Cooking

The Veggie Merchant of Venice

Gjelina chef Travis Lett gives vegetables the spotlight in his new cookbook
Gjelina Cookbook from Venice, California
Photos: Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

If you thought the new cookbook for chef Travis Lett's boisterous and buzzy Venice Beach restaurant, Gjelina, would be just that—boisterous and buzzy—you're sadly mistaken.

There's no recipe for the cult-favorite baklava croissants clamored over at the restaurant's sister bakery, Gjusta, nor a clear photo of the neighborhood's white-hot chef who's been featured in Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and more. Instead, there's a certain gravity to Lett's book.

"My job is to participate in the conversation about food, and, whenever possible, manifest change in the decisions we make at Gjelina," Lett says in the first few pages. "From the beginning, we wanted [it] to feel like it had always been there. . . . I wanted Gjelina to have a real utility, to be of tangible substance in people's lives."

Lett takes his job seriously, and it shows in the book's recipes. There are four types of pestos and five variations of aioli, and ingredients are often measured in weight rather than volume to get the full restaurant-level precision. His fish recipes rely on the little guys (sardines, anchovies, squid), echoing Gjelina's mantra of "stick[ing] close to the bottom of the food chain."

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Though pizza is Gjelina's claim to fame—the dough gets a two-page spread and the pizza guys multiple candid portraits—it's clear the New Jersey native loves his California vegetables. A whole chapter is dedicated to vegetable sides, from sumac-dusted geometric romanesco to all kinds of braised things, like grassy favas topped with pecorino to sweet corn cooked down with Fresno chiles and shallots.

"When Gjelina was in its construction phase, people would often ask me what the 'concept' was for the new restaurant, which is a question I generally try to avoid," Lett explains in the book. "I would reply somewhat sheepishly that I wanted to focus primarily on small seasonal vegetable dishes, and more often than not people would look at me with a good-luck-with-that kind of expression and walk off."

That's what he does in this simple and beautiful cookbook, and we couldn't ask for anything more.

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