LA Chef David Bartnes

(Originally published July 18, 2014 on Examiner.com).

Since this article was written, the restaurant b.o.s. closed and Chef Bartnes has worked for a different restaurant. 

Chefs draw inspiration from a variety of places for their plates of food. Some are inspired by their childhood experiences, others by their travels or time spent in the kitchens of their mentors. Still other are inspired by specific ingredients or the freshest produce at the market that day. Often inspiration comes from some sort of a combination or amalgam of all of these things. At b.o.s. in Little Tokyo, Chef David Bartnes’ menu is a collection of memories from all the places he has lived, studied and worked in Asia, Europe and most recently here in Los Angeles.

Though born in Oregon, David moved with his Korean mother back to Korea after his Caucasian father, a service man, died in a training accident before David was born. David lived in Korea until he was nine years old. He then moved to Hong with his mom and his German step father who his mom met in Korea. After that year in Hong Kong, David’s family moved to Singapore where he attended British curriculum school. At this international school, United World College of South East Asia, he met people from all walks of life. Through his friends, David was influenced a lot by what they were eating. Many days after school he’d be found eating satays, roti’s and curries while hanging out with his friends and classmates who were either locals or from places as far away as Canada, Australia, India and South Africa.

While in Asia growing up as an expat, David traveled a lot with his parents throughout Asia, North America and Europe for both family vacations, as well as a part of his stepfather’s work. Much of his travel included plenty of eating out and staying in a lot of hotels. At a young age, this left a deep impression. So much so that when he was seven years old David knew he was destined to work in the service industry in some way.

At the age of 16, David’s family received a transfer to move to Chicago. However with his British schooling, a move to the US at the time would have proved to be too much of a change, so David was next off to England to finish high school. A life with a desk job wasn’t something David ever aspired to pursue. Not the best in school, he dabbled in music and was on the path to discovering himself when one day David had an epiphany. He wanted to be a chef. He liked cooking for friends. He liked the reaction he got when his friends enjoyed what he prepared. So rather than continue down the path of further education, he enrolled in culinary school where he attended the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in London. Here he learned classical technique.

After school David got an offer to stage at the Hilton Hotel in Shanghai, China where his parents had just moved after their time in Chicago. At this time, China hadn’t yet economically boomed. The Hilton Hotel was one of only a few hotels there in Shanghai and thus had a good crowd particularly of ex‐patriots that lived in China. Here, catering to that crowd, David did everything from Italian cuisine to working in the chocolate room to the butchery to the baking room. From the Japanese chef who trained at the Tokyo bay Hilton, David learned how to do Japanese cuisine at a teppan table that was inside the Hilton’s Italian restaurant. Volume was intense. In the bakery alone, the hotel’s crew made enough bread to serve four thousand people a day. Needless to say, this was a big operation.

After a year, Bartnes finished this stage position. He then got a job offer to run the kitchen at a golf course in Phuket, a small island off of Southeast Thailand, at the Blue Canyon Country Club known in SE Asia for holding PGA tournaments. So he went there and helped out in the “Western kitchen” doing everything from burgers to pasta. Business was slow especially at night since the clientele was golfers. These golfers, noticing his frustrations introduced him to the places they would eat at in the evenings. One restaurant, The Siam Supper club, caught David’s attention. It was a style of food that took him back to great city restaurants in the US and UK. He spoke with the chefs and still hungry for work, he helped out at the restaurant a couple nights of the week working the pizza and appetizer stations, and learning the ropes which eventually turned into a job offer which he took. After the two chefs and first real mentors he was working for left to open a restaurant in New York City, David’s parents and uncle bought out the restaurant’s owners, and had David run the kitchen.

David had a lot of fun living and working in Thailand. All of the ingredients for the restaurant were sourced from Thailand except for the beef. As with many places in Asia, beef is imported from Australia. But he had a good source for duck, and used the freshest tuna. Chickens were pasture raised from the local markets along with most of the vegetables except for salad greens which were grown in the north of Thailand and picked up once a week at the airport. So this was David’s first hand at being local and sustainable that used the local ingredients and supported the people who made a business supporting ex‐pats and their tastes. He cooked what the restaurant called “big city American fare.”

Outside the restaurant he was into eating all the local Thai food as much and as often as he could. This included spicy southern Thai curries that were heavily influenced by Malaysians and all the traders that have passed through during the years, as well as fried chicken at the markets with fresh papaya salads.Though after three years on Phuket looking at Palm trees and beaches, David experienced his first taste of burn‐out. He hadn’t left the island during this entire time. On a trip to Bangkok, he was overwhelmed by all the activity: the smells, sights, sounds, and traffic. It was information overload. He decided then and there that he needed to get off of the island before he went nuts or wouldn’t ever be able to integrate back into city life again. He took the bold step and moved back to Shanghai, which by then was starting to boom.

Before returning to Shanghai, David traveled to Europe and New York City. While in Europe, he spent time at a friend’s chalet in the Haute-Savoie in Southern France where he went mushroom picking and trout fishing. In New York City he went on what he describes as an “eating fest”. Re‐inspired by his travels, David made his way to Shanghai. In Shanghai, David was involved a number of different projects ranging from a Danish/German Beer House to a running a night club, and a museum restaurant. He was also catering for large scale events like the inaugural PGA Players Championship with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickleson and the whole PGA line‐ up. For that four day event, David’s team served food to over six thousand people per day. Plus he consulted on a number of little projects learning the business side of things as well as worked for an investment company.

In China, David explored its vast cuisines. His favorite restaurant served food from Hunan Provence. Considered the bread basket of China, Hunan has a very unique cuisine that uses a wide range of spices. He fell in love. The food is hot and flavorful not dank and oily like Szechuan cuisine sometimes is and minus the mountains of Szechuan peppercorns and dried chilies. He sometimes craved Szechun cuisine but he could eat Hunan food every day. He also got into the sweeter Shanghainese, cuisine which is very sweet with a lot of sweet soy sauce. China was definitely a culinary wonderland for him with so many different ways of preparing ingredients. He dabbled in Chinese cuisine but loves it more for the memories it’s served for his palate. As he did in Singapore and Thailand’s outdoor markets and food stalls, he’d sit on the street and watch and absorb the activity of the people in the stalls making food.

During his stay in China, David eventually got married to an American Chinese expat who he knew through the expat community in Shanghai. Her desire after marriage was to move back to the US to be closer to her family and start he own family. So his wife took a job in Los Angeles. David had never thought about living in Los Angeles, nor really even imagined at all moving back to the US. The last time he had been to LA was when he was all but seven years old. He, as with most of the world, thought Los Angeles was all about Disneyland, Hollywood, and gangsta rap as well as being a massive concrete jungle. This wasn’t a move he was overly joyed about. However almost immediately after he arrived, he quickly fell in love with LA.

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Now living in Los Angeles, b.o.s. Chef David Bartnes spent a short time in a restaurant in West Hollywood before, at his wife’s insistence, taking a job in a hotel kitchen. With a baby on the way, taking the CDC position at Sai Sai Restaurant in the Biltmore Hotel was a more secure and smart move to make at that time. David succeeded Ricardo Zarate, so he had some pretty big shoes to fill. But still it was a hotel restaurant, which in Los Angeles would never be as popular as a stand‐alone location. (As an aside, in most of Asia it’s different, it is very common for people to go to a hotel for a fancier dining experience).

Chef Bartnes really enjoyed this job particularly the structure like costing food a specific way. He stayed in this position for almost four years until one of his bosses left to go work at the Marriot Hotel, and then subsequently offered David the executive chef position there. It was a large step up for him to run an entire hotel. So he went. This position was again about process. It was very structured. You had to stay within the guidelines. There wasn’t a huge amount of culinary freedom. During the year and a half to two years, Chef Bartnes was working at the Marriot he was also going through his divorce. With the divorce obviously came a lot of soul searching. So, needing a lot of change in lifestyle, David left his position at the Marriot even though he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do.

Despite his aspiration to be in the service industry as a seven year old, David decided that hotel kitchens weren’t for him anymore. Chef Bartnes was on the verge of starting a personal chef business when he started to work on the TV show The Taste as a member of the culinary production team where he created all the judges dishes that are presented on TV to the contestants for inspiration. While working on The Taste, he got a call from his ex‐wife. A friend from Shanghai now lived in LA and that friend’s husband was opening a restaurant. So David gave her friend’s husband, Jun Isogai, a call and then shortly thereafter met him for a cup of coffee. After discussing the concept with Jun, David was on board at b.o.s. as the chef.

Other than giving Chef Bartnes a protein locally of sustainably raised grass fed beef (from places like BN Ranch and Strauss Family Farms) to work with, Jun gave David carte blanche to do what he wanted with the menu. So for the first time in his career David put together a menu that reflected who he is now by drawing upon all the places he has lived, travelled and worked for inspiration. There are a lot of theories behind why Bartnes likes to use certain ingredients but overall his food and menu comes down to the flavors, smells and spices he’s experienced living in so many different places. A lot of his influences come from watching people, hanging out eating the food, and living life as local as possible. He wasn’t living in a shack but he had local friends who would show him their lives so it was just part of growing up or working somewhere. Now in many of his dishes he’s attempting to recreate memories from all of these places taking certain elements of something he had somewhere and then adding it to other ingredients he has available. With this freedom Jun has given him to create at b.o.s, the restaurant continues to help David’s own style of cuisine evolve.

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The “Sizzling Thai Tongue“, for example, is a dish currently on David menu that started off as something of a mistake. He sliced the tongue a little bit too thick for another dish the Tongue Carpaccio, so he grabbed a pan and sautéed it. When he did this the tongue reminded him of these smells he had experienced in Thailand, so automatically the concept for this new dish came to him. He grabbed a little celery, a lot of cilantro, this and this and this and put it all together in the dish. The aroma that was coming off was exactly like the aroma of a dish he ate in Thailand and brought him back to that moment in his life. The sauce on this dish comes from a Northern Thai province Isaan where it used at street stands where they are grilling with charcoal. In Isaan, the food includes a lot of pork, and catfish. Plus they eat a lot of insects. David is in love with the way they do pork. The pork is just char grilled after being marinated with lime and chilies. They dip all their meat, as well as their sticky rice, into this marinade. So David knew he had to use it since next to kimchi that marinade is his second most favorite thing to eat in the world.

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The “Grilled Miso Heart” on the menu was inspired by the miso marinated black cod he had been doing at Sai Sai at the Biltmore Hotel where he was further developing his Japanese repertoire. Once at b.o.s., he looked at the heart and wondered what he could do with a beef heart that would be suitable for the restaurant’s neighborhood in Little Tokyo. So Chef Bartnes decided to see what happens when he marinated the heart in the same manner as the classic Miso Cod. After letting the heart sit in this marinade, he cooked it and really liked the result. The Heart being very lean muscle, David thought to allow the meat to marinate for at least 3 days to allow the marinade to fully penetrate the meat. He cooks the heart on a binchotan grill. He didn’t want a smoky flavor but yet wanted a char to accompany the flavors and this grill really helps the marinade settle, plus imbue its complexity into the meat. The heart is cooked rare due to how lean the protein is and over cooking renders it to be tough. According to David “…delivering the heart in a rare fashion you’re getting the heart, the essence of an animal.”

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The “Crispy Curried Calf Brain” is a play on textures. This dish is also trying to make an organ like the brain accessible. David used a panko crust as he wanted something crispy to counter balance the softness of the brain. Plus deep frying the brain delivers the brain in such a fashion so that when a customer sees it on a plate, he or she isn’t grossed out from seeing all the veins and sections of the brain. The brain is also a bland organ so Chef Bartnes gives it a nice dusting of curry powder. David has always been intrigued by stories from the Spice Routes through Asia and North Africa, so he likes his spice. David then wanted a sweet but subtle accompaniment for the dish. When he did this he recalled working with British chef on The Taste Yotam Ottolenghi who had David make a vegetarian squash dish with a variety of spices in it. David loved this dish. He adapted it into a butternut squash puree to provide something vibrant with the right level of sweetness and a nice pop of color as a component on the plate. Finally he wanted an earthy grassy element so he also added an arugula puree. The whole dish with all of these spices and components started to remind him of Moroccan cuisine like tagines. This reminded David of one of his best friends who is half Sicilian and half Moroccan. His friend made this great tagine with spices and very contrasting flavors. David uses cassia bark in the dish which he believes pulls the entire dish together. David considers this dish to be one of the more adventurous dishes he has done thus far.

In general though Chef Bartnes doesn’t look at any particular food from his experiences for inspiration. Rather the plates he conceives are an amalgamation of those experiences. Some of those experiences involve street food, rustic European dishes, backyard barbecues, and even his mother’s home cooking. So for him when faced with an ingredient, it sparks some sort of memory. It’s not like he’s trying to make a new dish. Instead he’s trying to utilize this ingredient to tell his story of who he is.

Now at a small restaurant like b.o.s. he feels at home, and in the time the restaurant has been open he has been humbled by the way guests have enjoyed his cuisine. b.o.s. is located in the Little Tokyo section of downtown Los Angeles. They are located at 424 E. 2nd St. Los Angeles, CA 90012 and are open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 pm to 10:00 pm. Please follow the restaurant ontwitter and on facebook. Call 213.700.7834 or email info@bos‐la.com the restaurant for reservations. Walk‐ins are welcome.

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