Chef Alex Reznik wants to be very clear: He did not just open a new kosher restaurant on Pico Boulevard.
He opened a contemporary American restaurant that just happens to be kosher.
The irony is palpable. Here’s a Jewish former “Top Chef” contestant who, after years of saying, “Kosher food is not chef food,” is now running the recently opened Ditmas Kitchen & Cocktail, already a trending kosher restaurant in Los Angeles. It’s the kind of place that manages to have New York-style soft pretzels with horseradish mustard on the same menu as fettuccine arrabiata.
Dressed semi-casually in jeans and a blue button-down shirt during a recent visit — and sporting a bushy beard and thick glasses — the 37-year-old chef talked about his culinary beginnings in Brooklyn and how they led to Ditmas.
“I always had a passion for cooking, but I never thought I’d actually be a career chef,” Reznik said.
He described family meals as being heavier on nourishment than on creativity. “My mother would have soup, salad, some kind of entrée, a starch and a vegetable every day,” said Reznik, who was born in Ukraine but left as a child, growing up in a Conservative Jewish family on Ditmas Avenue and East Ninth Street in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood.
On Shabbat, the family walked down Ditmas Avenue to his grandmother’s house for a similar Ashkenazic meal, only this time, it was fancier — the table had a tablecloth.
It is this dichotomy, Reznik said, that is behind the layout and design of Ditmas Kitchen & Cocktail. The left half of the restaurant features a long, wooden communal table for large groups, a well-stocked liquor collection and a few booths. None of the tables, though, has tablecloths — reminiscent of weeknight dinners at the Reznik home.
To the right is formal dining. The tables have tablecloths, the lighting is warmer and cozier, and the perfectly placed chinaware and small, intimate tables make it feel more like Shabbat dinners at Grandma’s.
The casual/formal division allows Ditmas to be a spot for both empty-nesters and the 25-year-old bachelor who wants to grab steak and a beer with his friends.
Reznik seems as surprised as anyone at his successful cooking career and that his name has become widely known within many professional cooking circles. After all, in his 20s, he was working as a videographer for weddings and bar mitzvahs. A career in cooking did not appear to be on the horizon.
When he was 25, though, Reznik remembers thinking to himself: “I’m actually really good at this, and people really like to eat my food.” So he packed his bags and headed west, eventually settling in Las Vegas to study at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. His first two professional cooking gigs were at Lutéce, formerly located at the Venetian, and Bally’s.
Reznik never looked back. In 2008, he moved to Los Angeles to work at Ivan Kane’s Café Was — which now, like its name, is in the past tense, closed. Not knowing Los Angeles and its neighborhoods at the time, Reznik said he didn’t realize that a fancy restaurant on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street “might not be the perfect location.”
During a Vegas trip with a buddy during his stint at Café Was, Reznik was enjoying a Bloody Mary when his friend noticed that Bravo’s “Top Chef” cooking competition show was holding auditions in the hotel where they were staying. His friend begged him to give it a shot. Reluctantly, Reznik gave in, not expecting much.
“They asked me some questions, like, ‘Why do you want to be on the show?’ ” Reznik said, laughing as he retold the story. “I said, ‘I don’t really want to be on the show. I just came for a Bloody Mary.’ ”
Perhaps Reznik’s honesty impressed “Top Chef’s” recruiting staff, because they chose Reznik — sporting a soul patch and postmodern glasses back then — to be one of 17 contestants in its seventh season, which aired in 2010. The experience was a valuable one, despite what may have been some creative editing that left the chef with a bad taste in his mouth.
It’s known among “Top Chef” enthusiasts as the “pea puree scandal.” During one episode, each contestant was required to make a variation on any of five classic protein-heavy dishes. Participant Ed Cotton was unable to find the English peas that he had purchased earlier, while Reznik, it so happened, made a delicious pea puree.
Cotton and some other chefs not so subtly suggested that Reznik stole the peas, and editors played up that plot twist, cutting to a sort of devilishly smiling Reznik after he told the camera, “I would never steal anything. It’s not even in my thought process.”
“At first I thought it was really funny,” Reznik said. “And then it became very viral. People actually thought that was in my character to possibly steal something.”
That issue aside, Reznik said the experience taught him a lot, and he advanced deep into the show, finishing in the top seven.
Not long after taping “Top Chef,” Reznik returned to Los Angeles, taking a job as head chef at La Seine, a kosher Asian-fusion spot in Beverly Hills that closed in 2012, only a year and a half after it opened. He also had a stint at FigOly, a now-closed Italian restaurant that was located across from Staples Center.
Although Reznik’s time at LaSeine was short-lived, it taught him to think about using kosher food in ways that can be seen in Ditmas’ diverse, gourmet menu.
“We don’t have to put fake scallops on a menu and fake bacon and fake cheese,” he said, offering commentary on his belief that too many kosher restaurants offer lower-quality kosher variations on non-kosher dishes.
“Use the ingredients you have,” Reznik said, referring to the traditional Jewish ingredients of his childhood. “You have lamb bellies, and you have great cuts of beef, and you have great chicken.”
And that’s what he has worked hard to do — mix these homey foods with professional training and modern techniques to create his dream: a kosher restaurant so tasty you may just forget that it’s kosher.