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Cookbook Review: 'Gjelina' Reveals How We Want to Live Now

L.A. chef Travis Lett’s restaurant cookbook is serious, ambitious, and full of vegetables

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A scene is playing out in restaurants across America right now, and it goes like this: in the entrance of a sun-drenched, wood-lined dining room, a party of diners is waiting to sit down. They've been standing for almost an hour; when they're finally lead to their seats at a communal table, they patch together an order from a long menu broken up by meaningless subject headings like "small plates" and "plates," where dishes are described with intriguing and discordant lists of ingredients, mostly vegetables.


The prices are on the edge of too much, as is the noise, and the crowd — someone at the boundary of their group just got elbowed, but the waiter is uncannily attractive, so all is forgiven. When the food hits the table, the presentation is so carelessly beautiful it's almost sorrowful to disrupt it in order to eat. Each plate is full of luxury, not in the form of foie gras or caviar, but as small, creamy hunks of burrata, gems of pomegranate seeds, the crisp skin of a perfectly grilled whole fish. The wait is forgotten, the bill has yet to arrive, and sooner or later, one member of the party will sweep their arm across the table and shout (the dining room is now at a roar), "This is exactly how I want to eat!"

This scene — communal, rustic, aesthetically pleasing, vegetable-heavy dining — is happening everywhere, but its definitive interpretation, maybe its originator, plays out daily at Gjelina, a small restaurant in Los Angeles's Venice neighborhood. The restaurant opened in 2008 on what was then a quiet stretch of Abbot Kinney, which has become the neighborhood's main artery, renamed in 1990 to honor the real estate developer who, in 1905, sought to create a "Venice of America" by digging a former marsh into a series of canals, complete (at first) with Italian gondoliers.

‘Gjelina’ is a rewarding and detailed guide to the restaurant’s high-effort effortless cuisine.

The street's new name was part of a revitalization campaign that has succeeded perhaps too well, a renewal capped off when, for better or worse, GQ named it "The Coolest Block in America" in 2012. Gjelina, the flagship of chef Travis Lett and business partner Fran Camaj's burgeoning empire of Venice restaurants, is at its heart. Often described as something like an all-day, small plates, Cal-Ital and Mediterranean restaurant, those terms don't quite fit the idiosyncratic food served by Lett, a self-taught cook, who mixes all of the on-trend pleasures in his eclectic menus of sandwiches, pizzas, housemade charcuterie, fancy salads, oysters, a steak or two, and a slew of remarkable vegetable sides. From its start as a low-key neighborhood restaurant, Gjelina now books dinner reservations a month out and has expanded its brand to include Gjelina Take Away (GTA) next door, and the nearby marble-countered and perpetually-mobbed deli and cafe, Gjusta.

The food at Gjelina is chronicled in Lett's new cookbook, Gjelina, out this month from Chronicle Books — and it's excellent, the recipes striking an unbeatable balance between tasting luxurious and feeling genuinely nourishing — but the restaurant is often discussed more in terms of its stylish clientele or its extreme no-substitutions policy than it is the high quality of its cooking. Some of this is due to the neighborhood's upward mobility, Venice's stretch of palm-lined asphalt changing from what the L.A. Times called "an enclave where struggling artists coexisted uneasily with violent gang members," to what is now a tourist destination of speciality boutiques, a Warby Parker store, and a jumble of out-of-town coffee brands (there's a Blue Bottle, an Intelligentsia, and a Toms Coffee outpost).

Looks matter here: the L.A. Times's 2008 review of Gjelina praises the food, but obsesses over the space, running down a checklist of alluring trends: communal tables, a roar of noise, a funky chandelier, vintage wood and metal stools, a mess of plates. In 2011, Jonathan Gold intimated in LA Weekly that the pretty people on staff were a bigger draw than the excellent food. Besha Rodell's 2015 re-review in the same publication recommends the restaurant less as a place for great cuisine than as as a fantasy anyone can join, writing that there is "no place where the people are more beautiful, the vibe more Cali-chic, the food more true to our gourmet/carefree aspirations."

Gjelina's new cookbook will certainly spark Cali-chic aspirations in its readers; conveniently, it will happen just as those aspirations are experiencing a national upswing. Right now, "shared vegetable plates" is one of the restaurant industry's unavoidable buzzy phrases, and the juggernaut success of cookbooks like Yotam Ottolenghi's has proven that home cooks want in on delicious vegetables, too. Gjelina's promotional copy promises to evoke Venice's "vibe," a fuzzily defined yet powerful ideal of laid-back surfers, casual and egalitarian encounters with celebrities, and principled not-a-diet-but-a-lifestyle eating. So many want to live in the reality of that Venice that the cost of a beach shack there now runs in the millions; Gjelina offers a more accessible point of entry, whether it's a few hours' reading or a few delicious meals.


The opening image of Gjelina is a two-page, almost abstracted shot of ocean waves breaking on the sand. Images are important to any cookbook, but here they're essential — photographers Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott evoke a dreamy version of Venice with an opening portfolio of atmospheric shots: a misty shot of the canals, a battered chain link fence, a melancholy beachfront playground, and three surfers reduced to black dashes on an endless ocean, no waves or land in sight. A few pages later, there's a portrait of a tough yet sweet-looking dog.

The Southern California lifestyle is some combination of effortless, stylish, and healthy, but those qualities can move in many different directions. The classic form might be wearing a worn t-shirt and slouchy jeans while carrying a three thousand dollar bag and a fifteen dollar bottle of juice — a dream that can be both witnessed and lived on Abbott Kinney, but one about which Gjelina reveals Lett to be deeply ambivalent. It may intersect with the Gjelina vibe, but it's not the experience the chef is trying to capture, with his restaurant or with his book. Instead, he's selling a life that involves paddling out on a longboard at dawn, buying avocados directly from farmers because it's the right thing to do, and rescuing an incredibly loyal and photogenic dog. Gjelina isn't an oceanfront restaurant, it's about a mile inland, but the Venice that Lett seeks to evoke is rooted in the neighborhood's surf culture, so there must be beach — and not the infamous and crowded Venice boardwalk, or sunny rows of beautiful tan bodies, either. Gjelina is the Venice of the marine layer. The foggy dawn.

Lett's introduction expresses a restaurant cookbook's now-requisite moment of humility and deference to the neighborhood, regional abundance, and "the beautiful humans" on staff. These are echoed in the photos that follow. There are full-page, dynamic portraits of several of their restaurant's Latino line cooks, their high-contrast black-and-white images engaged in a visual myth-making more often reserved for the chef. There are loving photographs of the raw materials of cuisine: dead ducks and rabbits, whole squid on ice, and spring vegetables like fresh beans. "As a cook," Lett writes, "I apply only the minimal amount of process so that those who eat my food can experience what is intrinsically nearly perfect." A visual depiction of prepared food does not appear until page 46.

This book is not the story of Gjelina from the diner's perspective; rather, it's a portrait of the restaurant as seen by its cooks.

The actual dishes, when they do arrive, are photographed and styled with a wabi-sabi aesthetic: plates of rough green salads scattered with crushed bread crumbs or nuts, nests of inky chitarra pasta, beautifully messy mushroom toast, meatballs lolling in red sauce, and a dazzling parade of plates of charred, herb-flecked vegetables. Lett's recipes produce complex, sophisticated dishes that somehow still embody the essence of their ingredients: carrots whose brightness is amplified by citrus and balanced by a deep sear, a classic chicken stock elevated by the subtle heat of guajillo chiles. There are plenty of process shots: pasta being made, a stew ready to cook. The plates are beautiful, effortless, as natural-looking as the light they're bathed in. The one thing the reader never fully sees is Travis Lett's face; the chef and author is pictured only in a half-sized photo, his head tilted downward, away from the camera, regarding boxes of undoubtedly perfect ingredients.

Despite Gjelina's prime location on America's Coolest Block, there are no shots in this book of its very picturesque neighborhood. The one image of the restaurant's exterior suggests that it stands alone, dwarfed by a single palm. Beyond the traditional Venice signifiers (beach, canal, palm tree), the actual community is not particularly present at all. There are no images of customers or regulars, and the only shot of that gorgeous dining room that critics can't stop talking about is printed on the back cover, its occupants almost completely in silhouette. The other photo of the front of the house is of a a long beige curtain artfully wrapped around a chair, to keep it off the floor for cleaning.

At first glance, this sense of isolation seems odd for a restaurant so dedicated to its neighborhood. But this book is not the story of Gjelina from the diner's perspective; rather, it's a portrait of the restaurant as seen by its cooks. Cooks, of course, don't care for fancy boutiques or even stylish customers. At least, they're not supposed to. Blustering, shouting, fame-hungry chefs might chew up the edges of our television screens, but the dining world's ideal chef in 2015 always has his face tilted downward toward perfect ingredients, or has her back to the dining room to better supervise a hyper-efficient kitchen. The image Lett projects is one of quiet, focused artistry; that people want to pay for the food he makes is presented as almost a happy accident.

For the home cook reading Gjelina, this singular perspective fosters a very specific sort of fantasy and access. We don't have to examine ourselves to see if we're stylish enough to dine in the restaurant. Instead, we're invited to show up at the restaurant pre-opening, maybe after some sunrise surfing. We're asked to notice the striking beauty of a curtain tied up for cleaning, or the morbid loveliness of a brace of dead ducks, before we're handed an apron and told to get down to work.

Over an image of grilled kabocha squash on a scratched, luminous metal dish, the cover of this book reads: Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California. What does it mean to cook from Venice, California, as opposed to Los Angeles? A former resort town consumed long ago by Los Angeles's sprawl, it's rich territory for Cal-Ital cooking — the grilled kale salads and wood-fired pizzas that have come to define a certain sort of Los Angeles cuisine. And yet Lett does not seem interested in joining Wolfgang Puck and Nancy Silverton in the city's long and storied legacy of reinterpreting Italy with local roots. The only mentor thanked in this book is Lett's mother.

Instead, Lett is doing something different. The San Francisco transplants living in Venice (there are so many tech companies moving into the neighborhood that it's referred to as Silicon Beach) will recognize the timbre of Gjelina's intensely seasonal, borderline cultish reverence for California's agricultural bounty. They will also recognize Lett's claim to be taking part in "a new revolution" in the way we eat by sourcing locally. The revolution isn't new, especially in California — it's been the foundation of most iterations of California cuisine, from Alice Waters's early menus celebrating backyard lettuces to Spago's pizzas topped with a dizzying array of local ingredients — though in recent years, the conversation has shifted from seeking out highest-quality ingredients to utilizing responsibly produced ones. But Gjelina's vegetable plates marry pundit-level handwringing over meat consumption with Los Angeles's long history of caution-to-the-wind fusion; in this way, Gjelina's uniqueness is not so much centered in Lett's food or ingredients, as it is in the attitude those choices are meant to project.

I feel more comfortable in the hot, smoky chaos of my kitchen than I do in Gjelina's fashionable dining room.

Perhaps Gjelina's narrative about itself can sometimes be overly serious in reaction to the froth and elitism that characterizes the current state of the neighborhood. But Lett's seriousness is not faked: in his dedication to his late mother, who took him obsessively to farmers' markets as a child and made "nutrition, environmentalism, animal activism and sustainability her life's work."

That is all praiseworthy, but the cookbook is at its most charming when Lett steps away from philosophy, when he speaks lovingly of the pizza of his New Jersey childhood, which was certainly not locally sourced. Perhaps what it means to cook "from Venice, California" is captured best in the headnote from the recipe for pizza with spinach, feta, and garlic confit: "Watching through the oven door as the pile of spinach on top of the pizza cooks down and the dough slowly becomes covered with salty feta and creamy mozzarella is, simply, rad."

That reverence for and pleasure in seemingly humble food is the reason to pick up Gjelina. I'm not particularly interested in achieving some surfer-chic flavor of Los Angeles perfection, or feeling virtuous in my feasting. There is only so much authenticity to be found, well, anywhere, including in a marsh turned into a seaside resort. Gjelina offers a model to cook un-fancy ingredients luxuriously, and if you can't actually cook this way every day, it's not a bad fantasy to imagine you could. The pleasures of toasts and grilled vegetables and fresh fish and garlic cooked in oil are real and vital. Pizza is totally rad.


About that seemingly humble food: re-creating it at home requires a lot of free time and a lot of hard work. Vegetable-driven small plates might have readers (and publishers) seeing shades of Ottolenghi, but Gjelina is first and foremost a restaurant cookbook. Modifications have been made for the equipment in a home cook's kitchen, less so for the home cook's budget or time. For dedicated food nerds (not to mention the chefs who will pick up this book for inspiration), Gjelina is a rewarding and detailed guide to the restaurant's high-effort effortless cuisine. The recipes operate on restaurant logic: lots of prep work done in advance, and then a quick, hot firing to serve. To make a full meal at home, set aside a weekend.

The book opens with a condiments and pickles section, but don't make the mistake of thinking that means these are fun extras. The foundations of almost every recipes start here — you'll want to make the garlic confit and the shallot confit, and either vegetable or chicken stock. If you have the oven space, make the tomato confit as well, and long-term planners could start the preserved lemons. The section also includes a dizzying array of pestos and pickles to be explored at your leisure.

This reliance on a homemade pantry means that choosing recipes from this book to cook will, for better or for worse, be determined by what's already on hand. Very few recipes do not refer to another recipe in the ingredients list, and occasionally the sub-recipes can verge on tyrannical. Easy-seeming, leftovers-driven toasts call for a crème fraîche made three days earlier, or the pâté on page 290 plus the pickled onions on page 69. (But, oddly: bread purchased elsewhere). The book urges using farm-fresh vegetables whenever possible, and while it's an utter privilege to shop at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market on a Saturday morning, it's also a commitment of time and travel.

The one aspect of the recipes that goes beyond minor inconvenience to become a genuine obstacle is the problem of heat. Hot grills, cranked-up ovens, and smoking pans are all achievable in a home kitchen, but getting them all blazing hot all at once, especially on non-commercial equipment, is a task for neither the faint of heart nor the sensitive to smoke. A series of suggested menus, built around key pantry ingredients and methods of searing the hell out of something, would have been a great kindness to include in this cookbook.

The greatest success I had cooking from Gjelina came when I was working with several other passionate cooks to create a shared dinner party. Five of us chopping, measuring, searing, and plating made for enjoyable, communal hard work, and the results were staggeringly delicious. The yogurt-shallot dressing managed to make kale indecent. The pan-roasted baby carrots, the dead-simple roast cauliflower, and the date and bacon brussels sprouts delivered bright acid and deep flavor. Steak smothered in a compound butter was successful even without the tomato confit that we couldn't get it together to make on time. As we sat down to dinner, one of us remarked, unprompted, "I just love how much of this is vegetables." Wine-buzzed, grease-splattered, and vegetable-rich: this was how we wanted to live. Of course, before dinner, we'd spent the day at the beach.

The lifestyle doesn't last. A day after our dinner, my friends were home on the other side of the city, and my houseguest had flown back to New York, and I was back to reading about pizza with lamb sausage and broccoli rabe while eating a cheese sandwich alone. But the crash back to reality didn't leave me feeling like a fool with shallot confit in my fridge. Lett's overall philosophy of treating vegetables in a manner akin to, say, pork chops (get a hot sear, finish in the oven, make a simple pan sauce) is one I will use often, and those confits are great in everything from salad dressing to soup. In many ways, I feel more comfortable in the hot, smoky chaos of my amateur kitchen than I do in Gjelina's fashionable dining room. I appreciate the beauty of the restaurant and the deliciousness of Lett's food, but it's a pleasure to experience it on my own messy terms, without the beautiful-people ambiance or the pantomime of waiting for a table.

The pleasures of toasts and grilled vegetables and fresh fish are real and vital. Pizza is totally rad.

A key appeal in restaurant cookbooks is this invitation to the home cook to step outside of the diner's role and challenge herself in the kitchen. Yes, Gjelina's recipes can range from time-consuming to utterly impossible, sometimes their beautiful plating inspires despair rather than ambition, and the book's thick and luxurious paper suggests fetish object rather than a useful tool. Some restaurant cookbooks can live full, useful lives on a shelf or coffee table as a record of a culinary moment, never needing to be brought into the kitchen.

But stepping into the role of the cook offers extraordinary insight into what it takes to put out those beautiful meals — for a restaurant like Gjelina, where the food's calling card is its seeming effortlessness, that's even more important. A home cook may not usually hustle every night at a hot station for ten dollars an hour, and playing chef is wildly different from actually living as one. But a kitchen is a kitchen. It may be a fantasy that you could cook with the skill and clarity of someone like Lett, but it doesn't have to be. It's probably how you want to eat all the time— and if you really wanted to, with this cookbook, you could.

Gjelina

by Travis Lett
Chronicle Books, October 2015

SKILL LEVEL: Moderate to advanced. Lett's recipes are clearly written and range from simple (roasting cauliflower) to ambitious (blood sausage).

WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: Gjelina fans who genuinely love to cook, obsessive farmers market shoppers, ambitious home cooks who want to level up, New Yorkers who are perpetually threatening to move to LA but probably never will, surfers who only pretend to be laid back

WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: Cooks looking for simple vegetable recipes, Gjelina fans who think the food there is actually easy to make, New Yorkers who really do want to move to LA and can't and it's February and the farmers market is just potatoes, anyone allergic to the phrase "grilled kale"

BUY IT ON: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell's

Meghan McCarron is Eater's associate features editor
All images copyright Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott, used with permission of Chronicle Books

Gjelina

1429 Abbot Kinney Boulevard, , CA 90291 (310) 450-1429 Visit Website
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