Q & A With Samir Mohajer, Part 2: The Price of Culinary School, Jack Tripper + A Little Restaurant Etymology
In the first part of our interview with Samir Mohajer, who is opening his third Cabbage Patch in, hopefully, September, the chef gave us a little backstory on his career and his rapidly multiplying restaurants. In this second part, Mohajer tells us more about the new place, the economic circumstances of culinary school, and about why he got into cooking in the first place. Let's just say that the chef apparently watched a lot of television while he was learning how to cook. Turn the page, and check back later for Mohajer's recipes for Cabbage Patch slaw and French lentils with cumin and lime.
Samir Mohajer of Cabbage Patch
Squid Ink: So you grew up in Angeles?
Samir Mohajer: I was born in Iran and raised in West L.A.; been here almost 30 years, so I came here at a very young age, grew up here. I used to go to the farmers market every week with my grandfather and my mom and my grandmother, ever since I was 5 years old.
SI: You went to cooking school in Pasadena [Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary arts in Los Angeles, previously the California School of Culinary Arts] too, didn't you? With Evan Funke [Rustic Canyon] and Paul Shoemaker [Providence, Bastide]?
SM: I did. Evan was a few years after me. Paul was in my class. Roxana Jullapat [Ammo] was in my class. I graduated in 1999. Almost 10 years.
SI: Have you always lived here, or did you escape for awhile?
SM: Yeah. No, unfortunately, you go to culinary school, you rack up a $40,000 bill and there's not much time to travel. And you're already working for peanuts when you graduate, so it's kind of hard to pick up and go. I stayed here and I worked for an hourly wage for many, many years. I was fortunate; I went to Axe [in Venice] right after culinary school. I started at the salad station there, and fortunately the chef got fired a couple months after I got there and I got the opportunity to step into his place and I kind of learned on the job. I did that for about 5 years. Starting at the salad station, and leaving as chef de cuisine. I didn't go to a bunch of other restaurants, but I was very hands-on, I got to do everything myself; from ordering to catering to working the line to scrubbing the stoves to managing employees to dealing with the handyman and the plumber and all that stuff.
SI: Perhaps a better apprenticeship than culinary school.
SM: Yeah, in retrospect a lot of it sucked and it was torture and I don't know why I hung in there for five years, but I did it. It was cool and I'm glad I did it. And that's probably the restaurant that's influenced my food the most is Axe and her [Axe chef-owner Joanna Moore] approach to food and her approach to, I guess, having a restaurant. I think [Moore] had a lot to do with making Abbot Kinney what it is today. Before that only Joe's was a big name restaurant over there, and the rents weren't that expensive back then, and now you go on Abbot Kinney and it's a restaurant row and it's really trendy and hip and all that. [Moore] had a lot to do with that.
SI: What did you do after Axe?
SM: After Axe I went to The Little Door; I was the sous chef, the catering chef there. I got to work under Nicholas Peter, who's a great man and a great chef. The guy runs a really big operation and what I learned over there was how to manage employees and how to do things on a bigger volume and still stay gourmet and still stay high end. I got to do a lot of catering over there: big, big high end catering gigs. It's kind of cool to be a part of that. I came from Axe where it was just me and a salad guy and maybe a dishwasher. You know, then go to Little Door and they have three lead cooks and six separate kitchens, they were getting ready to get the Little Next Door going too. My plan when I got hired there was to stay there and become chef de cuisine at Little Door while the chef moved on to Little Next Door, but then Rustic Canyon came along and I had the opportunity to become executive chef.
SI: You opened Rustic Canyon.
SM: Yeah, it was tough, a whole lot of hours, a whole lot of work, a lot of things I'd never done before. It was a great experience, it got my name out there, it got a bunch of good reviews, more than I could have ever asked for.
SI: And Golden State; you did the menu there?
SM: I did. When we were looking to start Cabbage Patch there was like a one year gap when I didn't work and we were trying to find the right deal. I blew my knee and I wasn't able to work at all -- I'd wanted to stage, to go work at other restaurants to not only make some money but to get some more experience at other places -- but I blew my knee and the only opportunity was to consult and not do any physical labor. I met those guys on the basketball court.
SI: Is that how you blew your knee?
SM: One of them playing basketball, one of them skiing. Blew them both. Three knee surgeries. Dead man ligaments in both knees. So. It's alright.
SI: So tell us more about the downtown location.
SM: We have a beer and wine license over there. It's in the Heron Building. Many many years ago it was a McDonald's, and then it was empty for a long time. We got it from Showbiz Ribs, where a guy came in and did a barbecue concept, it didn't work out. We were actually looking at that space before we found this one [in Beverly Hills] but we never came to terms with the landlord, so we passed. This man got the deal we wanted, I guess, but he was willing to spend a lot more money getting everything up to code. He did the hard work for us. We're redesigning the front, making it look really nice. The kitchen is all set; we're adding more equipment. To have a two storey kitchen with three hoods, two large walk-ins.... The whole place is three storeys. The walk-in is bigger than my kitchen here. Very luxurious for me. There's a mezzanine upstairs; hopefully we can do events up there, we can do parties up there. We can serve good beer and wine; we can't get beer and wine here.
SI: So how did you get into food in the first place?
SM: Jack Tripper was my idol. I wanted to grow up and be like Jack Tripper. Really. I was left home a lot; my parents worked, they had to work many hours a day. My mom would like prep things and par-cook things for me, so I'd come home from school and feed myself. I guess I was good at it. And I started working for some family friends who run restaurants, real casual; I started working for them and before I knew it I was helping out in the kitchen, I picked up a cooking shift making pizzas. I just found that I was good at it, and I enjoyed it. I looked at my family friends and thought, I wouldn't mind growing up and being like these guys. They live well and have good lives.
So instead of going to, like, business school or restaurant management school, I thought culinary school was more hands-on and I'd enjoy it more. I'm not a classroom type of guy. That's how I got into it. A friend of mine did all the research for me and one day culinary school called me. CSCA called me. One day I got a phone call at work and they're like, Hey, we heard you want to go to culinary school. I was like, How did you hear that? That's great. They just had a message with my name on it.
SI: Sounds kind of like the USC recruitment office.
SM: Yeah, so I went for my interview. Now that I'm older and I look at it, I'm like, she was the complete salesman. Hook, line and sinker, just do it. She's like, You're going to graduate and be worth $100,000K, I love your cologne, I used to date a Persian man. I was like, Whoa, I'm in heaven here, you know? She really sold me on that.
But I'm glad I went, don't get me wrong. I think you don't have to go to culinary school; you can definitely be trained in the kitchen and be as good as anybody who went to culinary school. But I think the combination of the two helped me. I like to see things broken down and explained to me. I seem to get it better. And that's what culinary school did.
SI: Okay, so why the name? Why Cabbage Patch? You didn't have a Cabbage Patch doll when you were a kid, did you?
SM: I didn't. I thought it was really cool. I guess it more refers to the dance, and happiness. I always pictured getting successful one day and like, hey, doing the Cabbage Patch. That's what I thought about. Plus it's got that green, natural connotation to it. And I thought it was cool. I wouldn't have done it if it was for a nice, sit-down restaurant, but I thought for something that we were trying to build into a brand, it was catchy enough, it was cool enough. I thought people in my generation could relate to it.
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