Q & A with Top Chef Jamie Lauren, Part 2: Her Love of Beef Cheeks, and Obsessive Need to Clean
A. TrachtaChef Jamie Lauren assembling White Anchovy and Burrata Bruschetta.
In the first part of our interview with Chef Jamie Lauren of Beechwood in Venice, she gave us some insight into the world of Top Chef as well as her thoughts on the Los Angeles. food scene. In Part 2, Lauren discusses where she likes to eat in L.A., confesses a major fear and enlightens us on why being a hyper-organized chef can be beneficial -- or detrimental.
SI: So when you go to make a whole new menu, what is your goal?
JL: Well, I have to think about where I am. So when I created the menu for here, I needed to get a feel for what Beechwood was, and I didn't know Beechwood. I had been here, but I'd never been in at night and seen it functioning as a restaurant for dinner service until I started. And I sat in [the dining room] actually, getting a feel for what the space was and seeing what the lounge was like and looking at the other menus, trying to figure out what would work and what wouldn't work. And that's how I started coming up with the menu.
I knew that in the lounge, I could get away with doing some bar bites and that kind of stuff up there, and then really treat this as a dining room. So having some larger plates here, and then still having a cluster that would work into the group. That's sort of where my head goes, is thinking about the space first.
And then, obviously I had to think about L.A. and I didn't know L.A. I didn't know what people wanted in L.A, or what people ate here. This isn't San Francisco. It's very different. And I'm surprised - I'm surprised that people are eating some of the things that they're eating.
SI: Like what?
JL: Like beef cheeks. I never thought those would sell in Los Angeles.
SI: Why did you put them on the menu?
JL: Because I love them. I just love them. I've been putting them on menus for years. The last seven years I remember having beef cheeks on the menu. They're just one of those things that, if you do them right, they're delicious.
With me, I like to do a lot of prep ahead of time to take the guesswork out of the line cook's hands. That's why I like doing braises and stuff like that because I can really control how it's going to come out, whereas if they're doing all this à la minute cooking, it's really on them. And if they don't know what they're doing they can fuck it up.
I hate to say that -- that's me not trusting my line cooks as much as I should -- but until I really feel comfortable with them, and I don't yet. It's only been a couple of months, and I've had a little bit of a revolving door, so I'd say it's been about 5 weeks with the crew I have right now. But until I'm at that place where I feel like they can actually do a pork tenderloin and cook it perfectly medium, it's not going on the menu. So that's another thing that I think about: what my staff can handle.
SI: You have a reputation for being hyper-organized. Are you? Sometimes that can be a challenge for creative people.
JL: I think a lot of the really great chefs are, though. I mean, not saying that I'm a great chef, but chefs that I've worked for... I've worked for some who are crazy, crazy organized, and I honestly think you can't run a kitchen unless it's organized. It's too hard. There are too many moving parts and pieces.
It's different, you know, if you're an artist. It's ok to be all over the place. But here, doing what we do on a nightly basis, it's all about timing and about everything being as perfect as it can. Everything has to be as organized as it can.
SI: Do you think that gave you an edge in competition?
JL: Not at all. There's no time to be organized on Top Chef. It's like you run to the pantry to grab shit and it's like, 'Oh, five minutes down. Ok, I have 15 minutes left to cook, well.' [Shrugs] Because I would start organizing. That's one of those things that I can't not do. I have this thing where if something falls on the floor, I have to pick it up, and I was doing that on Top Chef. So I would be running around and drop a piece of lettuce or something and bend down to pick it up, and it was like, "What are you doing? You just lost 10 seconds!" It's ingrained in me to do it in the kitchen.
SI: You have to think in 10-second increments. That's hard to imagine.
JL: You do. I think the organization thing, when you're hyper-organized and don't like things on the floor and things need to be in their spaces, it actually hurts you on Top Chef. Well, it hurt me, because I'm running around picking shit up off the floor. People were like, 'What are you doing?' and I was like, 'it's dirty.' [Laughs] Like not washing my dish so I can keep going - it's just one of those things you have to get past on the show.
SI: So since you've been in L.A., where have you eaten?
JL: I really haven't been to that many places yet. I went to the Lazy Ox, I really liked it. I've been to Mozza quite a few times, I really like it. I have been to Gjelina, which I liked. I'm trying to think what else, of 'those' kinds of restaurants. I tend to prefer to eat at ethnic, sort of hole-in-the-wall kinds of places. That's why I'm excited to be here. There's so much more diversity here than there was in San Francisco. Except for Indian food. There's no good Indian food here. Yet.
SI: Is it difficult to do side projects such as Top Chef and keep a steady job?
JL: It depends on the restaurant. When I was at Absinthe, I was working there, and I left for six weeks and came back, but my boss was very understanding because he knew the press that the show would bring. I left to do it the second time before I started working here. I was supposed to start working here at the beginning of September and they called me to start shooting in the middle of August, so I had to push back my start date, and [Dave] was like, "Well, yeah, go do Top Chef." So I think, for the most part, business owners realize the impact of the show and how big it is, if you do well on the show. You have people that go on and get kicked off first. You don't ever hear from them again. And that's the shitty thing about the show. There is that gamble that you take by going on.
SI: I felt terrible for Elia, for example, who was first to go on All Stars, especially considering she'd made it to the finals on her original season. She said something in her exit interview to the effect of, "It makes me almost sorry I even came."
JL: And I would have felt the same way if I were the first person to go home. That was my biggest fear, and that was my biggest fear the first time I did the show. They make you meet with a psychiatrist...
JL: Oh yeah. You have to be cleared to go on the show and they make sure you're not a nutbag, I guess. She looked at me and said, 'What's your biggest fear about going on the show?' and I said,"'Getting kicked off first." And she was like, "Everyone says the same thing." Every one of us.
SI: As you said, they only take little snippets of your interviews, but on the first episode, it seemed like that fear was even more elevated for All Stars. Especially since all of you had done well.
JL: I think they should have sent two people home on the first episode. Just to sort of share the shittiness of it.
SI: That would have been nice of them, though it doesn't seem they do you many favors on Top Chef.
JL: No, not at all. But just to lessen the embarrassment. I mean, if you think about where we are in our careers now.
SI: Are the judges supportive off-camera? Do they visit contestants' restaurants, for example?
JL: I don't really stay in touch with them too much. The only one I ever see is Gail [Simmons] at Food & Wine events and stuff. But I think a lot of the chefs that live in New York where they're all based know them. But when we're out here we don't really see them.
SI: What about the community of contestants?
JL: There are cliques that have formed within contestants. There are people that I still speak to from my season -- about three, not a lot. Then from All Stars, over the past two-and-a-half years I've done events with some of these chefs, toured with some of these chefs, so you get to know people. We all pretty much get to know each other. So there's probably three or four people from this season that I really keep in touch with.
SI: How do you keep yourself evolving as a chef? What to you do to continually grow and change.
JL: I think moving around is a big part of it. Growing and living in other cities. I've lived in New York, I lived in San Francisco, I lived in New Mexico, I lived in France, I've lived here. I think it helps to be in different cultures and to see what different cities have to offer in the food scene. I think traveling is a huge part of it. I wish I had more time to do that. It's unfortunate because when you're an executive chef, you're really tied to the restaurant, so it's hard to travel. It's sort of like they cancel each other out, which sucks.
And then just eating out, trying other people's food, trying to work with other chefs whenever you can. Doing things like Test Kitchen. We did stuff like that in San Francisco, where you can work with other chefs or bartenders. That's really the best that you can do and the most that you can do.
Up next, Jamie shares her recipe for White Anchovy and Burrata Bruschetta. Stay tuned.
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