A Q & A With LOU Chef D.J. Olsen: Cooking For Wine People, Trading Music For Food & The Secret Cult of the Midwest

To get to LOU wine bar, you must drive slightly further east on Melrose than you might expect, past the food corridor of the not-yet-reopened Hatfield's and the happy complex that is Mozza and the technically masterful food of Providence, to a nondescript strip mall off of Vine. You must spot the mall sign, LOU, which looks like it could be anything but a restaurant. And you must go through what seems at first like some teenager's ad hoc bedroom, a glass doorway screened off anonymously by a sheet of cloth instead of a proper door. But find it, instead of the dry cleaners next door, and you will find Lou Amdur's terrific wine collection and the tiny kitchen where LOU chef D.J. Olsen cooks the menu to go with it.

Olsen is a second-career person, a Midwesterner who went to culinary school relatively recently, after many years as a musician. In the wine bar's miniscule kitchen, Olsen makes the restaurant's famous pig candy, the small plates of cheeses and charcuterie you'd want at a wine bar, and dishes pushed by what's in season at the farmers markets he frequents. The other day we asked Olsen what it's like to cook at a wine bar, why he made the switch from music to food, and how L.A.'s malls compare with the indoor landscape of his native Minnesota. Check back in tomorrow for part 2 of our interview, and for Olsen's recipe for duck breast with Kabocha squash, bacon lardons and pepitas.

Chef D.J. Olsen at LOU's kitchen
Chef D.J. Olsen at LOU's kitchen
A. Scattergood

Squid Ink: So how long have you been at LOU?

DJO: This coming May I'll have worked at LOU four years. Started working there 6 weeks after he opened, after his original chef, Laurie Freistad, blew her back out lifting a pot o' beans.

SI: Where did you grow up?

DJO: Grew up in Minneapolis, as did Lou. Interesting for me was to discover that Lou and I had flipped hamburgers at the same restaurant when we were teenagers, although about five years apart. We didn't know each other then.

SI: And how did you and Lou find each other?

DJO: I'd wanted to open a restaurant for some time, settled on the idea of a wine bar, bounced the idea off Dan Fredman, a wine publicist and rep whom I'd met at Wine Expo in Santa Monica. Dan mentioned that his good friend Lou was opening a place similar to what I'd described and suggested that I meet him. I'm a little embarrassed to say this now, but when I first met Lou I thought we could never work together. But when Laurie hurt her back and Lou called asking for help, I didn't hesitate. A week later he offered me the job.

SI: You cook in a wine bar, what's your favorite thing to drink?

DJO: That's an easy one. Wine, of course. When I was a musician, living in the cold frozen north, I was a beer drinker. If you were a percussionist, as I was, and you were hanging out with a bunch of brass players after a gig, and it was -20° outside, the last thing you would order at Art's Deli and Bar, our favorite St. Paul hang, was red wine. No, on those nights, a good local porter was the only ticket. It wasn't until I moved to Los Angeles in '91 that I started drinking wine. Now I drink very little brew.

SI: Why did you decide to go to culinary school after having a real job for so many years?

DJO: Funny you should say "real job." Most people don't think the musician's life constitutes a real job. I certainly never did. I'd trained as a classical musician, was a percussionist, wrote chamber, orchestral and theater music, played jazz piano. I had a wonderful, varied career but eventually lost my appetite for it. You'll find among musicians many fine amateur cooks and I certainly thought of myself in this way. I loved everything about cooking, growing vegetables and fruits--we had big gardens when I was young--perusing cookbooks, planning menus, shopping for ingredients, entertaining guests. As a teenager I'd flipped burgers at a local ice cream shop and liked working in the kitchen, an experience that stayed with me through my years as a musician. So when my passion for music finally died, cooking seemed a natural place to turn. A friend suggested that I check out the Cordon Bleu program in Pasadena. The second I walked through its doors I knew I'd made the right choice.

SI: Do you cook to music? What do you listen to?

DJO: When I'm in the kitchen by myself, I prefer quiet. I spent nearly twenty five years training my ears, learning to focus on minute details, phrases, gestures etc. So when I hear music being played, a certain part of my brain switches into analytical mode and that in turn tends to dull my focus as a cook. I'll listen to classical music from time to time, especially if doing something mundane. We have two radios in the kitchen, one above the line, the other above my station. Travis, one of my cooks, turns on NPR when he arrives in the afternoon and I'll set my radio to match. News programs don't seem to compete and I do like keeping up with what's happening. Around 5 p.m., Jon, my sous chef, usually turns on KROQ. I tend to find most of that music highly annoying, unless it's the Silver Sun Pickups, which I seem to tolerate. But their radio is far enough away that I can ignore it. During service, we either turn the radios off or way down since none of us likes having competition with frenzy of service.

SI: What's it like cooking in a wine bar? I've heard that patrons getting drunk and dancing on the table is kind of a recurrent motif.

DJO: Hilarious! Our tables are barely large enough to hold plates and wineglasses, let alone allow someone room to dance. We're a little more laid back then that. Most customers like to sink back into the leather banquettes and relax. As to cooking, well, LOU is the perfect place for me. Lou was a cook for a big part of his life, so he gets it. He understands the necessity of using the best ingredients, allows me to buy accordingly. He' s very particular in his choice of wines, as I am with my ingredients. I like to say, he chooses wines he likes to drink and I cook food I like to eat. It's a good relationship. Mostly I cook simply.

SI: Lou has a lot of wines; do you cook for particular wines?

DJO: Each Monday, we offer a different three course tasting menu paired with five wines. But I don't cook to Lou's choices. He chooses according to what I've planned, not unlike a composer lyricist relationship, say the Gershwin brothers. On occasion, when we celebrate a certain winemaker with a dinner, I'll cook to specific wines the wine maker provides. In those cases, the details of each wine are clearly spelled out and it's challenging to see if I can hit those marks, kick up the food/wine interplay in such a way as to make something wonderful and new happen. It's always surprising to discover how wine does or doesn't work with food.

SI: Do you get to cook with any great wines or is Lou stingy about that sort of thing?

DJO: Lou's highly generous with wines. He'll pour anything for me to taste and I can use anything we have in the restaurant for cooking. But I always choose from the bottom of our price list. It doesn't make economic sense, food cost-wise, to do otherwise. And even though these are the least of our bottles price-wise, the wines are still delicious because Lou has taken such care in choosing.

SI: What's your first culinary memory?

DJO: Sitting with my mom, watching Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet get drunk on television while he roasted a chicken. It's stuck in my mind ever since. Roast chicken and red wine. A good thing.

SI: Most influential person on your cooking life?

That would be people. Julia, Jacques, Alice. Besides Graham Kerr, my mother and I always watched Julia Child on her original shows. I suspect that's where the seeds of my interest in food were first planted. Later, when I was an amateur cook, I watched Jacques Pepin religiously, bought all of his cookbooks. I've always admired his love of food and especially how he cooks with such ease and efficiency. Finally, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. Nothing more to say here. Alice and her famous restaurant have had a profound effect on me.

SI: What's one thing you wish people knew about cooking?

DJO: That recipes are snapshots, moments frozen in time, a single opinion in a world of opinions, techniques among countless techniques, showing but just one way of preparing something. Once you realize this, it's easy to tap out endless riffs on a singular snapshot.

SI: Favorite cookbook?

DJO: Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but only because it's my oldest. Joy of Cooking sits forlorn on the shelf, wedged between the CIA book Garde Manger and James Petersen's Sauces. My wife gave it to me the first year we were married, in 1980. It's pages are spotted and stained because I cooked so many of the "Cockaigne" recipes, the Rombauer favorites. It's one of the old versions too, with instructions on skinning squirrels, how to cook bear, porcupine and raccoon. Love that. I learned a lot from that book, even though I no longer consult it. Judy Rodgers Zuni Cafe Cookbook has a broken binding from being consulted so frequently, as do most of my Chez Panisse cookbooks and those from Jacques Pepin, Patricia Wells and Marcella Hazan. My Thomas Keller cookbooks are dog-eared and stained, but my Charley Trotter books remain pristine, as they should be. Although not strictly a cookbook, Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking continues to challenge me while mysteriously losing it pages.


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