Q & A With Michael Cimarusti, Part 2: The Michelin, Bluefin Tuna & Why You Should Learn How To Cook Fish
Providence chef-owner Michael Cimarusti has been even busier than usual lately, between trips to the Bocuse d'Or and to Japan. Read the first part of our interview for his take on those excursions. The chef also teaches the occasional cooking classes on, you guessed it, how to cook fish, shellfish and crustaceans.
Add to that, Cimarusti was recently nominated for a James Beard award, in the Best Chef Pacific category. The chef shared his thoughts on the nomination, as well the fact that the Michelin is no longer publishing a Los Angeles Guide, at least for the moment. Providence, Cimarusti's Melrose Avenue restaurant, was given 2 Michelin stars in 2009. Turn the page for the second part of our interview with the chef, and check back later for Cimarusti's recipe for Alaskan halibut with burdock and shiso.
Squid Ink: So you just got nominated for a James Beard Award.
Michael Cimarusti: Yeah, on the short list anyway. I've been on that list for a long time. Which is a great frustration of mine. I don't know how you get from the large list down to the small list. Providence was nominated for Best New Restaurant in 2005, the year we opened, so as a restaurant I've been on that list. But as an individual for Best Chef Pacific I haven't, so hopefully this year. But you know, I really don't know how you get from the big list to the short list; maybe I'll find out this year.
SI: Speaking of awards, what do you think about the Michelin not publishing a Los Angeles guide this year?
MC: I think it's a shame. You know, I can't say that I entirely blame them, because they weren't met with very open arms here in Los Angeles. And don't take offense, but by the media. And I'm really going to stick my neck out on this one, but I think the L.A. media made a mistake with the Michelin. Here's the reason why. It may not have been the most accurate guide, with regards to the spelling of peoples' names and hours of operation or whatever, and they may have made mistakes along the way. But the Michelin is a venerated guide that's been around for over 100 years, and to have Los Angeles included in their list of guides, of which they produce I don't know how many across the globe, it puts Los Angeles food and dining on a different footing. And it offers the reader what it's always offered its readers, which is a worldwide scale. So a restaurant that's awarded a star or a Bib Gourmand in Los Angeles will be very similar to a restaurant that's awarded a star or a Bib Gourmand in, say, Brussels or Tokyo or London.
That's a valuable resource. I can tell you from experience that when we got one star we got a nice reaction to that, and we saw more international clientele. And when we got our second star, we saw a tremendous jump in international clientele. And when you think about Los Angeles as a whole, what could be better for the city than to bring more people here, whether they're gastrotourists or they're just visiting the city. I can't think of anything better. The fact that they're not here any longer I think is a shame. But I do think the decision was made more for economic reasons than the fact that they weren't so warmly welcomed.
SI: It probably didn't help.
MC: I don't think it helped. I mean, it's a shame. Earning 2 stars in 2009 was one of the proudest moments of my career. When I was a kid and I was 22, 23 years old I left a great job in New York to go work for free in a Michelin 2 star in Paris for a time. I would have done it again if my life had gone a different route. Because that really means something. It certainly meant something to me as a young cook, and it was something I just felt I needed to have on my resume. It was great. Hopefully the Guide will come back one day, maybe when the economic conditions are better or whatever. I don't know. It's a big deal. For chefs, it's a really big deal.
MC: Is there anything bigger?
Um, not that I can think of. Honestly, you know I'd love to be awarded 4 stars by the L.A. Times, that would be a great honor. Actually that's a goal I've set. I probably shouldn't say that either, it'll get out there and oh my God, I should just put a target on my back. But you know, I think L.A. needs another 4 star restaurant.
SI: There's only been one? Bastide under Alain Giraud.
MC: The Bazaar got 4 stars as well. But I can think of a handful of restaurants that I think are contenders. I don't know, I would like to see more 4 star restaurants in LA. I think there are certainly a good number that deserve a shot at it.
SI: Like which ones?
MC: Oh, you're not going to put me on that spot. I would just say, I have a few close friends here in the community who are certainly deserving.
SI: You have the respect of your peers, your regulars. How important is it to get something like that? Maybe you need a benchmark.
MC: Well, I think so. It's easy to dismiss the whole thing. Whatever, the star system isn't really an accurate way to judge the quality of the restaurant, whatever. It's an easy thing to just poo-poo. But frankly, it is a benchmark. When I was a kid, the reason why I went to work at Le Cirque was that it was a 4 star restaurant. There's cachet in it, whatever. It's an important thing. To me, it was important coming up. I'd love to have the cooks here be able to say that they're working in a 4 star restaurant, you know what I mean. For that matter, working in a 2 star restaurant; I know everybody takes great pride in that. It's a validation, a reward for the hard work that we do every day. I've really stuck my neck out.
SI: No. You want an Oscar, you want a way of measuring. So you been fishing lately?
MC: No, but I have a trip planned. In July we're going to Hilton Head and that's pretty much all I do when I'm there is fish. Either from the beach or rent a boat, I love it. I want to retire there one day. If you're really lucky you'll hook into a King Mackerel, which is probably the best table fare. There's a really ugly, nasty looking prehistoric thing that swims in those waters called a Tripletail, which if you Google search it, it's one of the ugliest damn things you'll ever see, but they taste really good. There's lots of sharks, which are not great table fare. There are Tarpin, there's also great Black Bass fishing, great Redfish fishing.
SI: What do you think about Bluefin Tuna?
MC: We don't serve it, we haven't served it in years. It's the type of thing that people should probably stay away from. It's a difficult thing, you know. It's pretty clear that people need to stay away from it, but it has such a strong foothold within one culture specifically, Japanese culture, and to wrest that from their hands is going to be very difficult. It's such a huge business, it's just massive the amount of money that changes hands based on that one fish. And the amount of money that's spent chasing that fish. You know, unfortunately it's probably one of those things that's not going to end well. There's just too much money. People aren't going to give it up until it's been removed from the water completely. Which is a shame. It's a majestic fish. I hope one day to be able to get one on the end of my line--and throw it back. Seriously. There are great fisheries in North Carolina for example in the winter you can go out there and hook up with 2 or 3 giants in a day.
When I was a kid I used to go to a tuna tournament with my grandfather in Rhode Island, in Galilee, a beautiful little fishing village. They used to hold an annual bluefin tuna tournament where you'd see 700-800 hundred pound tuna hoisted up on hooks at the dock. Fish of that size are few and far between anymore, which is a shame. So, yeah. It would be great if collectively the world could just say, you know what, we're going to lay off bluefin for awhile, but I'm too realistic to believe that that's actually going to happen.
SI: If you could get people to eat more of one fish, what would it be?
MC: That's a tough question. If it were as abundant as I wish it was, I'd say Pacific salmon. If more people understood what truly great Pacific salmon tasted like, they wouldn't want to eat farm raised salmon. Even as recently as 7 or 8 years ago, you could call up a fishmonger in L.A. and they'd have 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 types of wild King salmon, harvested from different areas. California, Oregon, Washington State, Alaska, 3 different rivers in Alaska, what fish do you want. But California's been shut down for a couple years now, due to habitat destruction. And then Washington State and Oregon haven't been that great in recent years. Alaska's still going strong, but the runs that everybody counts on every year, the Copper and the Yukon, had disappointing returns this year. If there were more of it out there, that would be my go-to pick.
SI: Not sculpin?
MC: Not sculpin, no. But you know sardines and mackerel are great too. But at this point the fishing industry doesn't do a great job of bringing those fish to market in such a way that really entices people to bring them home. Certain fish aren't marketed well because the perception is that there's no market for them, and so it's really the pretty fish. The ones that look the best on the retail counter are the ones that everyone wants to take home. But they're not necessarily the best table fare and they're not necessarily the best choice with regards to sustainability.
Those are all the problems that we're facing right now in a nutshell. Everybody wants Chilean seabass because you can't overcook it, as opposed to learning how to properly cook a fish that's a much better choice for the environment. What are you going to do. Teach people how to cook fish. That's always the thing you hear about Chilean seabass: you can't overcook it. Well, great. That's awesome. Why did you want to overcook it in the first place? Just learn how to cook it.
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