Q & A With Micah Wexler: Dead Chefs, a Residency at Umamicatessen + Plans for a New Restaurant
Anne FishbeinChef Micah Wexler at Mezze
Hot off his 10-week, sold-out residency at Umamicatessen, chef Micah Wexler is already planning a new series of dinners. The dinners consist of a weekly, themed meal at a central kiosk at Umamicatessen, which has been transformed into a chef's table for up to 12 guests. The residency that just ended was themed "Live and Dine in L.A." and explored various neighborhoods, cultures and time periods in Los Angeles. For his next series, beginning June 6 and continuing weekly through July, Wexler will explore the theme "dead chefs."
The former Mezze chef (Mezze closed in October after a series of issues with a nearby construction site) is on his way to Istanbul today for a working vacation, but we caught up with him before he left to talk about the new series of dinners, how he came up with the theme "dead chefs" and whether we're likely to see a full-time restaurant from him anytime soon.
Squid Ink: How has your experience of the residency at Umamicatessen been in the past?
Micah Wexler: I literally just finished the first 10-week series an hour ago, and it turned out to be a really rewarding experience. After closing [Mezze] I was wary of getting into the whole pop-up game. I never really identified with the pop-up movement, so when Umami first approached me with the residency idea, I wasn't sure if I was going to do it. After some prodding from my parents and my business partner, Mike [Kassar], I decided to go for it.
We knew from the get-go that it was an opportunity to do more than just cook. I wanted to be able to tell a story through the food, but it had to be a story that I had a real personal connection with, so it seemed natural to tell the story of L.A. It allowed me to connect my personal memories of growing up here along with in-depth research. I knew we hit on something when diners were telling me their own personal stories of growing up here and eating in the neighborhoods and restaurants I was using as inspiration. It's fascinating to watch people's faces when a single bite brings them back to a very particular point in time. And the counter setup gives me a unique opportunity to connect with the guests.
S.I.: "Dead chefs" is kinda funny and morbid -- how did you come up with that?
M.W.: Mike and I were tossing around ideas for the second series and he came up with dead chefs. At first I wasn't sure, because I also thought it was kind of morbid. But the more I thought about it, I realized it was a fucking good idea. I don't think you can cook well without having a point of reference. Every great dish has to be inspired by something. So what better than to be inspired by those who came before me? It's also a bit of a study in people's tastes. Sometimes I look at these old recipes that may have been passé at some point but they've become current again, so you realize that food trends aren't necessarily linear.
S.I.: Can you tell me more specifically how you're going to approach it? Maybe a specific chef and what we might expect from your exploration of that chef's work? Are you willing to reveal a few of the chefs you're thinking of riffing off of?
M.W.: I haven't really decided yet which chefs I'm going to do. There will definitely be some French legends. I'd really like to do something on [Bernard] Loiseau. Also there's the question of food-personality types like Brillat-Savarin, Julia Child and James Beard.
Like "To Live and Dine in L.A." though, there's a story that has to be told. I don't want to just pick five Escoffier dishes and call it a day. I want to try and tackle what made them tick if I can; that's not easy, but I can try.
S.I.: When Mezze closed, you said you'd be looking to reopen elsewhere, either another iteration of Mezze or something else. Anything planned along those lines?
M.W.: My No. 1 focus is getting a new restaurant opened. We're looking for spaces all the time. At the time when we closed, I thought it would be another Mezze, but the reason the residency has been so rewarding is because the cuisine is not of a country, it's of an idea, which allows me to have many inspirations. I want to embody that in the next restaurant.
Wexler's residency at Umamicatessen begins June 6. Dinners are $60 per person, with wine pairing available for $30, inclusive of tax and service charge. Call
Umamicatessen at 213-413-8626 for reservations and seating times.
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