LA Chefs Brian Dunsmoor & Kris Tominaga

(Originally published November 12, 2012 on Examiner.com).

Note since this article was published both chefs Dunsmoor and Tominaga left The hart and the Hunter for other opportunities.

In Aesop’s fable The Hart and the Hunter, instead of appreciating his nimble legs, the hart looking at his reflection in a pond became overly enamored with the nobility of his antlers. After the legs the hart so despised gave him the opportunity for escape from a hunter, these antlers led to the hart’s demise when they became entangled in low growing branches that allowed the hunter to catch the hart.

The two young chefs, Brian Dunsmoor and Kris Tominaga, at the new restaurant The Hart and the Hunter (in the PaliHotel on Melrose), despite their respective impressive resumes, haven’t allowed themselves to become so big headed. In their new restaurant, instead they’ve created a southern inspired rustic California menu emphasizing the quality and flavor of locally sourced produce, fish and meats rather than vanity driven items pre-occupied with overly artistic presentations and technique. These dishes created reflect a fusion of each chef’s respective heritage as well as the humble approach to service and, in general, to the restaurant industry that both chefs share. In a city full of people who endlessly self promote themselves, these two have hardly promoted themselves at all; rather they’ve always let the quality of their cooking speak for itself.

Dunsmoor, from Atlanta, moved to Los Angeles in 2007. Right after high school Brian attended Johnson & Wales culinary school in Charleston. After school, and a few years finding himself, prior to moving to Los Angeles, Brian worked for and with a few of the most prestigious chefs currently doing Southern cuisine in the Southeast region of the US including James Beard Award winning chef Hugh Acheson at Acheson’s Five and Ten restaurant in Athens, Georgia for two years and with Scott Peacock, a disciple of Southern cooking icon Edna Lewis, for dinners with the Southern Food Alliance.

Acheson’s lack of pretension and down to earth attitude heavily influenced Dunsmoor’s approach to cooking, attitude to the restaurant business, and attitude toward the sourcing of food. Acheson doesn’t support the “preciousness of farmer markets” rather he believes such markets should be what they once were, that is “the place of abundance to sell stuff to everyone regardless of class or income.” Moreover, Acheson believes restaurateurs should know their farmers’ names plus understand who they’re buying from, since when they do “local begets sustainable which allows organic.”

Tominga is from Southern California. After getting an undergraduate degree majoring in business and being a self-proclaimed “cookbook junkie,” Kris realized his real passion was cooking. Following this passion, Kris got accepted to and enrolled in the Culinary Art program at Boston University, a program established by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin that only accepts twelve students each semester. Shortly thereafter Tominga worked at the famed L’Espalier in Boston, a restaurant whose chef Frank McClelland’s cooking “…is a reflection of the raw food materials that abound in New England…” affected by the changing season’s of this region, McClelland’s life growing up on a farm, and his “locavore” philosophy. When Tominga moved back to Los Angeles to become the night time sous chef at Venice’sJoe’s Restaurant, Kris returned to doing this region’s Californian Cuisine championed by chefs like Alice Waters, who maximize flavor and freshness by also sourcing food locally and seasonally.

At Joe’s Restaurant is where the Dunsmoor and Tominga first met. Brian was the sous chef during the day while Kris was the sous chef at night. After Dunsmoor left Joe’s to become the chef at Axe, Kris was promoted to chef at Joe’s. Before Dunsmoor’s departure, the two often discussed what type of restaurant they’d like to operate. This opportunity didn’t present itself until the two left their respective positions to operate the highly acclaimed pop-up restaurant and original incarnation of Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing on Abbot Kinney in the Capri space that ran from December 1st, 2011 through the summer of 2012. (Not to be confused with the new restaurant bearing the same name being run by their former partner). This pop-up gave Brian and Kris the opportunity to test out their concept of Southern inspired rustic California cuisine.

According to Kris this food concept blends the strong tradition and history of Southern cooking with the much harder to define newer tradition of California cuisine. Unlike Southern cooking, California’s cuisine came about when more food items and styles of cooking became available. Thus California’s cooking is influenced by Asian and Mexican food plus takes advantage of this region’s great fresh produce abundant in variety that changes often. Kris believes California is one of the best places in the world for produce. Southern food was also originally rooted in farm to table dining, but according to Brian farming in the south is different now. There aren’t as many small farmers or available farmer’s markets as there are currently in California.

One of the original pop-up restaurant’s repeat customers was Venice area resident Avi Brosh owner of the Palihotel on Melrose. During the pop-up’s extended run on Abbot Kinney, the three struck up a relationship. Due to the pop-ups success, Brian and Kris were presented with a number of opportunities, and even though the two wanted to stay in Venice, when they saw the space that Brush had available that was suppose to be a coffee shop, they fell in love with the space and the Palihotel’s sense of style. The space with its tiled ceramic walls, and octagonal tiled floor, plus its preexisting hood and grease interceptor, was conducive to the ambiance Kris and Brian wanted to create and made the remaining FF& E (fixtures, furniture and equipment) fit out affordable.

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Prior to opening The Hart and the Hunter in its new location, Kris and Brian took a twelve day culinary tour across the Southeast through Charleston, Athens, Atlanta, and New Orleans visiting both contemporary Southern concepts like Charleston’s The Hominy Grill, and local more vernacular “no name” places for oyster roasts and low country boils. Despite putting on a few pounds, the trip helped further shape their new menu that blends these southern influences with lots of California’s fresh greens. Though this new menu emphasizes flavor and freshness over health consciousness, there are only two fried items on the menu: the fried green tomatoes (with chow chow, herbs, goat and buttermilk dressing) and fried chicken livers (with arugla, radish, apple & onion jam).

Flavor and freshness are somewhat necessitated by their kitchen’s small food print with its limited reach in and under counter refrigeration. Lack of storage space requires frequent trips to farmer’s markets where due to their quantity of purchasing, they’ve gotten better pricing from the vendors. Many meat items like the andouilli sausage in their low country shrimp boil are procured from their friends Lindy & Grundy, who butcher local, pasture fed, humanely raised animals.

The restaurant’s family style of service both reinforces the food concept as well as allows the sous chef to get the food quickly through the pass through on an item by item basis and crossed off each table’s respective ticket by either Kris or Brian, who then assemble and garnish each mismatched plate before placing the item on a plate stand for a runner to run to its table. Considering the spatial limitations and limited equipment, it’s quite amazing how quickly Kris and Brian get food to their seventy seats. Though a few of their older customers aren’t as keen on this family style of service, their primary demographic of 25 to 40 year olds enjoys this dining experience. The pickling jars as glassware, plus mismatched plates, silverware and furniture all work well to further effectively define the casual neighborhood friendly nature of the concept. Already 20% of their business is repeat customers.

In another two weeks time, after the publishing of this profile, the restaurant will be getting its liquor license and start serving California wines and many unique crafted beers from across the United States. To further reinforce the concept and its lack of pretense, a draft beer will be served in a growler. Though with great food served in generous portions at fair price points, Kris and Brian’s desire to remain a local humble location for their neighborhood, and not a destination restaurant, may be difficult to maintain since once word of mouth spreads, and more people become aware of the quality of the food being plated, more people will drive out of their way to try Kris and Brian’s evolving menu. Though considering the authenticity of each of their respected roots, it’s safe to assume that neither Kris or Brian will ever become so enamored with their antlers that they ever forget the legs and effort that have carried them so far so quickly to their new location, The Hart and the Hunter, in the PaliHotel on Melrose two blocks west of N. Fairfax Avenue. Where the legs of these two eventually take them from here will be another story worth following.

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