Rebecca Merhej stands tall at the stove inside the open kitchen at Love & Salt, a bright, spacious new Italian-centric restaurant in sunny Manhattan Beach. She's slaving over the prep work as her mentor and executive chef Michael Fiorelli shapes a massive pile of house-made butter.
Merhej has staked most of her rise in the culinary field thanks to Fiorelli, with whom she cooked at the Terranea resort's mar'sel restaurant, as well as the late Simon LA restaurant by Kerry Simon in West Hollywood's Sofitel. But at this trendy new eatery just steps from the beach, Merhej is starting to shape her own style and approach, bringing a casual and every day sensibility to seasonal Italian cooking. For nearly 37 years, Cafe Pierre had stood in this space before father and daughter owners Guy and Silvie Gabriele partnered with Fiorelli and Merhej.
Merhej learned how to prep and how to hustle
She developed her love of cooking from her dad and grandmother, who always had something cooking in the kitchen. As a child, Merhej would help her grandmother make Lebanese cookies, soups, and stews. After checking out community college before realizing it was like the 13th grade of high school, she dropped out to go to culinary school. The eight-month program at the Kitchen Academy (now Le Cordon Bleu) helped her land a job at the Avalon Hollywood, which boasted massive kitchen operation. Serving up to 1,000 or even 2,000 people at a time taught Merhej something they don't show in school: how to prep and how to hustle.
After the restaurant inside the bustling club closed, Merhej landed a gig with her now executive chef and mentor Michael Fiorelli, who helped open Simon LA. She did that for a few years before helping to open mar'cel at Terranea on the Palos Verdes Penninsula. Arguably the most ambitious restaurant to open in the South Bay for some time, she remained there with Fiorelli for nearly six years before embarking on a new project with Love & Salt.
Always curious, and always challenging herself, Merhej puts forth a different menu nearly every day at the sunny Manhattan Beach restaurant. Collaborating with Fiorelli, who was classically trained, helps to ground their culinary experiments. It helps to keep them interested and invested in the menu, instead of the doomed feeling of having to trudge through the same course set every night.
Despite less than ten years in the industry, Merhej thinks about her dream concept as one that mirrors the ethos of East Hollywood's insanely popular SQIRL. "I love that concept," she says, "The display cases. The daytime atmosphere. They do a limited menu and change it all the time. I'd love to do a deli counter too like they have at Gjelina Take Away. It's really low maintenance and pretty casual. That style is something I love."
The chef is currently most proud of the tuna rigatoni on the menu at Love & Salt, which she helped conceive with Fiorelli. Some poached albacore makes the basis of the sauce, along with olives, a rounded out tomato sauce for body, plus fried capers for crunch. As for dessert, which is also her domain, Merhej endorses the toasted almond caramel tart, which is pretty much like an elevated Almond Joy candy bar.
For Merhej, the best part of getting to cook for people is seeing them Instagram dishes and talk about how amazed they were with the food. Whether it's the gnocchi that she slaved over, or the salad or cookie plate — just knowing that she made someone's night brings her the most joy.