June 26, 2013
Los Angeles’ top Jewish chefs under 40
What do the young Jewish star chefs in Los Angeles have in common? For those on the cutting edge of the city’s food scene, it’s not the laws of kashrut. Instead, for each of the 10 chefs and teams profiled here, all under age 40, the foundation of their cooking is seasonality, sustainability and a strong sense of place. Their styles and philosophy can be traced back to the temple of Berkeley’s Alice Waters, who is not Jewish, as well as some leading local godmothers of L.A. cooking, such as Nancy Silverton, Evan Kleiman, Suzanne Tracht and Susan Feniger, who certainly are.
Many of these younger chefs spent their formative years training with marquee names in iconic restaurants, like Campanile, Michael’s and Spago. Others have made their names via big-time reality TV food shows, while the rest have forged independent, idiosyncratic and often surprising paths.
Most of the chefs we’ve included are Los Angeles natives who at some point left their hometown to develop their skills and knowledge in other cities, some overseas, but we’ve also highlighted a selection of transplants from the East Coast, as well as other parts of California, who’ve found inspiration and success in Los Angeles. All of these chefs benefited from supportive families, education and access, and almost all have an ownership stake in their current businesses.
They all come from Jewish families, and although mostly secular, their cultural and religious identities, along with formative food experiences, continue to influence what shows up on the tables of their popular and critically lauded restaurants. (Most of their establishments are among Jonathan Gold’s recent 101 Best Restaurants list in the Los Angeles Times.)
And come major holidays, they might even reinterpret traditional Jewish foods in ways their bubbes never imagined.
Equal parts extroverted, easygoing, precise and book smart, Eric Greenspan is that guy you went to Sunday school with. Come major holidays, he’s one of the local chefs who regularly puts his version of Ashkenazic favorites on the menu at The Foundry on Melrose (which is under renovation, until August). Meanwhile, Greenspan’s latke bites have proven popular enough to always be available at Foundry. His semi-regular fried chicken nights attracted regulars who shattered stereotypes of caloric decadence-fearing Angelenos.
Greenspan graduated from Calabasas High School, has degrees from UC Berkeley and Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu, and was named executive chef at Patina before moving to the erstwhile Meson G on Melrose (Hatfield’s now occupies the space). Greenspan said he doesn’t actively practice the Conservative traditions he was raised with, but he said he likes “to raise the flag of Judaism as often as possible.” Last February, for instance, he teamed up with chef Roberto Treviño for El Ñosh, a Jewish-Latin fusion pop-up concept during the South Beach Food and Wine Festival in Miami. And his haimish side really shines in his transcendent grilled cheese sandwiches, which became the inspiration for “The Melt Master: A Grilled Cheese Adventure Show,” on Tasted, a food channel show on YouTube. Now The Foundation Hospitality Group (which he formed with partner Jay Perrin and Jim Hustead, and which also operates the Beverly Hills-adjacent Roof on Wilshire, atop Hotel Wilshire) is turning a small space next to The Foundry into a sandwich emporium, dubbed Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese and slated to open in July.
The Foundry on Melrose
The Roof on Wilshire Hotel
Preparing Shabbat dinner “was the highlight of the week,” said Giselle Wellman, 28, about her early devotion as a teenager in San Diego to cooking for her extended clan. It didn’t occur to her that it was unusual for someone her age to plan her activities around preparing a large family meal on Friday nights. Nor did she automatically assume she was destined for a career commanding the stoves.
“There are a lot of chefs in my family, but I was committed to the idea that we go to school, and we become doctors and lawyers,” the now-executive chef at the luxurious Petrossian caviar boutique and restaurant in West Hollywood explained. “Cooking was a hobby until the day my mom came home with an application for a nearby culinary school.” Not satisfied with her choices nearby, Wellman moved to Mexico City, where most of her family has been based since fleeing Eastern Europe during World War II, and she lived there with her grandmother while attending Le Cordon Bleu. Fluent in English and Spanish, Wellman speaks fondly of her family’s cultural hybrid traditions, such as adding a squeeze of lime to chicken matzah ball soup.
A beautiful, simple salad with butter lettuce, shaved egg, mixed fresh herbs, crème fraîche dressing and a sprinkling of, yes, caviar, showcases Wellman’s deft hand when it comes to restrained indulgence. She satisfies the smoked fish fanatics and the ladies-who-lunch crowd, but Wellman also knows her way around a lamb pita sandwich. And if you’ve ever wondered what caviar tastes like atop a perfectly fried latke, Wellman is the chef to enlighten you.
When Long Island-bred, Culinary Institute of America-trained Ilan Hall came to Los Angeles from New York to invest his winnings from Season 2 of “Top Chef,” his location of choice — downtown — reflected the optimism of a new arrival. Opening a restaurant in the lower level of the once lustrous, now scrappy Alexandria Hotel in the Historic Core of the city pinned heavy hopes on the neighborhood’s renaissance. Hall’s bet paid off, and his meat-intensive, cultural mash-up cooking style has drawn customers to the increasingly vibrant intersection of Fifth and Spring streets since opening in 2009. Improvising from his Jerusalem-born mother’s heritage as well as that of his Scottish father, Hall, 31, makes food that is deeply personal. (The restaurant takes its name from Glasgow’s historically Jewish neighborhood where Hall’s father comes from.) “My mom, who doesn’t cook, made really good sandwiches. She made me a hummus and ham sandwich, and it was really marvelous. It was those two ingredients made to be together. That’s where it all began,” Hall told Orit Arfa, writing for jewishjournal.com in 2009.
His in-your-face iconoclastic bacon-wrapped matzah balls might be what got people talking, but the Gorbals has evolved into one of the area’s staple late-night pubs, where folks can order reasonably priced dishes of welsh rarebit, homemade latkes, tongue confit, and Persian cucumbers tossed with crispy garbanzos and sumac.
Photo by Dylan Ho
Chef Karen Hatfield and her husband, Quinn Hatfield, are as close as you get to a fabled L.A. storybook romance. Pacific Palisades-raised Karen, 37, met Quinn while working on the line at Spago, where she was a pastry chef and he was rising through the ranks of Wolfgang Puck’s legendary kitchen. Their first eponymous restaurant occupied an elegantly modest space on Beverly Boulevard, a few blocks east of Fairfax, before they ambitiously decamped to Melrose, near Highland, in the building originally occupied by chef Alain Giraud’s nouvelle cuisine institution, Citrus. The Hatfields’ exacting style fits the site’s pedigree and history. The couple also owns The Sycamore Kitchen on La Brea, a neighborhood utility player where locals drop in for coffee, sandwiches, salads and rustic pastries, including Karen’s notoriously delicious twist on an Old World treat: the salted-caramel babka roll.
The Sycamore Kitchen
Photo by Jessica Ritz
Good thing Jessica Koslow got her alternative career plans out of the way. The Long Beach-bred master food preserver, 32, earned her bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University and a master’s degree in communication, culture and technology from Georgetown before getting on the culinary track in Atlanta, where she started cooking at the lauded restaurant Bacchanalia under the mentorship of chef Anne Quatrano. Koslow moved to New York, and then was transferred home to Los Angeles while producing online content for “American Idol,” when she started delving more deeply into food preservation and baking. In the interim, she returned to Atlanta for a bit to help Quatrano open another restaurant. Back in L.A., Koslow began making and selling small batches of delicately flavored jams (Pakistani mulberry, Thai basil), and when her production needs exceeded capacity in the commercial kitchen space she borrowed, she found her own place on Virgil Avenue in East Hollywood to create Sqirl, her micro café, which attracts diners willing to consume $5 coffee and brioche toast piled with market greens, preserved lemon and slivered beets topped with an egg while sitting on a stretch of sidewalk that can hardly be described as glamorous.
Koslow still makes the popular jams, and she constantly returns to Jewish pickling; hulking dark brown ceramic fermenting crocks full of caraway-laced sauerkraut and kosher dill pickles can always be spotted somewhere around the kitchen at Sqirl. She maintains a discerning eye for top, peak-season ingredients and zero tolerance for short cuts (current project: mastering beef tongue pastrami). “Jewish food is very comforting. I think of it in terms of the home and family,” Koslow observed. “It’s what I know, and these things resonate.” Because she’s found an ever-expanding audience, the under-construction space next door to Sqirl will contain a provisions shop.
The Italian-themed Bestia, located inside a converted industrial building in the downtown Arts District, has been buzzing since day one, thanks to chef Ori Menashe’s spectacular house-made, intensely flavored pastas, pizzas pulled out of the wood-burning oven at the right nanosecond and an extensive selection of his aromatic, expertly handled charcuterie. Salads and other vegetable-focused dishes at Bestia reflect the chef’s passion for Southern California produce, which is equal to his faith in his customers’ willingness to order grilled lamb heart with sprouted arugula.
The Los Angeles-born, then Israel-raised Menashe, 32, comes from a mostly kosher household. He started flouting the rules upon eating his first cheeseburger when he was around 15. “That’s when I thought I could change my own direction,” he said, noting that he felt freer to explore traditions and ingredients outside of his family’s kosher home. He’s cooked in L.A. kitchens ranging from a café in Kosher Corridor, to Angelini Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza, before the omnipresent restaurateur Bill Chait (also the man behind Sotto; see below) came calling. Menashe’s wife, Genevieve Gergis, is Bestia’s acclaimed pastry chef. His Israeli upbringing, in combination with his parents’ Georgian and Moroccan roots, enriches his professional toolkit. Said Menashe: “A lot of my flavor profile is because of my dad,” who still owns a restaurant in Israel. “He’s really talented.”
Photo by Emily Hart Roth
Westside restaurant power couple Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb met in the kitchen of Rustic Canyon, the Wilshire Boulevard restaurant Loeb founded and had named in honor of his beloved Santa Monica neighborhood. They’ve since married and had a son, Milo, all while continuing to make their mark among a receptive community. Chef Nathan, 31, who spent time at Mario Batali’s Lupa in New York and San Francisco’s seminal Tartine Bakery, keeps expanding her pastry and savory repertoires, from wood-fired pizzas at Milo & Olive to small-batch ice creams at Sweet Rose Creamery, to sandwiches at casual café Huckleberry, which she co-owns with entrepreneur Loeb. Despite this breadth, Nathan primarily identifies as a pastry chef and baker. The couple’s businesses are a natural extension of their values and worldview. “Zoe and I are much more culturally religious than actually practicing religious, but ultimately food is our religion as much as anything,” Loeb, 38, explained. During the holidays, Nathan notes that “brisket is a mainstay on the menu at Huck, and my flavors in a lot of my food are a play of salty and sweet.” Also of note: Now helming the Rustic Canyon kitchen is Executive Chef Jeremy Fox, a 2008 Food & Wine Best New Chef and 2009 Bon Appetit Best Chef (and Member of the Tribe), who brings the deeply seasonal, highly refined, gorgeously composed style he developed at Manresa in Los Gatos and Ubuntu in Napa.
Milo & Olive
Sweet Rose Creamery
Zach Pollack, 29, who along with Steve Samson, runs Sotto Italian restaurant on West Pico, near Beverly Drive, grew up "quite Reform" in Westwood. His mother was born in Germany to refugees who immigrated to the United States "in the aftermath of the Holocaust," Pollack said. “We took Jewish cultural traditions seriously,” he noted, and religious practice less so, although he did have a bar mitzvah.
Pollack’s formative professional conversion can be traced to his junior year abroad in Florence, Italy; after graduating from Brown University, he returned to Italy to fully develop his passion for its cooking. (Samson was raised in an interfaith family that didn’t regularly observe Jewish rituals.) The duo brings a seriousness of purpose and commitment to quality to a block not previously known for culinary accomplishment. That was until Sotto and its upstairs neighbor, chef Ricardo Zarate’s Picca Peruvian cantina, transformed their eclectic colonial townhouse building into a dining destination. At lunch and dinner, the cozy subterranean room is packed with diners sharing hearty plates of grilled meatballs with bitter greens, deliciously funky blistered pizzas, traditional Italian dishes that use quintessentially West Coast ingredients such as Fresno chilies and formidable protein dishes paired with seasonal vegetables.
Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Microsoft
Jon Shook and his business partner, Vinny Dotolo, opened their first restaurant in the heart of the Fairfax District among the delis, Judaica shops and skater hangouts. But if you expect Animal to share anything in common with its next-door neighbor and landlord, the kosher icon Schwartz Bakery and Café, let us disabuse you of any such notions immediately. (Their lease agreement actually includes a non-kosher clause.) “It’s kind of random that we ended up on Fairfax,” Shook remarked, “but it’s been interesting.” Both Florida natives, Dotolo and Shook, 32, were among the city’s first ambassadors of the nose-to-tail philosophy and approach. And yet despite Shook’s love of a “Jewish-grandma-style brisket,” they’re far from being a one-trick pony extreme-meat shtick. The Shook/Dotolo brand has thrived with their seafood-focused Son of a Gun on Third Street, near La Cienega, which also happens to serve a crave-inducing fried chicken sandwich, along with the stellar petite lobster roll and raw seafood dishes infused with unexpected flavors.
They’ve also opened Trois Mec (the name roughly translates as “three dudes”), a partnership with celebrated French chef Ludo Lefebvre, who is arguably best known for his series of highly in-demand pop-up dinners called LudoBites. This collaborative project is tucked within a former Raffalo’s strip mall pizza shop catty-corner from Silverton’s Mozza, and immediately attracted accolades for the inventive prix fixe menu that changes almost daily. The restaurant’s system, requiring advance purchase of a meal in lieu of making a traditional reservation, much like a cultural event, also got attention. Any resulting criticism hasn’t impacted the bottom line — Trois Mec’s 24 seats remain among the hottest tickets in town. The most recent news out of the Shook/Dotolo camp is a vague plan announced via Instagram to take over the Damiano’s space on Fairfax; it helps that they own the building.
Son of a Gun
“I didn’t set out to say I want to be the modern Jewish chef,” Micah Wexler, 30, explained at Reboot’s “Who’s Your Bubbie?” panel at the Skirball last November. “These were the flavors I grew up around, [and they] started to manifest more and more.” So it additionally stung when Wexler, who has staged in some of Europe’s most famous kitchens, was getting into the groove of revisiting the Ashkenazic culinary canon at his pan-Mediterranean Mezze restaurant on La Cienega then had to close down suddenly due to construction next door.
Losing that venue as a home base for his Old World-meets-New, market-driven dishes, including chopped chicken livers with apple mostarda, farm egg shakshouka, soujouk sausage with muhammara and veal jus, and smoked sablefish with lebne, has by no means kept him out of the L.A. food scene, however. Wexler is currently in the midst of his second stint at Umamicatessen’s Residency project downtown, cooking multicourse dinners in an open kitchen surrounded by customers seated at his counter for a very specific experience. The configuration makes for a social, interactive Saturday night, as does the conceit. For the current “Dead Chefs” theme, continuing through July, Wexler turns to the canon to cook recipes from a different historical culinary giant for each of the 10 weeks, starting with Marie-Antoine Careme and concluding with Julia Child.
“To Live and Dine in L.A.,” Wexler’s previous, inaugural session of the program, took a specific geographical approach, with nights dedicated to saluting the best of Pico Boulevard and exploring the diverse heritage Boyle Heights, among other communities. Wexler might have made an Israeli cheese-stuffed borek in reference to Eilat Market, but not one you’d typically expect. (Hint: Bacon was involved.)
A graduate of Milken Community High School, Wexler and his business partner (and fellow Cornell University alum) Mike Kassar, are setting their sights on settling down again, in a new locale, in the coming months.
The Residency at Umamicatessen