Distill a Michelin-starred restaurant to its principles. Make awe-inspiring food that nonetheless satisfies. Present it with service that anticipates all needs, including ones you didn't even know existed. That's about it. Notice none of this entails a dress code, or white tablecloths, or the dated notion that fine dining is a privilege roped off to the hoi polloi. Orsa & Winston, located walking distance from LA's notorious Skid Row, is principles, executed par excellence, without pretense. The person in charge of translating that experience from the kitchen to your table is Maxfield Schnee.
Nothing is more LA than being able to show up in shorts and a t-shirt and experiencing Michelin-level food.
The 28-year-old Los Angeles native is the general manager of chef Josef Centeno's flagship prix fixe bastion off 4th and Main, and the wine director of the Josef Centeno Restaurant Group. Schnee's presence is why, at some point between getting comfortable, negotiating the menu, and the arrival of the first beverage pairing, you'll get the feeling that something exciting is about to happen.
In a metropolitan sprawl stereotyped as being obsessed with the superficial, there seems to be no market for the pomp and pretense entailed by fine dining. It's partially because LA possesses a natural aversion to stiffness. But it's also because the city, the same one that serves as the muse for the only Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic in America, is dead serious about its food.
Schnee embodies both ideas with one fundamental principle: Fine dining doesn't have to be stuffy, but it absolutely must deliver, down to the last detail.
Schnee's process of refining his principles of hospitality began at an early age. His father, Grammy-winning recording engineer Bill Schnee, was close friends with NBA Hall of Fame center, David Robinson. When Robinson and his team, the San Antonio Spurs, were in town, they'd go with the Schnees and tuck in to a late dinner at Wolfgang Puck's flagship restaurant, Spago, in Beverly Hills. It was then that the younger Schnee was exposed to fine dining.
Fine dining doesn't have to be stuffy — but it absolutely must deliver
"Spago chef Lee Hefter would set up this elite dining room and make dinner for us. I'm 10, 11, 12 years old, and I can feel this air of immeasurable hospitality," Schnee says. "From a very young age, I was exposed to that lifestyle and very much attracted to it. When I was old enough to work, I wanted to work at a restaurant."
He grew up idolizing servers and working as one at the Black Cow Cafe, a Montrose local favorite ("They're still crushing the meatloaf game," Schnee says). But when it was time to take his skills to the next level, Schnee sought out the tutelage of Osteria Mozza general manager, David Rosoff. Schnee spent more than two years learning about service at the Nancy Silverton-led institution before taking the next step to Orsa & Winston in Downtown LA.
As a restaurant, Orsa & Winston presents the front-of-house tightrope act of staving off precious and uptight notions of fine dining while still delivering an experience befitting the passion project of Josef Centeno — the former chef de cuisine at Los Gatos' Manresa — who's practically annexed the intersection of 4th and Main with three other spectacularly successful restaurant and bar concepts. The menu at Orsa & Winston poses an additional challenge, an intensive foray into the intersection of Japanese and Italian flavors typified by terse ingredient lists like "wild mushroom confit, burrata, Buddha's hand jam."
"It tastes like Los Angeles," raved Jonathan Gold in a 2014 review for the LA Times.
To make it feel like Los Angeles, there is Schnee, the erudite translator of back-of-house vision. The location allows him to welcome suits and cocktail dresses the same way he'll welcome someone in sandals and chambray. Centeno's menu combines elements from seemingly disparate cuisines, unified by flavor combinations that provide familiar sensations from unfamiliar pairings. This gives Schnee ome latitude when it comes to innovative beverage pairings. For instance, Schnee complements the aforementioned mushroom, burrata and Buddha's hand jam bruschetta with a fruity, high-grade Daiginjo sake.
Schnee transmits palpable excitement as he talks about the producer of the sake and offers a concise primer on the production process. He'll then set the food down on the table, ask if you need anything else, wish you a variance of bon appétit, and walk away. Because for all the emotional connections Schnee just established with the beverage, he withheld mention of the most important thing: The pairing works brilliantly. The sake accentuates the contrastive citrus notes in the jam, a refined counterbalance that transforms what's otherwise high-concept comfort food into a Michelin-grade experience.
Dining at Orsa & Winston is this cycle of intrigue, anticipation, and amazement, repeated with every plate until it's time to start thinking about the next time you can come back. It's a fitting tribute that at this restaurant, a chef as tremendously gifted as Josef Centeno is only half the story. The other half is Schnee. So as the petals of Los Angeles's dining scene start to unfurl towards the international spotlight, one chef and his staff stand front of house at one of the city's most exciting restaurants — and it's exactly where Maxfield Schnee wants to be.
Euno Lee is an Eater LA contributor.
Maxfield Schnee is the general manager and wine director at Orsa & Winston in Los Angeles.
Editors: Dana Hatic and Sonia Chopra
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
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