LA Chef David Schlosser – The early years

(Originally published December 6, 2015 on Examiner.com).

In the West, especially for chefs who’ve been through culinary school, the foundation of a chef’s training is classical French technique. The language and organization of a western chef’s kitchen is also rooted in French culinary tradition. Thus whatever the nationality or descent of a sous chef, chef de partie or chef de cuisine, he or she has been trained to make stocks, sauces, and mirepoix plus set-up his or her mise en place like a French chef. Possibly because of the history of colonization, no one ever thinks twice about or questions the authenticity of someone from or of Vietnamese, Mexican, or Korean descent making and mastering French or French inspired cuisine. Such chefs may cook one style of French inspired food in commercial kitchens and another at home reflecting their respective cultural heritages. Ultimately some of these chefs may also return to their respective ethnic cuisines but utilize the classical techniques they’ve learned to transform and reinterpret the dishes they grew up with eating as children.

 Then there are those chefs without any culinary heritage, particularly American chefs of mixed second or third generation parents, who grew up eating a modern American diet that included fast and processed foods. These chefs really have no culinary history. Thus in many ways, they’re clean slates and open minded not only to the classical traditions but also to other culinary traditions. For some of these chefs, the result may be fusion or, just as likely, con-fusion. For others, they may pursue a traditional western path. And still for others, they may pursued that traditional Western path before becoming enamored with the food of another culture despite a huge investment in time and labor to follow such an long and winding path.

The chef, David Schlosser, at downtown Los Angeles’ Shibumi restaurant grew up in Santa Monica in a family without any cooks. He never went to any Japanese restaurants. His very Jewish American dad, a dentist, took the family out for Chinese food on Christmas. But not having many Asian friends growing up back in the 70’s and 80’s on LA’s West Side, this was the pretty much the extent of David’s exposure to any Asian cuisine. With food in David’s house, in general, dining wasn’t aspirational. David grew up eating canned beets and beans. David didn’t even try lobster until he was eighteen. Back in 1995, David started working in restaurant kitchens while a student at Santa Monica Community College. He worked part time at 72 Market Street owned by Dudley Moore which, at that time, was a very “hot” super hip French restaurant in Venice in the 1980’s and 1990’s. David worked in the basement kitchen, not the restaurant kitchen, prepping with Latinos new to this country who spoke zero English. He broke down lettuces, ducks and chickens as well as cleaned and scrubbed. Despite not speaking any Spanish, at that time, David completely loved this work environment. When September came around, which meant going back to school full time, David told his mom that he didn’t want to go back to school. He’d rather stay working in the restaurant kitchen. So David asked the chef at 72 Market Street if he could stay, and the chef said absolutely David could stay. After three months, the chef gave David a full time position. After another three months, David moved to the upstairs restaurant kitchen where he fell even more in love with his kitchen work environment. David was in this kitchen for a year where he worked his way up from lowest position to prepping for lunch, making salads, shucking oysters and butchering fish. He was always a day-time guy, but he made it upstairs so he was proud of himself especially since he was only nineteen

David ended up leaving this job to go to the Culinary Institute of America, the CIA, in Hyde Park, New York considered by many the top culinary school in the United States. According to David, the chefs that are mentors at this two year program were incredible. So this was an amazing experience for David. He did an internship in NYC and worked at a few famous places by David Burke and Charlie Palmer, who were on their way up at that time in the 1990’s, while still in school. When he graduated school, he was the only person in his class to get a job in a three starred Michelin restaurant. This first job after graduation was in the south of France at a restaurant called Georges Blanc. The chef was monsieur Georges Blanc. This restaurant was spectacular with twenty seven chefs in the kitchen serving only fifty covers a night: A temple of fine cuisine. When David started he spoke zero French except for a few words like poulet. But he picked the language up very quickly. He felt honored to be there. The other cooks and chefs treated him well because they all saw how fast and hard he worked. They put him on salads. In France, garde manger is a very high level position. Whereas in the United States, this position is the opposite; it’s a low position. Garde manger is a high level position in France because this position does terrines, truffle prep, foie preparations in addition to other items. Additionally because of his butchering experience from his first job in the kitchen in Venice, they also allowed him to cut some fish. So they put David in the fish station with the head fish guy who worked with him. Over the course of three months, David got to pop around a bit and help everyone. Just before his third and final month at Georges Blanc was almost complete David told Chef Blanc that he wanted to go work at another restaurant called L’Esperance, another three starred Michelin restaurant in Burgundy. Chef Blanc told David that he knew the chef at L’Esperance for thirty eight years and that Blanc would just give the chef, Marc Meneau, a call. So Blanc gave Meneau a call and the next thing David knew he was in Burgundy

Marc Meneau was another very famous chef at this time. His restaurant like Blanc’s was very classical. This was pre-modern, pre-Fat Duck cuisine. The menu was seasonal, but David was surprised the ingredients weren’t as amazing as he expected. Despite this surprise, the technique was so high that the finished product was a work of art. The butter was also the best in the world. David was here at this restaurant for another three months. These werestages. They paid for housing and food only, no salary. His position was below that of the sixteen and seventeen year old vocational school kids in the kitchen. David at this time was twenty two years old so it was tough having a sixteen year old bossing him around. So he had to be humble. Yelling back wasn’t an option, or the chef would immediately kick him out of his kitchen. So he just had to keep your mouth shut and bite his lip. Besides David felt it was such an honor to be working in this kitchen so he sucked it up. Besides David felt the work environment really wasn’t that bad. Towards the end of my three months, like David had done before with Chef Blanc, he asked Chef Meneau to help him get a place in the kitchen of a restaurant Paris called Lucas Carton, another three starred Michelin restaurant in Paris. David recalled Meneau saying, that’s very difficult to get you a spot there because everyone in France wants to work there. But Meneau called, and Lucas Carton ended up giving David a spot with one caveat, he had to pay for his own housing. So he got no housing or pay, but they fed him. So David had to get an apartment in Paris, but now he was in the big leagues at Lucas Carton which was one of the top restaurants in Europe at that time in the mid-nineties.

Lucas Carton was a five month stage. David recalled once at Lucas Carton, they were messing up and Chef Alain Senderens sat everyone down. Senderens told the crew, you guys don’t have a clue how many resumes the restaurant received every week. Everyone wanted to work here in Lucas Carton’s kitchen. Senderens and his team weren’t really yelling at David because he was temporary. But this experience made David understand how valuable this experience was. He and everyone else working in the kitchen could have just replaced at any time. So the quality of skill of all the cooks was very high because they could really pick and choose from the cream of the crop.

One of the biggest things David learned at Lucas Carton was how that kitchen made its stock. Learning how they did their stock was invaluable. At the two prior restaurants where he staged, he learned how these kitchens made their stocks as well. So he got to learn how to do stocks from three masters in three different three starred Michelin restaurants. Whereas cooks in these kitchen typically work ten years under only one master and thus learn only the one style of the kitchen that they’re in. So David got to learn three styles of stocks which are the base of sauces which are the key to all French food. These stocks are a key element that each restaurant did differently. Describing the differences between these three kitchen’s stocks is quite lengthy. So a short version begins with Georges Blanc where they did white and brown stocks. Focusing further in on just the brown stocks, they clarified all their stocks. Before they clarified a dark poultry stock, they’d do a duck and then a chicken stock plus also a more exotic pheasant or pigeon stock. But since they didn’t have the same quantity of pigeon and chicken stocks, they’d blend the stocks from the different birds into a base dark stock and then clarify that. The whole process was intense. There’s also a lot more detail. Then at L’Esperance, Chef Meneau’s stocks were all done overnight. So at night they made all of your stocks at 10 PM. There were eight ovens in the kitchen. They would get everything up to a boil and then get everything into the ovens at two hundred ten degrees Fahrenheit, and in the morning they had people come in and all the stocks were done. This was there thing. At Lucas Carton, they didn’t do any clarifying.

By the end of his third stage, David was getting really tired. He didn’t see much of France, plus the female thing was really bad. These kitchens didn’t have any women. The front of house at these restaurants also didn’t have any women. Back then in the mid-nineties, if there were fifty people working in a restaurant there was only one female. So for David basically living at these restaurants, the female thing was terrible.

Despite this and being tired, David persevered and landed his fourth stage in Paris at L’Arpege with Chef Alain Passard (trained by Chef Senderens). This restaurant was the most modern by far. Because David just completed five months at Lucas Carton, relatively speaking, his next few months at L’Arpege were easy in comparison. Plus David was now part of the Paris crew. Back when David was in the kitchen at L’Arpege, Passard wasn’t focusing on his vegetable oriented menu yet like he is now. Passard also wasn’t in the kitchen every day. Passard’s chef de cuisine ran the day to day operations. What made L’Arpege different than all the other places was not just that it was modern, but he didn’t make stocks: No stocks in the kitchen. How does that works? It’s all jus. So, for example, with a chicken breast, they’d take it out of the pan and put it on a plate, rub it with butter and then let it rest for ten minutes. All of the juices from the chicken breast come out onto the plate with the butter. They then put a little bit of salt and white pepper on the plate. They cut the chicken on the plate. They take the plate and dump the sauce. And that’s how they did all their meats. At that time, no one else was doing that so Passard was pretty radical. This method was really clean. David spent three months in Passard’s kitchen at L’Arpege.

As an American, his time in kitchens in France was always tough. He couldn’t change being an American, plus he wasn’t a salaried position so he wasn’t going to take the job of the guy who has been on the fish for six years. David was just there temporarily. Though by the time David was at L’Arpege, he was basically speaking French so he was able to freely communicate with all the other cooks who were interested in the other places David had worked. Many of these cooks had been in their kitchens for seven years or eight years or more. So they only knew how L’Arpege worked. So they asked David what was going on at Georges Blanc and Lucas Carton. They were very curious. So David was able to form a very special connection with the other cooks because he just worked in some other restaurants that they respected. Still David was so humbled by his time in these kitchens and felt honored to get the opportunities to work in them.

David was in France for about a year and four months. By the end of his stay, he just couldn’t do it anymore. He was dead. All these kitchens were freaking intense. He’d a work six days a week really long hours and always sleep on the seventh day. He’d go to the park with a bottle of wine and a baguette, eat the bread and pass out.

When David came back from France, he heard about this restaurantL’Orangerie with an up and coming chef named Ludovic Lefebvre. So David went to the restaurant and started talking to the concierge in French. The concierge directed David to go to the back to the kitchen. David went into the kitchen, and encountered Ludo who asked David what he wanted. David said in English he was looking for a job and Ludo promptly told David to leave. So David started to talk to Ludo in French. David said that he just came back from working in France. Ludo asked David where David worked, to which David responded that he just finished working at L’Arpege. Since that’s where Ludo worked before he came to the United States, there immediately was a huge connection. So Ludo told David to come back at night to watch. So David came and watched for a night. After that night, Ludo hired David and gave him a really high position right below the meat station. The restaurant was great and David had a great time. This was 1999. This was also when the restaurant lost its mobile five star review which was very unfortunate. When David got hired, Ludo had been at the restaurant for around a year and a half. Ludo’s cuisine was pretty radical so there was some wild stuff. David was there just a year at which point he told Ludo he wanted to move on. Ludo, in turn, got David a position working for one of his friends as the head chef of this place on Melrose called Balthazar. But unfortunately that position didn’t work out. The place was kind of a mess and didn’t stay open for very long.

So next David got into being a private chef for a bunch of celebrities. He enjoyed this, though wasn’t sure what his future would entail. This was towards the end of 2000. He had built a strong foundation based on classical French technique plus paid his dues in a number of well-regarded kitchens so going further down this well-traveled path seemed likely. Though little did David realize that a three day layover in Tokyo, on his way to a four week trip in Thailand, would soon change his life and send him down an entirely different culinary pathway…

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