Last September, Chris Behre slipped quietly into Gonpachi in Beverly Hills as executive chef. There wasn't any fanfare, and Behre deliberately kept a low profile, because he had to see if he could repair what was then an ailing business.
It was a big job. Gonpachi, a Japanese restaurant on La Cienega's restaurant row, had a poor review when it opened three years ago. Food costs spiraled. And the cooking was erratic. Personnel problems were severe. On a fully booked Mother's Day, the entire staff walked out. And there were too many in the kitchen to begin with.
The restaurant is owned by Tokyo-based Global Dining, which operates restaurant chains in Japan and abroad. Its southern California properties are Monsoon Café in Santa Monica, La Boheme in West Hollywood and two Gonpachis. The other is in the Miyako Hybrid Hotel in Torrance. Behre is not associated with that property.
An Australian, Behre was executive chef at Cinch in Santa Monica and then went to Bondi Bar and Kitchen in San Diego before taking on Gonpachi. "I came in as a fixer," he says. His projects included reworking the menu, creating stability and attracting local customers.
To reduce costs, Behre began sourcing fresh ingredients rather than ordering products from Japan. As one example, he replaced frozen shrimp from Japan with Santa Barbara spot prawns. Behre has cut the kitchen staff by more than two-thirds. Each of the 12 now on hand can handle two stations. Recipes are being standardized to make the food consistent. Before, each chef cooked his own way. And there were too many chefs.
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Although Behre has not worked in Japan, he cooked for three years at Tetsuya's in Sydney, where he acquired a good grip on Japanese ingredients and culinary techniques. There, the emphasis is on fresh seasonal ingredients and contemporary Japanese food prepared according to French techniques.
Behre is taking a similar approach at Gonpachi. The menu includes Japanese standards such as sushi, robata-grilled meats and handmade soba noodles. His contribution is a seasonal California touch. His appetizer plate includes oyster tempura with an avocado sauce seasoned with wasabi oil. Uni (sea urchin) foam floats on top of a shot of uni soup, which is based on traditional Japanese chawanmushi. Dashi jelly, orange and cucumber accompany a slice of salmon belly A tiny roll wrapped in daikon contains grilled pork, calamari and a chutney like mixture of pineapple, coconut, mint, cilantro and chile.
The look of the restaurant is traditional, with abundant use of golden wood. Red Japanese lanterns hang over the main dining room. In private rooms upstairs, diners can sit on the floor. The entrance is through a garden bordered by a terrace for outdoor dining. This seems just right for California, and Behre would agree. "They had all the right elements in the beginning," he says, "but they didn't anticipate the local market." He's still fixing, but improvements have been substantial. "I think now it's on the right track," he says. "I'm confident that people coming in can have a fantastic experience."
Gonpachi Beverly Hills: 134 S. La Cienega Blvd.; (310) 659-8887.