Since this blog's inception in 2013, I've struggled with two things. One is finding the time to actually write, as I've averaged about 2-3 posts a year ("Not great, Bob!"). The second is finding Hollywood Gourmand's niche, it's identity, it's purpose.
To quickly recap: I began this blog as a way to document my adventures on the road working freelance in TV (which is why it was originally called Distant Hire). Then I took a studio job and moved back to Los Angeles. Distant Hire was quickly rebooted as Hollywood Gourmand, "an LA based food and travel blog." Six months after the rebrand, my wife became pregnant with twins. As a freshly minted father, I can safely say that globetrotting is not in our near future.
Food, then. LA food.
I've always had a love hate relationship with Los Angeles. That's why I spent so much time on the road in the first place. But after three and half years away, I was legitimately excited to return. Because the media was heralding the arrival of the LA food scene. Everyone from Vice to the Huffington Post was declaring that Los Angeles had replaced New York as America's culinary capital. Bon Appetit named Alma as the best new restaurant of 2013, crowed about Grand Central Market in 2014, and gave LA 2 of its top 3 spots in 2015 (Gjusta, Petit Trois). And while I was suspicious of the fact that this same media was proclaiming Los Angeles as the new Brooklyn, it did seem like a lot of talented Brooklyn chefs were moving west.
So why did my love hate relationship with Los Angeles quickly spill over to its food scene?
To be sure, I didn't expect LA to be great at everything. I knew it didn't have a fighters chance at competing with NYC when it comes to fine dining. NYC has six 3 Michelin star restaurants, Los Angeles doesn't even have its own Michelin guide (not since 2009, anyway). And that's OK, if I'm looking for a three star experience, I can just head up to SF and empty my wallet at Saison. But I had hoped for progressive cooking. And outside of one glorious Mexican restaurant in an Orange County shopping plaza, I was having a difficulty finding it.
It would be easy to pin blame on the chefs and restaurants. But the truth is, they are just reacting to the demands of the public. And that's really the heart of the problem here - the dining culture in Los Angeles. Cool and casual, Angelenos abhor white-tablecloth service. They reject the tyranny of tasting menus. And forget anything that even approaches avant-garde cooking, the recent shuttering of Red Medicine and Alma proved that (Alma has since reemerged in a West Hollywood hotel, serving an a la carte menu, natch).
I've spoken with a number of chefs about the shortcomings of our local food scene. Their opinions are about as widely varied as you might expect. One chef defended LA and claimed New Yorkers only make more enthusiastic diners because of the small size of their apartments. Another lamented the unwillingness of Angelenos to spend money on ethnic food (unless it's sushi), a problem Pok Pok's Andy Ricker recently addressed. Most mentioned the volume of new restaurants opening in Los Angeles outpacing customer demand, especially downtown. The stiff competition has hurt business while creating flaky diners in the process. One chef/owner told me he has 50% same day cancellations at his restaurant, another told me his is 75%. Contrast that with SF and NYC, where diners must make reservations 30 days in advance just to book a table at a popular restaurant. Or in Tokyo, where canceling a reservation is considered culturally dishonorable. Combined with the rising cost of labor due to healthcare/minimum wage laws, these last minute cancellations destroy already razor thin margins.
It's no wonder that many chefs seem unwilling to take risks in LA. It's a losing proposition.
So that's the bad, the "hate" in my love/hate relationship with the food in this town. But there's a lot of good here, too. Once I got over my initial disappointment of everything Los Angeles is not, I started focusing on LA's considerable strengths. Such as...
Product. LA chefs have access to some of the best ingredients in the world. They know it too. When I spoke to Ari Taymor about his Alma pop-up at Contra, he raved about the NYC restaurant but lamented having to cook without his normal ingredients. Shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket is not the same. Not when you're used to Santa Monica, the premiere Farmer's Market in the country. Dorothy and I recently visited this twice weekly organic Garden of Eden and were amazed by the colorful bounty we saw. And that's just fruits and vegetables. Chefs also have access to an abundance of seafood from our coast, from sea urchins and spot prawns to sardines and squid.
The best chefs in Los Angeles let these ingredients do the talking. Like Jessica Koslow at Sqirl. Or Jeremy Fox at Rustic Canyon Wine Bar, whose own journey to this city is a remarkable one. In 2007, Chef Fox helmed the kitchen of Ubuntu, a vegetarian restaurant connected to a yoga studio in Napa Valley. By 2008, he had earned a Michelin star, Food & Wine nominated him for Best New Chef and the New York Times declared Ubuntu the second best restaurant outside of New York. By 2010, however, he had crashed and burned, mysteriously leaving Ubuntu and was unable to hold onto a job afterwards. And so, after squandering whatever goodwill he had left in the Bay Area, he headed south to Los Angeles, hoping for a fresh start.
Mission accomplished. He's found a home at Rustic Canyon, instantly transforming it into one of the best restaurants in our area. Chef Fox is cooking meat now, and cooking it exceptionally well. But he still has an incredible touch with vegetables. Suffice it to say a recent meal there left us in awe. This is the kind of cooking local chefs should aspire to.
But LA's biggest strength is its incredible diversity. I know it's become cliche to say but it's absolutely true - when it comes to ethnic food, Los Angeles reigns supreme. Seriously, name any region in the world you want to taste, chances are we've got it here. To find the best examples of said cuisine, you either need to follow Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Gold on twitter...or simply go where the cooks live. East LA for Central American and Mexican, Central LA for Korean, Glendale for Armenian and Middle Eastern, San Gabriel Valley for Chinese, Westminster for Vietnamese.
My wife Dorothy is half Vietnamese, so for her, there was no better place to celebrate this year's Lunar New Year than in Little Saigon. There, we met up with Shawn Pham, chef/owner of Simbal Restaurant in DTLA, who took us on a local food crawl. We began at Brodard, eating their famous spring rolls, went to a neighboring banquet hall to feast on a whole broiled catfish, then wrapped things up down the street at a crowded dessert shop, trying an assortment of Vietnamese sweets. It was a great afternoon of eating, at half the cost we would pay in the city.
Although born and raised here, like us, Shawn Pham only recently moved back to Los Angeles. For three years he lived in Vietnam, and his time abroad informed the menu at Simbal, with smart modern takes on traditional Thai and Vietnamese dishes. Like the Bahn Mi Salad, a playful deconstruction of the Vietnamese classic featuring croutons in place of a french baguette. Shawn Pham is just one of a growing number of locals chef using their unique palates as a basis for their cooking, coming up with clever riffs off the ethnic food they grew up eating. The most well known of this movement is of course Roy Choi, whose Kogi BBQ food truck led to a mash-up empire that now includes several restaurants, a hotel and a fast-food chain. But perhaps the hottest right now is Ray Garcia, whose East LA meets French technique made Broken Spanish and Broken Spanish Taqueria two of the top openings last year.
So, after twenty months of sitting on the fence about Los Angeles, I'm all in. Sure, I may periodically stalk the Instagram feeds of my favorite NYC restaurants. And I'll definitely continue to daydream about my next meal in Tokyo. But at a time in my life when I can no longer travel internationally, I feel incredibly lucky to live in a city whose diversity makes that a non-issue.