It’s 4:30 in the afternoon, so the heat of a warm September day has begun to dissipate, and the shadows play on the patio at Michael’s in Santa Monica, just a few blocks from the sea. A short staircase off the space leads to a narrow kitchen lit hot-white by fluorescent bulbs. Inside, Miles Thompson chops a head of cabbage into ribbons — one of many preparations for the evening’s dinner service.
Thompson appears grounded and comfortable, though the executive chef has officially been serving fare here for a little less than a month. His calm is likely due in part to the team he’s pieced together. With alumni from the previous incarnation of Michael’s, co-workers from Echo Park's long-gone Allumette and contacts from other L.A. kitchens in the mix, Thompson is surrounded by friends and friends-to-be.
Like any business open for decades, Michael’s, which debuted in 1979, has weathered its fair share of changes, but perhaps none so bold as the hiring of Thompson. Working in kitchens (including Nobu and Son of a Gun) since the age of 13, the now 28-year-old chef has been called a prodigy, his food avante-garde. When I ask him how he fits in here — how he’ll keep the attention of Michael’s devotees while also drawing new guests — he’s poised.
“Anytime there’s any change in a setting like this, someone will be upset,” he said. “But I think [owner Michael McCarty] wanted a fresh perspective — someone who would honor the history of the restaurant while also pushing it into the modern realm of cuisine, with a modern approach and modern flavors. I feel very lucky to be a part of that.”
To that end, returning clientele will spot a few classic Michael’s dishes, though most bear a Thompson twist or two. Duck, long a staple at the venue, will continue to be “cooked properly, sourced properly and presented properly.” Thompson’s version arrives medium rare alongside huckleberry-juniper pickle, water spinach and delicata squash that’s been roasted in brown sugar. Seasonal oysters are still for sale (they’re now served with an Earl Grey mignonette), small-plate pastas are “approachable” and there’s a grilled steak with chanterelles and kale, which sounds like something you’d find at just about any steakhouse in town.
Other plates, though, are decidedly Thompson. Sichuan pork dumplings and octopus confit are similar to Allumette items, as is the deconstructed cheesecake on the dessert menu. More “esoteric” options are present, too, from chicken hearts to vinegar-roasted turnips floated on black garlic rice, sumac yogurt and pickled wasabi leaf. The latter is both compelling and puzzling, but Thompson’s just fine with that description.
“That dish is very much a reflection of how I like to cook,” he said. “When we were training, we fed the staff multi-course dinners here. They’d say, ‘I think it needs more wasabi leaf, so that every bite is the same.’ And I’d say, ‘Let’s talk about that.’ Because if every bite is exactly the same, you’re eating sandwich.”
Thompson wants the dish to be dynamic — for each spoonful to push guests through a gradation of flavor notes: “punishingly acidic” followed by spicy followed by a “sugar bomb” date. He calls it a ladder of flavor. Others might call it, well, avante-garde. But Thompson doesn’t feel like he’s alone on this precipice of modern cooking. He cites Craig Thornton of Wolvesmouth as another local chef aspiring to build “seismographic” menus.
As innovative as he is, Thompson is also feeling more prepared these days. When Allumette closed in June of 2014, he rolled up his sleeves at Shed in Healdsburg, spending months neck-deep in traditional preparation methods, from bread- and terrine-making to charcuterie slicing and pickling. It was a chance to live life at a slower speed, to better understand slow food and to reflect on how much he still had to learn.
“We fermented and pickled and tried all sorts of classic things at Allumette, but I’d never really learned how,” Thompson said. “It was just a lot of punk-rock work. Working at Shed was an incredible opportunity. It was a lot like going back to school for me.”
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After Shed, Thompson landed on the island of St. Kitt’s, where he tackled the obstacles inherent in cooking hyper-local cuisine. He says the limitations he faced there made him appreciate everything he did have, both on the island and back at home. When buddies in the Los Angeles food world let him know of the opening at Michael’s, he was happy to toss his hat in the ring.
Now in Santa Monica, Thompson is shopping three times a week at farmers’ markets (he hits the Hollywood market on Sundays), which will of course impact the Michael’s menu regularly. And if the terse menu descriptions leave you wanting to know more before you order, the chef urges you to prod the wait staff for details — they’ve been meticulously trained (and fed). You might even ask McCarty himself for a recommendation, as he is often bouncing genially from table to table.
“The menu is written in the fine-dining model,” Thompson says. “That is, there’s not a lot of information. I don’t want guests to be intimidated, though. Ask questions, and be open minded. Hop in, take a dive, give something a chance. That will take away some of the fear. There’s so much love and hard work that goes into this food, and we’re happy to bring that to guests.”
1147 Third St., Santa Monica; (310) 451-0843, michaelssantamonica.com.