(Originally published November 5, 2012 on Examiner.com).
En route to 2000 Main Street in Santa Monica, Stella Barra Pizzeria‘s Jeff Mahin (Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises partner and Executive Chef) has crossed the country, and toured Europe honing his kitchen and industry expertise working for some of the world’s most famous chefs, and for some of the industry’s most successful business people. Along this path working in test kitchens and labs, Mahin developed a scientific approach to cooking and food consistent with his penchant for math and science nurtured originally by his parents, a PhD civil engineer, and a PhD metallurgist.
This scientific approach to food at Mahin’s year and a half old operation affects all of Stella Rossa pizza‘s ingredients and preparation. Though this isn’t a passionless driven approach, rather it’s one motivated by a real love for what his team is making and a deep concern for the customer’s experience.
After working at Nobu Matsuhisa‘s Nobu in Manhattan as a 17 yr old, and returning to school at UC Berkley, Mahin sent an email to Chris Young at Heston Blumenthal‘s food science lab in London. Much to Mahin’s surprise, a few weeks later Mahin got a call from Young. Jeff met Young at the CIA in San Francisco where Young was at a conference. Shortly thereafter, Mahin was off to London. Jeff worked in Blumenthal’s food testing laboratory for the following year. This lab is connected to and part of Blumenthal’s 3 Michelin Star restaurant The Fat Duck. Blumenthal considers a kitchen similar to a laboratory, and as demonstrated in this linked video (an episode of one of Blumenthal’s early shows “Kitchen Chemistry“) believes that by “…understanding the science of cooking makes food tastes the way it should.”
When Mahin returned to the US in 2007, he shortly thereafter went to Chicago to join Richard Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises [LEYE]. Melman’s test kitchen according to Mahin is “ten feet from his office”. Jeff stated that Melman has one of the best palates of any one Mahin has encountered. Melman can pinpoint just about any ingredient in a dish. Melman’s forty plus years in the restaurant business gives him a deep understanding not only of what chefs like but what customers do as well. Melman feels that it is important that chefs remember that they’re cooking for customers not other chefs.
When Mahin’s passion for bread making and farm to table cuisine inspired Mahin to create Stella Rosa, Mahin experimented with and tested all of the different components of his pizza in LEYE’s test kitchen getting feed back and input from LEYE’s personnel. He also tested equipment, selecting a gas rather than a wood burning oven. Mahin stated, “Stella Rossa’s pizza is based in rustic bread baking.” Consequently experimentation was done with the flour, water, salt and yeast to get the right crust. Plus the selection of the oven didn’t require a wood burning one since that extra amount of heat generated by the wood wasn’t necessary for the style of pizza being made. The crust recipe was even further refined when a locally milled flour was sourced. Several artisan pepperonis were also tested, though ultimately a supplier from San Francisco was selected instead. Pretty much all of the ingredients used went through this quality testing and recipe experimentation.
With ingredients that are more variable than cheese, pepperoni or salumi, in order to ensure the best quality and freshness, Mahin has built relations with local farmers at farmer markets as his suppliers for fruits and vegetables. For Mahin, getting these items locally isn’t so much a political statement, as it is about building a community. The relationships formed through this community insure that Mahin is kept informed by these local suppliers of what’s at it peak any given week so he can buy the best and most flavorful product to feature in his menu.
Like with all the other restaurants in the LEYE group, the quality of the food is paramount. Quality, rather than the latest food or restaurant trend or theme, has been and continues to be the common denominator in all of LEYE’s restaurants.
LEYE started in Chicago in the 1970’s. Currently nation wide there are approximately 50 different concepts and over 85 restaurants in the group, with no concept having more than six locations. When LEYE’s founder Richard Melman started LEYE, his desire not to travel meant building multiple concepts in the same city, his home town of Chicago, rather than building the same concept in multiple cities. Now through partnerships like the one with Mahin, Melman has grown LEYE across the United States.
Stella Barra and M Street Kitchen are currently LEYE’s only partnered restaurants in California. Mahin noted each partnership with LEYE is different since almost all the restaurants are unique, but each partner benefits from having other partners with over 40 years in the restaurant industry. Mahin has these partners’ experiences, both successes and failures, as a resource to reference.
In keeping with LEYE’s culture, Mahin too also noted that he hires entrepreneurial types, any of whom he sees potentially as a future partner. Many of the partners in other LEYE restaurants have worked their way up through LEYE’s organization from waiting tables or taking reservations. According to Mahin, hiring employees who care about quality and who take ownership of what they do directly impacts the customer’s experience for the better.
Like Mahin, his entire team always strives to get better and to improve this customer experience through better food and operations. And even though mistakes are inevitably made, it’s the reaction to and correction of mistakes that’s paramount. What’s often frustrating for Mahin when reading customer reviews (e.g. those on yelp) is that these reviewers frequently don’t communicated their displeasure while in the restaurant so neither he nor any of his team members were ever given the opportunity to address and correct the problem when they could. Such genuine concern for enhancing the customer experience is yet another attribute consistent with LEYE’s approach to business.
Mahin concluded that “doing straight forward food well is often the most difficult.” Though as recent accolades suggest like these recent inclusions in Fox News “Top 10 Pizza Restaurants in the US” and Food & Wine’s “Best Pizza Places in the U.S.”, Mahin and his team, though never complacent, are succeeding at achieving this difficult goal.