Curtis Stone has been a fixture on U.S. screens since the early days of food TV. He was the host of 2006 TLC show Take Home Chef, competed with Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, and has occupied various roles on the Top Chef franchise. And if that wasn’t enough to earn him the title of “celebrity chef,” his stint on Celebrity Apprentice certainly did. But although much of the country knows him from television first, Stone also lays legitimate claim to the “chef” part of that of that moniker.
Stone is the chef-owner of two critically acclaimed restaurants in Los Angeles, even as he hosts Top Chef Junior. Stone got his start cooking at the Savoy Hotel in Melbourne, Australia, his hometown. After moving to London, he cooked under legendary chef Marco Pierre White, eventually becoming head chef at White’s Michelin-starred Quo Vadis. Maude, Stone’s first solo restaurant, opened in Los Angeles in 2014 with monthly tasting menus that zeroed in on a single ingredient each month. (Early this year, the restaurant shifted its focus to quarterly menus inspired by wine regions.) Two years later, Stone opened Gwen, a combination butcher shop and fine dining restaurant, also in LA. In 2016, he was named Eater LA’s chef of the year for his work at both restaurants.
Eater caught up with Stone to discuss how he balances his two careers, the evolution of LA dining, and whether or not the city has any truly world-class restaurants.
There’s a seemingly small number of chefs who have successfully transitioned from TV careers to running well-regarded restaurants. How did you do it?
I think most people have a different trajectory when they end up on TV. They start off in restaurants and then they end up in television. And I think it’s a difficult transition back to restaurants. If you think about where your time’s spent and how your day looks, television is a pretty easy gig in comparison with running a restaurant.
You do a lot more of this — sitting around, having lunch. A day on set is a really different day. It’s not the easiest thing in the world, but certainly not like having to be in a kitchen at 10 in the morning and being there until midnight, either.
So how did you end up back in restaurants?
I started doing television when I was 27. And the first show I did was traveling around Australia and cooking on beaches and meeting food producers. So it was still right in my wheelhouse. I wasn’t sitting on a couch eating someone else’s food and judging them. And I think that’s where a lot of TV [chefs] kind of do start these days — it’s being a judge on Chopped or being a judge on this or that. Then it snowballs into suddenly you’re an eater rather than a chef.
But for me, I was young enough that I really missed it. I missed the buzz of that kitchen, and it was only five or six years that I was out of the restaurant.
How did you decide on LA as the place where you would open restaurants?
Totally by accident. I moved to LA to do a TV show, and then I sort of liked it. I stuck around for a little while after the show, fell in love. I don’t know if I’d live in LA by choice. If you reversed it back and I didn’t meet Lindsay [Price, his wife], I don’t think I would have stayed in LA, but I really like it. I think it’s a great city, and I don’t know that I’d move now.
I’ve watched the food there change super dramatically. People have spoken highly about LA for a long time, and I haven’t necessarily agreed with them. LA was a shit place to eat out when I first got there. I haven’t changed it, but it was only 11 years ago. I had a lot of time and some disposable income. I wanted to eat out, and for the first time in a while I wasn’t chained to a restaurant, and I was kind of like, “Cool, I can go and eat in the good restaurants and see what they’re all about.” I was shocked at the standard.
I can remember walking into some of those restaurants and thinking, “I must be in the wrong spot.” There were televisions in the dining room, the menus were super homogenous, and they all had Chilean sea bass and a couple of steaks and a salmon fillet, and I was just like, “That’s not possible. I’m missing something.” But it was just [about] enjoying eating out and being seen or seeing someone famous ... it was a really weird city to eat in. And it’s changed drastically.
A couple of years ago you said there were no world-class restaurants in LA. Do you still feel that way?
It depends how you consider world-class. It’s an interesting question because I think if you talk about the world-class restaurants in New York, then you kind of have to name the top five. When you try and choose the best five restaurants in LA, they’re just a totally different style. Dialogue in Santa Monica I think is probably right up there. Melisse and Providence are great restaurants, but then if you look at some of the newness that’s come to LA — and I’ll leave myself out of all this conversation... They’re really good restaurants, but if you scooped them up and dropped them in New York City or Chicago, they wouldn’t have the attention that they have in LA. I don’t know. I’m not here to talk horribly about the dining scene in LA.
It’s become a super-interesting city to eat in, and it’s really reflective of the city, which is more casual than most. We have one of the highest-check-average restaurants in the city. It probably is the highest check average in the city at Maude, and it’s not formal, but we still get the odd guest that comes in a pair of New Balance. Would that happen at Eleven Madison Park? Not on your life! Would it happen at Alinea in Chicago? No way. They’re different cities, and I think that’s cool. That’s why there are certain chefs that have really flourished there, like Jon [Shook] and Vinny [Dotolo], Walter Manzke [of Republique] — chefs that have done stuff that’s really casual and fitting in with what the city wants. And the food’s really good at those joints, so I think it’s an interesting place to eat. Is it world-class? I think there’s a couple of joints that are.
New York has a reputation for not embracing chefs from television. Guy Fieri, Anne Burrell, Carla Hall, and others have closed restaurants in New York over the past few years. Do you think you could have opened Maude in New York?
Absolutely. In fact, I wish I did. In the early days when the first reviews [for Maude] came out, every single review started by saying, “I expected this to be terrible.” So I don’t think it matters where you are in the world, if that’s what people are going to expect, that’s what they’re going to expect. And that’s cool. I get it. I actually appreciate it. I would rather that than give you a free kick because there’s someone you recognize.
[Fame] sets [the restaurant] up for more scrutiny, so you’ve got to be even better. If you just did it and no one really knew who you were, in some ways it’d be much easier because then all you’re judged on is your product. But there’s always this element of “It’s good, but he’s on television,” or “Is he serious?” or whatever. My background was super serious before I did television, so that’s all I knew, to be honest, from a restaurant perspective. But none of it was in America, so why would anyone know or understand it?
Were you expecting that additional scrutiny, and were you prepared for it?
It was a personal thing, opening the restaurant, and I knew that it would be good. I didn’t know whether it was right for LA. Of course you ask around, and you speak to a bunch of people before you open a restaurant and everybody tells you, “This is what LA is.” In LA specifically, they’re like, “It can’t be a tasting menu. LA doesn’t like that. In LA everyone likes to be in charge of what they eat. Everyone’s on a diet. Everyone’s health conscious. No one will sit down for three hours. You can’t be restrictive. You can’t be too narrow. And if it is a tasting menu, you can’t put frog’s legs on a tasting menu.”
We literally broke every single rule if you went by that rule book. And the result was fabulous. With a bunch of trepidation, I walked into it going, “This could be the biggest face plant anyone’s ever done in our industry,” but I really wanted to cook at that level again, and that’s how I saw it making sense.
Staffing is a problem across the industry. Did you struggle at all in that regard when you first opened Maude?
It’s funny — when we opened Maude, we had a no-actor policy. It’s a tiny restaurant with 24 seats, so we only had five [staff members] on the floor, three of which were manager, assistant manager, and sommelier, so you’re only really looking at two servers. It’s what identified Maude as a different dining experience, because everybody took what they did seriously and learned the menu inside out, and when you asked questions in the dining room, they would talk to you about it.
But when we opened Maude, the interesting thing is you look at a resume, and you quickly scan through their work and you hope that it’s somewhere that you respect. You see a two- or three-Michelin-star restaurant on their resume, and your eyes sort of light up. You’re like, “Awesome, this person knows the deal.” And when we opened Maude, there was Melisse and Providence, and you’d be happy to see those two restaurants on a resume, but that’s kind of where it ends. I’m talking five years ago. Maybe Spago.
If you were to open a restaurant in a different city, where would it be?
I would love to open a restaurant in New York. I really would. I won’t. But if I had my time over again, in the U.S.: New York, maybe Chicago. I lived in London for 10 years; they’re very similar cities. They’re both as fast-paced as one another. They’re both as difficult and tough as one another. But they’re both so rewarding and beautiful.