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Q & A With Joseph Mahon: The Bastide Chef on His 16-Course Try-out, the CIA + Why He Once Quit the Business

When Bastide reopened, after a year-long hiatus, a month ago, it was with a recalibrated feel (it's also a bookstore, of all things) and a new chef. Joseph Mahon joined the impressive list of chefs who have helmed Joe Pytka's Melrose Place restaurant, a catalog that reads like a Michelin inspector's Post-it jigsaw: Alain Giraud, Ludo Lefevbre, Walter Manzke and Paul Shoemaker. We caught up with Mahon the other day, as he was cooking lunch and putting the finishing touches on the dinner menu. (Bastide will open for dinner next month.) Mahon sat down in the outdoor patio, breeze in the olive trees, Frank Sinatra singing from the speakers, and talked about his route from OC through the CIA to Joe Pytka's culinary universe.

Bastide chef Joseph Mahon
Bastide chef Joseph Mahon
A. Scattergood

Squid Ink: So tell us a little bit about your background.

Joseph Mahon: I've been cooking since I was 16. I cooked locally in Orange County and saved up enough money and invested it with my mom. She's a stock broker, she tripled it, and with that money I went to the Culinary Institute of America [in Hyde Park, New York]. From there I worked weekends, I staged all over New York City for about a year and a half. Anytime I was in school I was working in the city on Saturdays. I was 19. So I had my girlfriend drive me to the train station and I'd go down there every Saturday. It was nice because you could read a review and be in that kitchen the next week. I just wanted to be involved in the process, to see how things worked in different kitchens, different set ups, just saturate myself with everything.

One of the stages was with Café Boulud, anther with Daniel, also with Andrew Carmellini. Andrew Carmellini was a real hotbed for everyone, anybody in that kitchen wanted to be the next Daniel Boulud. It was a very intense kitchen. I went with Boulud because he's technique driven, he pays homage to his history and his heritage, and there are no tricks up his sleeve. It's very sincere and approachable cuisine, but it's done at the highest level, and I thought I needed to get that. From there I went to David Bouley. Everybody wanted to work with him, or everybody did. He had a crazy reputation; I kind of enjoyed that. He was completely opposite from Daniel Boulud; he was about technique, interesting flavor combinations, flavors, juices, foams, froths, caviars. He'd just come from El Bulli and basically brought it to us. It was completely at the opposite end from where I had been, and I thought, if you could combine those two and land somewhere in the middle, maybe you could have something.

SI: So how did you get back to L.A.?

JM: I worked with Noriyuki Sugie, who's at Breadbar right now. Wow, he's a great chef. I never thought he got all the credit he deserves. He was on a whole different realm. Japanese, French, worked for Katsuya and Charlie Trotter. For me it was the completely opposite end of what I'd been working on at the time: it was Asian-based. I kind of wanted to choreograph each move to make sure that I got to see as much as I could with my time in New York. I was talking to Nori and he knew David Myers and I came out here. I always wanted to come back to Los Angeles. This was my master plan, which never goes accordingly. You always sit there in your room and you think things are going to work out the way you think and nothing ever does. You hope to reach halfway--even a quarter.

I worked for David Myers at Sona, I was their sous chef for under a year. And then I quit the business. I got into sales, I was a sales rep for Epicure, now it's called Village Imports, and I had Orange County. I was a good salesperson. I was a damn good salesperson. It was good money, it was like four days a week, I knew how to talk to the chefs. It was coming on a year and I got a little scared.

SI: Why, because you thought you'd end up staying there?

 

JM: Because it was good money. It scared me because I knew I was always going to go back to cooking. What happened was that I started getting jealous of all these chefs. I started getting a little itchy. This was 2005, I knew that if I got any more comfortable I could establish a route that could give me very good money with less work than I'd ever done before and I'd probably never want to go back. So I opened up an account with Fairmont Hotel in Newport Beach, and their chef de cuisine walked out or something and that's how I got back into it. I wanted to get back to LA and [from the Fairmont] I went to 208 Rodeo, thinking, I'm just happy to be back in L.A., I need the position and I need somewhere to establish myself. Just get back in the game, because I'm in Orange County in the middle of nowhere, dining on the vine, right? I mean, it is what it is.

So, to make a long story short, I was trying to create opportunities, for anything. I used to have small dinner parties at my house. I used to make it a small restaurant. I'd clear out my living room and I'd fit 35 people in there. Whoever i talked to at the restaurant, if I ran into you in the street, I had my card. It wasn't very profitable, but it wasn't for profit. It was to try and surround myself with people who loved food and who knew what I was doing. I knew I could definitely step it up a notch, compared to being lost in the bubble of that Beverly Hills restaurant.

SI: 208 Rodeo. How long were you there?

JM: Almost a year and three-quarters. And then I got a phone call one day from a recruiter, and he said, do you want to cook for Joe Pytka. And I said yes, okay, I'll entertain that idea, you know? And I got a phone call early on and I had an hour to show up here. I showed up and me and Joe just talked about food for an hour and a half. We just sat there and talked about food. I consider myself a little well-versed in the history of food and styles, restaurants, here and abroad, and we definitely connected on that first interview. The first time I cooked for him it was kind of like, you do whatever you want, you've got one shot.

SI: What did you cook?

JM: I cooked about 16 courses. You know, I had one shot and I had about 30 hours to come up with it. One of my buddies was out of a job and I needed some help. It was just like a perfect storm. I was able to get the ingredients I needed, get the help I needed, and we really made it happen. And I think I got a great response from Joe and his team. They know what they like; they know what they don't like, and it's always great to cook for those types of people. They couldn't really eat any more. But you know if you have one shot, I'm going to give you as much as you can until you can't eat any more, and then I'm going to give you some more. Just so that we can clarify exactly what I can do versus the other chefs that have been interviewed, because I know the competition is very very tough. I actually cooked his birthday dinner also, with a whole different crew.

SI: So is Pykta in here a lot?

JM: Yeah, he's in here almost every day.

SI: He's not out filming Super Bowl commercials?

JM: He was filming a couple. McDonalds, Budweiser. This is busy season for him.

Check in tomorrow for the second part of our interview, and for a recipe from the chef.


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