Dining

Escape to L.A.

Why chefs from around the globe are flocking to the City of Angels
Avocado Toast at Lodge Bread | Photo: Yasmin Alishav

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There’s a shaking underfoot in the U.S. food scene right now. While New York seems to be stuck in an era of $23 cacio e pepe menus, L.A.’s restaurants are blazing. Chefs from around the country and the globe are moving to the City of Angels to open restaurants, taking advantage of cheaper commercial rents, diverse neighborhoods, access to outstanding produce year-round, dedicated and adventurous diners, and, perhaps more than anything else, a palpable energy that’s fueling one of the country’s most exciting dining scenes. As Jessica Koslow of Sqirl puts it, “It still feels like the city of dreams.”

We ask some of these newer-to-town chefs and restaurant owners why they moved to L.A. (and for a few, moved back to L.A.) and what they love about the city’s dining scene. Here’s what they have to say:

Alexander Phaneuf and Or Amsalam, owners of Lodge Bread
Phaneuf left a career working on the lines at major restaurants in San Francisco to move back to L.A. and stop doing just that: “I wanted to come here to surf and fuck off,” he says. He and Ansalam ultimately teamed up, baking bread in a carport in Phaneuf’s backyard and making sometimes as little as $400 a month. But the bread was exceptionally good, and the pair found an office space and turned it into a bakery and café and now have plans for a pizzeria next door.

“We don’t know why there aren’t more people doing what we’re doing. . . . I think it’s because everyone still talks shit about L.A. and underestimates L.A. They don’t see all of the potential,” Phaneuf says. “I think L.A.’s the place for young chefs who are trying to come and capitalize on cheap rent,” Amsalam adds. The city’s casual attitude toward dining also appeals to them. “We go out and get dollar tacos . . . we’re not fussy when it comes to food, and I think that’s just how L.A. is,” Ansalam says.

Francis Derby, chef of The Cannibal
Derby was decidedly a New York chef, having grown up on Long Island and coming up through the ranks of New York kitchens. But when The Cannibal team inked a deal for an L.A. outpost, he bought a car and drove across the country. He had his doubts about finding cooks to staff the kitchen and watching over the New York restaurants from afar, but his kitchen is staffed, and the move has inspired his cooking. “The food here is still in The Cannibal scope, everything being very meat focused, but the vegetable section on the menu is probably the largest section right now just because we can,” he says. “We already have amazing peaches [here]. So I’m sending New York recipes and saying, ‘Get ready, because when peaches are ready, I’m going to want this dish.’”

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Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, chefs and co-owners of Madcapra
When Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson left Brooklyn’s then-very-popular Glasserie to move to L.A. and open a falafel shop and a modern Middle Eastern restaurant in 2014, it came as somewhat of a shock to the New York restaurant world. But the two say they don’t regret the move: “L.A. was never an option in my mind,” Hymanson says. “Then Sara and I took a trip here, and I was very surprised by how L.A. actually was. I love New York City, and it wasn’t an active desire to leave; it was the pull of what’s happening here in L.A.: the newness, culinary and creative energy.”  

Curtis Stone, chef and owner of Maude and Gwen
Australian native Curtis Stone cut his teeth in the kitchens of London under Marco Pierre White and moved to L.A. for his wife, actress Lindsay Price, not for the food scene. But, he says, “I fell in love with L.A. . . . Truthfully, from a culinary standpoint, it has the most unbelievable produce in the world: the microclimates and a hippie attitude. It’s unique.” Over the past 10 years, he’s watched the scene change: “L.A.’s gone through this transformation from places to be seen or see a celebrity. The food was second, and, now, it’s the complete opposite.”

Bibim Salad from Baroo | Photo: Jakob N. Layman

Kwang Uh, chef and co-owner of Baroo
Kwang Uh and business partner Matthew Kim met in college in Seoul and started to talk about opening a restaurant somewhere outside of Korea but no place specific. Years later, after living in New York and Italy, Uh decided to move to L.A., where Kim had settled to open Baroo, a fermentation lab-meets-restaurant, last September. The pair signed a cheap lease in a strip mall in a no-man’s-land between Hollywood and Little Armenia. “It’s lower than I even expected, so that’s why we opened here,” Uh says. It’s so reasonable in fact (around $2 a square foot) that the pair was able to close up shop for six weeks and travel to East Asia for research for their inventive menu. Uh also says it is a city that’s accepting of their “outer boundary” restaurant, with “people working in art and entertainment, which means they are pretty open-minded to everything.”

Jessica Koslow, chef and owner of Sqirl
Few chefs define modern L.A. cooking the way Jessica Koslow does. Sqirl opened four years ago, and it (and its sorrel rice bowls and jam) seemed to become an icon almost overnight. But it took the chef nearly 10 years on the East Coast to return to her native California. Today, she’s thankful for the city’s open-mindedness when it comes to food: “We are a city of multiple ethnicities; you’ve got the ability to pull from all of these. It’s easier to be like, ‘My restaurant is Mexican-Asian fusion,’ because you can do that in L.A.”

And she sees the new wave coming: “I feel the influx; so many cooks are coming here from everywhere else right now, and it is exciting.” But she’s concerned, too, that the city’s dining scene holds onto its core. “I want to feel . . . [they’re] integrated into California, into us, into L.A.” 

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