When Michelin was still covering Los Angeles, chef Michael Cimarusti earned two stars at Providence, the restaurant on Melrose Avenue that he's turned into a modern seafood institution. In the following interview, the chef talks about how he fell in love with the craft, what it's like running an elegant restaurant in an environment where casual businesses are thriving, the limits that come with cooking sustainably, and his forthcoming restaurant, Connie & Ted's.
The thing you always hear about L.A. is that it's an extremely casual city. How does a place like Providence, that's pretty elegant and pretty quiet, succeed in an environment that might embrace younger or "cooler" restaurants?
I know L.A. always gets singled out as a casual city, but that's something that I think now applies nationwide. I think things work here because there's a certain level of formality at the restaurant, but we don't require that much of customers. We'll say that the restaurant is elegantly designed and that we don't require jackets, and it's my sense that if you show up with shorts and flip flops, you won't be comfortable. But every night there are people that show up in jeans and a t-shirt, and that's fine. We won't treat you any differently.
Do you look at it with any resentment?
No. I might feel different about it if we were struggling here. People seem to have embraced what we are doing, and I think what's most important is that people seem to feel comfortable here. It works. Wanting to enjoy the experience here doesn't dictate dressing one way or the other.
You mentioned the nationwide trend of restaurants becoming more casual or, as some would argue, becoming less focused on service. How do you feel about that?
This is maybe a reflection of my age, but I want a place that feels comfortable, has welcoming service. I want a chair that doesn't hurt my back, and I want to be able to hear the people sitting with me at dinner. Those things are really important to me, but that's not to say that I haven't enjoyed experiences at restaurants that may not have that. There are restaurants in L.A. where I absolutely love the food but won't go back because it's uncomfortable.
Hospitality has to be at the root of everything in this business. You have to let people know that you value their business. It's lamentable to find places that have lost sight of that — even if the food is great — but I haven't experienced it all that much.
This is old news, but since your website advertises your Michelin ranking, it's worth asking: what do you think of Michelin leaving L.A.?
I think that was the biggest blow to the Los Angeles restaurant scene, when they decided not to come back. It's a worldwide guide that applies the same standards everywhere. When we earned our second star it changed our business dramatically. We became more of a destination restaurant, and people — international people — started coming in to eat. Furthermore, it drives competition and keeps you on your toes, because you never know who will be sitting in that dining room. You of course have to work to push your inspiration, but the Michelin Guide doesn't exactly hurt.
What do you find exciting about L.A. dining these days? This is possibly an ignorant thing to say, but everyone seems to be talking about what's going on in northern California.
Well, the ramen thing is sweeping L.A., which I love. That's sort of new. And then more broadly, there are young chefs at places like Red Medicine and Spice Table and Baco Mercat that are doing things I really love. This has come on only recently, and I think it's due to the fact that there are so many young people in this city that are interested in food. I'm not quite sure how it got there, but I would guess it has to do with how culturally diverse this city is. That young group has embraced that and been extremely curious about the variety.
What makes all of this uniquely L.A.?
One thing that definitely separates it certainly from Paris and even New York is that so much of this exploration has to do with getting in touch with various cultures, and here that only takes a short drive. It can be Vietnamese, Chinese, ramen, Mexican, Peruvian, and you are going to find it authentic here. You can experience it first-hand.
How has that influenced your food?
For me it has been about Japan. Before I came here, it was a strict French, formal training. But I think that traveling there several times and learning about it has been the single greatest influence on my cuisine. Here in L.A. we have the biggest expat Japanese community in the country, I think. I probably wouldn't have been influenced by it as much if I had stayed in New York. It's changed the way I look at food. This happened about ten years ago, when no one was talking about umami, and it's evolved over the years. It's about seasonality, aesthetics, and of course, ingredients.
What other things are you thinking about a lot these days when you cook?
Sustainability is really important. That's the first decision that we make. We wait to ask if something is fresh or consistently available. The first question we ask is, "Is it sustainable?" If it doesn't meet that first criterion, it's not on the menu. In one way it's very limiting, but I do believe in the reasons we shouldn't be eating certain things.
Look at bluefin tuna: I would love to be serving that, but we can't. We don't use much tuna on the menu, because it's hard to determine the method of catch and where it was caught often. We try to stick to species of fish where I can answer all of the questions about it. Even Kindai tuna, where they farm raise the eggs, I think we should just give it a rest. The more that we obsess about it, the more we perpetuate the cycle.
There are many restaurants that impose limits on themselves, whether in terms of sustainability or sourcing or something more philosophical, and I'm wondering if anything ever falls through the cracks.
No. It's very straightforward to follow these standards. It's very irresponsible otherwise. I don't see it as a burden. I have people in Alaska I can buy from, people in Washington State I can buy from, and if I have beautiful wild king salmon available to me most of the year, why would I go and get farm raised salmon at some point?
And then there's the question of tasting the difference between bluefin and something else, for example.
You absolutely can taste the difference. I agree with that.
So does your food suffer?
I don't think the menu suffers from omission. If you want bluefin tuna, we won't be able to give you that. But maybe we'll have some fluke sashimi from Virginia that will please you. Is it the same thing? No. But it's the smarter choice. No one needs that particular species of fish to survive. We made that same decision with wild striped bass in the 80s, and it was tough for many families who made their living on it. Now, though, the moratorium has passed and there are fisheries that are doing it soundly and will pass that on to generations. If we can get to the point where we can do that with bluefin tuna, we can then enjoy it again.
People get scared and think that customers won't come if they don't have certain fish, but I think there has been a good move toward sustainability in general and that it's an easy decision to make.
Let's talk about cooking fish. The job that pushed you in that direction was Water Grill, but you also worked elsewhere. Do you ever feel limited?
I still love it, to be honest. Working with fish is sort of this separate discipline, and working with wild ingredients is a magical thing. You open up a box every morning, and you pretty much don't know what you are going to get. It's exciting and challenging and reveals itself over the years. Without exaggeration, I know more than I did last year. It always changes, but I'm sure David Kinch would tell you the same thing about vegetables or a sushi chef about that craft. It's a constant challenge, and that's what keeps it fresh and exciting.
Finally, what's going on with the new place you are working on?
It's going to be a little bit west of where we are here. We've taken over a Greek diner, and we're pretty much leveling it and starting all over again. We're building a casual New England style seafood restaurant, tentatively to be called Connie & Ted's.
What will be on the menu?
Everything steamer clams, to clam cakes, lobster rolls. It's the type of food I would eat in the summers in Rhode Island.
How far along are things?
Well, we're hoping to be open in September or October.