(Originally published December 27, 2012 on Examiner.com).
When discussions of top restaurant cities occur, Los Angeles never seems to be part of this dialogue. Such talk here in the states typically revolves around San Francisco, New York City, Chicago and even Seattle while abroad, Tokyo, Paris and Copenhagen lead many lists. Why is this? Well the reasons are many starting with the nature of the institutions that have produced many of this area’s chefs as well as burdensome permitting processes requiring multiple clearances from departments each with their own hierarchies that ultimately drive up start-up costs.
These processes also seem more interested in extracting permit fees for every project facet as well as every little change rather than being concerned about getting new locations opened quickly which, if opened faster, would instead generate more sales and business tax revenues as well as jobs. (This will be the subject of a more detailed rant in the not too distant future).
Recent service trends that were born in part out of and in reaction to these latter constraints, especially of high start-up costs, like food trucks, pop-ups and supper clubs spearheaded by the likes of Los Angeles area chefs Roy Choi, Ludo Lefebvre and Craig Thorton are slowly changing perceptions of the Los Angeles’ dining scene for the better.
With its climate, proximity to produce, rich ethnic diversity and creative communities, Los Angeles really should be ground zero for creative cuisine attracting chefs to this region from all over the world. To be bluntly honest, it isn’t. Possibly the next service trend emerging in this region will help put Los Angeles on the map for aspiring chefs as well as on the lips of national critics and bloggers when “best of” lists are generated in consumer and food industry journals.
According to Chef Kevin Meehan, this next trend evolving from food trucks, pop-ups and supper clubs is the small hole in the wall, no frills restaurant providing Michelin star quality cuisine at bistro prices. Los Angeles already has seen a couple new restaurants (e.g. Animal, Alma) in this category with a few more on the immediate horizon by the likes of Ludo and Thorton. In 2013, Chef Kevin also intends to add a permanent location for Kali Dining to this growing list of these small chef driven concepts. Concepts that once again are allowing for a creative insurgence against the corporate- tightly run by the number and passionless- restaurant groups (e.g. Patina and Wolfgang Puck) that have long defined Los Angeles’ position in the fine dining culinary sector.
Breaking free from this run by the number dining world, without its chef’s straight jacket, again is allowing for more experimentation and the risk taking essential for putting Los Angeles back on culinary’s cutting edge. Chef Kevin Meehan’s career has had a foot in both the corporate and insurgent’s worlds.
A brief overview of Chef Kevin Meehan’s career entwined, and then liberated from this culinary corporate structure (with itchef’s straight jacket) helps illustrate this insurgence of young chefs now doing their own respective things on their own respective terms.
Though right after high school. Kevin Meehan attended Johnson and Wales in Providence, Rhode Island, culinary school didn’t inspire him. Not until Charlie Trotter’s books came out, while still enrolled, did he realize what kind of cooking he wanted to do. Trotter’s books with their macro photography, menu combinations, froths and other “chorizo crazy shit” aroused Meehan’s passions for food and fine dining.
Pursuing this passion, after his junior year of college, Meehan backpacked across Europe and then returned to extern for 6 months during his 2nd semester his senior year to the Michelin starred L’Alban Chambon at the Metropole Hotel, under Chef Dominique Michou in Brussels. Here initially speaking no French, Kevin first peeled potatoes and shucked oysters before eventually working his way up to the vegetable and fish stations. Eventually he learned enough kitchen French, as well as curse words, to function getting the menu out. The head Chef Michou, one of the top chefs in Brussels, wasn’t hands on, so direction came from the sous chef and other line chefs in this large operation.
In Brussels, like elsewhere in Europe, everything was farm to table. There really wasn’t any other option. There were no Sysco deliveries. Eggs never saw refrigeration. This was all new to Kevin as was butchering a whole animal that needed to be broken down to move onto the next kitchen task. Without any distractions, Kevin was always first in and last out of the kitchen. On weekends, when he was off, he traveled by train to Paris, London, Amsterdam running up his credit card bills eating out all the time.
Not being paid, when Kevin finally arrived back in the states, Kevin’s credit card debt meant he moved back in with his folks on Long Island rather than with all his just post college aged buddies in Brooklyn. So rather than work in Manhattan, Kevin went to work at the best place he could find close to home: Mirabelle with Chef Guy Reuge running the back of house, and the chef’s wife running the front two dining rooms of a converted house. Here the focus was on the food with around seventy five covers a night. Reuge is simple and works hard. During the two and half years Kevin worked at Mirabelle, he also had the occasion to stage at both Le Bernardin and Daniel in New York City. Though in comparison to Mirabelle, Kevin noted how tough people were at these larger prestigious restaurants that operated like machines.
However rather than eventually move to a New York City location after Mirabelle as Kevin had always intended, visits with his best friend in Los Angeles put Meehan in a California state of mind. So before long he informed Chef Reuge of his desire to move west. Chef Reuge, in turn, placed a called to what was at that time the best French restaurant in Los AngelesL’Orangerie and spoke to that restaurant’s fellow country man Chef Ludo Lefebvre in French. And before long Kevin was on another Los Angeles vacation for a week and a half to stage at L’Orangerie and two other restaurants for two days each. Those two other restaurants were Melisse with Chef Josiah Citrin (prior to receiving its Michelin stars) and Patina which at that time was under the direction of Chef Walter Manzke.
Meehan was most impressed with Ludo’s youth and intensity for to Kevin chef Ludo was “rock ‘n roll” and “the California dream.” So after giving a month’s notice to Chef Reuge, Meehan joined Chef Ludo’s kitchen and stayed for the next two years until Ludo helped Kevin land his next job. This help occurred when the then soon to open chef at Bastide Alain Giraud came into measure L’Orangerie’s Montague range. Giroud shared a staff meal with L’Orangerie’s crew, told Ludo he was looking for help, and the next thing got Kevin a job as the chef de cusine at this new restaurant.
As it turned out Giraud was more interested in PR than cooking, so being so hands off, this gave Kevin a huge opportunity that resulted in large part, due to Kevin’s efforts, Bastide getting a four starred review. However this abruptly changed when Kevin was informed by Bastide’s management that Giraud was being let go. The management wanted Kevin on board while management searched for a new chef to replace Giraud.
Well as it turned out, the replacement chef was none other than his former and soon to be again future mentor Chef Ludo, who had had a blow out with L’Orangerie’s management and thus needed a new job. Kevin describes these events succinctly as “no one ever wants to do boot camp again.” Despite these words, being the good soldier Kevin stayed aboard Bastide’s staff for another year and a half. He couldn’t leave Ludo hanging after these changes in that kitchen. Kevin was there whenBastide received its single star review, which he describes as “one of the worse days of Ludo’s life.”
The sommelier from Bastide left to go work at Citrine, making Meehan’s aware of Kevin next opportunity and destination. Here in what’s currently Michael Voltaggio’s Ink, things didn’t go as promised, and then one of the owner brother partners suddenly and unexpectedly died causing the surviving brother to pull the plug on the operation. This is when Joachim Splichal hired Kevin and his entire crew to go work for the Patina Group at the flagship Patina Restaurant.
Over the next six years with the Patina Group, Kevin worked at two other locations, Paperfish and his last stop Café Pinot. At Paperfish, Kevin replaced the opening chef who got a bad review, however utilizing a lease clause for performance; Splichal pulled the plug on this location rather than invest more money into to trying to make it work. Café Pinot was a sideways move, with changes made to the menu to keep Kevin engaged.
In general though, the top down managerial style of Patina with layers of directors, lots of rules and many interactions via email with people he never even met was the antithesis of what he enjoyed at Mirabelle on Long Island. Unlike Mirabelle, Patina wasn’t a passionate environment. Everything was run by the numbers with goals given to cut labor and food costs it always seemed by yet another percent. And this was despite people already working long hours six days a week, and most food not being sourced at local farmer markets.
Ultimately Kevin got out of Patina what he wanted to get out of this group especially regarding understanding how to run a business, but when he did leave, he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do next. He knew though that he didn’t want to return to this corporate rat race. He wanted to have a life.
That life included a long vacation to Japan and Korea. Despite having a Japanese wife, he had never been to his wife’s homeland due to his long hours in the kitchens of all of his prior positions.
This trip and a movie were transformative, and prepared Kevin for his next venture Kali Dining. A venture that Kevin “fell into” without fore planning that Meehan equated with being like the first time some one meets the woman that they’ll eventually marry.
Japan for Chef Kevin Meehan was mind blowing as well as very filling. He and his wife spent thousands on food eating everything from blow fish to fish sperm to horse meat; going to three starred Michelin restaurants in Kyoto to small tempura,ramen, udon and robayata shops. What impressed Kevin the most was the small size of these establishments and their dedicated chefs especially the dedication to craft; for example, the small tempura restaurant with its counter service and third generation chef whose main aspiration was to work hard perfecting his craft, tempura.
Such dedication is no where better depicted then in the documentary movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” a movie that came out just when Kevin and his wife returned home to Los Angeles from their vacation. This movie reaffirmed everything that Kevin came to believe from his travels. For Kevin, Mirabelle’s Chef Guy Reuge was his Jiro. Reuge remains one of the most inspiring people and chefs that Kevin has met.
Interviews arranged by headhunters with corporate GM’s further reaffirmed what Kevin did NOT want to do, and that was return to that corporate dining world. Rather Kevin’s own dreams of providing unique dining while further refining his culinary craft brought him to the very simple idea of turning the guest house he was then renovating into a place for him to serve food. This idea was announced on FaceBook for his friends, who he also emailed. The twelve dates serving eight on three weekends were booked before opening up. His great friends provided tremendous support. And thus Kali Dining was born.
Before this first run was over, the second was set up and also sold out. This second location for a month in a sublet in Venice unit (where the movie ‘Cobra’ was shot) served only twelve people a night. So essentially dinner was a party of strangers brought together at a large communal table by their common interest in food and wine. With the success of this second event, Kali Dining got press, and now officially was a pop-up.
Without others giving him operating constraints, Kevin went foraging, hunting, and spending a ton of time sourcing great and unique ingredients. His initial efforts often were too complicated with too many details, so he had to pull back some realizing he “ wasn’t that guy at Noma.”
Though as momentum built, Kevin got a camera and light box, made a lot of different dishes so as to not do the same thing twice, made a book and launched a website. With his hair let down, he was now serving some of his best food ever.
Kali Dining’s cuisine now served omakase style isn’t geared to the guess, there are few modifications. Kevin even stopped typing a menu. So he just goes out and tells the diners what they‘re getting. The guests entrust the chef to provide a delicious six course meal (with a vegetarian option). He describes his service as “organized chaos”.
He spends a lot of time sourcing ingredients. Most guests, he believes don’t fully understand what goes into sourcing the best ingredients. At one of Kevin’s recent events, he served a wild boar he shot using everything in his diner service, except for the skin, even the bones as the base for his ramen stock.
He realizes that this type of service isn’t for every one. The food is some times out there, and requires people to take risks. Though as Kevin explained it, people who go to a haunted house want to be scared without knowing exactly how they will be scared.
Kevin’s pop ups have since occurred in back yards, people’s houses, lofts and other restaurants. The next event coming up downtown this coming January is a place with a small electric range. He’ll adapt as he always does bringing an induction burner and gathering ingredients that will work under this scenario. His service is a traveling restaurant complete with U-haul to transport plates, utensils, furniture and other equipment.
2013 though is the year Kevin hopes to find a home, a hole in the wall location with low rent so that he isn’t burdened by high overhead. Without this monthly nut, unlike a place like Patina that has to cut costs and raise prices to help cover its rent, he believes he can provide “Michelin star quality food at bistro level prices” with amazing ingredients like sea urchin, rib eye, chanterelles and truffles in such a bare bones environment. That’s his goal for now to be another Jiro Ono or Guy Reuge rather than Wolfgang Puck or Joachim Splichal. So rather than worry about any future empire, Meehan’s inspiration and intent is to provide the best dining experience at a fair value to his current and future customers.
Kevin’s plan for his “totally kool” no frills location has already begun with enlisting an attorney to help put together an investor’s package. He says he already has a number of interested parties, but until they put their money down their interest is just words for right now. Both he and his front of house partner are putting a significant amount of their own money on the line too. His goal is too raise a sufficient enough amount to also have a large contingency fund available for unforeseen circumstances. He also has a possible location in mind where he’s begun talking to the landlord. Some recent publicity on eaterLA regarding his fund raising efforts was the inadvertent consequence of a cc’d email, though Kevin welcomes this free publicity and any one willing to get constructively involved to make his project become a reality.
He envisions his restaurant as being similar to a nano- or micro-brewery. (He will go back to having a menu with most likely 4 apps, 4 mains and 2 desserts plus a tasting menu).Such small locations providing quality products Kevin again asserts are the future evolution of the truck and pop-up culture in Los Angeles, and though many hurdles remain for Kevin’s vision to become a reality, a lower cost of entry based upon prudent lease arrangements in less glamorous locations with lower start up costs, provide a way for chef owned and driven concepts to propagate and re-inject Los Angeles restaurant scene with the passion and creativity its been missing. Many of these locations like Kali Dining, Animal, Alma etc may also eventually become the incubators Los Angeles has also been lacking and thus attract chefs from all over the world to work in their kitchens in sunny California with its rich ethnic diversity, creative communities and proximity to great produce, and the bounty of the Pacific.
Without such a vision, the food service scene in L.A. may not vanish. But without such lofty aspirations, Los Angeles will not as readily establish itself as the culinary powerhouse it should be already recognized as in the gastronomical world.