Q & A With Pan Am Room's Norman Fierros: Hairdressing, Life in Phoenix & The Lure of Airplanes
If you've flown into Santa Monica Airport (literally, figuratively) hungry for dinner anytime recently, you're aware that The Hump, the infamous restaurant above Typhoon, is no more. In its place, owner Brian Vidor has remodeled the upstairs space into the Pan Am Room. The reworked restaurant gets its new name from the old airline, of course, but also from the new menu, which has dishes culled from most of Central and South America. Vidor replaced the decor, the menu and pretty much everything except the glass window above the bar, etched with the triangular Mt. Everest landscape from which the original restaurant got its name. (Flight lingo: Vidor is also a veteran pilot.) And two months ago, when the doors reopened, the restaurant also had a new chef: Norman Fierros, whose name you might recognize if you follow the James Beard Foundation (he was named a Beard Rising Star Chef in 1990) or if you happened to have eaten in Phoenix much in the last few decades.
Fierros owned a number of restaurants in Phoenix, but relocated back to Los Angeles ten years ago. The chef, who lived in L.A. during his wild (presumably) youth as a celebrity hairdresser, took time out recently to chat about his circuitous career path, as the Gulfstreams and the late afternoon sun both slowly descended outside. Turn the page for our interview, and check back later for Fierros' recipe for Sea of Cortez ceviche.
Pan Am Room chef Norman Fierros, with airplanes
Squid Ink: So you're from Phoenix?
Norman Fierros: I'm from Arizona, born and raised there. I'm one of 14 children; I was number 13. I came to L.A. in the 60s and then I went back to Phoenix in the 80s to do my food career. I'd never done food before. Ever. And I bought a restaurant. What happened is that I had been studying French and Chinese cooking here in L.A. I was in the hair industry. I worked at Elizabeth Arden, and when I left the industry I was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I was doing hair there. I was at the point where you either open your own salon or you do something else. And I chose to do something else.
So I went to Phoenix and I opened this little taco stand. Did very well with it. I opened another one in downtown Phoenix. All in all I had about seven restaurants in Phoenix. Some good leases, some bad leases; some good opportunities, some bad partnerships. You know the food industry. It is what it is. But I love it.
SI: You're self-taught?
NF: I'm mostly self-taught, yeah. I went to the James Beard Foundation in 1990, Jacques Pépin elected me to go, and I was a Rising Star in 1990. Then I went back and there were complications at the Beard House, so I didn't do anything the second time. I went back to Phoenix, and then in 2000 I came back here to L.A. I couldn't handle the heat over there; I couldn't handle living there anymore. So I came back to LA and I got ill. I got Guillain-Barré [Syndrome]. And I've been recovering ever since.
SI: So you've been back in town for almost ten years?
NF: I've been here for ten years. I've been recovering for all that time, recuperating. I was in rehab for 3 1/2 half years, in a wheelchair for 2. They put me in a wheelchair that they said I'd have to push with my chin for the rest of my life. And I said, No way, I can't live like this. So I pulled myself up and started walking. All they had to tell me was that it regenerates, and that's all I needed to hear. My love for life kept me going. I love what I do.
SI: That's amazing. And how did you come to be here?
NF: I was baking downstairs [at Typhoon]. I needed therapy, so 3 or 4 times a week, I would go in at 4 in the morning. By 8 or 12, I was gone. I never knew what was happening in the restaurant [upstairs].
SI: There's not much to remind you that this was The Hump. Except maybe the airplanes.
NF: It's been redone. The only thing that I recall that's the same is that etching on the windows. That's "the hump." Everything turned over. A clean slate. And we started with pan-American [cuisine]. Brian [Vidor] always wanted to do a pan-American theme and I was his candidate.
the bar at Pan Am Room
SI: Is your menu mostly ceviches?
NF: Ceviches, steaks, halibut, taquitos, tacos, empanadas from Argentina, picadillo from Puerto Rico. We're building the menu as we go, because it's a very small space. We don't know what's going to stick and what will go. We're playing with it.
SI: Have you always cooked in this style?
NF: I wouldn't say that I started with this, with Nueva Mexicana. I gave it a universal edge, which a lot of restaurants are doing right now: implementing the French and Chinese techniques without taking away from the integrity. You know, staying Mexican, obviously, Southwestern. And now this is another reinvention, because I'm doing all the Latin American countries.
SI: Is there anything that's on your menu now that has been on the menus at your other restaurants?
NF: Yeah, let me see. We have the green corn tamales, the tacos, the rellenos, and the primavera salad, the fish tacos.
SI: So do you get a lot of people who fly in and eat?
NF: Oh, yes. People fly from Orange County, from San Diego. They fly in, eat, go back down. They come in from everywhere. Harrison Ford comes in a lot.
SI: Well, I guess he can't eat at Ford's Filling Station every night. Is that because they all have private planes?
NF: Yeah, they have private planes.
SI: Does any of the food make it onto the planes? Always wondered.
NF: I think it does. And we have private parties booked where they buy out the whole restaurant.
SI: So how long has it been since you cooked? Professionally, I mean.
NF: Almost ten years. But I was consulting. The food industry has always on my mind. This was on my mind: ceviches, you know. In fact before I moved from Phoenix back here, this was something that I was conceptualizing: small plates, what we call botanas, you know what botanas are? Botanas are like tapas, only Mexican. So I was conceptualizing something like that. Then I came back here. It all comes back.
SI: Is it your concept then?
NF: Brian left it up to me, mostly. Of course he has a lot to say about it; he's very hands-on, which is great. I really appreciate it. Bad days, good days: that's the food industry.
SI: When you were in a different industry, did you spend a lot of time in restaurants?
NF: Always, always. And even now. You know, [when I was ill] The Food Network was my lifesaver.
SI: Has L.A.'s food scene has changed a lot since you were here before?
NF: Oh, definitely. It's the food capital of the world now, with all the diversity. Back in the 60s and the 70s it was very hard to find a decent place to eat. It was really miserable. [Airplane lands outside.] Foodwise, if you wanted anything decent and Mexican, you had to go to East L.A., back in the 60s. And then it just exploded. And of course I wasn't here in the 80s and 90s, but I used to come back here to check out all the restaurants. That was the only reason.
SI: Is there anything in particular you think L.A. is missing, again, foodwise?
NF: The Westside? [Laughs.] It needs a good cevicheria. It needs us.
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