BEING A CHEF'S DESIGNER
I’m a chef’s designer. I’m 18 years in the business of restaurant design in Los Angeles and have been running my nut for 11. I work with possessed, obsessed mavens who bring integrity to every aspect of their art. These are the people that disrupt how we eat. They bring our love to lovage, redirect our respect to farmers, and teach us to celebrate our many cultures of eating. They champion our country’s wild abundance, our freedom, our essential Americana to grow anything, be anything. And they do it all from within an industry that at best expects to make a profit margin of ten percent.
We are entering an interesting period in hospitality design right now. Those of us attached to the restaurant world are on edge about what the shakedown is going to look like in LA in July when the minimum wage increases. Everyone wants a living wage but we are trying to figure out how to manage the margins that are so miniscule already. This is all happening in the midst of massive media attention to chefs, avid food interest and appreciation for food sourcing. It seems everything occurring in the world right now is strangely polarized.
In the food world, it’s exciting that chef driven concepts are stepping into and can possibly assume leadership in the fast food sphere. There is a recognized appreciation for this and a lot of private financing available there. But it’s challenging for young chefs to hold their own and stay true to their dream in the development. We did the first brick and mortar for Chef Johnny Ray Zone of Howlin’ Ray’s last spring and specifically advised them not to take the extra investment money. We knew we could create their restaurant with widely available materials that would limit capital investment and keep concept and profit in their pocket. I could tell you more about the design, but let me just say that six months later, the wait at the door to get into his hot chicken shack has only gotten longer and it belongs to them. So this is the rainbow everyone is looking at in the industry.
How many of you have seen Jon Favreau’s heart felt film Chef? It spotlights the rise of the impassioned food renegade from small truck op to real brick and mortar. It mirrors our collective appreciation for American boot strapping and we all cheer when he finally gets his beautiful kitchen, his very own restaurant. Chef was shot in a restaurant called Hatfield’s that I designed and opened in 2010 for Michelin starred duo Karen and Quinn Hatfield. When we opened Hatfield’s, Johnathan Gold said that that the restaurant (originally owned by Michel Richard) “had been scrubbed to a former glory and it wasn’t until they were in this place that he realized how well they cooked”. It was fine dining done beautifully and with subtlety. It was an (expensive) place you could go and have a private conversation, outstanding service and tailored, innovative food. Four years later, the Hatfield’s let go of the restaurant. With the procession of the recession, the advent of the maker movement and all associated food trucks, the fine dining tide had turned in LA. Ironically, what we celebrate in Chef is the very change in our culture that closed Hatfield’s.
So does this matter? Is this move away from gentrification in the food world a good thing or a bad thing? When Hatfield’s closed, we worried how many of our grand dames were going to be put to rest. How many of our lovely refined restaurants would last? At the exact same time, we were asking how anyone could afford to develop a restaurant in LA, while cheering the rising class of chefs and their popup ingenuity.
It is without doubt that LA is experiencing a restaurant renaissance. Chefs from all parts of the country have turned eyes to LA. We’ve recently attracted national chefs like Andy Ricker, Dave Barren and David Chang. When Suzanne Goin won the national James Beard award for the Best Chef this year, she hand flashed the LA sign and we swelled with pride.
No one was saying even last summer, what a very, very small number of people are saying now. There are just too many restaurants in LA. What is unclear is what will happen in July to our over glutted culture of restaurants locally in LA, where while we are enjoying our restaurant renaissance, every week it’s a new place. This leaves really good emerging or already established great chefs competing with the flavor of the week. As new restaurants pop up every day and the restaurant crowd migrates from new face to new face, what makes a place? We are facing an inevitable crash with the first system malfunction occurring next July. Will the cream rise to the top? Is that an American myth that just doesn’t cut to the heart of the matter?
Personally, I am plagued with how I can do it better. I often eat at a restaurant located close to me that has at best average food. I am located on the edge of downtown LA and there are plenty of places offering better fare. But I keep going there. It’s not about the food. There is one thing on the menu that I eat over and over that is fair to middling. But every time I think to go there, I get happy because it feels like I’m skipping school. It feels like I am going to have a great time. And I do.
The question is why? What makes a food driven person like me, based in the industry, excited to go eat average fare at my neighborhood dig? It is because it has character. And that makes it a place I call my own. These places last. These places matter. These are the places that also make a city beloved. They are the unspoken contrast to the rise of LA’s restaurant culture. And they will last.
My role in this climate is one of protection. As a designer, I stand for my client’s integrity as seen through the face of their business. I am standing for less waste, less turnover, and genuine admiration for both the talents of my chefs and for that of mother earth. I am standing for our community that comes there to experience their food, and my job is to show to them how much it all matters. I think that design that doesn’t begin to address these three things is missing the point.
Great chefs do a lot. Great designers also do a lot. We manage a myriad of details, personalities and potential disasters, while smiling over a cocktail. We have tremendous knowledge of every trade that extends into everyone else’s field. We are some of the most ethical, caring people in the universe. We are visionaries that create joy for people. At its heart, that is hospitality. I stand for business being a celebration of our life blood and support for those around us. Even if it’s just one small shack at a time.