LA Chef Ori Menashe

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

“There was one trip when I was younger when my parents took us to Switzerland. We crossed the border to Italy and we had one meal there,” Chef Ori Menashe reminisced. “It was one of the best meals I have ever had. I don’t remember where. I just remember the pizza and the pasta. Two of the greatest things I ever had but I always thought I’d go into the direction of French food.”

Fortunately for Los Angeles that one meal Ori had in Italy as a child was a harbinger of culinary things to come in Menashe’s career. Now as chef and co-Owner (with his wife Genevieve, and biz partner Bill Chait) of one of Los Angeles’s most popular chef driven Italian restaurants Bestia, Chef Menashe is serving his chef driven Italian cuisine to over three hundred and sixty people on a slow night, and over four hundred and sixty people on a Friday or Saturday night. With 150 seats, Bestia in its first year of business did over one hundred thousand covers. This year, in its second year of business, Bestia is on pace to do over one hundred and thirty thousand covers.

Still though as a child, instead of Italian food, aside from that one meal across the Swiss border, Ori’s father exposed Ori’s to other cuisines particularly French cuisine. Ori’s parents owned a clothing company called French Connection. For work, His father would travel frequently to Europe for inspiration. Paris was the main destination. His father would take Ori along on these trips. Ori’s dad loves food, so as a child Ori would eat terrain a fois gras, cote de boeuf, and all things at all of his dad’s favorite places in Paris like L’Atelier Joel Robuchan and Alain Ducasse‘s restaurants. Ori’s dad would also send Ori to school with Saumon fumé and pita bread. Much later in Ori’s life after he spent a few years in kitchens here in Los Angeles, Ori again went to France with his dad and spoke with sous chefs at L’Atelier Joel Robuchan. These chefs there told him that whenever Ori was ready to give them a call to come and work for them in that prestigious Parisian kitchen.

Ori’s father also loved to cook. His father was an experimental cook who tried a lot of different cuisines. Ori’s father didn’t have a culinary background but his dad was always around his mom, Ori’s grandmother, who Ori stated was an amazing cook. Ori’s grandmother, who was originaly from the country of Georgia, lived in Israel. Her living in Israel was part of the reason Ori’s family moved to Israel from Los Angeles when Ori was eight years old. Ori ate his grandmother’s cooking for the first time at this age. She made Georgian food which is similar to Turkish, Armenian and Eastern European food and includes items like dolma, stuffed grape leaves, and hinkali, a dumpling stuff stuffed with beef cooked in a garlic broth. Ori’s mom of Moroccan descent cooked some too, but she was much better with sweets than savory dishes.

When Ori’s family moved back to Israel, his father opened a bakery. Much later Ori’s father opened up a restaurant with Ori’s brother where his dad’s runs the kitchen, and his brother runs the front of the house. Because his father actually got into the business, when Ori was younger his dad advised Ori not to become a chef because of how hard the lifestyle is and how hard it is to be with family.

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Much to Los Angeles’s benefit, Ori Menashe didn’t listen to his father’s advice about not becoming a chef. Even though now, especially with a newborn child at home, Ori realizes what his father said was true. Even with the new baby, Ori is still working seventeen hour days at Bestia. But working hard is deeply ingrained in Ori’s character. So after completing his three years of required military service in Israel, and deciding he wanted to be a chef Ori moved back to Los Angeles and got his first job in a kitchen at the Blue Cafe, a kosher kitchen on Pico. Ori made the move since there were more opportunities here to pursue a career in the restaurant industry than there were in Israel.

While at his first job, Ori briefly enrolled at culinary school but left after only three months. For others Ori recognizes the value of culinary school, but he got bored and felt restricted. Ori noted, “If someone teaches you a way building a stock or a sauce that’s the way you’re going to go with that process. If you start figuring out stuff yourself, you might make mistakes but sometimes you make something great out of a mistake. Some of my food is done that way from me learning stuff by myself and figuring it out, and you extract great flavors.”

While still at Blue Cafe, Ori started working at night at second job at La Terza. La Terza was owned byGino Angelini. However the head chef was Jason Travi. Gino gave some input as to what he wanted on the menu, but the flavors were all from Jason. At La Terze Ori worked all the stations learning a lot from Travi. After he got more hours at La Terze, Ori left Blue Cafe. But shortly thereafter, Ori started again on a second job working mornings on pasta for Gino Angelini at Angelini Osteria. Between his two jobs it wasn’t uncommon for Ori to work fifteen plus hour days.

When Jason left his position at LA Terza, Ori also considered leaving. At this point Ori was in-between thoughts of what is he going to do with his future. This was when he travelled with his dad and spoke to chefs in the kitchen at L’Atelier Joel Robuchan. However since his relationship with his future wife Genevieve Gergis had just started to get serious, Ori stayed in Los Angeles and accepted the position of sous chef at La Terze that Gino offered Ori after Jason’s departure. Once Ori became the sous at La Terza he stopped working mornings at Angellini

As sous at La Terza, Ori got experience leading and managing people. He had some creative control on the specials of the day as well as small apps sent to V.I.P. Ori recalls that everything flowed naturally for him in the kitchen. Being able to draw upon all the experiences he had as a kid helped him be creative. On Tuesday nights at La Terza Nancy Silverton had her own menu at the anti-pasta table. Ori would help her with prep. So after Ori left La Terza, Silverton asked Ori if he wanted to help out at Mozza, the pizzeria, which was opening soon. So he accepted Silverton’s offer. While working at Mozza, Ori then was offered a sous chef position at a new restaurant on Melrose called All’Angelo withChef Mirko Paderno. After a month and a half as sous chef, Ori was promoted to Chef de Cuisine. As the CDC, Ori started building menus. The dishes were obviously inspired by Mirko, since it was Mirko’s kitchen, but a lot of Ori’s experimenting ended up on the plates.

After nearly two years at All’Angelo, chef Ori now had some other opportunities presented to him. Jason Travi was opening a new restaurant and offered Ori a position. Gino Angelini also offered Ori the position of chef at Angelini’s. After meeting with Jason for a beer, Ori accepted the position offered to him by Gino. Jason basically told Ori that he couldn’t say no to Gino.

Four and half years earlier at Angelini Ori had been working on the line with many of the same cooks he was now telling what to do. As chef, Ori changed a lot of things in Angelini’s kitchen. He made the kitchen a better environment to work in. Schedules were much better. There was no more overtime. Ori also lowered food costs by twelve percent without sacrificing quality. The special menu with forty specials was Ori’s menu. There was also Gino’s set menu. So there was a big menu and that’s why Angelini had a lot of people in the kitchen.

Ori noted, “When you work for people you notice their habits.” Ori continued, “Some people will get off the line and sit at the bar because they had a long night…have a few drinks…and leave the staff alone in the kitchen. Gino doesn’t leave you alone all day. There is no such thing. The only time he leaves you alone is when he’s sick or at his other restaurants. But when he’s there he’s in your sauté pan. And like, you see that piece of garlic there. It’s not cooked. All the rest is cooked, but that piece is going to make your dish bitter. Throw it away.” Now in his own kitchen at Bestia, Ori is like Gino “in the pan”. So Ori says he is with his staff all the time. Chef Menasche emphasized, “Even if I show them how to do something once, I’ll show them how to do it another five times.”

Gino also inspired to Ori to work even harder. Ori noted, “he [Gino] can’t make you look bad. You come into work and the guy, two or three times your age is working harder than you? That doesn’t make any sense. I’d get into work and race all day.”

In addition to being hyper attentive and reinforcing Ori’s work ethic through his example, one of the most important things Gino taught Ori when it came to cooking was to take his time, and not rush anything. Gino told Ori, “even it takes eight hours, it is going to taste much better than if it is for six hours.” Gino builds sauces so slow sometimes sauces are borderline on being burned.Whatever Gino’s mom use to do as a kid to extract flavors, Gino still does today. Thus Gino is never a chef you’d see on a timed competitive television show. Besides Gino wants to be in the kitchen and cook every day. He doesn’t want to leave and be somewhere else, and have someone else run his kitchen because his kitchen won’t be ran the same way.

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Chef Ori Menashe has taken what he has learned from his mentor Gino Angelini and continues to apply those lessons learned in the kitchen at Bestia. Ori’s hard work set an example for the rest of his team. His “being in the pan” attentiveness ensures quality while educating his staff. And he never rushes processes that take time to build layers of flavor.

So now at Bestia when Chef Ori Menashe build sauces the base has to be perfect. Because if the base isn’t perfect, the product isn’t perfect. This is especially true for simple or simply presented food. So when Chef Menashe makes a veal stock, he sautés the vegetables for a nice hour and a half before they go into the stock. Many other chefs just sauté the vegetables fifteen minutes before adding them to the pot. Ori’s soffritto of reduced vegetables is used in two dishes on Ori’s menu. His soffritto takes nine hours to cook. For his soffritto Chef Menasche stated, “We don’t want to throw anything away. Our soffritto are the vegetables we could throw away but don’t throw away like the outside layer of an onion that doesn’t look good in a salad but is good if it is cooked down.”

Time builds flavor. All the stocks are cooked overnight so there is a twenty four hour cycle on stocks. That’s how Ori and his team get all the flavor out of the bones and marrow. With the tomato paste they make at Bestia they’ll take the water out the tomato and use the meat of the tomato for their sauce. The tomato water is then reduced in the oven on the lowest temperature also overnight. When they get back in the morning, the water is a solid tomato paste which they put in a container and cover with olive oil. The wood burning grill is an elevated grill so there is about two feet between the meat and the flame. So this too is a slower way of grilling since there is a lot of space for the heat and the carmalization to occur. That’s why all of Chef Menasche cuts of meat are very thick like his forty ounce steak and twenty two ounce pork chop.

All of this preparation takes a long time. That’s why he’s not open for lunch. Ori stated, “I don’t have stove space. See all those pots there? They’re going to be there for hours. They don’t come off the stove. That’s because everything is on low. It’s not on high. We’re cooking everything really slow like my grandmother use to cook. She wasn’t cooking on high flame. She was cooking on low flame. These are things that Gino always told me.” Besides not having enough stove space, Ori would need to have a shift from two to seven in the morning to do the prep, and even Ori needs a few hours of sleep.

All the ragus are also enhanced by the flavor of the bones of the animals since Ori’s team receives whole animals and butchers them on site. He gets his pigs currently through Marin Sun Farms. The pigs are a red wattle/Berkshire cross that’s feed is GMO free. His pigs eat a lot of acorns and nuts, so they taste better than industrial pigs. If the whole pig doesn’t have enough fat, he’ll get more fat from the same source. Ori also likes working with off cuts. He said he’d “rather use something that is an off cut to make sure we don’t kill an extra animal for no reason.”

So nothing is wasted. To further utilize the whole animal, Ori has always been interested in salumi and curing meats. He did some at La Terza with Jason and at Angelini with Gino. He started with smaller cuts and muscles, lardo and duck prosciutto. Then at Angelini, he’d make whipped lardo, andouille sausage, and other stuff that was easy to make and didn’t age for very long. Before opening Bestia, while Bestia was under construction, Chef Menashe did a stage at the Fatted Calf in Napa. Here they butcher animals all day and make cured meats. He went there to better understand the system and methods they use for their products in order to learn why up until this time, for example, when he made salami sometimes it was great while other times it didn’t come out as well. So he learned how many different factors go into getting a consistent end product for example the season, how you ferment, at what temperature you’re fermenting, how much moisture is in the room, and how much moisture is in the animal. So during this stage Ori learned a lot, and experimented a lot like curing a prosciutto and then aging it with the bone in or the bone out. Now he doesn’t cure his meat for very long or age it for more than two and a half months. He also doesn’t do any big salumi. He doesn’t have the time or space to do it. He knows his kitchen’s limitations.

Using whole animals helps keep food costs down, as does buying produce in large quantities. Open at five PM with one hundred fifty seats and doing over three turns Friday and Saturday nights and two and an half turns on slower nights, Ori and his crew at Bestia do a lot of butchering and go through a lot of produce and other products especially since his portions are large enough to share family style. So being from Israel, Ori says he knows how to bargain. He or another team member goes to the Wednesday and Saturday Santa Monica farmers markets as well as the Sunday one in Hollywood. Since he has so many covers, he needs a lot of produce, and buying in larger amounts gets him better per pound pricing. Often he puts in his orders with the different farmers via text or email. No produce gets wasted especially since Ori does a lot of pickling to extend the seasons of products he likes including twenty two quarts of Jerusalem artichokes he currently has in stock to use as a component in his lamb tongue dish.

All of Chef Menashe’s training, experimenting and methods help to define his style of cooking that is definitely Italian, but Ori’s style of Italian. A style greatly affected by Ori’s heritage, upbringing and learnings.

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Northern Italy. It is amazing but that’s not what he’s trying to do at Bestia. He’s trying to bring something new that’s not something you’d find in every Italian restaurant. Ori believes a lot of Italian restaurants are doing the same thing. A lot have a carbonara. But Ori rhetorically asks why people would come here to Bestia for those kind of dishes? He said even if his version is really good no one will drive to the Arts District down this alley to eat that. When Ori built the menu for Bestia the first item he put on the menu on was the chicken gizzards and then he worked around that dish. Ori remembers his business partners Bill and Genevieve telling him that this dish was a little too aggressive. Ori also put beef tongue and tripe dishes on the opening menu. Ori’s response to his partners was let’s just do it, and see if people like it. If they don’t we’ll take these items off the menu. It wasn’t like they were losing a lot of money on these items. So he took a chance and his team put eight offal items on the menu including items with beef heart, chicken gizzards, livers, beef oxtail, tripe, pig face and lamb tongue.

In Israel they eat all of these parts. In Jerusalem they have a dish called the Jerusalem mix. It has boiled chicken gizzards, livers and hearts with turmeric and chilies plus some other spices. This dish is served with burnt onions or on rice or couscous and this dish according to Ori is amazing. In Israel Ori said you can go to any normal skewer place and you can order chicken hearts, sweet breads, lamb balls or turkey testicles on skewers. All those things are on the menu there. Ori remembered one time he went with his family to eat some meat at one of those grill places and his dad ordered lamb balls without telling anyone. Ori looked at his dad since Ori knew it was lamb balls. His dad looked back at him and they smiled at each other. Everyone had the lamb balls and no one complained though if someone else knew they might not have eaten these lamb testicles. So being raised this way, Ori had no inhibitions about putting these food items on the menu, but Bill was concerned that customers might not be so open minded.

Though not only have customers been open-minded, but many other restaurants have been putting offal onto their menus. When Ori opened Bestia, he was getting everything he wanted from everyone. Now some of these offal items aren’t as easy to get. There are actually shortages of some. Plus prices have gone up. Bestia goes through one hundred pounds of chicken gizzards a week. The last thing his supplier wants to deal with are these gizzards because his supplier has to peel them. But now he pays his supplier more money so he’s still getting these gizzards without any interruptions. With beef heart that he’s serving raw people sometimes come to Bestia especially for this item only to be disappointed that it isn’t on the menu. But Ori will only serve that item when it is super fresh. So when he gets hearts on Thursday, that were slaughtered the day before, there is only a shelf life of two days on the heart. After the second day he won’t use the heart any more. After the second day if there is any heart left he’ll use it for family meal and grill it. The heart use to be much easier to procure because other restaurants weren’t using it. Now other restaurants are using a lot of this and other organ meats.

Bill Chait‘s concerns about the accessibility of the menu was quickly ameliorated since Bestia was able to build up its client base in only three weeks. Those first three weeks Ori recalls that they did only eighty to one hundred and ten covers a night. But word of mouth and an early favorable review from LA Weekly’s Bescha Rodell quickly helped fill the seats. Ori attributes some of this success to knowing what the neighborhood wanted. When Bestia opened they hardly had any reservations. People just walked in. They didn’t want to make a reservation. Ori stated, “That’s why they live here and not in Beverly Hills.” When your concept includes a tasting menu, that’s when you need reservations Ori further asserted.

Ori also stated that of the three hundred and sixty they serve on a slow week day they have about 300 reservations. Sixty of those people don’t show. Why? Because they made the reservation two months in advance and people don’t know where they’re going to be two months ahead of time. Some people don’t show up. Some people don’t even answer their phones. So then they have tables that are marked as “might not show” and if that party indeed doesn’t show, then that party’s table is just given to walk-ins. Bestia has such a flow of walk-ins that they never have a problem getting rid of those “might not show” seats. Many of those walk-ins still come from the neighborhood all the time and that’s what makes this restaurant always busy. Ori estimates seventy percent of his guests come from all over, but the thirty percent that gave us the push in the beginning are still the thirty percent that pack the restaurant every night

Ori didn’t anticipate being as busy as he is so the kitchen is undersized for the amount of covers his team puts out. The back of house team in the kitchen currently has thirty four people. Ori says they have extra staff now at Bestia because of the new have a baby which makes it more difficult for him to work his normal seventeen or eighteen hour days. For Ori’s next project in the neighborhood a few blocks away from Bestia, Ori will take his top two line cooks from his current staff and promote them to sous chefs in that new kitchen. He also wants to bring someone in from the outside to get some fresh perspective. The seat count of one hundred and fifty seats at this new restaurant will be similar to Bestia’s number, but the restaurant will be larger because the kitchen will be larger

The new restaurant will serve Middle Eastern food though the food will be Ori’s take on this cuisine. There will be some authentic food from his time growing up and living in the Middle East but Ori said it’s boring for him to cook just authentic dishes. According to Ori, there is no such thing as Israeli food. The food in Israel contains influences from of Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Russia, Romania, Yeman, Hungary and other places that the citizens of Israeli have emigrated from to come to the small country of Israel that’s really too small to have different regions of cuisine.

At the new place, he is going to have a charcoal grill for skewers, a wood burning grill, a horizontal rotisserie fired with oak, and another vertical rotisserie for shawarma. The shawarma is going to be served from a stand connected to the kitchen but not served in the restaurant. The stand will also serve falafel and maybe sabich. Sabich is a sandwich with fried eggplant and hard boiled eggs. The stand will be opened for lunch and dinner from noon to midnight. All sandwiches are going to be finished with amba, a fermented mango sauce.

The kitchen is also going to include a tabun oven for laffa bread. There’s wood on the bottom of this oven and the bread sticks to and cooks on the walls. None of Ori’s ovens will use gas. All of this equipment is in the process of being bought for the new restaurant, which is also another partnership with Bill Chait. Ori has also been working on pita bread for nine months, so the restaurant is going to have a nice pita you won’t find anywhere else. It’s going to be a yellow pita bread made mainly with semolina. This pita will absorb the juices of the skewers and roasted meats on the menu better than any other pita available. All the cheeses including the feta will be made in house from the best milk possible to get the best flavor. Plus there is going to be family style of service. So when guests order a meze they will get fifteen different small salads.

In describing his new place Ori concluded, “There is going to be a lot of me in the food.”

Chef Ori Menashe puts a lot of himself into all of his cooking. His food is a reflection of where he comes from, how he was raised, who he has worked with and how hard he has worked. His passion, dedication, discipline, and love are apparent in every plate that comes out of the kitchen at Bestia, and the places he has previously worked. Thus it should come as no surprise that any of his forthcoming and future locations would be any different than what the lucky patrons of Los Angeles have learned to expect and respect.

What some of those other future locations will be, we will all have to wait to see.

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