The Chef Shortage Facing the US Hospitality Industry

In my latest feature for The Staff Canteen, I speak to two of Los Angeles’ top chefs about the chef shortage facing the US hospitality industry.

The topic of the skills shortage is hotting up both sides of the Atlantic. Even the USA’s finest restaurants complain that hiring has become incredibly difficult and there’s no solution in sight. It’s not just one single problem that’s to blame but a mélange of issues that are conspiring to put the industry at a crisis. Too many restaurants are opening and there aren’t enough people to work in them; pay is poor and the wage discrepancy between front- and back-of-house staff is putting people off working in kitchens. And then there’s the generation of those entitled millenials, who demand instant success and refuse to work their way up from the bottom. I spoke to two of Los Angeles’ top chefs about how the chef shortage is affecting their businesses, why they think they’re having to face this crisis in the first place and what they’re doing to overcome it.

Timothy_HollingsworthTimothy Hollingsworth is the chef proprietor of Otium, a new restaurant in Downtown that is redefining Los Angeles’ dining scene. The former chef de cuisine of the French Laundry, James Beard Award winner and erstwhile Bocuse d’Or competitor says laws and attitudes need to change for the industry to overcome the chef shortage.

Josiah Citrin, chef patron of the two-Michelin-starred Mélisse in Santa Monica, meanwhile, says the skills shortage is nothing new. But the constant flow of information that is available on the internet coupled with a new generation lacking the determination to go through the ranks is making it worse.

Why do you think there is a chef shortage and skills crisis facing the hospitality industry?
Timothy Hollingsworth: I think it’s mainly because there is a change in people, with the millennials, who are very conscious of how they spend their time and how much they want to work. The old school mentality of working your way up for years, putting in extra hours and staging for free is gone now. I think I was the last of that generation. I was so passionate about what I do and so determined to succeed that I wanted to learn as much as possible and that meant that I was prepared to work as hard as I could even for free. That mind-set is gone now.

Josiah Citrin: I wouldn’t say there’s a chef shortage but rather a cook shortage. A cook and a chef are two very different things and there aren’t enough cooks for all the restaurants that are opening. Businesses are expanding so fast and there are more restaurants opening than people want to become cooks. This generation of people doesn’t want to work their way up from the bottom – they’re not interested in putting the time in and learning the trade, they want to go straight to being a chef and get to the top. People are more interested in promoting themselves online than they are in working They’re obsessed with celebrity but not the craft of cooking.

How have things changed from an industry point of view?
TH: Now there are a lot of labour restrictions that the industry has to deal with. Restaurants get in trouble for people working too many hours, minimum wage keeps going up and it’s much harder to maintain that same kind of work ethic. Even for the people who do want to work hard and perfect their skills, it’s more difficult because of all these laws and regulations. And then there’s the whole idea of the celebrity chef. People have this perception that being a chef is this amazing, creative, inspirational job when the reality is that – in addition to all those things – it is also an awful lot of hard work and a craft and art that you have to spend years to learn. You don’t just wake up one day and know how to make a dish. It takes a long time to develop those skills. What is lacking in cooks in the USA today is that foundation.

Josiah Citrin_CharlesParkJC: Everything is online and available all the time. Recipes are there for anyone to see and pictures of dishes are all over Instagram with way more emphasis on looks than flavour. You can see anything you want online, it’s all there – you don’t have to work with anyone, you don’t have to travel, you can do it all sitting behind your computer. People used to have to work with chefs at different restaurants, come up the ranks and learn their craft, now they just look online and think they can figure it all out that way.

How is it affecting things at your business?
TH: It’s difficult to train staff. We have to look at things in a very different way –it’s a different time and we have to adapt to it. I am responsible for the people who work for me, I’m responsible not just for their livelihood but also for their development. When they leave my restaurant they have my name on them and that has to mean something. It’s my job to teach them a certain level of standards, a certain set of skills, respect for their stations and understanding of how things work in different positions. They won’t learn as much because the system is not as good as it was before. But we are making it work.

JC: It’s really hard to find good people and inspire them to stay with you. People are always coming and going and it makes things difficult. The only way around it is by investing in a system that really works so people can come in and out of it. That’s how I run my restaurants. You have a few key people who stay and the system operates by turning people in and out.

What needs to be done to address this issue?
TH: It’s not just the industry that needs to change it’s the laws. We open at 5pm for dinner and close at 11pm – that is six hours. Chefs work for eight hours so with cleaning down your station and a 30-minute break, there literally is no time to learn the fundamentals of cooking. They are learning; they’re learning how to cook and do certain things but they’re not learning how to operate in a full circle.

JC: I really don’t know what can be done. It’s very complex. But it’s nothing new.  When I started Mélisse 17 years it was tough to get cooks. It hasn’t changed and it hasn’t improved and because food is so hot right now, more and more restaurants are opening effectively making the situation worse.

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.

My favourite restaurants in Los Angeles

After a year in LA and plenty of brunches, lunches and dinners out on the town, I thought I’d share with you my favourite restaurants in my new adopted home city.

These are restaurants I go to frequently. They’re not upmarket or temples of fine dining but casual, neighbourhood joints I like to return to again and again because they offer great food, friendly service and a fun atmosphere at a price that even a freelance journalist can afford on a regular basis.

There are plenty of other amazing restaurants in the city and this is not intended as a definitive guide to eating out in LA. These are (in alphabetical order) a few of the restaurants I’ve personally come to love. I hope you like them too.

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BarbrixBarbrix, Silver Lake
I wish every neighbourhood had a restaurant like Barbrix. It’s a relaxed and casual place with charming hospitality, a smart wine list that won’t break the bank, and a menu of excellent small plates inspired by the flavours of the Mediterranean. I’ve come here for hangover curing brunch with bottomless $5 mimosas and fried chicken sandwiches; a bottle of Nebbiolo with cheese and charcuterie at the bar; and romantic dinners on the patio with a delicious selection of sharing plates ranging from smoked trout crostini with mascarpone, pickled red onion and lemon; pork and ricotta meatballs in tomato sauce; or one of the excellent fresh pastas ( a favourite is the pappardelle ragu with variations of duck, veal or wild boar). I love Barbrix because it’s the perfect venue for any occasion.

Barbrix
2442 Hyperion Avenue, Silver Lake
+1-323-662-2442
barbrix.com
@barbrix

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BestiaBestia, Downtown
Housed in a former warehouse in the Arts District, Bestia is one of LA’s most celebrated restaurants and for good reason: it’s the kind of place where you can sit for hours and eat everything off the menu and not have a single bad dish. Chef Ori Menashe serves up his clever and delicious interpretation of Italian food, including a hefty dose of offal, with things like grilled lamb heart and pan-roasted chicken gizzards. He makes pretty much everything in house and his charcuterie and sourdough bread are some of the best in LA. He also makes his own pasta, with at least 10 different varieties on the menu, ranging from squid ink to pistachio, saffron and stinging nettle. The wine list is equally interesting, with lots of unusual and natural wines. Bestia brings together smart yet rustic food, a sophisticated drinks list and a vibrant atmosphere. What more could you possibly ask for in a restaurant?

Bestia
2121 East 7th Place, Downtown
+1-213-514-5724
bestiala.com
@bestiaDTLA

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FigaroFigaro Bistrot, Los Feliz
The Louis Vuitton ad starring Madonna was shot at this local bistro, which is a little piece of Paris in the heart of LA and where I go when I need a dose of European lifestyle. The Parisian fin de siècle décor, with a zinc bar and red banquettes, and small tables on the pavement outside transport you straight to the Boulevard Saint-Germain. It is the ideal place for people watching and spotting the odd celebrity trying to look normal. I’ve spent whole afternoons here over a few carafes of rosé. The menu of classical French fare doesn’t mess around: think croque monsieur; salad Niçoise; escargots; moules frites; and coq au vin, while croissants, pains au chocolat, baguettes and macarons are baked fresh each morning in the adjoining bakery. Je l’adore.

Figaro Bistrot
1802 N. Vermont Avenue, Los Feliz
+1-323-662-1587
figarobistrot.com

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GjelinaGjelina, Venice
This is not a restaurant for indecisive people as everything on the menu sounds amazing – and it is. The thin-crusted pizzas from the wood-burning oven are what Gjelina is most famous for but they’re not your usual pepperoni or Margherita and offer inventive California style combinations like nettles, garlic confit, chilli, Fontina and Parmesan; or cherry tomato, squash blossom and burrata. But there’s more: the kitchen’s creative genius embraces farm-fresh ingredients, with a sublime selection of vegetable dishes – like roasted white aubergine with walnut, sumac and cumin goat yogurt; or crispy purple potatoes with lemon aioli, pickled red onion, dill and horseradish – and bigger plates like crispy Mary duck confit, brown butter, haricot verts, smoked almond and sherry. The queue to get in can be long but it’s always worth the wait.

Gjelina
1429 Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Venice
+1-310-450-1429
gjelina.com
@Gjelina

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Malinu FarmMalibu Farm, Malibu
Located on the edge of Malibu Pier overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this is where I go when I need to get away from it all and feel like I’m “on vacation”. The simple café menu has a focus on local and organic ingredients fresh from the farm. I’ve only ever come here for brunch when the menu includes the fried egg sandwich on toasted sourdough with bacon, rocket and baby potatoes; the multigrain pancakes with bacon bits and maple syrup; or the farm scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and ricotta. The vibe is relaxed and bohemian, both elegant and rustic bringing a sense of country living to the beach. It’s not cheap at $20 a head for breakfast but the food is good, the view is even better and the feeling of being on holiday is priceless.

Malibu Farm
23000 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu
+1-310-456-1112
malibu-farm.com
@Malibufarm

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SageSage Organic Bistro, Echo Park
A year ago, when I was still living in London, I never would have dreamed that one of my favourite places to eat at could ever be a vegan restaurant – even one that’s co-owned by actor Woody Harrelson. Maybe they put something in the water here in LA but I genuinely love Sage Bistro and come here about once a week for my fix of kale, quinoa and dairy free ice cream. They have salads, sandwiches, wraps, burgers, pastas and tacos and none of it is boring or bland. I love the goatless Greek salad with massaged kale, quinoa, carrots, cucumbers, spicy cabbage, tomatoes, onion, avocado, apple, kalamata olives and raw dill cheese and cashew alfredo; and their banana split with Kindkreme vegan ice cream seriously rocks my world. Don’t judge me man, vegan food can be awesome.

Sage Organic Bistro
1700 Sunset Boulevard, Echo Park
+1-213-989-1718
sageveganbistro.com
@SageVegan

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TerroniTerroni, Beverly and Downtown
The best Italian fare my food loving Italian friends from San Francisco have had since moving to California a decade ago, Terroni serves hands down the best (and possibly the only authentic) Neapolitan pizza in LA. Crispy and thin it is comes as a standard Margherita or with imaginative toppings like the Polentona with fontina, speck and pinenuts; or the C’t Mang, a white pizza with mozzarella, gorgonzola, fresh pears, walnuts and honey. There are plates of San Daniele prosciutto or cured duck with vegetables and burrata; divine fried zucchini flowers stuffed with herbed ricotta; and a fabulous array of home made pastas. The wine list is indulgent and not cheap but the sommelier has on more than one occasion let us have a glass of something that’s usually only served by the bottle.

Terroni
7605 Beverly Boulevard, Beverly; and 802 S Spring Street, Downtown
+1-323-954-0300
terroni.com

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LA Restaurant Review: ChocoChicken

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

Chicken close up 2Cheese and wine. Bacon and eggs. Strawberries and cream. Chocolate and chicken. (What?!?) There are certain food combinations that simply roll off the tongue. They go hand in hand and complement each other to perfection.

Chocolate and chicken isn’t one of them. Or so you’d think.

Chocolate fried chicken is in fact the signature dish of a new restaurant in Los Angeles. ChocoChicken opened after much hype and anticipation last month in Downtown.  It is the latest venture from Advantage Restaurant Partners’ Adam Fleischman, the founder of the Umami Burger chain, who has teamed up with self-taught cook and entertainment producer Keith Previte, and film and television producer Sean Robins for the project.

It was Robins, who first came up with the idea during a trip to San Francisco, when (clearly horribly hungover) he was craving mole and fried chicken at the same time. He thought: “Why not put the two together?”

Fast forward to June 2014, and the first ChocoChicken opened its doors, with a second location set to launch in Santa Monica later this year, and a third planned for New York in 2015. The trio expects to have eight outlets by 2016.

So what’s the deal with ChocoChicken?

CB close up 2The star of the menu is, of course, the chocolate fried chicken. Made from organic Jidori chicken (a mixed-breed domestic free-range chicken known for its robust flavour), it is soaked in brine for 36 hours, before being coated in a crust of 62% bittersweet chocolate and a secret mixture of 20 spices.

But that’s not where the chocolate-theme ends. There’s also a fried chicken sandwich on a chocolate bun and sides including white chocolate mashed potatoes (infused with white chocolate butter) and duck fat fries dusted with chocolate seasoning, while sauces include the homemade chocolate ketchup.

Desserts made exclusively for ChocoChicken include s’mores whoopee pies from Cake Monkey and ice cream from L.A. Creamery. There’s a full bar serving signature cocktails, including the Choco Colada with Coco Real, Crème de Cacao and chocolate bitters.

So does chocolate fried chicken work? The answer is: kind of.

Some of it is great. Like the smell: As you walk into the restaurant you get a big whiff of sweet and savoury aromas, which are instantly intoxicating.  And the chicken is delicious. It’s perfectly fried, crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. The coating is dark, almost burnt brown in colour, peppered with the ChocoChicken seasoning, which is in no way too chocolaty or overpowering but leaves just a hint of dark chocolate, a little chilli kick, and a lingering sweet maple flavour. It’s crispy, spicy, warm and comforting, just like fried chicken should be.

The white chocolate mash doesn’t work. It’s heavy, stodgy, dense, overly buttery and way too sweet. But, as the chef informed when I admitted that I wasn’t a fan, it’s still very much a work in progress.

Other sides are better: biscuits are buttery and flaky, the salad, coleslaw and cup of raw crudité are fresh and crunchy and the duck fat fries are moreish. And the chocolate ketchup is great: umami-rich, it tastes a bit like HP sauce with a spoonful of cocoa powder mixed in.

But despite it all being good, there’s something missing.

Venue1The interior of the 120-seat restaurant is industrial: high ceilings, wood panelling and a pressed tin along the walls and the bar. It’s a bit soulless and lacking in atmosphere and service was overly attentive, almost intrusive.

Altogether ChocoChicken is original and the food is perfectly fine. But despite its image the whole place just lacks the je ne sais quoi, fun factor it promises and it isn’t nearly as innovative as the pre-opening hype suggested.

It may be chocolate infused but it’s still just fried chicken. The novelty wears off almost instantly and after dining here, my chef-friend and I were both left with a distinct sense of “so what?”

Is it better than your average fried chicken shop? Of course. But would I go back? Unless I have a crazy hangover that makes me crave fried chicken and chocolate, probably not.

ChocoChicken
403 W. 12th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90015
Tel: +1 213-403-1786
chocochicken.com
@EatChocoChicken

 

Beneath the Whites: Ori Menashe

Ori Menashe by Sierra Prescott

Ori Menashe is the chef-owner of Bestia, one of Los Angeles’ most celebrated restaurants, which has won numerous awards, including Zagat’s Best Newcomer in 2014. Located in the Arts District in Downtown, he runs Bestia together with his wife, pastry chef Genevieve Gergis. The duo serve up an Italian-influenced menu of rustic dishes, with an emphasis on both seasonality and nose-to-tail cooking.


What’s your earliest food memory?

When I was 14, we went on a family holiday to Switzerland and when we crossed the border to Italy we went to this farm for lunch, where we I had a mushroom pizza that was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted. Back in Israel or the US, where I grew up, I got so used to Pizza Hut or Dominoes, I had no idea that pizza could taste so good. It was that moment that I was first drawn to Italian food.

What’s your favourite smell?
The smell of my wife.

What’s your idea of comfort food?
A Georgian dish called Hingali, which my grandmother used to make. It’s a dumpling made with ground beef, lots of black pepper and garlic and it goes really well with vodka.

What’s your favourite cookbook and why?
Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. It really made me understand the process of bread making, which I now love.

What do you never cook without?
Olive oil.

What’s the worst thing people can do to food?
Overcook it.

What’s the worst thing that’s ever gone wrong during service?
We had a fire in the kitchen at Bestia, when the hood of the wood fired oven caught light. It stank the whole restaurant out and we had to throw all the food away and close the restaurant for a day. We had so many angry customers after that who had lost their reservation. We had to push the next night’s service to 450 covers, which was really stressful, and send out loads of free food to make it up to everyone.

When are you happiest?
I’m really happy right now. I almost gave up cooking a few years ago because I felt like I was going to burn out. I took a break and went travelling and rediscovered my love of cooking and I’m so happy to be where I am right now.

What makes you sad?
I don’t get to spend enough time with my wife.

What do you most dislike about yourself?
I’m never 100% satisfied with what I do. In some ways that’s a good thing because it pushes me to always get better but in some ways it’s also a bad thing because when something goes wrong during service it really affects me in a bad way.

What would your superpower be?
Mind reading.

What’s the most disgusting or weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I once ate a wild crow, which my friends and I shot while we were out hunting. It had a funky taste to it but it wasn’t terrible. I’d definitely have it again.

Where did you have your best meal this year?
Toturaku in Los Angeles. It’s a restaurant you have to be invited to and they only serve 20 people at a time. They specialise in all this raw meat and it’s the most unusual but amazing place. It’s a really great experience and totally different to anywhere else in LA.

If there was one restaurant you wish you’d opened, which would it be?
There is a restaurant called Diana in Nazareth in Israel, which does exactly the kind of simple Middle Eastern food I love. If ever I wanted to take a step back from life, I’d love to run or even just work there.

Follow Ori Menashe on Twitter @bestiaDTLA

Chef profile: Ludo Lefebvre

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

Displaying ludo8small.jpg

Ludo Lefebvre is pretty badass. With his full-sleeve tattoos, pierced ears, scruffy facial hair and sly smile, he epitomises the rock ‘n’ roll chef. But the surly exterior is misleading and underneath he’s surprisingly mellow, easy to talk to, honest and fun.

He doesn’t hold back, doesn’t care too much about saying the wrong thing and, refreshingly, doesn’t take himself too seriously either. There’s no trail of emails from his publicist demanding questions in advance, there’s nothing he refuses to discuss, and we’re given a generous four hours for the interview and photo shoot – an eternity in Los Angeles celebrity terms.

We meet at Trois Mec, his restaurant in Hollywood that has taken LA by storm. Voted by Zagat as one of the 10 hottest restaurants in the world right now, it may be a far cry from the temples of haute cuisine Lefebvre grew up with, but by breaking all the rules of what a high-end restaurant should be, it is right at the forefront of a new movement of fine dining that is redefining LA’s restaurant scene.

Trois Mec, French for three dudes, opened last April in collaboration with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, two of the LA restaurant community’s biggest names, who together run Animal and Son of a Gun. Trois Mec is a mainstream restaurant with the sense of a secret underground supper club. Hidden away in an inconspicuous strip mall behind a petrol station, it is housed in what was previously a cheap pizza joint. The original yellow ‘Raffallo’s Pizza & Italian Foods’ sign remains, along with a piece of paper stuck to the door stating: “Closed. No more pizza”.

Once inside, however, the remnants of the past are no more and the space is modern, clean and elegant. There are just 24 seats, no tablecloths and a counter lining the open kitchen. You do not reserve a table at Trois Mec – you buy a ticket online at 8am sharp on the alternating Fridays the restaurant releases its tables. Your ticket encompasses the full price of dinner – $97 (£59) per person for a fivecourse set menu, including tax and tip. Wine is paid for on the night, with a full pairing priced at $49 (£30).

Although Trois Mec may seem like it’s trying very hard to be different and trendy, Lefebvre’s reasoning behind the concept makes complete business sense. The ticket system allows the restaurant to control costs (Angelenos are notoriously flaky, but if they’ve paid in advance they’re almost guaranteed to show up) and the strip mall location means low overheads, which allows Lefebvre to make his dinners affordable to a wide audience. “High-end restaurants are expensive and there aren’t enough people to support them. I want to be accessible – I want to cook for everybody,” he says. “Besides, high-end restaurants can be boring, too. These chefs take themselves so seriously; they’re not cooking for their customers, they’re cooking for the press, for Michelin stars. High-end restaurants are vehicles for chefs’ egos. I know that because I have been there too.”

THREE-STAR MENTORS
Lefebvre got his first job in a professional kitchen at 14 and, right from the start, spent his formative years working under some of the most renowned chefs in France. His apprenticeship was spent with Marc Meneau at his then three-Michelin-starred restaurant L’Espérance in Vézelay, Burgundy. From therehe went on to work with Pierre Gagnaire, who first encouraged him to “experiment with spices and unusual flavour combinations”. After serving in the French army as personal chef for the French minister of defence, he joined Alain Passard at L’Arpège.

“All of them were very different,” he says. “Marc Meneau was very classic, Pierre Gagnaire very modern, and Alain Passard, he was the first chef to cook vegetables. Now everyone is doing it. What I learned from all of them was the importance of consistency. Every day is a new day, but the food has to be the same – it has to be as good as the day before. Being creative is easy; being consistent is so difficult. To find the best ingredients every day and to manage your team and get the best out of them, that’s what makes a great chef.” He goes on to say that running a kitchen is much like running an army. There have to be rules in place, he insists, adding that his kitchen at Trois Mec is run in the “traditional French way”. “I am very strict. I push my chefs a lot.”

COMING TO AMERICA
Lefebvre moved to the US in 1996, when former mentor Meneau organised a job as chef de partie at L’Orangerie, one of LA’s, and indeed the country’s, most acclaimed French restaurants. “It was always my dream to live in America,” he says. Despite speaking hardly any English, he was promoted to executive chef within a year and overnight became one of LA’s most celebrated chefs, gaining a reputation for combining old world simplicity with exotic new world flavours.

“It was good and bad,” he says, suddenly looking serious. “I was only 25 and very young in my head. I had so much to learn about life, about food and about how to manage a kitchen. Being a chef is not just about cooking – it’s about being a leader and making an example. It’s about teaching your cooks how to cook. At 25 you don’t know enough about cooking to be responsible for teaching somebody else.” This was followed by two years at Bastide, another of LA’s most distinguished French restaurants, cementing Lefebvre’s status as one of the city’s top chefs after he became the only LA chef to receive the prestigious Mobil Travel Guide Five Star Award at two restaurants.

LUDO BITES
But after Bastide closed for refurbishment, Lefebvre decided not to return and famously became the chef without a restaurant, running a series of pop-ups called Ludo Bites. “The idea came from nowhere,” he shrugs.“I really wanted to buy my own restaurant but it’s very, very difficult. It was very stressful for me to find the right location. Landlords wanted to take advantage of me and everything was very expensive.”

Ludo Bites started after a friend, who owned a bakery-café called Breadbar, asked Lefebvre to help put together a dinner menu. Instead, he took over the space for three months. “It was a big risk for me because it was totally different from the froufrou, high-end restaurants I had come from. It was fun and very accessible, but it was a big challenge for me to get it right,” he says.

The pop-up was a runaway success, dubbed a “transforming moment in the Los Angeles restaurant scene” by the city’s most feared food critic Jonathan Gold. What started as a menu of simple small plates soon evolved into an elaborate chef’s tasting menu and reservations were so sought after, Ludo Bites once crashed the Open Table website. “After the success I realised that the business model was very good for me. It was just like renting an apartment,” Lefebvre says. He continued to run the pop-ups for five years, between 2007 and 2012, in nine different incarnations across LA and once in Hawaii. Ludo Bites was turned into a cookbook, a television show called Ludo Bites America, and an online series called Ludo Baby Bites. Branded the pop-up pioneer, Lefebvre became a celebrity. And after appearing on a number of TV shows, including Top Chef Masters, Hell’s Kitchen and Iron Chef America, he joined the judging panel of ABC’s culinary reality show The Taste, which premiered in the US in January 2013 and in the UK earlier this year.

REDEFINING FINE DINING
Lefebvre has said that his favourite restauant in the UK is Dabbous, and that is probably the closest thing London has to Trois Mec. Like Dabbous, Lefebvre’s food adheres to a philosophy of simplicity where the ingredient is the star of the show. Techniques and theatre happen in the kitchen, but what’s on the plate is understated, delicate, playful, interesting and, most importantly, delicious.

With Lefebvre, a simple plate of potato pulp is elevated with butter, bonito flakes, Salers cheese and onion soubise to delicious effect; a dish comprising thin slices of avocado covering crab ceviche has an intense citrus boost and added crunch from buckwheat popcorn. Service is down-to-earth but informed. Waiters seem to outnumber guests, yet the atmosphere is relaxed, with French rap music in the background. In many ways dining at Trois Mec feels like being a guest at Lefebvre’s home. “I want people to feel like they’re in my house,” he says. “Trois Mec is about hospitality, about looking after the guest. There are too many casual restaurants now and I think people want more refinement.”

Indeed, Trois Mec cleverly embraces the essence of a fine-dining restaurant and combines it with casual dining by rejecting the usual formalities. “With Trois Mec I have the freedom to do what I want,” Lefebvre adds. “Of course I would love to have a Michelin star, but I’m not living by that and I’m certainly not following their rules.” However, he does bemoan Michelin’s absence in LA (the guide discontinued its LA edition in 2009, saying there was no real food culture). “LA has changed so much and there are so many amazing restaurants here now,” he insists. “New York is all about high-end, established restaurants, but LA is all about variety and young chefs and Michelin should be here.”

Lefebvre has a point – LA’s food scene is undergoing a phenomenal awakening and Lefebvre is a driving force who has helped to move it forward. Now chefs like Ari Taymor of Alma, Miles Thompson of Allumette, Josef Centeno at Orsa & Winston and Curtis Stone at Maude are all delivering tasting menus that offer high-quality ingredients and accomplished cooking in an informal setting and at an affordable price. “A year ago nobody was doing tasting menus. Now lots of chefs in LA are doing them,” Lefebvre says. “I guess it’s nice to be copied.”

This article was first published by The Caterer. Please visit thecaterer.com to read the full version.

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

Chef Profile: José Andrés

This is an extract from an article I wrote for FOUR – The World’s Best Food Magazine. You can read the full version by visiting four-magazine.com.

For José Andrés running a restaurant is about telling a story. “What I look for is the story that inspires the menu, the place and the experience,” José explains. “I root everything I do in a story, something authentic, which could be historical or personal, and then I have fun with it.”

A chef with a larger than life personality, an infectious laugh and a mischievous streak—he famously pushed Anthony Bourdain’s head into a crate of peaches telling him to ‘smell it’—José is one of the USA’s most celebrated chefs today. He is the country’s face of Spanish food, responsible for introducing Americans to tapas by successfully challenging their conventional ethos that anything but heaping portions would leave them unsatisfied.

Presented with the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef Award in 2011, José is a household name thanks to his numerous books and TV shows, and an impassioned food activist who considers his celebrity status a great responsibility, his growing empire of restaurants, which started with a single tapas bar in Washington, D.C., 20 years ago, now spans across the USA and Puerto Rico.

So what sets José Andrés apart? A disciple of iconic Spanish chef Ferran Adrià’s elBulli, José’s food combines tradition with the avant-garde. It showcases both the old and new of Spain’s rich gastronomic heritage by reinventing classic ideas to create innovative dishes that both educate and excite but never intimidate.

Take his Olives Two Ways, for instance. Served in two parts, it comprises a helping of traditional olives, stuffed with piquillo pepper and anchovy, as well as an entirely modern creation: translucent balls of liquefied olive that explode in the diner’s mouth. It’s a dish that not only seems simple but involves a great deal of effort and technique behind the scenes, it also perfectly illustrates José’s philosophy of marrying tradition with modernity while at the same time providing the diner with something that is fun and enjoyable. “My food is about reimagining familiar flavours to create a totally new experience,” he says. “As a chef this is my way to give you something unexpected and special.”

Growing up in Catalonia, in northern Spain, the world capital of avant-garde cuisine, José, inspired by the local food markets, decided early on in life that cooking was his destiny: “I always knew I wanted to be a chef because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” He attended the School of Restaurants and Hotels in Barcelona and trained at a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, most notably elBulli with now best friend Adrià, whom he describes as a ‘great mentor’. “Working at elBulli was like watching the big bang happening right in front of me,” he recalls. “We learned how to think beyond the ingredients in front of us and questioned why eating could not just feed our stomach, but also our brain and senses way beyond what we feel comfortable with. It had a big impact on me.”

In 1991, José came to the USA to help launch a short-lived Spanish-owned restaurant called El Dorado Petit in New York, before moving to Washington, D.C where he opened tapas bar Jaleo, together with now long-term business partner Rob Wilder and Roberto Alvarez. At the time, Spanish cuisine had virtually no presence in the USA, with few diners able to tell a croqueta from a tortilla, never mind grasp the concept of small sharing plates. “People didn’t know about tapas and the Spanish way of eating,” José recounts. “I remember I tried to explain to someone that I was opening a tapas bar but with my accent they understood ‘topless’ bar.”

Against the odds Jaleo was an instant hit with both critics and customers, prompting Wilder and Alvarez to hire José full-time to run the kitchen of Café Atlántico, an existing Latin Caribbean restaurant. From these humble beginnings, the chef started to inspire a whole generation of diners and chefs, alike. “When we opened Jaleo I was a young kid and I didn’t realise that I had this huge responsibility in setting the stage for what Spanish cooking would be,” José admits. “It didn’t happen overnight but soon what we were doing at Jaleo others were starting to replicate not just around the city but in other parts of the country, too. Now you see small plate concepts all over the USA but back then it was very different.”

In 2003, José used some of his own money to convert a corner of Café Atlántico into Minibar, a six-seat counter serving a menu of molecular gastronomy of the school of thought of his erstwhile mentor Adrià. The move put him in an elite group of chefs serving ground breaking dishes in the USA and saw his career skyrocket: he won the James Beard Award for the Best Mid-Atlantic Chef and became the host of a popular cooking show back in Spain, before hitting TV screens back in the USA. Before long, he renegotiated terms with Wilder to essentially take over the business and began expanding, initially across the Washington, D.C., area and then beyond, offering ever-different variations on the tapas theme. Today, his ThinkFoodGroup includes 16 restaurants in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami and Puerto Rico, ranging from fine dining to a food truck, employing more than 1,000 people and generating revenues of about $100m (£62.3m).

Each of his restaurants tells a different story and through its design, atmosphere and food they offer a part of history that connects his native Spain with the rest of the world. There is Jaleo, a traditional tapas bar that is about life in Spain and José’s childhood; Zaytinya, which by serving small plates inspired by the Eastern Mediterranean, taps into the ancient history that links Spain with the Middle East; Oyamel, which specialises in antojitos, the Mexican version of tapas; and China Poblano, which showcases José’s take on Chinese and Mexican cuisines.

Meanwhile The Bazaar by José Andrés at the luxury SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills—arguably his most ambitious project—combines five venues in one: Bar Centro, with cocktails and raw bar and caviar offerings; the Patisserie with exquisite sweets under glass cloches giving a sense of a grown-up candy shop; Saam, an intimate room serving a 22-course tasting menu; and Rojo y Blanca, two separate dining spaces, one comprising a vibrant traditional tapas bar, the other a minimalist contemporary restaurant.

With such a diverse portfolio of restaurants, is there one that stands out or represents José better than others? “That’s like asking me to choose among my children,” the chef rebuffs. “But if you ask me where I go to be inspired, I’d say that’s Minibar, which is my creative nerve centre, the heart that keeps my team and me moving forward.”

This article was first published by FOUR – The World’s Best Food Magazine. You can read the full version by visiting four-magazine.com.

LA’s food truck scene

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

food trucks in Venice BeachFood trucks have never been more fashionable in America. Nearly three million of them roam US streets today, and their popularity has grown so big, the Government recently announced it is to use food trucks as a key feature of the US pavilion at Expo Milano, an international food-themed exhibition set to take place in Italy next year.

In an age when finances remain unstable yet restaurant sites are unaffordable for many operators, and when consumers are growing weary of the big chains but still demand quality food that is inventive, inexpensive and fast, food trucks have become the new trailblazers of culinary innovation.

And this is true nowhere more so than in Los Angeles.

While the modern food truck movement started in Texas in the 19th century, Mexican immigrants brought the taco truck culture to LA, where over the past five years the food truck scene has evolved into something of a cult. Today, food trucks define the landscape in LA: drive around any part of the city and you’re guaranteed to see them parked on the side of the road next to office blocks, museums, university halls or in parking lots of shopping malls.

It may have been Roy Choi’s now iconic Korean barbecue truck, Kogi, which kick started the food truck craze in 2008, but inspired by his success, fleets of trucks have since taken to the streets of LA. The variety is astounding and you can get anything from German sausages to Texan barbecue or gourmet burgers, from sushi to Vietnamese banh mi and Thai fusion dishes, and from cupcakes and waffles to Italian ice cream. But it’s not just the food that draws in the crowds: funky, colourful designs and trademark uniforms are all part of the show, not to mention the obligatory Twitter account and social media onslaught.

Tracking down your favourite truck can be somewhat of a treasure hunt but every first Friday of the month, more than two dozen of LA’s most popular trucks gather on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice Beach. For one night, a trendy and upmarket street of independent restaurants, bars and boutiques turns into a lively block party, with hundreds of people wandering around, checking out the scene and queuing up in front of their chosen trucks before tucking into the food while sitting on the sidewalk. And who can blame them – there isn’t a more fun and inexpensive way to spend a foodie night out in LA.

But the selection can be overwhelming: with nearly 30 different trucks and almost as many different cuisines on offer, it can be tough to know where to begin. Armed with a camera and five hungry friends in tow, I attacked First Friday head on.

To read the full version of this article and check out my top five food trucks, please visit The Staff Canteen.

Restaurant policies: Is it wrong to want to ask for the bill?

restaurant_billAt the end of dinner at a great French restaurant in Downtown LA last night, I found myself feeling really annoyed.

It had been a lovely evening – the restaurant was brilliant, with a cool vibe and awesome décor, the food was delicious, the service charming, the conversation stimulating.

So what went wrong?

After the main course the waitress asked if we wanted cheese. When we said no she immediately brought the bill, even though we hadn’t asked for it.

Maybe we’d have liked coffee or pudding, an after dinner drink? There was no mention of a dessert menu or even as much as a hint of interest if we were actually ready to leave.

Instead, there was the bill on the table, telling us in no uncertain terms that it was time to pay up and get out.

This is something that keeps happening. Virtually every time I go out for a meal in LA, they bring the bill without me ever having asked for it. And I hate it.

Maybe it’s a more time efficient way to deal with customers, maybe American diners don’t like asking for the ‘check’, maybe even if they’ve brought the bill you can send it back, order more (#awkward) and stay as long as you like. I get that in the USA waiters depend on tips so the quicker they get you out, the more tables they serve and the more money they make.

But to me it just seems impolite and goes against all etiquette of good service. Like they’re trying to boot you out before you’ve finished enjoying your meal. At the end of a nice lunch or dinner, it keeps leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.

Am I wrong wanting to ask for the bill?

Comments below please.