LA Chef Bruce Kalman

(Originally published January 29, 2013 on Examiner.com).

Since this article was written, things have changed. Bruce is now chef and partner at Union Pasadenain Pasadena, California

He sings. He plays guitar. Though when Chef Bruce Kalman talks about “Rustic Elegance”, he’s discussing his cooking, not the name of the band he had, with his brother on drums that once opened for Meat Loaf.

Like his music mixes bold sounds from artists such as Pearl Jam and Stain’d, Kalman’s bold approach to flavors mixes and masters what he has learned “jamming” in the kitchens of rock ‘n’ roll star chef mentors like chefs Paul Bartolotta and David Burke. This bold approach to flavors, as well as his ability to manage kitchens, is also the culmination of a long back and cross country tour that recently ended up in Los Angeles in 2010, and now most recently at The Churchill since last September. Here in residency, with his tatted arms, Kalman is changing the perception of The Churchill from that of just a bar to a leading Los Angeles culinary destination.

As part of this effort to change perceptions, this week at “this is not a pop-up”, Kalman is offering a five course menu featuring his hand made pastas. Kalman boldly declares, “Fresh pasta, to me, is as handcrafted as food can get. It is my true passion in cooking, because of its simplistic nature and its tenacious character, the possibilities of combinations of flavors, fillings, etc. is endless.”

Though more never ending, than endless, Kalman’s culinary tour began at the early age of thirteen, when his music teacher father got him his first gig with his brother and sister working at his father’s friend’s pizzeria in Jersey. At this venue for the first year, Kalman cooked; in year two, he threw New York style pizza pies while going to school and playing in his band.

This was just the beginning on Kalman’s long and winding road.

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Cooking, school and rock ‘n’ roll isn’t quite the rock star mantra, but this was Bruce’s path for the next few years working in kitchens, going to culinary school and playing in his band. Those kitchens that he cooked in included pubs, chains, and Marriot Hotel group locations. At nineteen, on his way to “chef-dom”, Bruce Kalman worked at a small French bistro where he was introduced to classic French Alsatian cooking, plus got to really use the French cooking techniques he previously learned at school. This gig lasted a year before took the show on the road to Chicago.

That move to Chicago was to another Marriot Hotel, the one at O’Hare where he became the assistant banquet chef for a year and an half. Here Kalman learned anything and everything he could from the other chefs working in the hotel’s five restaurants.

Next he was offered a sous chef position at Spiaggia where, at that time, Paul Bartolotta was the chef. At Spiaggia this was his first real exposure to fine dining. He immediately fell in love with the simplicity of Tuscan food plus started the process of learning about fresh pastas, a la minute cooking, and working with wood fired ovens. This opened his eyes to many great things. While working in this restaurant, which was part of the Levy Group, he also helped open other locations in the different venues where Levy provided food service like Arlington Park, Arrowhead Stadium, and Blackhawk Lodge.

While working a few months at Blackhawk Lodge (now called Jake Melnicks Corner Tap) alongside Chef Charles Weber, Chef David Burke hired Weber to open Park Ave Café at the Double Tree Hotel. So this, in turn, also led to an opportunity for Kalman to work at Burke’s new restaurant in New York City. So Bruce moved back East to become the chef tournant in Park Ave Café’s kitchen. This move may have been a step back title wise, but this move was a huge opportunity to learn more about cooking working all the stations for a year.

A year later, a cook he had worked with gave him a call about a restaurant Il Piatto this cook was help opening in Sante Fe, NM, so after being flown out there, and falling in love with this city, Kalman packed up his guitar and knives, hit the road and took his show cross country. His next gig was at the La Casa Sena. As the Executive Sous Chef here running the fine dining kitchen, Kalman got to play to his strengths implementing what he had learned at Park Ave Café. Plus he learned a lot about Southwestern ingredients especially chiles. After a year here though in Sante Fe, he missed big cities.

So Kalman packed his bags and returned to Chicago to work at Terry Alexander’s Okno as this new restaurant’s Executive Chef. This was the first time Kalman was in total control of a menu. Here at this well publicized location Kalman received a James Beard “Rising Star Chefs” nomination from the Midwest region. Though after a year, Kalman was off to Green Dolphin Street another Chicago operation. Here he explored other styles of cuisine with a great sous chef who helped him shape this restaurant’s menu. His next stop as Executive Chef at Coco Pazzo Café lasted two years, though when Kalman got the opportunity to do his own thing, he did…opening a New York style deli in Chicago with a catering service in the art gallery district.

With 9/11, the Bush recession, and corporate business down, Kalman’s business wasn’t going well despite having eighteen different wholesale accounts (mainly coffee shops) to which he provided food. At the very first account he set up, a Seattle’s Best Coffee shop just down the block, he met his future wife who was from Ohio. When she moved back to Ohio, Bruce followed closing his business to go work for an Ohio based operation, the Bravo/Brio Restaurant Group. Here he learned a lot about operations as the Executive Chef. After six months, he became a managing partner.

For this restaurant group, he opened the first Bravo in Cleveland running a 400 seat restaurant that did 1200 covers a day. He was also in the kitchen cooking to set a good example and teach. After 4 ½ years here, he also helped open other locations for this multi-unit concept. But after seven years of having to reproduce the same menu consistently, he felt like he lost some of his creative mojo. Thus after being sent to Arizona to open a couple Brio units, Bruce left this group to join another one, LGO Hospitality at Chelsea’s Kitchen. This, in turn, led to an opportunity at another LGO location, The Misfit in Santa Monica where Kalman was transferred to help open in 2010. This job established Kalman in the Los Angeles area.

After a year there, Kalman joined Acme Bar Management as a consultant overseeing operations for a number of bar/food locations including the Urbano Pizza Bar. Kalman implemented much of what he learned operationally at his prior gigs. This consulting job provided Kalman the opportunity to combine his food knowledge with his more recent operations expertise.

Urbano Pizza Bar put Kalman on the radar of the owners of The Churchill who approached Bruce at the end of last summer to transform The Churchill into a leading dining destination. Here ownership has given Kalman complete control of the kitchen.

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Chef Bruce Kalman’s rustic elegant cuisine was shaped in large part by his time at Spiaggia and Park Avenue Café. Those two jobs with chefs Bartolotta and Burke in the early nineties according to Kalman “shaped his style of cooking,” even though Bartolotta and Burke’s approaches to cooking are quite different. Bartolotta’s approach is very simple with three to four ingredients per dish whereas Burke’s involves twelve to fifteen pan pick-ups. But both have bold layered flavors, plus know how to use seasonings. “A mushroom dish tastes like mushrooms.” Bartolotta is classic whereas Burke is crazy creative and innovative.

A lot of Kalman’s current creativity comes from Burke, who made him ask how to use ingredients and to try different things. But as Kalman’s cooking has progressed to be more ingredients driven, Kalman’s cuisine is now both rustic and elegant at the same time. So for example, Kalman will take a whole porchetta leg cooked in a wood fired oven and plate it in a “very sexy” manner. So this, in part, is what Kalman means by “rustic elegance”.

The wood fired oven for pizza is used for a lot of other items too. He does a whole roasted chicken from Mary’s Chickens with braised beet greens and also does his own charcuterie. His main influence is coming from Mediterranean and Northern Italian flavors. He also has a couple pastas on the menu, with a pasta special every night. Produce is sourced from local farmers markets, and he uses a lot of local cheeses and meats.

All of this rocker’s food is handcrafted with lots passion, and soul. Everything has tons of depth of flavors. Kalman tries to make food that brings back memories like of you r mom making a great pot roast. To this end he braises his short ribs for ten hours the old fashion way.

Taking over The Churchill’s kitchen has been a progressive process. A month after arriving he rolled out his own menu and since then has been making smaller changes constantly improving it. With having more time to train his staff, every menu change he’s done has evolved. He’s also made the menu seasonal. If he can’t get produce locally he’s not going to source it from some place like Chile.

So now in California, the cooking style regarding flavors that Bruce learned from Bartolotta and Burke hasn’t changed, but many of ingredients have. Kalman experiments with new products. Both Bartolotta and Burke both do handcrafted food. The next phase for Kalman at The Churchill, when he feels his staff is sufficiently trained, is whole animal butchery, mainly pigs and lamb with daily specials featuring “snout to tail” practices. Now he’s working on his spring menu, beginning to conceptualize it.

The Churchill is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner plus provides food service for the Orlando Hotel in which this restaurant is located. Thus Kalman hasn’t exactly had too much time for songwriting; though this rocking chef is promoting himself and The Churchill as much as he canto build both his and his company’s culinary brands. Those brands feature “Rustic Elegance” in The Churchill’s dining room handcrafted and tuned by Chef Kalman in The Churchill’s kitchen.

[Note since this article was written, Chef Burce Kalman left The Churchill and is now chef/owner of Union in Pasadena]

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