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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy The Third Plate on Amazon.

Follow Dan Barber on Twitter @DanBarber

Three months in LA – my survival guide

Hollywood hikeTime flies when you’re having fun. Really? I’ve been in LA for three months now and while I’ve certainly had a lot of fun, I’ve also had plenty of hard moments of severe adjustment. Sure the weather here is amazing all the time and I’m not missing the grey skies of London, but there’s also a lot of different stuff I have had to get used to and not all of it makes sense. After three months in LA, here’s some of what I’ve learnt about living in this city. This is my LA survival guide.

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hidden gemA CITY OF HIDDEN GEMS
Unlike London or New York where everything is out in the open, written and blogged about, LA is a secret city. A hideous strip mall may be the site of the greatest ever Thai restaurant, a dodgy neighbourhood home to the best taco truck in town, or a weird looking shop may sell the most amazing vintage designer glasses. But unless someone tells you about it, you’ll never know. With so much time spent behind the wheel, you’ll never randomly find a hidden gem by simply walking past it so it’s essential you get to know someone who’s in the know. There’s a hell of a lot to be discovered.

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200288279-001EMBRACE THE ROAD RAGE
In London the first few moments of any gathering will invariably involve a conversation about the weather. In LA you discuss how you got there, how long it took you and how much traffic there was. Whether you like it or not, LA is built for cars and everyone drives everywhere. The problem is that people in LA drive like assholes. Inconsiderate (nobody lets anybody in, ever), reckless (people change lanes without looking in the mirror) and plain stupid (the concept of a fast lane on the freeway is so foreign here it may as well be something out of Star Wars), driving in LA can drive you mad. Traffic wardens give you a ticket the second your meter runs out. Pedestrians don’t cross like normal people but virtually crawl across the street and being stuck in traffic on the 101 will literally make you lose the will to live.
No wonder everyone here does yoga, you need something to counterbalance the road rage.

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brunchBRUNCH IS DINNER
Angelinos love nothing more than to indulge in a leisurely brunch. Indeed brunch is about as big as dinner in this city and there’s something for everyone – from healthy vegan options to badass meat feasts and $5 bottomless mimosas. My local favourite Milly’s Cafe doesn’t serve alcohol, just mimosas. If you want to pin someone down in LA, brunch is the way forward.

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Farmers market basketTHE PRODUCE IS PHENOMENAL
You’ve never tasted fresh fruit and vegetables like in California. Everything is bigger, brighter, fresher, juicier and sweeter here. It may be late November but strawberries, asparagus and tomatoes are still in season, and there’s a farmers market somewhere in LA every day of the week. Your diet will improve drastically living here and you’ll actually enjoy getting your five-a-day. But you’ll spend three times more money shopping at the market than you would at any grocery store.

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yogaEARLY TO RISE AND EARLY TO BED
A self-proclaimed night owl and lover of lie-ins, I’ve somehow managed to change my ways living in LA. This is definitely a morning city, which I can only assume is the result of the 365 days of sunshine a year. From 8am yoga sessions and early morning hikes in the mountains to a diehard love of breakfast and brunch, people in LA like to seize the day and don’t sleep late. What I’ve learned is that you can get a whole lot more done in a day getting up early but the flipside of the coin is that come nighttime, you’re too tired to do anything. People tend to eat out early – dinner starts at 5pm – and don’t even think about arriving at a LA bar after 10pm on a weeknight – everyone’s gone home.

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Wine-BottlesWINE IS EXPENSIVE
In the UK, it’s fairly easy to find a good quality wine that’s relatively inexpensive. In California, it’s impossible. Local wines are ludicrously expensive and it’s really hard to find a good bottle for anything less than $20 in the shop. Foreign wines are cheaper but gone are the days of popping into Majestic and picking up a case of very quaffable Côtes du Rhône at a bargain price.

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beer-glassesBEER IS ABUNDANT
Made using everything from cocoa nibs to sweet potatoes, California is leading a national craft beer explosion in the USA. It’s home to 12 of the nation’s 50 largest craft beer companies, according to the Brewers Association, and beer-focused restaurants, specialty beer bars and beer festivals are aplenty in LA. A case in point is my local, Mohawk Bend, which has a staggering selection of 72 different Californian craft beers on tap.

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food trucksFOOD TRUCKS ROCK
The gourmet food truck craze that has made its way across the pond, first started in LA. There are literally hundreds of trucks roaming the city’s streets, serving up anything from Korean tacos, Jewish deli sandwiches, Indian street food and $15 hamburgers. Every first Friday of the month, dozens of LA’s top food trucks gather on Abbot Kinney Blvd in Venice. It’s a brilliant way to try out lots of different cuisines and people watch.

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SugarFishETHNIC RESTAURANTS ARE WHERE IT’S AT
LA offers an ethnic restaurant community that can compete with any other metropolis in the world. And I’m not just talking about taco trucks here. There are flourishing Asian, European and Middle Eastern communities as well as a large Hispanic population, whose restaurants serve delicious and authentic food you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. You can explore just about every country’s cuisine in LA. You don’t believe me? Check out LA Magazine’s article Around LA in 80 Cuisines.

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hipstersSMART CASUAL MEANS CASUAL
Outside of Beverly Hills, the people of LA are so chilled they don’t believe in dressing up. Jeans are a uniform here, as are gym clothes. Perhaps it comes with the lifestyle, but it’s happened more than once that I’ve seen people out at the supermarket still dressed in their pyjamas. Restaurants are the same, there’s no need for high heels or dinner jackets even at fancy eateries. When in LA suit and tie do not apply.

 

Wolfgang Puck and Daniel Boulud cook together at the Hotel Bel-Air – highlights from the menu

Puck_BouludIt’s not often that two world-renowned chefs come together to cook alongside each other so when Wolfgang Puck and Daniel Boulud decided to join forces for a special dinner this week, it was a pretty big deal.

The duo, arguably the most celebrated chefs in their respective adopted home cities of Los Angeles and New York at opposites coasts of the USA, held the one-off event at Puck’s eponymous restaurant at the Dorchester Collection’s luxury Hotel Bel-Air.

With its beautiful garden setting, the restaurant played host to the two chefs, who together created a seven-course tasting menu showcasing local Californian ingredients, with paired wines from Ca’ del Bosco in Lombardy, Italy.

It was the first time the two celebrity chefs worked one-on-one in the kitchen together, and coincided with the launch of Boulud’s latest cookbook, DANIEL: My French Cuisine, which marks the 20th anniversary of his three-Michelin-starred flagship restaurant, DANIEL in Manhattan.

Here are a few highlights from the menu.

amuseAmouse bouche: Smoked chicken liver pastrami and white truffle “toad in a hole” by Wolfgang Puck, paired with Franciacorta, Ca’ del Bosco “Cuvée Prestige”.
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fishCaraway-cured Tai snapper with cucumber dill broth, Osetra caviar and sea urchin by Daniel Boulud, paired with Franciacorta, Ca’ del Bosco “Cuvée Annamaria Clementi” 2004.
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prawnsSanta Barbara Spot Prawn with Nam Prik Noom, holy basil and coriander by Wolfgang Puck, paired with Chardonnay, Ca’ del Bosco 2009.
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beefDuo of beef: braised Black Angus short ribs, seared wagyu tenderloin, Chermoula spiced carrot purée and porcini duxelle by Daniel Boulud, paired with Rosso del Sebino, Ca’ del Vosco “Maurizio Zanella” 1997.
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dessertScotch whisky chocolate cake with Urfa Biber and popcorn sherbet by Wolfgang Puck, paired with Dalmore Highland single malt selected by Daniel Boulud.
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D&WThe dinner was priced $220, plus $85 for the paired wines. I was there as a guest of Daniel Boulud’s. Pictures courtesy of the Dorchester Collection.

Zagat names top restaurants in Los Angeles

zagat-2014Zagat has unleashed the results of its latest eating out guide for Los Angeles and crowned the city’s top restaurants.

Japanese eateries topped both the lists for best food and most popular places, with Asanebo and Sugarfish by Sushi Nozawa triumphing in the two categories, respectively.

The 2014 Zagat Los Angeles Restaurant Survey features 1,499 restaurants (could they really not find one more?!?) as rated and reviewed by 19,694 diners.

It found that on average the people of LA eat out 2.4 times a week for dinner and spend an average of $38.62 per person, just below the national US average of $40.53.

Their biggest gripe is noise, with three quarters of diners saying they avoid restaurants that are too loud. They also don’t like waiting for a table, and 49% said they tend to book a restaurant online, while 46% still like to make a reservation over the phone.

LA diners prize sushi (four of the five top food winners are Japanese restaurants) and love an eclectic offering as the top five most popular restaurants include Japanese, Italian, American-French, Spanish and Californian restaurants.

Here are the 2014 Zagat Los Angeles Restaurant Survey results:

asaneboTop Food
1. Asanebo – Hidden in a strip mall in Studio City, it serves “impeccable sushi” and “top-tier omakase”.
2. Sushi Zo
3. Hamasaku
4. Mélisse
5. Nobu Matsuhisa

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SugarFishMost Popular
1. Sugarfish by Sushi Nozawa – It serves a simplified sushi menu at a price that won’t break the bank.
2. Angelini Osteria
3. Mélisse
4. The Bazaar by José Andrés
5. Spago

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bestiaKey Newcomers
1. Bestia – Chef Ori Menashe offers flawless charcuterie,  pastas and sourdough pizzas.
2. The Royce Wood-Fired Steakhouse
3. Chego!
4. Hinoki & the Bird
5. Hole in the Wall

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jose_andresBest Small Plates
1. Bazaar by José Andrés – It leads the small-plates trend with playful molecular dishes like the liquid olives as well as traditional tapas.
2. Manhattan Beach Post
3. Leila’s
4. Cleo
5. K-Zo

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michael-s-pizzeriaBest Pizza
1. Michael’s Pizzeria – Dedicated to traditional Neapolitan-style pies, it makes everything from the dough to the cheese in-house daily.
2. Pizzeria Mozza
3. Vito’s
4. Mozza2Go
5. Gjelina

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golden_state_burgerBest Burgers
1. Golden State – Made of Harris Ranch beef and topped with Fiscalini cheddar, glazed applewood smoked bacon and rocket, aïoli and ketchup
2. Tommy’s
3. In-N-Out
4. Hole in the Wall
5. 25 Degrees

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melisseTop Service
1. Mélisse – Surveyors say that the service at chef Josiah Citrin’s French-American restaurant is impeccable.
2. Providence
3. Urasawa
4. N/Naka
5. The Belvedere

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the-belvedereTop Décor
1. The Belvedere – Diners “feel pampered” in this “lovely”, “quiet” dining room.
2. Mar’sel
3. Sir Winston’s
4. Saddle Peak Lodge
5. The Royce Wood Fired Steakhouse

 

 

Why LA’s food scene rocks

Los AngelesLos Angeles has never enjoyed a particularly great reputation as a foodie destination. In fact, it’s largely seen as lagging behind other major US cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco when it comes to fine restaurants and top chefs. But I’m here to tell you otherwise. Believe it or not, LA has an amazing food scene that can compete with any of these cities any day of the week.

When most people hear the words “restaurants” and “LA” in one sentence, images of people stuffing their faces at Taco Bell and McDonald’s drive-thrus spring to mind; or on the opposite extreme, health freaks ordering egg-white omelettes, and celebrities pushing salad leaves around their plates at glitzy places in Beverly Hills.

Michelin Los AngelesIndeed when Michelin announced it was axing its guide to LA in 2009 having failed to award three stars to anyone, few people were shocked by former director Jean-Luc Naret’s assertion that there was no appreciation for good food in the city. “The people in LA are not real foodies,” he spat. “They are not too interested in eating well but just in who goes to which restaurant and where they sit.”

After less than two months of living here, I’m still new to LA and there’s a lot I need to learn and understand about this city. But if there’s one thing that’s already become crystal clear it’s that LA’s reputation as culinary dead zone is unfair and Naret’s comments couldn’t be further removed from the truth.

Yes, LA is everything you think it is. I’ve had such gigantic portions of greasy junk slapped down in front of me that I felt physically violated. I’ve observed minor celebrities arriving at restaurants accompanied by fake tits that put Jordan to shame, doing a lap of honour to turn heads and then leave again without even picking up a menu. And if I hear one more person bang on about the benefits of hydrating with coconut water, I will scream. (It tastes like shampoo, people, what’s wrong with you?!?).

But guess what – there is a serious food scene here too, you’ve just got to look for it.

Farmers market basketLOCAL PRODUCE
Thanks to its sunny climate, Southern California has some of the best fruit and vegetables in the world and there are plenty of local farmers markets where impassioned foodies gather each week. There is a growing sector of microbreweries producing some of the top craft ales in the US, and we all know that some of the best wines in the world come from California.

INDEPENDENT RESTAURANTS
What’s more, LA has a thriving independent restaurant industry, too. The city is home to a vast number of serious restaurants that offer excellent cooking in a relaxed environment and at affordable prices. You can eat at some of LA’s most acclaimed restaurants – Alma, Bestia or Gjelina, to name just a few – below $50 a head. Now I’m no expert on the wider US dining market (yet) but the last time I was in New York and San Francisco, I spent a hell of a lot more than that at restaurants of a similar level.

FINE DINING
Granted LA can’t compete with some of the other cities when it comes to fine dining. If you’re looking for a three-star experience with all the bells and whistles, you probably are better off at one of the famous restaurants in New York, Chicago or even Las Vegas. LA admittedly doesn’t have the same sophistication when it comes to both food and service at the very high-end. But, Monsieur Naret, that does not mean the people of LA aren’t real foodies.

Allumette-saladYOUNG CHEFS
There are chefs like Josef Centeno of Bäco Mercat or Miles Thompson of Allumette, who’ve done their time training with the big guns across the country and have come to LA to open small restaurants, where they show off their culinary skills by celebrating local produce without chasing Michelin stars.

ETHNIC RESTAURANTS
Moreover, at the low-end LA offers an ethnic restaurant community that can compete with any other metropolis in the world. And I’m not just talking about taco trucks here. There are flourishing Thai, Korean, Japanese, Indian and Chinese communities as well as a large Hispanic population, whose restaurants serve delicious and authentic food you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

FOOD FESTIVALS
There are food festivals, events, underground supper clubs, pop-up restaurants, special guest-chef dinners and promotions happening in LA every week. These events are consistently busy, proving that the people of LA aren’t just real foodies, they also take an active interest in their city’s food community.

After seven weeks in this massive city, I’ve only scratched the surface of what is has to offer but I’m honestly excited to keep discovering LA’s foodie gems. Over the next little while, I’ll share my findings so far. Keep reading!

My first week in LA

Hollywood hikeWe all know that moving can be a little stressful. Moving halfway across the world to a city you’ve never ever been to with two cats in tow is more than a little stressful. But we made it: we have left London behind and have arrived in Los Angeles. The adventure has begun.

It’s only been a week but in between massaging cats’ egos, trying to open a bank account, organising a social security number, mobile phone and finding a place to live (none of which is easy when you arrive in a country with a credit history equivalent to that of a school kid’s), I’ve managed to explore a tiny bit of this massive city.

So far it’s been a mixed bag. Some parts are simply hideous: ugly, tasteless architecture, rundown neighbourhoods populated by junk food joints and huge convenience stores and don’t get me started on the freeways and traffic. But there are some really cool parts too; little pockets of awesomeness tucked away in the scary concrete jungle. You’ve just got to look for them. The Hollywood Hills are wonderful to go walking in and there are some really quirky cafés and vintage boutiques. Here’s what I’ve discovered so far.

Sunset JunctionSILVER LAKE
The area we’re staying in for the first month should really be called Hipsterville. I’ve never seen so many skinny jeans, beards and tattoos in one place. Ever. It makes Shoreditch look geeky. These hipsters are so hip, a girl couldn’t even bring herself to remove her oversized glasses during yoga class. Not so awesomely cool when they fell off her face while practising handstands.

Hipsters aside, there are some really great streets, shops, bars and restaurants. Sunset Junction has a fabulous cheese shop and deli, where I’ve already spent a fortune, as well as the hippest coffee shop on the planet called Intelligentsia, where they make coffee in gas-fired, cast iron, vintage German Ideal Rapid Gothot roasters from the 1950s, and spray out refreshing mist to cool down the queuing crowds in their unsummery but very hipster attire.

Mohawk BendOur local restaurant is called Mohawk Bend – named after its location – and serves 72 beers and six different wines on tap, all of them crafted in California. Some, such as the Cuvee de Bubba, a wild ale from the Bear Republic Brewing Company in Healdsburg, are very unusual indeed. Our waiter described its taste as “much like a mouldy bottle would smell”. The menu meanwhile is a mix of greasy burgers and gourmet pizzas next to healthy salads and veggie dishes such as the IPA-battered avocado and chips. All the food is of really high quality, with ingredients sourced locally and portions big enough for sharing. Not a bad place to call your local.

I’ve been shopping for groceries at Trader Joe’s, a more affordable version of Whole Foods, which bizarrely is owned by Aldi, but despite this weird fact is amazing and kicks my local London supermarket’s ass on quality, variety and price. Suck it Waitrose!

DOWNTOWN
This area has surprised me the most. Once famous for the hobos of Skid Row, it’s totally cleaned up its act and has been completely transformed in recent years, with many of the beautiful old banks and hotels now housing apartments and a host of thriving coffee shops, bars and restaurants scattered in between. Check out my LA Restaurant Review of one of Downtown’s coolest places, Bäco Mercat.

Downtown LAThere is a big food court called Grand Central Market featuring a hive of buzzing ethnic food stalls, as well as food trucks serving up anything from fish tacos to gourmet sandwiches. I tried Moe Deli – a Jewish deli dishing up a superb selection of Montreal open-ended eggrolls and sandwiches.

The Arts District is full of galleries, photography studios, graphic artists, small advertising agencies and media companies and there are some amazing artworks painted on some of the buildings.

Downtown LA is super clean, feels safe and has a really cool vibe to it, although at night time, it’s dead quiet. If I didn’t have the cats I’d love to live in a Downtown loft in one of the old Art Deco buildings. With a pool on top, of course.

VENICE BEACH
It’s like Camden by the sea: a concrete boardwalk lined with souvenir shops selling random stuff that nobody needs, interspersed with people queuing up to buy weed at the many medical marijuana pharmacies, as well as coffee shops and a whole bunch of vendors, skaters and freaky exhibitionists doing weird shit.

Tasting KitchenBut if you leave the beachfront and head further up to Abbot Kinney Blvd, it’s a totally different scene. Here you’ll find a concentrated stretch of indie retailers, art galleries, restaurants, bars and food trucks, with many of the shops housed in cute, early 20th century bungalows. We had a fantastic brunch at the Tasting Kitchen, where chef Casey Lane serves a daily-changing, ingredient-driven menu in a cool and fun environment. Portions as ever are massive and I’m starting to learn that in most places in LA one main course is usually big enough to share among two people.

CELEBRITY WATCH
My first celebrity spot was immediately after getting off the plane at LAX. But it wasn’t quite the Hollywood A-lister I had hoped for: US X Factor reject Cheryl Cole had been on the same flight as me from Heathrow and had to go through the same, long immigration queue as everyone else. Nobody seemed particularly star-struck by her bar the paparazzi waiting outside.

LA IDIOSYNCRASIES
*
People in LA are so chilled that when they cross the road they walk as slowly as is humanly possible. As a highly-strung Londoner, I can envisage the road rage therapy sessions already.

* Don’t ask for a flat white. They’ve “never heard of it”.

* Jaywalking is like dealing crack. It’s highly illegal and you get a $500 fine on the spot. And unlike crack dealing, nobody does it.

* People in LA don’t drink water. They hydrate.

* In LA there’s no need to adapt the way you pronounce certain words like water (wah-durr) so Americans know what you’re talking about. Everyone here is so cosmo they even understand a South African accent.