LA Chef Jason Travi

(Originally published January 20, 2013 on Examiner.com).

Note since this article was originally published Chef Travi has left the City of Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, maybe due to its ethnic enclaves, there’s a tendency to categorize every food concept often by country, region and/or technique. Thus in LA, there’s modern northern Italian, classic Parisian, rustic Southern, modern Peruvian, et cetera. When those classifications don’t work, there’s the more encompassing American, Californian, fusion or inspired. It’s not enough just to have great food. Though some restaurants aren’t so easily pigeonholed and others like rustic Italian ones seem to be popping up all over the place. A few like the littlefork in Hollywood, with Executive Chef Jason Travi are introducing some new regional areas to Los Angeles culinary map with its homage to the “Atlantic Northeast” menu featuring meats smoked in-house plus fish, oysters, clams and mussels flown in from the East Coast.

After taking a break from day to day restaurant operations, Chef Travi was approached last summer by Dave Reiss to work with him on what is now littlefork

Before this Jason spent time traveling with his wife as well as spent time with his two young children, regional Italian concepts though weren’t so omnipresent. Nearly ten years ago, after Jason left Spago’s kitchen in Beverly Hills, when Jason learned “an intense amount about regional Italian” food at La Terza from “an amazing chef” Gino Angelini was one of only a few prominent chefs doing this type of cuisine.

Spago was the second of two locations Chef Travi worked for Wolfgang Puck. After completing his culinary school’s internship in a hotel in Boston, Jason moved to California fifteen years ago to work for Wolfgang Puck at the since closed Granita in Malibu. Jason’s career in a kitchen though started long before culinary school. He’s a third generation chef who worked in his grandfather and, what became, his father plus uncle’s American Italian restaurant in the South Shore area of Massachusetts. Before attending culinary school, in this restaurant from fifteen to twenties years of age he literally did everything, except bar-tend since he was too young, from wash dishes to bus tables to cook.

Though to get a more worldly perspective beyond his father’s life in their family restaurant, his mother wanted him to go to school and be more professional, so off Jason went to the CIA in Hyde Park where another one of his successful chef uncles had previously attended.

What he learned in school and afterwards was a lot more refined than what he learned in his father’s restaurant, an East Coast red sauce Italian place with some New England mixed in. What was also a huge difference in California compared to the Boston area, especially back then, were the farmer markets. Even though markets are more plentiful now in the Boston region, they still can’t touch what Los Angeles has here year round. In the winter in the Northeast, Jason noted,” it’s a sad state of affairs.”

After moving to the Los Angeles area, Chef Jason Travi (Executive Chef at littlefork in Hollywood) spent the next five years working for Wolfgang Puck at two locations including the last three of those years at Spago. Spago according to Jason was one of the least corporate places he’s ever worked since being Wolfgang’s flagship location, food and labor costs didn’t matter. The restaurant still made money. For Wolfgang, at that time, it was all about providing guests with a super high level of consistency and the best possible products.

Jason worked his way up from line chef to sous chef in a kitchen with at least forty chefs including his future wife Miho, a pastry assistant. Wolfgang Puck was always there making sure things were done right, but not really Jason’s every day boss. His every day boss was Chef Lee Hefter who oversaw the Chef De Cuisine who oversaw Jason. There were four to five sous chef each with ten or so people working underneath them. Jason was the poissoniere, the fish sous chef where he worked for a while. For Jason this was a great education because not only did he learn about great products, he also learned about consistently doing four hundred covers every day.

Jason emphasized that this education was not so much about learning to manage money, but rather “learning how to treat people, learning how to get the most out of people, and learning how to set up systems to succeed; that’s what you learned there.” Jason’s respect for Wolfgang over the years has gotten bigger and bigger. Wolfgang, though at times tough, was really good to every one.

As an aside, another chef who worked there at this time described Hefter’s approach to management as analogous to that of a trainer breaking a wild horse, with the wild horses being the young chefs working in the kitchen. So it was a difficult environment though one that fostered loyalty since just when like with a horse at the brink of being broken, an apple would be held out for which the animal would be forever grateful. So it’s no surprise that Jason considers Hefter as one of his main mentors who taught him “how to motivate” people.

After leaving Spago to become head chef at Opaline for a short time, Jason then went on to open La Terza with Chef Gino Angelini, his other main mentor who taught Jason “how to teach” people. At that time, ten years ago, before regional Italian concepts were so ubiquitous such restaurants serving this type of cuisine were pretty much those ran by Valentino, Gino and Drago. To learn this cuisine, you had to work with one of those three. Jason chose Gino. As an expert on historic Italian menus, Chef Angelini understands that there are only a certain amount of dishes done in Italy but each town does each dish a little differently. Gino knows all of those differences and that’s a large part of what Jason learned from his time with Gino.

When Jason finished working for Gino, Gino sent him to work for a month in a small town called Bussetto near another small town Zibello famous for making culitelo, a type of salumi. He didn’t work in a restaurant. He worked in a salumeria breaking down animals mainly pigs to make this charcuterie. Unlike now, there wasn’t much charcuterie on any one’s menus in LA, so this was the primary reason he went to Italy. The Zibello’s salumi recipes though are quite guarded secrets, so Travi was amazed at how friendly and forthcoming the people that he worked with were.

When Jason came back to Los Angeles, he then opened up Fraiche, a mix of French and Italian cooking. One of Jason’s business partners was from the Basque region of France. The Italian dishes were what he learned from Gino and traveling in Italy. All of these dishes were filtered through a Californian lens since they were all made taking advantage of local ingredients like blood oranges for example. But being part Irish, Lebanese, and only a portion fourth generation Italian, despite his love for Italian food, Jason wasn’t trying to be too authentic.

His partners then decided to open a second location, and different concept in Santa Monica – Riva – featuring pizza to appeal to all the tourists in this area. This was right as the pizza boom in LA was taking off, so Riva got a lot of press for its pizza which Jason felt was really good. The problem though with this concept is that almost all they sold was pizza, and with rents what they were and are in this area, it was hard to cover that monthly nut selling only items at a ten dollar price point.

Jason and his wife then had their first child, a girl. During the first six months of his daughter’s life he rarely got to see her since he was working over eighty hour a week. So just before his partners decided to rebrand Riva into a second location of Fraiche, Jason decided to leave that partnership to spend time with his young family and be able to watch his daughter grow up as well as his son who was born two years later.

After leaving Fraiche, Jason consulted developing menus for some projects, but spent more time traveling, for example, to Japan with his wife, so her family could meet their granddaughter as well as to other parts of this country including Boston, New Orleans, and Arizona. His travels where he experienced other cuisines re-inspired him.

However after spending a year and an half every day with his kids, Jason was now ready to get back to work in a restaurant kitchen.

David Reiss, littlefork’s owner, called Chef Jason Travi last July to see if Jason wanted to open something with him. Jason initially turned him down. A week later, David called back, and after further conversation got Jason to change his mind. For the next couple months, these two decided what the concept would be. An Italian restaurant was never on the table. Part of the reason Jason said no the first time was that despite wanting to open an Italian restaurant, there were already so many other new Italian concepts in LA with many others on the horizon. So Jason didn’t want to be another Italian restaurant.

Though first Reiss proposed a French/Montreal food idea which Jason thought was a good idea, but not necessarily one he wanted to do. When New England was added to the mix, this though persuaded Jason to come back since, aside from Italian food, the only other food Jason was interested in making was food from New England. Their concept thus combines Reiss and Travi’s food interests. This “Atlantic Northeast” food concept is also a play on Pacific Northwest, which has been a popular region lately. However the term Atlantic Northeast, describing the region from Montreal across to Boston, doesn’t really exist so they made this term up to create their own niche.

To further define this concept, Reiss and Travi spent a week in Montreal plus a day in Boston visiting restaurants. In Montreal what impressed them was how fun the restaurant atmospheres were irrespective of the amount of design. In Boston, there wasn’t much design and every thing was very corporate despite the proximity to design schools like the GSD and RISD. From an aesthetic perspective, they tried to balance both worlds, though regarding their restaurant’s design Travi played a lesser roles reviewing then tweaking the layout and material boards presented to him by the designer.

All the fish and shellfish come from New England and Canada. So this is not a locavore concept like many of Jason’s prior projects that sourced food within a sixty mile radius. Growing up on the East Coast, Jason simply prefers the taste of seafood from the Atlantic rather than the Pacific, since for him the fish and shellfish from the East Coast tastes so much better. A few local products he does prefer from the Pacific include sea urchins, prawns and abalone plus geoduck from the Puget Sound area.

However littlefork is not just a seafood restaurant. littlefork also has a lot of meat on its menu. One of the food ideas Reiss and Travi took back from visiting Montreal was smoked meat which they saw every where. So when they got back, they decided they’re going to have smoked meats like the brined, crusted and slow cooked brisket with three mustards featured on their menu.

With all his fish flown in, Jason though isn’t unconcerned about his carbon foot print. McGrath Family Farm provides most of their vegetables and a lot of the meats are local as well. But for seafood, he wouldn’t compromise. Plus as aside, Jason drives a 1983 Mercedes that runs off his fryer oil.

littlefork’s menu thus reflect other sides of Jason’s roots with some fun items like chowder, clam cakes, and lobster rolls which are things Jason believes people love. Though as previously noted, Jason just doesn’t believe an Atlantic Northeast concept can be done as well with local seafood. Plus he wants to further differentiate littlefork’s food by providing East Coast items like monk fish and malpeque oysters that aren’t on many other Los Angeles menus.

Consequently littlefork’s “Atlantic Northeastern” cuisine is a decidedly different approach to food in this region providing something delicious, and unique in a category Jason Travi and David Reiss both defined.

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