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The Indomitable Jessica Largey

After a prodigious rise to the peak of the industry, Jessica Largey burned out. Three years later, she’s back with the long-awaited Simone, a restaurant that’s trying to make restaurant culture better, one employee health plan at a time

Rebecca Flint Marx is the editor of Eater at Home. Her areas of expertise include home cooking and popular culture.

Three years ago, a casual observer would have looked at Jessica Largey and seen a chef with little left to prove. The James Beard Foundation had just crowned her Rising Star Chef of the Year for her work at Manresa, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant whose chef-owner, David Kinch, had promoted Largey from line cook to chef de cuisine when she was all of 25 years old.

Largey, who is now 32, had been seen as something of a prodigy ever since culinary school, where her teachers were so impressed with her skill and speed that they arranged for her to spend three months running the school’s bistro rather than going through three-week rotations with her classmates. “I’ve been in the kitchen a long fucking time, and you can tell the folks that have the magic and the ones that don’t,” said Andrew Zimmern, who met Largey while he was at Manresa to shoot an episode of his web series Appetite for Life. “It took me about 45 minutes of watching Jes. I think I wrote her a note afterwards that said, ‘The sky’s the limit for you, you got it, you’ve got a special talent.’ Then I tasted her food and it was all of that and more.”

The James Beard Foundation agreed, initially nominating Largey for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2014. When she won the following year, she ascended the stage of Chicago’s Civic Opera House in a black floor-length gown. “Sorry for taking so long,” Largey said. “I’m not used to wearing a dress. That’s why I became a chef.” She accepted her award to laughter and applause. And then, for all intents and purposes, she disappeared.

When Largey walked off that stage in 2015, the restaurant industry was still a year or so away from a public reckoning with its legendary, often normalized toxicity. A year earlier, Zahav chef Michael Solomonov had allowed the New York Times to write about his battle with addiction, but his openness was anomalous; aside from the candor with which Anthony Bourdain detailed unsavory working conditions and his own drug use in his 2000 Kitchen Confidential, a chef’s mental health issues were rarely acknowledged in public.

But a number of other well-known chefs — Sean Brock, Daniel Patterson, Ari Taymor, Chris Cosentino, and Landon Schoenefeld — gradually followed Solomonov’s lead by publicly disclosing their own struggles and the difficult process of addressing those struggles within the restaurant industry, where the prevailing attitude is suck it up and deal with it. While these are white male chefs whose power, prestige, and media access could withstand their disclosures, their willingness to go public helped initiate a broader conversation about the toxic legacy that has both shaped and corroded restaurant culture. Over the past year, that conversation has grown, and grown louder, thanks to the #MeToo movement.

If part of that conversation has focused on how to improve the industry, then a number of chefs and restaurateurs, many of them women, have decided to start with their own kitchens. That can mean soliciting and listening to feedback from staff members, like Naomi Pomeroy does at Beast in Portland, or offering more flexible scheduling, as Beverly Kim does at Parachute in Chicago. At Kismet in Los Angeles, chef-owners Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson have a policy that prohibits yelling at or otherwise demeaning people; at Cosme and Atla in New York, Daniela Soto-Innes leads her staff through stretches and squats before service. In Brooklyn, Libby Willis and Bill Clark opened MeMe’s Diner at the end of 2017 with the mission of creating a queer space where everyone is made to feel welcome. A few miles away at her new Williamsburg restaurant Misi, Missy Robbins plans to close on major holidays, and to give staff time off when they need it.

In late September, Largey opened Simone, a beautiful behemoth designed to serve food, yes, but also to be a corrective to the industry’s problems. Largey began dreaming of the restaurant, which sits in LA’s Arts District, during the three years she spent away from the professional stove as she attempted to reclaim herself after six years of nonstop work. “The world isn’t made up of restaurants and awards,” she said when we first spoke in June 2017. “It’s made up of people. If you’re not taking care of yourself and the people you love, what’s the point?”

Largey was a junior in high school when she figured out exactly what she wanted to do with her life, and began doing it. Born to an undercover LAPD detective and a homemaker-turned-antiques dealer, she was raised in Fillmore, a small agricultural town in Ventura County with three sisters; she also had an additional half-brother and half-sister from her father’s first marriage. She remembers herself as a shy, watchful child who sold citrus at her neighbor’s farmers market stand and volunteered to make dinner for her family every night, right down to taking everyone’s order. But even though cooking was her “No. 1 thing,” she said, “I never thought about being a chef, ever — it wasn’t the culture it is now.” She was on the golf team, dutifully signed up for AP courses, and thought about becoming a pilot or a writer.

Jessica Largey on an early morning at the Hollywood farmers market

Largey recalls being a “brilliant test taker” who hated school; she might have gone right on hating it, had her mother not suggested culinary school. “It sounds so silly, but seriously, in that moment, I just looked at her and I was like, ‘I’m going to be a chef,’” said Largey. “I’ve known since I was 16, like 100 percent, that this is what I was going to do.”

She enrolled that same year, at the age of 16, and began taking classes while she was still in high school. Her teachers were so impressed with Largey’s innate ability that they helped her get an externship at Providence, Michael Cimarusti’s lauded Los Angeles seafood restaurant, where she displayed such remarkable talent for cooking — and hiding her lifelong seafood allergy — that she got promoted to line cook after only three weeks. Cimarusti, who recalls that she possessed “a certain level of maturity that can be hard to find in people her age,” helped her arrange a stage at Heston Blumenthal’s world-renowned Fat Duck, and then subsequently hired her as the opening chef at Lamill, the Providence team’s Silver Lake coffeehouse, in 2008.

That same year, Largey made the acquaintance of Kinch, the chef-owner of Manresa, and moved north to Los Gatos to take a job as a cook in his kitchen. She was promoted to chef de cuisine two years later. By the time she was 26, she was Jessica from Manresa. “Like every voicemail, it was, ‘hi, this is Jessica from Manresa,’” Largey said. “Every time I met someone, ‘hi, I’m Jessica from Manresa.’”

Jessica from Manresa was good at her job. She had to be: She’d been promoted from cook to chef de cuisine in a kitchen full of people who were all older than she was, and needed to prove that she deserved to be there. Going from line cook to the kitchen’s manager at the age of 25 — a bit like going straight from executive assistant to company president — was a “very difficult transition,” Largey said. She went, as she later wrote in Bon Appétit, “from a very confident line cook to the most insecure chef de cuisine of all time,” one who felt too scared and prideful to ask for guidance. You weren’t supposed to ask for it: “You got the position, you’re supposed to make it happen.”

Like many LA chefs, Largey haunts farmers markets looking for new or interesting ingredients; on that day, she was struck by a particular crop of purple tomatillos

But as she continued to plug away, Largey began to realize something else was happening: She was experiencing a work-induced dissolution of self. She had been so successful at being the one thing she’d wanted to be since she was 16 that who she was outside of a restaurant kitchen had been whittled away to a question mark. “I was doing great at my job, but I had no idea who I was if I wasn’t attached to this identity,” she said. “I had a social life, I had a partner, I was living a life, but I was also so consumed and so overwhelmed and everything felt like the end of the world.”

Largey worked almost every day — sometimes working from home on her days off from Manresa. She was convinced the restaurant would fall apart without her. “I put so much pressure and stress on myself, and it was really hard to carry that all the time,” Largey said, “and I really lost a lot of myself, like mentally and physically.” Over time, the lack of balance took its toll on both the chef and her relationship: She became depressed, overwhelmed, and temperamental, and eventually broke up with her partner.

“I really burned myself out in a lot of ways,” she said. “There wasn’t one specific breaking point; it had been building for a long time.” By the time she sought out a therapist — something she had always resisted — she had been working six days a week for 12 years. Therapy helped, as did meditation and long hikes: Over the next couple of years, Largey learned how to better manage her stress and find some semblance of work-life balance, even as she continued to excel at her highly stressful job.

The market is also an indispensable part of Largey’s routine as a person, not just as a chef

She remembers “really turning a corner,” only to run into a wall: In July 2014, an arsonist set fire to Manresa, which forced the restaurant to close for six months. Both the grief and the rebuilding were arduous, though Largey also remembers it as a bonding experience with her coworkers. Once the restaurant was up and running again, she had a realization: She was finished working at Manresa. She remembered feeling “like I can’t give anything else to this place and I’m not going to gain anything else.”

After Largey announced her resignation, she spent two months writing detailed kitchen manuals for her successor, which made her see the true extent of the information and responsibility that she alone had been entrusted with. “I held the keys to the castle, and realized how unhealthy that was for me and the business,” she said. “To be the only one to do so many jobs wasn’t a good excuse for overworking myself.”

By the time she stepped down as Manresa’s chef de cuisine in April 2015, Largey remembered being “on cloud nine — I had all this freedom and ability to do whatever I wanted.” (David Kinch declined to comment for this story.)

A change of scenery was in order, both literal and metaphysical; what she needed, Largey said, was to “learn how to live in the totally opposite end of the spectrum so that I could find the middle ground.” She could have become a private chef, or left the industry altogether; her only plan was to sell almost all of her belongings and then, essentially, to go on walkabout for as long as it took to sort herself out.

She traveled for a while, working her way around Europe and landing in Barcelona for a month. When she returned to the States, she spent five months at Intro, a rotating-chef restaurant in Chicago, now defunct. Back in Northern California, she took long hikes. “I just wanted to learn who I was,” she said, “and what was going to be best for me.”

Largey didn’t embark on her time away from the industry entirely without an end point; while she was in the process of leaving Manresa, she was approached by Bruno Bagbeni, a front-of-house veteran who was planning to open a restaurant in Los Angeles with his business partner, Joe Russo. Russo, although he describes himself as a “dedicated foodie,” is best known as the co-director, with his brother Anthony, of several films in the Avengers franchise. After Russo tasked Bagbeni with finding a chef for their venture, Bagbeni found Largey. “I was working on the Marvel films at the time, and he called me one day and said, ‘You’ve got to go to Manresa,’” Russo said.

The pair didn’t know Largey was leaving Manresa; because she didn’t want the deal to be a reaction to her departure, she didn’t disclose her plans until she signed on to partner with them. She first spent a few months getting to know and negotiating with Bagbeni and Russo; one of her requirements was that she be able to take time off before opening the restaurant. Bagbeni, who passed away this September (his family set up a GoFundMe last month to cover outstanding medical costs and other expenses), was happy to oblige. “That was one of the selling points I had for her, because I know how much she likes to travel,” he said last year.

Largey cites Nina Simone as her favorite musician and a personal hero
Largey primarily unwinds by playing cards with friends or by picking up a book

If Russo brought money to the project and Bagbeni brought management experience, then Largey, in addition to talent, brought idealism. Her goal wasn’t to be the best chef or the top restaurant in the city. “I’m trying to do what I believe in; I want to stand behind what I do,” she said. “That’s it. And I really just want to take care of people. I’m so sick of this industry not taking care of people.”

Largey wanted Simone to be a restaurant where everyone would be heard and valued. She wanted paid vacations for her management team — four weeks for her chef de cuisine, two or three for her sous, and six for herself — and free yoga classes and subsidized massages for all of her employees. She wanted a no-tipping policy and a focus, she said, “on community, not competition.” She wanted, above all, a restaurant that would offer its employees the possibility of the work-life balance she had once found so elusive.

If Largey’s partners were supportive, they were also mindful of their bottom line. “Jessica is 31, 32,” Bagbeni said last year. “I remember those days: You’re very ambitious and very idealistic.” He added, “But at the end of the day, your financial blueprint has to make sense.”

Largey’s whereabouts were unknown to most people outside of her friends and family until August 2016, when she gave the food writer and Chefs With Issues founder Kat Kinsman permission to tell the story of her burnout as part of a MAD Symposium talk about mental health issues in the restaurant industry. Speaking before an audience in Copenhagen, Kinsman described how Largey had become “angry and mean, a dark shadow of the self she knew,” a person who “didn’t know how to be a person. Just a machine who made flawless food, and was angry at anyone or thing who thwarted that purpose.” After the talk, Largey said she was flooded with “thank-yous from all over the world.”

Soul-baring redemption narratives can attract cynicism, particularly when timed to a restaurant’s opening PR blitz. But Largey — successful, poised, gifted — can have an enormous impact in publicly disclosing that she, too, has suffered from a problem that no one wants to admit to suffering. Over two years after Daniel Patterson wrote about his own depression, of feeling like “the blood had been drained from my body and replaced with lead,” he is still approached by cooks who tell him that reading his story gave them the confidence to confide in someone about their own problems. “That’s really why I did it,” he said. “I knew it would kind of make it okay for other people. I did it for my people, for the industry.”

Largey discusses the importance of her morning routine, like making pour-over coffee before going to work

That’s one reason that Largey professes zero regrets about allowing her own issues to be broadcast; in talking about them, she has become part of what she describes as a social movement. “It’s so exciting to me,” she said, “because, especially working in fine dining for so long, how do you make some sort of social impact that feeds your soul outside of making expensive tasting menus? It’s something I was struggling with for a long time.”

Kinsman described Largey as an “incredible advocate,” for not only speaking out, but doing so as a person who happens to be female. “It’s especially hard as a woman in the industry to say this stuff,” Kinsman said. “I hear from so many women who say they have to show themselves to be tougher and harder and stronger because they don’t want to be thought of as weak or whatever.”

It is one thing for widely respected chefs with access to journalists and good health care — Largey has both — to speak out about their vulnerabilities. But for the industry to destigmatize mental illness and change in any meaningful way, its institutions and members will have to create healthy and respectful workplaces, whether that means instituting concrete policies that prohibit and punish abusive behavior, providing health insurance and paid sick leave, or giving workers the support they need to seek help for their personal problems.

It’s a long road, particularly for an industry built on an “I suffered, so you should suffer, too” mentality. Largey conceded that in order for any of this to work, she would need to have a “really busy” restaurant; if customers didn’t turn out, her ideas would remain ideas. This points to a broader concern: If the public doesn’t buy into the idea of caring about the lives of the people who make and serve its food, then building a sustainable restaurant culture will be next to impossible.

On a sunny day in June 2017, Largey climbed up to Simone’s roof. The restaurant was still a construction site, its 5,600 square feet scattered with plaster dust, rebar, and a lone Takis bag crumpled on the floor. As Largey climbed, she described how the cavernous space would soon be transformed. At that point, the restaurant was scheduled to open in the fall; she didn’t know then that delays would push it back an entire year, to September 2018.

Largey says that what she wants for the staff at Simone is a focus “on community, not competition”

The rear of the building would hold a 75-seat dining room, she said. There would also be two full bars, a daytime cafe serving panini and grain bowls, a “really aggressive” coffee program, a temperature-controlled butcher and prep space, a six-seat chef’s counter where she would do “crazy fine-dining food,” and a pastry room next to the dining room. “I want them to have ample space,” Largey said of the pastry chefs, “because I feel like they always get put in a corner.”

Gazing at the skyline, Largey betrayed none of the stress and anxiety that typically attend restaurant construction. Instead, she projected surpassing calm. She’d recently been to a couple of sound baths, and was thinking of returning to the sweat lodge she liked in Fillmore. “It’s in an avocado orchard,” she said. “It’s so incredible.”

“I tell people I’m doing more casual food and they’re like, ‘Your food’s not casual, Jes,’ and I’m like, compared to what I used to do, this is really casual,” says Largey

Earlier that day, over sandwiches at Lodge Bread, a Culver City bakery, Largey had talked about the importance of having resets, as she called them. “That’s something I knew,” she said, “but now I practice them and am committed to them.”

She’d just given a commencement address, in May 2017, at Pasadena’s School of Culinary Arts, her alma mater. (The school, run by Le Cordon Bleu, has since closed.) Largey talked about the importance of finding good mentors and work-life balance, and to always remember that “it’s not worth burning yourself out.” Yes, personal torture could produce great art, but she was over it. She wanted to be cooking from a positive, inspired space, and what would allow her that was taking care of people, and teaching them, and talking to them all night at her chef’s counter.

“I’m such a big dork about food and I want that to be the side of me that they see,” she said. “I want to be accessible. I don’t want to build a restaurant where you come in and have to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars. I want you to be able to come to the bar and have a glass of wine for nine bucks and eat something simple and have a great time, you know?”

But, she admitted, there were so many unknowns. “There’s no structure to follow, because there’s no example of this” — this balancing of her ideals with the demands of commerce — “so we’ll see how it goes.” What she knew was that in order to take care of her staff she needed to be busy, and needed to be the face of her restaurant, out in the open, connecting with her employees and customers. She wanted to be someone people would want to see and talk to. When she’d started doing press for Simone, she’d found it difficult, but then she’d realized all she needed to do was “go and be me and talk about what I really care about and not feel I need to give the answer that I was prompted to give.”

The opening weeks behind them, cooks are now on a five-day schedule, while managers work 12-to-14 hour days, rather than the usual 18

That held for talking about what kind of food she was planning to serve. “Like, why do we have to define this?” she asked. “I tell people I’m doing more casual food and they’re like, ‘Your food’s not casual, Jes,’ and I’m like, compared to what I used to do, this is really casual.” Yes, she understood what they meant, but what she meant was that she wanted to cook the kind of food she liked to eat. She wanted to take brunch and lunch “to a different level,” and to make sandwiches because she loved sandwiches and salads because she loved salad. She ate grain bowls at home all the time. (There is, as of yet, no daytime service with grain bowls or paninis.) “I have a grain cabinet and just burnt out my pressure cooker from overcooking so many grains,” she said. “So I just don’t think I have to live by all these rules anymore. I don’t want to.”

For Largey, LA is a land of rebirth and opportunity, and it’s easy to see why: Long before she’d even opened her first restaurant here, she already had a fan base. At Kismet the night before I met Largey, my server asked me why I was in town.

“Jessica Largey?” she said, when I told her who I would be interviewing. “Oh my god, I love her!”

At both Lodge and a subsequent breakfast at Sqirl, Largey and I were lobbed with free food; when we ran into Sqirl owner Jessica Koslow after breakfast, Largey mentioned the possibility of doing a dinner there. “Absolutely,” Koslow said. “Whatever you want.”

Sous chef Crystal Espinoza plates a dish; Largey says, “I want you to be able to come to the bar and have a glass of wine for nine bucks and eat something simple and have a great time, you know?”

The perils of opening a big, ambitious restaurant are just as real in LA as they are anywhere else. As Besha Rodell, the former LA Weekly restaurant critic, told me, “Big restaurants are really the only people making money these days.” And even if Simone does as well financially as, say, Bestia or Republique, its size and ambition raise the question of whether taking on such a project is antithetical to the stress management and work-life balance that Largey so values. “In theory, it seems really simple,” she said. “But I have no idea how I’m going to pull this all off.”

In late September, Simone finally opened, revealing itself as a stone-cold stunner with intricate tile work and modern art deco accents. Visitors were greeted by the sight of Duello, a 25-seat bar encircled by sleek burgundy leather stools. A handsome walnut chef’s counter hugs the open kitchen; in the dining room, cushy banquettes the color of a Weimaraner lined the brick walls, one of which had been painted a blue-ish charcoal. For the opening party, Russo assembled the Avengers; in a shot on Simone’s Instagram, Largey stands next to Marisa Tomei, with Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Don Cheadle smiling nearby.

In the open kitchen, Largey and her staff of nine worked at one long table, with the chef, her sous chef, and chef de cuisine on one side and the line cooks on the other. She was often called just “Jes,” or “chef Jes,” not “chef,” as in traditional kitchens. There was no yelling, even to call out orders, and when a server had trouble learning different dishes — English is his second language — Largey took a moment to give him a summary of the menu, and gathered all of her servers to share some tips on how to remember ingredients. Later in the week, Simone’s publicist asked Eater’s photographer not to come in for a scheduled shoot, following the death of managing partner Bruno Bagbeni, to the give the team space.

At that night’s service, Largey is often addressed as “Jes,” or “chef Jes,” not merely “chef” as in traditional brigades
Pastry chef Nina Subhas at work; a design goal was to give the pastry team “ample space” without being “put in a corner”

On the phone eight days after her restaurant opened, Largey sounded tired but happy. She didn’t yet have “some profound answer” about what she’d learned during the last few days, but could report that it was “going really well,” and that she felt both freedom and support from her business partners.

While Simone is not gratuity-free, and she’d had to jettison the subsidized staff massages and yoga classes months ago, she was already staggering shifts for her 13-member team, all of whom receive full health benefits. “It’s about getting on a better schedule so we don’t burn ourselves out, which feels good,” she said. Her cooks were on a five-day schedule, while her managers worked 12-to-14-hour days, rather than the typical 18. “We’re closed on Monday,” Largey added. “We’re giving people complete space.” She had used that time to get very long massages. “That’s been a huge priority, getting rest and sleep and leaving each other alone,” she said.

Could she say how all of this would pan out over time? No, she could not. But she was going to try to hold herself to her ideals. It was conceivable, she said, that other restaurants could emulate Simone’s philosophies, even those that couldn’t boast the same scale of investment or affluent clientele. “I do think it takes stepping outside of the box a bit and a lot of organization,” she said. “I think it’s a shift in priorities and a collective understanding of how we work and what we’re doing to ourselves.”

Taking care of people, she added, was the best thing you could do as a business. On that note, Largey was about to go to breakfast with her partner before heading into work. “It’s really important,” she said before she got off the phone, “to take that time for myself.”

Corrections: This story has been updated to clarify why a photo shoot was postponed, and to better reflect the number of Largey’s siblings, the length of her tenure at Intro, her work schedule at Manresa, elements of her morning routine, and the correct spelling of her nickname.

Rebecca Flint Marx is a Brooklyn-based writer who has won both a James Beard and an IACP award for her work. Previously for Eater, she investigated the work culture at the Matter House restaurant group.
Oriana Koren is is a photographer and writer who documents how culture, memory, and identity are transmitted through the act of creating, consuming, and growing food. Previously for Eater, she documented LA’s international fast food scene.
Fact checked by Emma Grillo
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter


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