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Curtis Stone Says Practice Makes Perfect

The LA and TV super-chef spills on tasting menu fatigue, the perils of fame, and Donald Trump

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In a city known for its sunshine and chill vibes, Curtis Stone is demanding more from his diners. The chef — known for stints in Michelin-starred kitchens as well as his regular appearances on prime-time television — is now running two restaurants in Los Angeles, each named for one of his grandmothers, that are helping usher the city into a restaurant golden age. Curtis dropped by the Eater Upsell studios to talk zucchini varieties, creativity treadmills, and the ideal level of post-meal fullness.

As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.

Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 8: Curtis Stone, edited to just the main interview, here. For Greg and Helen’s take on Los Angeles as a growing and comfortable restaurant city — fewer asses hitting water glasses on the West Coast than in New York — you’ll have to listen to the episode in its entirety, above.

Greg Morabito:
Today in the Eater Upsell studios, we have a chef who is a huge player in the LA scene. He’s also a celebrity chef, you’ve probably seen him on TV: Mr. Curtis Stone.

Helen Rosner: Curtis, welcome to the Eater Upsell!

Curtis Stone: Thank you so much, it’s nice to be here.

Greg: As a tasting menu chef, when there’s a new tasting menu in the city that you’re in — whether that’s LA or somewhere you’re visiting — do you intentionally check it out?

Curtis: I love eating tasting menus, to be honest. There’s different types, too. We talk about them as if they’re one thing quite often, but you can go and have a 28-course digger station and you could also have a five-course digger station, and they’re really different experiences. But for sure, I do. I think what’s interesting about them, for me, is you’re saying to the chef, "All right, you want to orchestrate something: Go for it." It’s interesting. You don’t go to a concert and get to choose which songs they play, but you go out for dinner and you want to choose how you eat. I understand that because sometimes that’s exactly — you feel like something. You want to go to a certain place to get a certain thing. But I think there’s certainly room as well for a dining experience where the chef really thinks it through, in as much detail as they can, down to how you drink. Each course pairs to something delicious to drink, and there’s got to be a progression to that for it to really make sense.

Helen: As a testing menu chef yourself, when you eat other peoples’ tasting menus, are you seeing the strings that are holding it all together? Do you feel like you perceive it in a way that the average diner doesn’t?

Curtis: Probably, yeah. As a chef, you sort of sit back and — because you’re used to doing the process yourself, you’re obviously thinking about how they’ve done it, and what decisions they’ve made, and why they’ve made them. I have an interesting perspective on it because I worked in great restaurants my whole life, and the truth is, as a chef you don’t get time to eat in a lot of good restaurants. So as you’re asking me how often I eat, I don’t eat much in Los Angeles, to be honest, because when I’m there, I’m in my restaurant. But when I travel — luckily I get the opportunity to, here and there — then, of course, I try and eat out as much as I can. And because I get that opportunity, it does give you a really different perspective, because suddenly you’re the diner and not the cook. I think it’s stuff as simple as serving someone too much food. Always seems just a generous, nice thing to do as the cook, but once you’re the diner, it’s a horrible experience when you have to unbutton your jeans when you leave the restaurant because you just got fed too much. And if it tastes good, you want to keep eating it, right, and there’s no worse feeling than that. I’d actually rather leave a little hungry than a little overfed.

Greg: Something I love about tasting menus is diners seem to have varying opinions on them. I remember in the days when Wylie Dufresne had wd~50, that was the ultimate, like, "My mind was blown," or "I had to go eat a slice of pizza around the corner when it was done." You know?

Curtis: Right.

Helen: People pass intense artistic judgement on a tasting menu in a way that I think you don’t in an a la carte scenario. You’re like, "Was this worth my time and money?" That’s weird, though, the pizza slice thing, because I remember the first time I ever ate at Alinea, which is a many-hour, extraordinarily, meticulously crafted meal, my husband and I stopped at McDonald’s on the way home. We literally went through the drive-thru and got a cheeseburger because we were hungry. But I think that was a testament to how well-paced the meal was.

Curtis: Yeah. I think you want to leave with an "ample sufficiency" — that’s the word that we throw around our kitchen. You want to feel like you’re totally satisfied. You don’t want for anything, but you still feel good. After ten courses of anything, even if they’re small courses, that’s a lot of food. It’s always interesting to me to hear those stories where people left and they had to stop for something else to eat because I think, "Goodness, if you put all that food on one plate, the 25 courses, even if it’s 25 bites, 25 bites is a lot of bites to take." Right? If you put all that on one plate, that’s a huge plate of food. But it’s possible to still be hungry at the end of it, which is a fascinating part of it — and of course different food leaves you feeling a different way. You serve somebody red meat, wagyu beef, that’s going to make them feel very differently than a raw sea scallop, you know? Trying to get that right, I think, is a real craft.

"It’s a horrible experience when you have to unbutton your jeans when you leave the restaurant because you just got fed too much. I’d actually rather leave a little hungry than a little overfed."

Greg: The way that you feel, as you’re going through it.

Helen: Well, you do this fascinating thing at Maude, which has — how often do you change the menu there, monthly?

Curtis: We change it every month, yeah.

Helen: And it’s built around a theme each month?

Curtis: Yes.

Helen: Which is so creatively terrifying to me, to think about that.

Curtis: Me, too.

Helen: So what have some of your recent themes been?

Curtis: It’s always an ingredient, and each ingredient is obviously the best of the season when we choose to do it. So right now, we’re cooking with cherries. Next month is zucchini, the month prior was garlic. We’ve done almonds and pistachios and asparagus and morels and white truffles and black truffles. I think for me, Los Angeles is the center of farm to table, because we have these ridiculously good farmers markets and a great group of farmers that are prepared to work with the chefs of the community, so of course that’s a great way to eat. It’s a great way to cook when you’re at home too. You’re basically buying great quality ingredients and doing very little to them, so they get to shine and that’s it. But there’s something more that you can do with it. So flipping that concept on its head, and taking that one ingredient, when it’s at its absolute best, and saying, "All right, let’s see how many varieties we can source. Can we grow some ourselves? Now, let’s look at what’s edible. Is the leaf, the plant, the flower, the tendril, the stem, the seed — what’s edible on it?" And then, "What applications do we know as a group of cooks, that we can put against all of those different things that we can find that live under the umbrella of garlic or zucchini or whatever? Let’s figure out whether we can dehydrate it and turn it into a powder. Can we shock it with nitrogen and turn it into a snow? Can we churn it into an ice cream? Can we blanch it, fry it, poach it?" Once you start working on that creativity, you end up with what we call our elements. You’ve got maybe 50 different elements, some more successful than others, some a total disaster, what we thought we could do but we figured out we couldn’t. Then just threading one element or two through each course, through a ten-, 12-course dinner.

In some ways, it was quite a selfish idea, because I thought as a cook that would be a great experiment, to be able to do that and to challenge yourself with it. But the reality of it is very different, actually. This is how it actually plays out: On the first of the month, you walk into a kitchen and no one knows what they’re doing. You hand out a pack to all of the chef de parties and you explain to them, "This is what your section’s going to be responsible for, this is how you make it, this is the recipe, da da da da da da." You’ve basically got, let’s call it a week, to implement it, to make sure that everyone’s up to speed and they have all the help and support they need. So on the first day of the month, we don’t open. We just do a day of prep, and everybody works through the sections, and we do a tasting for the front of house team. Then the rest of that week — we don’t open on the Tuesday, but on the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday — we spend getting up to speed and getting it right.

Then I’ve got between the 7th and the 14th to write the next menu, because if I don’t get it written within that week — and when I say written, I mean developed and in my head. I then have to construct the recipes, because when you walk into a kitchen with new ideas, you need to give people something that they can refer to. Right? If I don’t have it all written and do the tasting for the front of house team, then they don’t get to choose the wine in time. We do the first tasting, and then two days later we do the second tasting — where they actually bring the wine and we taste the wine with the food — so by the 21st of the month, if we don’t have it locked off, they can’t place their orders and get two dozen of this and three dozen of that to actually make the pairing work. So what felt like it would be this beautiful, romantic concept — which, it started out that way — then turned into this creative treadmill that you can never get off. And you’re like, "All right, we’ve got to constantly drive and create." We’ve worked with the team to try and figure out how — because you need to have some clear space in your brain to be able to think of that stuff. You can’t just do it while you’re in the middle of service. You can’t be working on zucchinis while you’re serving cherries, if you know what I mean.

Helen: No, this sounds like a recurring nightmare that I have. Just the logistic snowball building up and building up and building up and eventually crushing me. I’m glad you’re pulling it off.

Curtis: We’re two and a half years in, so we sit around and joke about how many dishes that is. How many months have we done, and how many dishes that adds up to be, and how many components of the dishes. I think the amazing thing is we ended up with a team of young guys that come in there and they learn something new all the time. A month’s just long enough to perfect something, and then you throw it away and you start trying to perfect the next thing. And also, the fact that you have to put garlic into a desert. The young cooks that we have are like, "God, I’ve never seen anyone put garlic in a desert," and I’m like, "Yeah, I’ve never either." Probably never wanted to, but under the constraints of our idea, we’ve got to do it, and you learn a lot along the way, which is cool.

Helen: How do you create space in your brain to keep that train running and then open Gwen, which is twice the size and a very different vibe?

Curtis: We have a separate test kitchen that I’ve always worked from, which, truthfully, is a house with a nice backyard, so we’ve sort of been able to play in different parts of this house. We obviously pulled the kitchen out and put a nice kitchen in that makes a bit more sense for a chef. So we’ll centralize that development kitchen so it will work for both Gwen and Maude. To me, this was always a collaboration between me and my team, rather than just me. I think those days where a chef just screamed and barked orders and directed everybody else — I think it’s really limiting, to be honest. Because if you have that attitude, which is that old school way of doing it, you never improve. You only know what you know, unless you’re working on stuff yourself. And I always wanted to collaborate with great guys. I’ve found an incredible team, back from people that we used to work with, me in London, and a couple from Australia, and people that we’ve met in New York and Los Angeles. Justin Hilbert is the chef with me at Maude.

Greg: Oh, he’s great.

Curtis: Yeah, he’s really great.

Greg: He was in New York for a while.

Curtis: Right, he opened Gwynnett St. in Brooklyn. Super talented guy.

Helen: Greg’s face is so excited right now.

Greg: I just remember a meal that he cooked that was out of this world, it was the first time I had tobacco as a seasoning for something, other than my lungs.

Curtis: He went through a thing in New York, where — as we’ve all done as chefs — got into a deal with somebody or got into a situation and that situation changed. He had gone through it a couple of times with Gwynnett St. and then this next one, and he called me and he said, "I just want to come and be the pastry chef. I love pastry. I don’t want any responsibility apart from what I’m going to order for the next day and I just want to come out there and get a bit of sunshine." And he did. He came and did pastry with me for 12 months. I love the way he develops pastry. And then we started working on savory ideas and stuff together, and he’s a super talented dude, very creative, nothing’s ever good enough for him. In his own mind, he’s super self-critical. I think that’s an attribute that all good chefs have. So he’s sort of taking the reigns with me in a much bigger way, and I’ll be able to spend some more time at Gwen.

Greg: Where did it all start for you? Why did you get into cooking in a restaurant? Did you want to do fine dining stuff? Did you have some other inspiration as a young guy?

Curtis: It’s funny because, I’m telling you my age, but when I started cooking, none of this existed. There was no food media. There were literally no celebrity chefs. So it wasn’t even a possibility. It wasn’t a reason to enter the industry. It’s changed very fast.

Greg: You worked with one of the first celebrity chefs, I’d argue.

Curtis: You’re right, actually. I did my apprenticeship in Melbourne. I always remember the very first day I put my chef’s uniform on. Because I loved to cook, and I had a mate who had a dad that was a chef, and he’d come home late and he’d get up late and he had a bit more of a rock n’ roll lifestyle than the bankers and finance people, the dads of the other buddies that I had, that would wear a suit and have to be out the door on time. And this guy just seemed to be cooler, and I think that was what I liked about him. He had long hair, and back then it was pretty different. So I decided to become a cook, and I went and put my uniform on — we wore the gingham pants and the long white aprons and the big tallboy hats and the neck kerchief. The neck kerchief really got me. That was pretty special. And I looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, "What am I doing? Who am I? I look so weird." It was such a weird uniform.

Greg: It’s a costume, yeah.

Curtis: Yeah, it’s a total costume. And it was super uncool at that point. I played Aussie rules football and I remember going back to the club and getting ridiculed for being a cook. These macho footie players sort of saw it as a bit girlie, I guess.

Helen: What were they doing?

Curtis: Other crafts. Plumbers and electricians. Football teams aren’t made of brain surgeons, usually. But cooking wasn’t cool back then, for a young guy to get into, I guess. At least where I grew up. And then, I suppose, I just — I hated it for the first 12 months, if I’m being really honest. I worked in a big hotel and it was just this boring, mundane, peeling onions, peeling potatoes, peeling carrots, slicing onions, you know. Slicing onions was a step up from the rest of the work that I was doing. And you’d literally go home with sore fingers that you’d cut and just smelled of onions. It was just a pretty dull job. Then I worked for a year at this five star hotel, so you think, "Well, it’s probably the best place for me to go." And then they had a buffet at one of the restaurants. I’d have to go out and be the guy that stands there and slices the meat for people at buffet.

Helen: No way. Really?

Curtis: Yeah, it was super depressing.

Helen: You were the carver?

Curtis: I was the carver. I still think I have some photos of that time in my life.

Greg: In that scenario, was there anybody who’s like, "Give me a little bit of more of that"? Or like, "I want that part."

Helen: And you just have to smile and go along with it.

"I played Aussie rules football and I remember going back to the club and getting ridiculed for being a cook. These macho footie players sort of saw it as a bit girlie, I guess."

Curtis: Oh, yeah. For sure. And he worst thing was it wasn’t even a busy restaurant. If you were working in a busy buffet it might be more entertaining, but when there was no one in the dining room and you’re just standing there in front of your roast pork — there’s nothing much to do, so it was pretty depressing. But the hotel went under. They actually went into receivership, which was great because I got a month’s wage.

Greg: I was going to say. You didn’t slice that meat fast enough, you know.

Curtis: That’s right. I was slicing it too fast. Things went under for the hotel, and then I got a job at the Savoy. I worked for this really great German chef who was tough, and I loved it. I really enjoyed the discipline of it, and it was kind of like — I mentioned I played competitive sport. It was kind of like playing a competitive sport. At the start, you’re not very good. You’re slow and you’re clumsy and your hands aren’t fast enough and everybody else is better than you. You know? Which to me was a real challenge. And he really mentored me through to understand that if you want to be a great chef, you’re going to have to go work in Europe, and you’re going to have to go and work for a badass, someone really tough. And about the same time, I came across Marco Pierre White’s first cookbook, which sort of portrays him as a psycho. And you read it and you’re like, "Oh my god, I want to get on this team." Like, how do I go over there? So I did. I went over and worked for him and spent eight years in his kitchens. And the book was all true, he was tough.

Helen: But you don’t seem that damaged.

Curtis: Well, I got to London and I had no money, so I sort of had no option but to make sure that I didn’t get fired because I had to eat. I was staying at a friend’s house. I slept on a couch in a pub for the first six months of being there. You’re trying to get enough money to actually get your own shared room in an apartment, which I did. It’s about survival at that point. You know what I mean? So once you figure out what makes him crazy and what doesn’t, you just stay away from what makes him crazy and it’s all right.

Greg: So you landed in the Marco Pierre White empire, and he was a full blown celebrity at that point?

Curtis: Yeah, in some ways he was infamous as opposed to famous. He did everything wrong, which made it all right. He’d throw his guests out and — he was a total rebel but he was on our side, if you know what I mean. He was a celebrity of a different —

Greg: He’s an anti-hero.

Curtis: Yeah.

Helen: He was one of the first chefs to — people knew who he was more than they knew about his food. The persona of the chef was the thing that led the restaurant, and I’ve never had the privilege but his food was ground-breaking and fantastic, but he was so huge as a character. He still is, but it really sort of ushered in, like you said before, Greg, one of the very first celebrity chefs. Because he just clawed his way into being a celebrity. I don’t even know if that’s what he wanted. Did he want fame?

Curtis: No, he wanted the opposite.

Helen: Yeah.

Curtis: He wanted to be left alone, so he could cook.

Helen: He was just telling people to fuck off and the more he did, the more they paid attention to him.

Curtis: The more they loved it. Yeah, that’s what’s so crazy. He would get phone calls all the time. They’d call the kitchen — back before managers and publicists and all that stuff existed in our business at all — people would literally phone the kitchen and we’d answer it, because sometimes our fruit and vegetable suppliers would call to tell us the zucchini flowers weren’t arriving and you’d answer the phone. They’re like, "I’m the producer of this or that," and he’d be like, "Tell them to fuck off." We would, and it was kind of this liberating thing that he had all this attention and he didn’t want any of it. And people were coming into our restaurant and spending a lot of money. He built this beautiful wine list and we’d have people come in and spend 5,000, 10,000 pounds on a bottle of wine. And that sort of energy would travel back into the kitchen, that we were a hot ticket in town, and it was cool.

Greg: What’s like the most important thing you learned about running a kitchen from working as part of his group, his team?

Curtis: What he did really well was his attention to detail, it’s like no one I’ve ever seen. Still I wish mine was the same as his. He doesn’t miss a beat, so as one of his cooks, you just know that you can’t get away with anything. And even if you can avoid having something that he’s going to see as you cutting a corner, he’ll find it, he’d always manage to. So he was just super thorough. But I think more than anything, what I really learned from him is if you want to empower a team, you’ve got to lead it, and you’ve got to be present. And he was. Sometimes more present than we would have wished— we would literally find him sleeping in the dining room sometimes. We’d try to sneak into the restaurant early and then Marco would be asleep on the banquet. He was married to it and he was obsessive with it.

Helen: It’s inspiring.

Greg: That’s inspiring.

Helen: I don’t want to sleep at the office but I do feel like there’s a management lesson there.

Greg: So at a certain point in your career, what was the first phone call about doing television?

Helen: Yeah, it feels like you were a cook and then suddenly you became a media figure.

Curtis: Right, well, I worked in a couple of Marco’s restaurants, and they lost a Michelin star at the Criterion.

Greg: Ooh, I wouldn’t have wanted to have been there that day.

Curtis: That’s right, so there were some changes made.

Helen: Were you there that day?

Curtis: No, I was working with him at the Café Royale. So he sent me there with the instruction to go and get the star back, which is always —

Helen: No pressure.

Greg: Yeah. "Got it, boss."

Curtis: "I’ll look for it high and low." I sort of became the head chef of this really well established restaurant, and I was young. I was probably a bit too young when I think about it. But somebody wrote a book called London’s Finest Chefs and I was one of the chefs in that book, and they asked us to do some morning segments to promote it. There were these great chefs, John Burton-Race and guys that I’d really admired in my career over there, and then me. So we had to do a book signing, which, you know, there’s a guy that was three months ago a sous chef somewhere. It was a pretty bizarre thought. But I did a morning segment, and then they asked me to come back and do another one, and then from that, somebody asked me if I’d do — the first ever show I did was called Dinner in a Box. It was about somebody trying to do a dinner party at home and having trouble with it, so I would show them how to create those dishes and pack the ingredients up in a box, and they’d then send them home with a camera and see whether they could pull it off. And I did that for this little cable channel in the UK, and one thing just led to another, and it just sort of kept happening.

Greg: Did you think it was easy, or fun, or was it a totally different experience?

Curtis: It’s so different. It’s almost like the opposite of what we do. In a restaurant, you do something wrong and someone comes over and says, "That’s wrong. This is how it should be done. Don’t fuck it up again," and then leave. In the television business, you do something that’s wrong and they come over and say, "That’s fabulous. That was so great. We’ve got to do it again but it was really, really good and —"

Greg: This is what I find so fascinating. Any time you talk with anybody who’s worked on food TV, the amount of detail goes into like shooting one segment, it just blows my mind.

Helen: And the bullshit for the feedback.

Curtis: Right, yeah, yeah.

Helen: Like, "So this is totally perfect. Nothing is wrong, just do it in a different way."

Greg: Right.

Curtis: Right, and you also go from being the boss of a restaurant to suddenly, you’re just a piece of the puzzle and you’re getting told what to do. You’re not calling the shots, which is — you need to learn a little humility if you want to do it. I think it’s good for you, actually.

Helen: I feel like we talk a lot with people on this show about the new generation of chefs that are coming up who went to culinary school with the intention of becoming famous. Right? This is the first post-celebrity chef generation of culinary students and chef aspirants. And that’s a really good point: The things that make you a good head of a restaurant kitchen are probably the opposite of the things that make you a good TV celebrity, and holding both of them in your head at the same time is probably more than some starry-eyed 24 year-old can handle.

Curtis: It’s a really interesting topic, because if you think about celebrity chefs, television competition shows, all this stuff that has happened — it’s shining this big light on our industry, which has made it famous somehow. And suddenly cooks are cool. And it’s amazing because it means we have people coming into our industry. But, to your point, they’re coming in for sometimes the wrong reason, and they get in there and they’re like, "Well, I don’t want to peel those bags of onions," like I was complaining about earlier. But you don’t just get given the gift of being able to use a knife properly. You get it from practice. Kitchens are historically a really tough place to work, and you have these kids coming through that want to be the next contestant on Top Chef, but what they’ve got to realize first is that there’s all these steps to it. I think what’s happened is we’ve got more people coming into the industry, but with a bigger drop-out rate. What we have to do as an industry is start taking it seriously.

"They’re like, ‘Well, I don’t want to peel those bags of onions.’ But you don’t just get given the gift of being able to use a knife properly. You get it from practice."

Since we opened in LA with Maude, we’ve included a compulsory service charge, and we pay our salaries very differently than most people. It’s a bit of a hot topic in the industry right now, and I feel really strongly about it, and it’s for the same reasons. We’re quickly losing and de-skilling our industry beyond repair, and we’ve got to stop it and be able to fix it or it’s gone. Because once those skills are gone, they’re gone. You don’t just pick up a book and get them back. What I’ve been noticing more and more — I’ve just employed 50 people for this new restaurant and every second person that I employed in the front of house would say, "Well, I started off as a cook" or "I started my career in the kitchen," and they quickly learn that in the kitchen, they might be earning $10 or $11 or $12 an hour, but the waiters are earning $250 a night because of the tips they’re making. And you only do that for a certain amount of time before you’re like, "You know what? I’m going to go and work on the other side because there’s just more money in it." We’re lucky because we were able to start something and say, "This is just how we’re going to do it." We don’t need to employ a huge staff. We didn’t have any precedents that we needed to change. But I have conversations all the time with chefs that are like, "I’d love to do it, but I don’t know. I’d lose my entire team, because I’d have to say to them, ‘You no longer are going to earn X amount of money on the floor.’" A busy restaurant, lots of tips, means the waiters get paid a lot of money. We also have this blockage where captains will never become management because they’ll go from earning $100,000 a year to $75,000 a year. So we hold ourselves back for the very same reason.

And getting back to chefs coming into the industry because of television, my attitude is let’s just get them in no matter how we get them in, because we’re facing a real crisis. And I think once we get them in, it’s our jobs to have really strong mentors that take people on and really show them the right way and the wrong way to do stuff, and hopefully we can convert as many of them as we can into good cooks.

Helen: Do you have a process? Like a mentorship training philosophy that you bring to that?

Curtis: We don’t have anything super structured like that. We’re still tiny — until next week, we’re still only a 24-seat restaurant, and then we’ll grow a little bit and I hope to bring more structure to it. Our attitude is we hire on attitude, not on experience. Because you can always teach someone the certain elements of cooking that you want them to have, but you can’t teach them to come to work on time, and you can’t teach them to enjoy what they do, and want to learn. They’re just things that you either have or you don’t, and we make that really clear from the start. We say, "If you’ve got the right attitude, we can harness that. And if you don’t, we can’t." We’re strict in terms of what we accept and don’t accept, in terms of people’s attitudes and behavior, but we’re super nurturing in terms of what we give them as well, in terms of the education.

Helen: You’ve had an interesting path within the arc of American culinary celebrity, which is that when Maude opened, a year and a half, two years ago?

Curtis: Two and a half years.

Helen: Two and a half years ago, that was your first US restaurant.

Curtis: Right.

Helen: But you’ve been famous here for far longer. And I think for most celebrity chef trajectories, it kind of goes the other way. It’s restaurant first, and then you drop the restaurant and go into TV. You did the backwards game. And what was funny were the backhanded compliments. After Maude opened and then people were like, "It’s actually really good."

Curtis: Right.

Helen: Here’s this handsome Australian chef who’s on TV and who I totally adore — and I think that as American TV viewers, we have been primed to assume that if you’re on TV, you’re not very good at what you’re doing. If you’re a TV chef, you’re not actually good with a knife. And then you opened this place and you blew everyone away.

Curtis: And you know, for the most part, it’s not wildly inaccurate to think that. Most people that are on television are on television with little base in high-end gastronomy. It’s just a part of it. I remember feeling like, "Do I have a big point to prove here? Is that why I’m doing this?" Because everyone knows. You open a 24-seat restaurant, it’s not to get rich. I just missed exercising that muscle, and sure, there’s probably a little part of me that’s got something to prove, as much to myself as anybody else. I think if you’re any good at what you do, you constantly drive yourself to improve. There’s a old saying, if you get a lot from something, you’ve got to give a lot back, and if you don’t get much from it, you don’t have to. I’ve got a lot from food and cooking, you know. I’ve traveled the world and worked with some incredible people, I’ve made some money, I’ve been really fortunate, and I want to respect that and nurture it rather than just take from it. You know?

Greg: Do you think there was an extra focus on Maude because that kind of restaurant is rarer in Los Angeles than in other cities, like San Francisco or New York, the super small fine dining?

Curtis: Yeah, I think it’s really different for LA. Nothing like that had ever existed, with the exception of Trois Mec, actually. Ludo opened the place right around the same time as we opened Maude, and it’s right around the same size, and it’s also a tasting menu, and it’s also great. He does a really, really good job. So it was interesting. The two of us sort of had a similar idea. I can remember looking at spaces and they were saying, "Oh, we just had this other French guy in here to look at this," and I was like, "Yeah, which French guy?" We sort of knew —

Greg: How many French guy chefs are there?

Helen: You guys are circling each other.

Curtis: Right, yeah. I think what LA has never had is an incredible world-class restaurant. It’s had good restaurants, and I’m not being disrespectful, because I have a lot of respect for those guys that have good restaurants in LA. But there’s never been the Per Se or the French Laundry or the Eleven Madison Park. It’s just never existed out there. So when you think about bringing a real world-class restaurant to LA, you’re confronted with all of those opinions of, "That’s not the LA diner." "LA diners always bring their own wine to restaurants." Well that’s not how gastronomic restaurants money. So you’re confronted with, "They’ll never accept the $250 menu price." So you think — and don’t forget, when you open a restaurant, at least I invested my own money in my restaurant. Right? So Maude cost me just over a million bucks, and you think to yourself, "If I lose —" which is really possible. If people don’t come, then you lose. It’s that simple. At some point your expenses are more than your revenue and if that happens for a number of weeks or months, then you’re out of business. And if you’re out of business, no one gives you your million bucks back. It’s gone.

Helen: But do you think that that hypothesis about the LA diner is true? Is that why there isn’t a Per Se, or French Laundry, or Eleven Madison Park? Now there are places like Trois Mec and like Maude that are these small tasting menu places, but there isn’t the palace of gastronomy that we have in other cities.

Curtis: I think that there wasn’t, but I think now there is. I think if you had tried what we’re doing ten years ago, you probably would have failed. But I think what’s happened in Los Angeles is there’s been this total change of attitude. You used to be able to go to an LA restaurant and open the menu and see — you’d think to yourself, "Should I even open it or should I just order because I know what’s on it?" You know, there’s two steaks, there’s a chicken breast, there’s Chilean sea bass. It was the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced. And now you go and there’s restaurants serving all sorts of stuff, and we’ve opened up different channels of getting things. We’ve always had the best ingredients in the world, quite frankly, they just are. It’s amazing out there. They have these incredible micro-climates and great attitudes from the local farmers. And now that the diner is more experimental with it, then the chefs have really risen to that occasion, so I think it’s changed. It’s still changing. There’s still more room. But we sold a $275 menu of white truffles and it sold out in seven minutes, and we sold it the month prior. So if the diners are prepared to spend the money and commit — I ask myself, would I be prepared to commit to a 5:30 reservation on a Wednesday night, 45 days from now? Probably not.

Greg: So why do you think people’s attitudes are changing?

Curtis: I think there’s always — I don’t know. That’s a really good question. What comes first? Is it the supply or the demand? We have diners that travel a lot. They’re in New York and they’re in Chicago and they’re Miami and London and beyond, and they come in and they tell me about the restaurant experiences they’ve had, so they’ve obviously been prepared to spend the money over there and pony up to a four-hour experience in a restaurant there, so why not at home in Los Angeles? It’s a casual city. There’s lots of sunshine. Maybe the local LA media has told us for so long in LA that we’re so good at tacos and Korean food, that that’s where we should play. And I don’t know that that’s the truth. I think that there’s more to the city than that. There’s been all this discussion recently as to whether the Michelin guide should have come to LA or not, and I would love the Michelin guide to come to Los Angeles because I think that they drive the city of chefs to do better and to work harder and to give them something to compare themselves to. Even if it’s just their performance from the year before. I went from one star to two star. Okay, I’m doing better. I went two stars to one star. I’m not doing good enough.

"I remember feeling like, ‘Do I have a big point to prove here? Is that why I’m doing this?’"

Helen: Marco Pierre White is going to send you to get that star back.

Curtis: Yeah.

Greg: "Curtis, it’s Marco."

Helen: "I noticed you lost a star. Fuck you, get it."

Greg: That’s really interesting.

Helen: LA, man.

Greg: I feel like it is one of these huge food cities in the world right now —

Helen: The raw culinary matter of LA was just so ripe, and it was lying there for so long, and now it’s all coming to fruition.

Curtis: That’s so true.

Helen: That’s so exciting.

Curtis: Yeah, it really is. I was talking about zucchinis before. I’ve got 13 varieties of zucchini in my garden at home right now that we’ve been playing with for this new restaurant. Then I spoke to a zucchini grower, who’s growing me another 23, so we’ll have 32 different types of zucchini to play with for a zucchini menu. I just don’t know that anybody else — I can’t think of another place that I’ve ever had that opportunity. In London, you don’t even meet your farmers. Farmers are so far removed. It’s interesting being up in New York these last couple of days and talking to a bunch of friends that are chefs and have restaurants, and it feels like there’s so much pressure on New York. The rents are higher than ever, the business levels seem a little softer than they should be, and there’s just this really intense pressure on, "Are we going to be okay?" You know, "Are we going to make it?" And in LA, there’s a really different feel. It feels like it’s a totally different economy. It feels like the restaurants are busier than ever, their diners are behaving better than we’ve ever had them behave, the ingredients are everywhere, there seems like there’s way more talent than there’s even been. Just going through this process of employing a bunch of people, I’ve got guys coming out from Chicago and New York and these great culinary cities with really strong backgrounds, and they’re excited to come out to a new home. So it’s an exciting time in LA, for sure.

Helen: Curtis, we have come to the part of this interview that we like to call the lightning round.

Curtis: Yes.

Helen: We’re just going to ask you a couple of questions and you can say whatever you want in response to them.

Curtis: Awesome.

Helen: Question number one. What was your weirdest reality TV moment?

Curtis: I did a show called Celebrity Apprentice.

Helen: How did we not spend the whole conversation on that?

Curtis: You know what? It’s pretty amazing to me. I look at myself in the mirror sometimes and just can’t believe it.

Greg: Do you wake up in the middle of the night? Like, having a night terror about it?

Curtis: The truth is I went broke when I got to LA because I did a bit of television and then I didn’t get another TV show. And I didn’t have any money to buy a restaurant, so I was like, "What do I do? Do I go and work in a restaurant?" So I just sort of fumbled through it for a little while and nothing really came up. It was right at the [global financial crisis], and then I got offered the Celebrity Apprentice and I was like, "You know what? I’ll do it. I’ve got nothing else to do." And there was a couple of dollars in it for me, so I went and did it. And suddenly you find yourself in a room with Bret Michaels, Cyndi Lauper, Donald Trump, Bill Goldberg, the governor from Chicago that is now in prison —Blagojevich — and I was like, "I’m the only normal person here." Like, no one else is normal. You know?

Helen: Do you think they were all thinking that too?

Curtis: Maybe, yeah.

Helen: Cyndi Lauper is looking around the room at all these —

Greg: Rod Blagojevich, yeah.

Helen: Oh, Rod Blagojevich just had the worst hair of any politician ever.

Curtis: Very strange. But I think they all just thought that maybe I worked there, because no one knew who I was. They were all significantly more famous than me, and I was just this normal chef guy in the corner.

Helen: Is it really weird for you to watch the election unfold because of your previous experience with Trump?

Curtis: Yeah, yeah.

Helen: I imagine that’s surreal.

Curtis: Yeah, it’s crazy. He’s really got a shot at being the president, which is interesting on so many levels. You know, like he’s —

Greg: He’s got a better shot than any of us.

Curtis: That’s very true.

Helen: That’s a very diplomatic way of putting it: "It’s interesting on so many levels."

Greg: Yeah, so I have a lightning round question.

Curtis: Oh, yeah. Sorry.

Greg: No, no, no. This is a lot. There’s a lot going in this lightning round. On the fourth hour of the Today Show, real wine in the wine glasses?

Curtis: Yes.

Greg: Whoa.

Helen: Whoa.

Greg: I was always under the assumption it was not.

Curtis: No, no. It’s real.

Helen: That’s early for wine.

Greg: I mean, is it though? That’s what I like about it. If you’re a parent that’s been up since super early, 10 AM is not the worst time to —

Helen: Tip back a glass of wine.

Greg: Yeah.

Curtis: I don’t have a problem with it.

Helen: All right, all right. I’m not going to judge. I retract my skepticism. Our next lightning round question. If you were driving alone in a convertible, blasting music and singing along, what are you singing along to?

Curtis: Oh my god. I wouldn’t be driving around in a convertible, blasting music and singing, but —

Helen: Why not?

Curtis: If I was, I would listen to the Sex Pistols.

Helen: Really?

Curtis: Yeah.

Helen: All right. That’s fun to sing along to.

Greg: Yeah.

Curtis: Kind of.

Helen: Sing-ish.

Greg: If you’re driving very fast.

Helen: If you had to give a piece of advice to someone who wanted to become a restaurant chef, and you had to give a piece of advice to someone who wanted to become a TV chef, what would you say to each of them?

"If you don’t have a plan, it’s just a dream, but if you actually put a plan behind the dream, then it becomes a goal, and something that you can achieve."

Curtis: I’d tell the restaurant chef that they should go to culinary school. I think it’s important. And I think that we should take our industry as seriously as we can. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be a good chef if you haven’t been to culinary school, but I think it helps. And I’d tell them that they should think about what kind of restaurant they’d want to end up owning, and go work in a similar one, because that will give them a really good taste for it. Someone once said to me, the only difference between a dream and a goal is a plan, and it’s very true. If you don’t have a plan, it’s just a dream, but if you actually put a plan behind the dream, then it becomes a goal, and something that you can achieve.

Greg: So what does a young cook have to do if they want to work for Curtis Stone at —

Helen: Wait, wait, no. I want the TV chef advice.

Greg: Oh, sorry.

Helen: I want to be a TV chef. Tell me how to do this.

Curtis: This is a lightning round. Stay focused.

Greg: It’s like an Inception lightning round.

Helen: Very slow moving lightning.

Greg: Yeah, so if you want to be a TV chef —

Helen: What’s the advice for them?

Curtis: The food industry has grown so much in the media. Right? There’s test kitchens all over the joint. I have a test kitchen and we develop stuff and photograph it occasionally, but there’s Bon Appétit and Saveur — I don’t have to go through them all, but there’s lots of ways to work as a food stylist, home economist, recipe editor. So I would actually just look into that first off. You’re sort of already within the media, and you don’t necessarily need to be a great chef. It can help, and there’s certainly jobs out there for those people, but you don’t necessarily need to be a great chef, so I think getting a taste for the food media is all about is probably the best place to start.

Helen: That’s really good advice.

Curtis: Thanks.

Helen: Get into the media industry.

Curtis: Keep asking questions. I’ve got lots.

Greg: So back to my interruption question. If a young chef wants to work for Curtis Stone, what do they got to do? What are you looking for?

Curtis: They just have to have a good attitude. That’s it. I’ll take anybody in. I really will. I mean sometimes your kitchen’s full and you just don’t have space, but right now, I’ve got space. So if you have a good attitude and you want to come work for me, just come see me in LA. Walk in the back door.

Helen: Well, Curtis, it has been such a pleasure having you on this show. Thank you for coming by the beautiful Eater Upsell studios.

Greg: Yeah, thanks Curtis.

Curtis: Thanks for having me. This was fun.

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The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor:
Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer:
Kendra Vaculin


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