Q & A With Eleven Madison Park Alum David Nayfeld: Redefining Fine Dining + His DTLA Restaurant Plans

Chef David Nayfeld
Chef David Nayfeld
Urban + Allen

For most of his career to date, David Nayfeld has cooked at restaurants that often rank high in either critical acclaim, cultural cachet -- or both. Next Tuesday, June 4, he'll add ink to the list, when Michael Voltaggio opens up his kitchen to the former Eleven Madison Park senior sous chef for a joint dinner.

Nayfeld will helm a new restaurant in the Arts District scheduled to open later this year, which is why he intends for the six-course collaboration with Voltaggio to be a kind of debut. It's his way of introducing himself to a community he'll soon join.

"I'm new here and I realize that I'm not necessarily anyone here. I have my credentials and I have my skills, but I believe when someone is new it's his responsibility to reach out to the community," says Nayfeld. "I reached out to [Voltaggio] and he was incredibly gracious."

Though likely unknown -- for now -- by most Angelenos, Nayfeld boasts a pedigree recognizable to anyone who follows the development of fine dining restaurants. Since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, during which he held internships at Nobu in New York City and Aqua in San Francisco, Nayfeld has worked for several notable names in food such as chef-restaurateur Joël Robuchon, who owns various Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. When the 29-year-old chef left his most recent post at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, he traveled around Europe for nearly seven months, working at restaurants and furthering his experience.

Nayfeld recently shared what Angelenos can expect at the upcoming dinner, what fine dining means these days, and his plans for his new restaurant here in L.A.

Squid Ink: What's the dinner going to be like next Tuesday?

David Nayfeld: I'm going to try and show a variety of how each vegetables could be diverse in texture and flavor. This is essentially the most beautiful time of the year. The farmers market is incredibly vibrant. There's a bounty of vegetables and you get everything from summer bean varieties to beautiful asparagus to glimpses of stone fruit.

SI: How would you describe your approach?

D.N.: It's modern regional cuisine or progressive American cuisine. Progressive American cuisine in Southern California is very different than progressive American cuisine in Northern California, New York, or Massachusetts. I use a wide range of flavors, but it is very unique to wherever I'm cooking. There may be a dish that contextually you might think Moroccan or Mediterranean, but the basis is always rooted in local, seasonal produce, local cuisine, and simplicity. Spending so much time at Eleven Madison with Daniel Humm and also working with Joël Robuchon, you start to develop a respect for the simplicity of ingredients and how to showcase things so that they're presented masterfully.

SI: How did the idea for a collaboration with Voltaggio come about?

D.N.: Showing beauty in food is an art and it's something that many people try to do but very few people can do it at the level that Michael Voltaggio does it. When the idea of doing a collaboration dinner with someone came up, the first person I thought of was Michael. ink is an incredible restaurant and it fits stylistically with what I would like to do and that's how it came about.

SI: At this point in your career, why return to California?

D.N.: When you're young, you want to venture outside of your comfort zone. I wanted to test myself and see if I could survive with the best chefs in the world, not just the best chefs in California. I got to a point in my career where I was ready to do my own cuisine and my own restaurant. I ended up doing some traveling around Europe to re-engage myself with cuisine of the world. You start to realize along the way that home is where your heart is. At the end of the day, for me, it's California. This is where my family is. I grew up in California and went to public school here. When I got back, I was really focused on finding a place to land. I'm really proud and happy that Los Angeles ended up being where I'd stay.

SI: Why did you want to come out to L.A.?

D.N.: The day I graduated from high school I packed all my clothes in my car and I drove to L.A. because my brother was going to college here. So I drove here, not knowing what I was going to do. I started hanging out and cooking in kitchens. I was here for a couple of months before I decided I wanted to go to culinary school at the [Culinary Institute of America]. I always thought it's a great city with great weather, and people. The product here is superior. I've always wanted to come back. I've been visiting LA one or two times a year because my brother lives here. My father lives here now too.

SI: What is your impression of this town now?

D.N.: I love the growth that Hollywood is going through. It seems like it's going through a true renaissance. You can kind of see it from the exterior. It's almost reverting to the Golden Age of Hollywood with all this high-end, beautiful shops and spaces. I think the West Hollywood area is beautiful. Venice has undergone an incredible shift in the past 12 years with these cool, beautiful, more casual restaurants that have been popping up all over. I love Superba. I think it's incredible and I love eating there.

Los Angeles in general has been going through this whole culinary overhaul where you still have some of the best chefs in the world here like Michael Chiramusti, Josiah Citrin, and Nancy Silverton, but you're getting a lot of the younger generation coming back from working abroad or in other places because they realize that Los Angeles is a true culinary potential.

SI: What was it like working for Danny Meyers?

D.N.: I was at Eleven Madison Park for about three and a half to four years. I took every chance to go to the Union Square Hospitality main office for classes on everything from new management to empathy. I have such a high level of respect for Danny that it's not hard not to want to mimic exactly how he deals with people. He along with Daniel Humm and Will Guidara are three truly huge influences on me.

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Salad of hericot vert, fresh and pickled bing cherries, shaved trumpet zucchini, and Sicilian pistachios
Salad of hericot vert, fresh and pickled bing cherries, shaved trumpet zucchini, and Sicilian pistachios
David Nayfeld

SI: Having worked in New York and now being based in L.A., how do they compare?

D.N.: LA and NY have similarities in spirit. Both of these cities are filled with incredibly passionate and artistic people. You go to either LA or New York when you want to make it in something.

New York has historically been very focused on its fine dining and showing that upper level of fine dining. In Los Angeles, I feel that a lot of people didn't think that it's incredibly worth it to do a very fine dining restaurant because maybe people wouldn't be interested. I think that the casual dining in Los Angeles has far been greater than almost anywhere in the country.

That said I think Los Angeles is starting to have a culinary reawakening in which they have decided they want fine dining cuisine in a more casual environment. It's apparent when you go to places like Superba, Animal, ink, or Red Medicine with these incredibly talented chefs. They decided to do a more stripped down environment that is more approachable for people.

SI: What is your restaurant going to be like?

D.N.: I like to lean more towards fine dining in terms of ambiance. I want to provide that celebratory feeling for people who want to come out and really enjoy a certain moment or event with an attention to the table that's a little bit more elevated. Whereas I don't think we're going to be as casual, I want our restaurant to be where you feel like you can come without a reservation and enjoy food at the bar.

SI: It sounds like fine dining is less tied to an aesthetic as much as it is connected to an ability to tune into what a diner is feeling and how the service can be adapted to her needs.

D.N.: Absolutely. Rather than going the golden rule of treat everybody how you want to be treated, I believe in the platinum rule, treat everybody how they want to be treated. If somebody is in a rush, then you need to respect that. You need to not tie them to the parameters of what you think fine dining is. You need to get their food to them and get them going wherever they need to go. But if someone really wants to spend the evening with us, I don't believe in trying to push that table to get turned. It's not in my DNA.

So often people want to attach a negative connotation to fine dining, when the truth is fine dining is not necessarily white tablecloths. That's not what fine dining is anymore. Maybe historically that's what it was but today we're redefining it. Fine dining is a true appreciation and focus to detail. It's when you decide to take that extra time to source your products locally and decide to take that time to create a relationship with your farmer.

SI: How do you figure out how someone wants to be treated?

D.N.: When you work for someone like Danny Meyers, you learn a few techniques. One of the things that I preach, for lack of a better word, to my team is that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Nobody wants you to feel bad for them. The world needs everyone to ask 'How would I feel if I was in that situation?'

That starts in a number of ways, like the initial phone call. It's about reading people and what it is they're coming for. People offer a lot of information just by the way they speak to you. If it's something like a 20-year anniversary, maybe we do something like start them off with sparkling wine as a gift from. If people are coming in for a business meeting, maybe they want us to give a little more space. As service professionals, we're part expediters, part therapists, and part friends. Our job is to gauge what kind of service you're looking for.

SI: When you're visualizing the restaurant, do you have a design in mind?

D.N.: I want to go with those quality pieces that are indicative of the quality that I'm trying to serve to people. I don't want to intimidate people. I want to incorporate a lot of woods and natural colors. What I'm hoping to do is to mirror what it would look like if you went to one of those incredible houses where it's warm, inviting, and comfortable.

SI: In terms of the menu, will there be tasting menus or something that's more a la carte?

D.N.: I plan to create different menu options for people who are there for different reasons. We'll have a prix-fixe option for people who have a quick meal but taste a few different things. We will have a tasting menu option for those who want to splurge a little bit. I want to treat the bar like it's an extension of the dining room, so we will have a really nice bar menu. We're trying to create different experiences for people as they like them.

Nayfeld and Voltaggio's six-course dinner will take place on Tuesday, June 4, at ink. on Melrose Avenue. The meal is $125 per person with a beverage pairing option for $75. There are two seatings; one at 6 p.m. and another at 9 p.m. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made by calling (323) 651-5866.

And in related news:

- 5 Best Places to Eat in the Downtown Arts District

- 5 Essential Special Occasion Restaurants in Los Angeles

- Michael Voltaggio's ink. Succeeds at the Intersection of Ego and Location

- Mélisse: 99 Essential Restaurants 2013

Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Follow the author on Twitter at @chrstnchiao.
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