Chef Gary Menes on Cooking "From Seed to Plate"
A farm grows in Long Beach.
This would be an approximately 5,000-square-foot one called the Gladys Avenue Urban Farm, founded in 2010 by Captain Charles Moore. Earlier this year, Moore leased the farm to none other than Gary Menes, the chef and owner of Le Comptoir, who very much knows his way around vegetables. It's not uncommon these days to find Menes here, navigating the grounds with a watering can in hand. The farm is densely organized — "It's like Tetris in here," Menes says — but you can make out the beans crawling up trellises, and you don't have to squint to see the squash and berries.
If all goes according to plan, this farm (and the farmers market, as necessary) is where he'll be getting the produce for Le Comptoir, which will shift from itinerant pop-up to permanent restaurant at the Hotel Normandie, hopefully, in November.
Market vegetable plate at Le Comptoir's pop-up at Tiara Cafe in 2011
Menes grew up a little all over: Catanzaro Lido, Italy; Baltimore; Long Beach. His family loved to cook, Menes says, and after earning his business degree, he discovered he loved cooking much more than number crunching.
Like kids today, Menes was fueled first by the cooking he saw on television. But unlike kids today, he was tuning in to programs such as World Class Cuisine, which actually taught you how to do things like chop an onion, build a mother sauce, braise a chop.
"I would just watch these shows, just maniacally watch them," he says, ticking off all the greats he watched avidly: Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Louis Palladin. He says all this with such intensity that you don't doubt he was absorbing everything he saw on these shows the way some of us were watching The X-Files around this time.
"I watched Nancy Silverton start her sourdough starter on Julia Child's Cooking With Master Chefs," Menes says. "My sourdough starter is made with her recipe. I use it to make my doughnuts, I use it to make my bread." (More reasons to thank Nancy Silverton.)
Then, instead of cooking school, Menes made his way through various French kitchens, learning from the best at most places he went: Joachim Splichal at Patina, Thomas Keller at The French Laundry (the other cooks in the kitchen at the time included John Fraser, Corey Lee and Grant Achatz; Achatz was then the sous chef and trained Menes on the fish station). Then came running the kitchens at Firefly, Palate Food & Wine and Marche.
And in 2011, Le Comptoir. Menes began Le Comptoir as a pop-up but always intended it to be more than a fleeting novelty. It was a case study, to see if his idea of a restaurant — a handful of seats at a counter (le comptoir); a set menu; a staff of just two or three sous chefs who help him prep, cook and clean — would work. (More kitchen lineage: Wes Avila worked with Menes at Palate Food & Wine, Marche and Le Comptoir, which explains why Avila's Guerrilla Tacos are often filled with Menes-grown produce.)
Lucky for us, Menes' concept worked. It worked well enough, in fact, that other than assistance from his family, he'll be able to pop Le Comptoir into its permanent space at the Hotel Normandie independently, without outside investors. "I won't have Jack or Jim telling me they wanted corn in December, or wouldn't it be great if we had a Caesar salad or a burger on the menu," he says.
Which is exactly the point. After all those years of studying and learning from great chefs, he now has what every artist wants: the freedom from control to be in control, the Emersonian freedom to be oneself. And that bring us back to the farm.
"I wanted to do the farm because I want complete control of what I'm serving to my guests, from seed to plate," he says. And in farming and turning the pages of seed catalogs, there's a somewhat existential desire as well: "I want to discover our Southern Californian terroir," he says. "It's not really ingredients. It's flavor profile. It's your experience as being a Californian, an Angeleno. What you have experienced helps define it."
And so if you, too, are interested in exploring this terroir of ours, you can start at Le Comptoir, where bread and doughnuts will be made from a sourdough starter created some 20 years ago. Where there will be a counter that's proven itself a sustainable business model. Where the chef will be within arm's reach, cooking vegetables he planted as seeds. Where the resulting menu will look, and no doubt will taste, unlike any other in town: Where else will you find "warm salad of dragon tongue beans," a "country gentleman corn velouté" and other dishes that sound as if they belong in a Miyazaki film but are firmly rooted in L.A. County?
The wine list, too, will be more reflective of our Southern California terroir, as Menes has grown fond of Central Coast wineries like Whitcraft Winery, Storm Wines, A Tribute to Grace Wine Company and Habit Wine Company. And as Menes is quite the coffee fiend, it is entirely possible that your Le Comptoir experience will end with the chef brewing you a cup of single-origin coffee.
All in all, this will be an unfiltered reflection of who Menes is right now. This will be dinner in Los Angeles.
Le Comptoir will be located at the historic Hotel Normandie at 3606 W. Sixth St. in Koreatown.
Lettuce at Gladys Avenue Urban Farm
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