(Originally published January 15, 2013 on Examiner.com).
Often in a few of today’s commercial kitchens the most important essential element for great food gets lost somewhere amongst the liquid nitrogen, dehydrator or circulator. Or that essential element in the more corporate kitchens gets lost in the operational procedures required to serve such large volumes of anonymous customers. While all of these aspirations for science create wonderful reconstituted flavors worth exploring, and all the operational systems put in place produce consistent product, that most essential element for great food- love- is too often lost somewhere on the synapses between the brains and the hearts of both the chef and his or her customers.
Chef Dominique Theval, the owner/chef of recently opened Dominique’s Kitchen in Redondo Beach, is both a man and chef motivated by love. Educated at the Ecole Hotelerie Jean in Paris France, and trained at kitchen stations in prestigious locations in France, Bermuda and England, Theval moved to London where he worked his way up to becoming head chef at three different restaurants before opening his own highly rated restaurant Mange Tout in 1994; though by fate at his business partner’s Tapas bar in 1997, stopping by just to pick up some paper work, Dominique met a dark haired beauty, Liza Khalid, a friend of his accountant on vacation to England from Malaysia who forever changed his life.
Dominique and Liza developed a long term relationship, spending their vacations together. Ultimately to be closer to his future wife in 1999 Theval sold his restaurant and moved to Pnohm Penh, Cambodia for a position as the executive chef at the Sunway Hotel running two restaurants and the hotel’s catering which included catering to the Royal family. This was the closest job as a chef he could find near where Liza lived in Malaysia. Thus their long distance relationship became a much shorter commute. Though in 2000, not long after Theval had relocated, this too changed. Liza’s employer, at this time, Johnson & Johnson sold its Malaysian factory and transferred Liza to Southern California. So again, Dominique moved for love to the United States in 2000 to be with Liza who he married that year in September.
Though Dominique had briefly visited the States, he had never worked here before. So somewhat new to and different for him were the large system driven kitchens serving so many seats at his two stops as executive chef in Los Angeles, Morels Steakhouse & Bistro and Taix Restaurant, from 2002 to 2012. Toward the end of 2012, approaching his fiftieth birthday, Dominique decided he wanted to do something different, get back to his roots, and once again be more hands on in the kitchen, so when an opportunity presented itself in Redondo Beach he opened up Dominique’s Kitchen with a small staff of four in the kitchen and six including his wife Liza running the front of house.
Kitchen and serving areas in industry lingo are respectively referred to as back and front of house. At Dominique’s Kitchen this lingo though isn’t just jargon, for Dominique and Liza want their restaurant to feel like a home where their love is not only from the hearth but also directly from their hearts, and customers aren’t just patrons, they are guests and friends.
At Dominique’s Kitchen, the concept is both simple and timeless: affordable unpretentious dishes that remind guests of classic home cooked French meals that can be gotten any where in France. Chef Theval and his wife Liza wanted to create a dining environment analogous to having friends over for dinner, so the restaurant, in spirit, is an extension of their home with incredible price points that encourage customers to come back a few times a week. Thus they’ve created a neighborhood restaurant based on repeat clientele rather than a destination restaurant reserved for special occasions.
This warm hospitality is no where better reflected by the genuine affection that both Dominique and Liza share with their guests. Whether it is Liza hugging a repeat customer or Dominique running out dishes himself from the kitchen to a customer, the level of interaction is at an extremely personal and personable level. Before getting too slammed in the kitchen, Dominique visits tables before they order, exchanges greetings, and recommends wines to pair with plates.
Wines like all the dishes are affordably priced. Almost all bottles are under $30.00 with most of the wines listed also offered by the glass. In addition to French varieties, wines from Spain, Italy, America and other countries are available. Want to bring your own wine? Corkage is only $5.00, recently raised from an absurdly low $2.00.
The plates too are incredible value. Three lamb chops with polenta are offered for less than $20.00 with excellently sourced product from Australia. Baked snails with garlic butter for less than $10.00 are just another of the many generously portioned dishes at incredible price points on their menu. All desserts like the panna cotta with red berries are less than $5.00. When putting together the menu Chef Theval was and still is very careful to use ingredients that allow him to provide these prices so that he can cover his food costs and still make a reasonable profit. But even with fluctuating food costs, Theval is adamant about keeping his price points low having thinner margins, if necessary, since again he wants to provide customers an accessible every day experience rather than a more ostentatious special one. Plus by keeping his overhead low without extra managers or directors, as well as being so hands on in the kitchen, any higher food costs are offset by lower labor costs.
But quality isn’t sacrificed for value. Theval prepares his food utilizing his classic French training taking time to prepare carefully sourced ingredients in ways he finds most flavorful. So no short cuts are taken in preparations or cooking. Plus being hands on, unlike in the other large American restaurants he’s managed, Theval is directly involved in all phases of getting dishes prepped, cooked, and as noted above, sometimes even ran to guests’ tables.
As he gets to know his guests better, unlike many of today’s chefs, Chef Theval is also open to substitutions and modifications for he wants to provide a very personalized experience that caters to the specific desires of specific guests many of whom Liza and Dominique already consider friends. With further menu development to reflect product availability, a new happy hour menu for early customers, and special menus for days like Valentine’s Day, there will be even more options for these guests to enjoy the food and drink.
Thus the love and passion of the chef for his cuisine and his wife Liza, is manifest in both the broad strokes and the details at Dominique’s Kitchen. This genuine love of the proprietors for one another is shared with their guests through their graciousness and generosities making the line between owner and customer a thin one, especially as the referred customers become repeat guests. So when old becomes new again, where “trends” like farm to table and seasonality once more become the norms, a return to face to face interaction and congeniality- in an era of tweets, yelps and “likes”- at a neighborhood restaurant founded on love is a welcome overdue return to humanity.