefs in action in the tiny open kitchen.
What to order: Gai yang is the thing to order here, tangy Thai barbecued chicken is served with sticky rice and som tam, spicy green papaya salad ($9).

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Tacos_TumbrasTacos Tumbras a Tomas
One of the long-standing traditional vendors, Tacos Tumbras a Tomas has been run by Tomas Martinez and his brothers Manuel and Jesus for 20 years. The stall built its success on the famous fried pork dish of carnitas but also specialises in birria, goat served in a spicy red sauce. Other meats include carne asada, grilled chicken and carne al pastor, which are served in tacos, burritos, tortas, tostadas or in combination plates with rice and beans.
What to order: For $3 you get a vastly generous portion of carne asada piled on corn tortillas, with lime wedges and extra tortillas on the side. It’s greasy, spicy and fresh all in one mouthful.

This is the latest posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.

Interview with David Kinch of Manresa

TManresa.DavidKinch.CREDIT Eric Wolfingerell us about the day the fire broke out at Manresa. How did you find out about the fire and what were your feelings when you realised what had happened?
I found out about the fire early in the morning at an airport on the East Coast. We had been closed for an early summer break and were reopening two days later. I received a call from the Fire Department on my cell phone. It was early morning and I was surprised that someone was calling me that early. When they told me about the restaurant I felt helpless and had an anxious flight home. But I immediately knew that all my energies would be channeled into the rebuilding of the restaurant.

What was the cause of the blaze and how extensive was the damage?
The cause of the fire is still undetermined and remains under investigation. Pretty much the entire back of house was destroyed – the kitchen, bathrooms, offices, and dry storage. The dining room was relatively untouched except for extensive smoke and water damage.

Tell us about the repairs. What has changed at the restaurant and in the kitchen; how have you used this as an opportunity to start again?
Luckily, there was not much structural damage and, with the help of the City and County, I was able to fast track the rebuilding of he restaurant as long as we built in the same footprint of the original building. That said, Manresa was 12 years old, so we have brand new equipment and all of the necessary code upgrades. I am very happy with the finished design in the kitchen.

Manresa was closed for six months – what did your employees do during this time?
My key critical employees and management remained on payroll and were part of the rebuilding and restructuring team. I could not have done this rebuild without their help. The other employees took the opportunity to work other jobs and many of the chefs took the opportunity to stage around the country and in Asia and Europe to continue to build their skills. We are very lucky in that every single employee has returned.

And what about your exclusive produce grower Love Apple Farms?
Love Apple Farms shipped a lot of produce to a CSA Program (Community Supported Agriculture), which was sold by subscription. They ramped up their distribution as we got closer to our designated opening date.

How did you personally use the time off?
I had very little time off. I devoted the six months to focusing on bringing back the restaurant as soon as possible. That said, my days were different: I worked early morning to early evening, with weekends off. For the first time in many years I read a lot of books and I saw a lot of sunsets.

What will change at Manresa as the restaurant reopens again?
Hopefully not too much. At the time of the fire, I thought Manresa was the best restaurant it had ever been, with the most momentum it had ever had. Our goal is to regain that momentum using the insight and retrospection of the past 6 months to contribute to our opening menu and service.

You’re going to open your own bakery, ManresaBread. Tell us more – where is the location, where has the inspiration come from, who will be overseeing the project, what will be on offer?
Manresa Bread is located locally, close to the restaurant in Los Gatos and is a partnership with our very talented baker from Manresa Restaurant, Avery Ruzicka, who will be overseeing the project. We will be offering artisanal breads and rotating seasonal breads along with select pastries and laminated dough.

Despite being closed for so many months, you retained your two-star rating in the latest Michelin guide. Were you concerned about losing your stars?
Michelin was concerned about how long we were going to be closed and I told them I would try my best to be open by the beginning of 2015. I am happy they took me to my word and grateful for their confidence in us continuing what we had at Manresa. Ultimately the stars are Michelin’s and merely on loan to us, so we are grateful that we have been given them for another year.

How much of an ambition are three Michelin stars for you?
I appreciate all awards and accolades we receive from prestigious guides like Michelin or from my peers. That said, I am a big believer in focusing and pouring your passion into what you believe in, and accolades will come to you naturally. We do not cook to achieve three Michelin stars. We cook to take care of and offer pleasure and happiness to our guests. I trust Michelin will view us in that light.

This is the latest posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.

Chef profile: Timothy Hollingsworth

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

ThollingsworthHeadAmong the plethora of chefs in Los Angeles, Tim Hollingsworth is arguably the most talked about right now. The former French Laundry chef de cuisine, James Beard Award winner and Bocuse d’Or competitor has recently adopted the city as his new home and is starting to make waves on its dining scene.

Hollingsworth has teamed up with one of LA’s most celebrated restaurateurs, Bill Chait, and has not only opened a new barbeque spot that has impressed both crowds and critics, but he is also set to launch a modern American restaurant in one of the city’s most exciting new cultural developments next year. For when the Broad Contemporary Art Museum opens in Downtown LA next autumn, it will house not only close to 2,000 pieces of art, but a restaurant that will form the cornerstone of a brand new 24,000sq ft plaza that is set to revitalise a currently underused area.

Helmed by Hollingsworth the yet-to-be-named restaurant will be a partnership with Chait – whose group Sprout includes some of LA’s most iconic restaurants such as République, Bestia, Rivera and Sotto – and museum founder Eli Broad. Rory Herrmann, Thomas Keller alumni and former chef de cuisine of Bouchon in Beverly Hills, has signed on as director of culinary operations.

IMG_0028“It’s a really exciting project for me,” enthuses Hollingsworth. “I’ve been given the opportunity to have a free-standing restaurant in LA that I can design, build up and be an owner in. That’s not something that comes along very often.”

Although details are still scarce, Hollingsworth hints that the restaurant will be contemporary American, offering modern-day dining. “There won’t be tablecloths but there’ll be a big focus on the quality of the food, on the presentation of the dishes and there’ll be a great beverage programme,” he says. “It won’t necessarily be a casual restaurant but it’ll be approachable.”

With construction for the restaurant just starting to get underway and the opening date scheduled for July next year, Hollingsworth may be forgiven for taking it easy for a while. But that’s not his style and in the meantime, he has already opened another LA restaurant. This time it’s about him exploring his family roots by serving Southern barbecue fare.

Barrel and Ashes, which launched last month, sees the chef also collaborate with Chait and Herrmann, as well as acclaimed LA mixologist Julian Cox, who has designed a food-friendly drinks list, including a selection of whiskies and craft beers and cocktails. The restaurant in Studio City features picnic style seating on a front patio, communal and traditional seating inside, and additional Plaza rendering_view from restaurantseating on the rear patio where there’s a food trailer. The menu focuses on family-style service with daily specials and there are things like smoky Texas-style brisket, St. Louis pork ribs, and pulled pork with Carolina vinegar sauce, or fried chicken sandwich and smoked chicken wings. Sides are served in cast-iron skillets, filled with classics like shells ‘n’ cheese, long-braised collard greens, and “hoe cakes” with maple butter.
Inspired by Hollingsworth’s Southern heritage and his and Herrmann’s numerous barbecue excursions across the country, Hollingsworth says it’s a culinary departure for him in his career. “Barrel and Ashes is going from something that was fine dining and not very approachable to something that takes me back to my roots,” he says. “The recipes are from my mother and grandmother and the food reflects me as a person way more than anything I have done professionally before.”

Born in Texas, Hollingsworth moved to Northern California as a young child. He started his culinary journey aged 18 washing dishes at a local French bistro, an experience which he insists continues to help his career today. “How can I run a kitchen and train a dishwasher if I’ve never done that job? How can I respect that person who is the lowest but also one of the most important guys without having been in that position?”

He worked his way up through the ranks, learned the basics of classic French cooking and started reading the ”bibles of French cuisine” including Larousse Gastronomique; Antonin Carême and Auguste Escoffier. “At 19 I travelled to New York and ate at the best restaurants, including Le Cirque and Alain Ducasse at Essex House,” he recalls. “I spent five days at the Culinary Institute of America and realised it wasn’t for me. I decided I needed to go and work with one of the best chefs in the world – either Thomas Keller or Alain Ducasse – and learn on the job.”

Thomas and TimBack in California, he approached Keller about a job at the French Laundry. With no formal training and little experience but an abundance of determination, he persistently called the restaurant until he was eventually invited for a day’s trial. “After that I called and called again and finally I received a letter in the mail saying I’d been hired as a commis chef,” he says. Over the next 13 years, Hollingsworth rose up the ladder, working every station and spending the last four years effectively running the French Laundry kitchen as chef de cuisine.

Today he credits Keller with instilling in him a drive and ambition to constantly improve. “It’s a tough place to work. The standards are so high and every day you are expected to do something different, something better,” he says. “But it was a great place to work. [Thomas] gives you the freedom to do the food you want to do. He’s not the kind of person who watches over you all the time but lets you have your own successes and your own failures. He trains people to be chefs not cooks and allows you to be creative no matter what station you are working on.”

During his time with Keller, Hollingsworth was chosen to represent Team USA at the Bocuse d’Or, the world-famous cooking competition in Lyon, in 2009 where he placed sixth – the USA’s best result to date. “The Bocuse d’Or was really difficult,” he admits. “The pressure of representing America, having all these huge chefs around you and everyone expecting you to be successful because you come from the French Laundry where we don’t fail, it was really tough. But in retrospect I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to have done it.”

Hollingsworth left the French Laundry in 2012 and went on to consult on restaurant projects around the world, including in Lebanon and Korea. With the world as his oyster, why the move to LA? “I could easily have stayed in Napa or gone to San Francisco but it would’ve been too easy, too comfortable,” he says. “I wanted to move to a big city, where I’d be out of my comfort zone.

“LA is possibly the most exciting city for food in the US right now. You have a lot of young chefs IMG_0027moving here, there are a lot of restaurants opening and there are a lot of people doing great things. LA is a little bit behind the times and there’s a lot of room to educate people about food, which is exciting.”

Looking ahead to his Broad Museum restaurant project, Hollingsworth says it will cater for the typical LA diner of today. “We want to make it approachable for people on a daily basis, make it a neighbourhood restaurant where you don’t just go for a special occasion but a place where you can go any day of the week,” he explains.

The food, he adds, will be light and healthy. “I like to eat lighter. I don’t want to walk away from a restaurant and feel heavy. Yes, I love a great piece of grilled meat, but I also like a tartar of some sort on the menu, seafood that has been marinated and is bright, fresh and acidic. I know I have a delicate touch in my cooking and I want to make sure that I express this with the new restaurant.”

El Celler de Can Roca’s ‘Cooking Up a Tribute’ to premier at the Berlin film festival

Below is the trailer to ‘Cooking Up a Tribute’, a documentary film showcasing brothers Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca, owners of the three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, and their decision to close their restaurant for five weeks and go on a road tour.

Directed by Luis González, the film recounts a tour which last summer travelled to six cities – Houston, Dallas, Mexico City, Monterrey, Bogotá and Lima – in four countries in the Americas to prepare nearly 50,000 dishes for more than 2,700 people. Up to 56 new and different dishes were created and adapted to Texan, Mexican, Colombian and Peruvian cuisine. Some 200 ingredients and 29 wines were used for each menu in each country.

In addition, the Roca brothers trained more than 7,000 cooking students and selected 13 of them to receive a training scholarship at the kitchen of El Celler de Can Roca, which is currently ranked number two in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Joan Roca said: “For us, this crazy decision has meant weighing the anchor of our restaurant for the first time in search of the mild weather of the South and making our dreams come true in real gastronomic paradises. We have enjoyed an extraordinary professional and personal experience, which has been intellectually rewarding and allowed us to grow as a team.”

Josep Roca added: “This tour has been a real challenge, a bold decision, an act of courage draped in responsibility and code of ethics. An opportunity to continue to learn, seek inspiration and be true to the training we have received and we can share with so many catering students in the places we visited,” explained Josep Roca.

And Jordi Roca said: “With enthusiasm, willingness to learn and much modesty, and above all, as a professional and personal challenge, we have taken our entire team to another continent. Latin America has a dream store cupboard of fruit, spices and, obviously, the best cocoa in the world. It’s been a real inspiration.”

‘Cooking Up a Tribute’, produced by BBVA will premier at the Berlin International Film Festival on 10 February.