On Sundays, Tristan Aitchison, the chef de cuisine at Providence, starts work at 10 a.m. by pulling his cream-colored Volkswagen camper bus into the parking structure on the corner of Sunset and Ivar and hitting up the farmers market.
Recently, I met him there to see what it’s like to run one of the L.A.’s best restaurants when the executive chef isn’t around. A Southern California native, Aitchison was wearing a gray T-shirt lightly printed with a grid of Jim Morrison pictures and fluorescent pink Ray-Ban sunglasses. His dark blond hair was cut in a classic side part and slicked back with pomade. On his feet were a worn-in pair of checkered slip-on Vans.
Riding shotgun with him was Providence’s sous chef Amy Wolf, her ponytailed hair dyed an intense blue-gray, wearing a vintage, tattered Harley Davidson T-shirt and a denim button-up.
Aitchison’s mother, Jeanne, who still lives in his hometown of Valencia, arrived separately and helped the two unload a handcart and top it with empty black crates. “It’s the only time I get to spend with him,” Jeanne said, dotingly.
The four of us walked out of the parking structure and through the Hollywood Farmers Market, where the two chefs bought fresh vegetables and herbs. “In the city bubble we’re living in it doesn’t seem like it, but the seasons are changing, and right now it’s definitely fall,” Aitchison said, putting handfuls of sunchokes from Tehachapi into a crate. Next, bouquets of marigolds. Aitchison casually pulled off a deep yellow-brown petal and tasted it. He handed one to me and I put it in my mouth. It was almost citrusy.
“We don’t use flowers just to use a flower,” he said. “These taste so good. They’re sweet and not too grassy. And sometimes Chef wants a dish to have a pop of color.”
“Chef” is Michael Cimarusti, owner and executive chef of Providence, a man whom Aitchison has considered “like a second father” for the last 13 years. Providence is known for its intricate, orchestrated yet achingly simple multicourse seasonal tasting menus (ranging from $110 to $210) — a meal that is generally agreed to be one of the best fine-dining experiences in L.A.
While still a senior in high school, Aitchison got a weekend job washing dishes at the Water Grill, where his godfather was a server and Cimarusti was executive chef. After graduating, he went full-time, working the line, learning to cook and moving up the ranks. When Cimarusti left to open Providence in 2005, Aitchison followed.
"In retrospect I could have gone to college, but I got sucked in,” he said as he handed cash to a farmer for a box of green nasturtium starter plants. “I just fell in with the right people.”
At 30, Aitchison is now Providence’s chef de cuisine, a role that makes him the chef when Cimarusti isn’t there. Operating more out of the spotlight than his well-known mentor, Aitchison is an integral part of Providence. He manages the kitchen staff, leads by cooking example and has a healthy, creative relationship with Cimarusti, with whom he says he's worked long enough to know his expectations.
“At this point, not much has to be said to get our ideas translated,” Aitchison said.
As part of the demands of working at a restaurant with an ever-evolving menu, he and Wolf meet with Cimarusti twice a week to talk about what dishes are working, which things could be changed, and what’s in season that is inspiring them right now. New dishes come from finds at the farmers markets or from their rooftop garden, coupled with whatever sustainable seafood is brought in through the Dock to Dish program, which Cimarusti launched in Southern California this year.
The CSA-style service connects fishermen to restaurants, meaning one week they could get spiny lobster, the next it could be whelk, and the week after it might be turban snails.
As if coordinating the timing of 20-plus courses for each of 100 diners per night wasn’t enough to keep the chefs entertained, the uncertainty about ingredient availability forces them to think on their feet even more.
“[Cimarusti and Aitchison] know what they’re doing,” Wolf said. “There’s lots to learn beyond how to cook a fish, and that keeps me excited to come to work every day.”
Wolf walked ahead of the cart looking for Roan Mills, the vendor that sells bags of the Sonora wheat used in an apple dessert. What sets Aitchison apart from others in the kitchen, I asked Wolf. Why do you think he is a successful chef de cuisine?
“[Tristan] maintains a level of calm," she said. "Every move is so effortless. He does these small nuances and techniques that people overlook. They don’t even realize what he’s doing.”
Across from the wheat tent, Aitchison scouted Windrose Farms’ mushroom selection. Sometimes, he explained, Windrose will offer a mushroom that only it grows, which can be a game-changer.
We walked back to the parking structure with $95 worth of matsutake mushrooms tossed atop the crates.
“The more you taste what’s out there, the more spoiled you get,” he said.
Back at the restaurant, Aitchison and Wolf unloaded the morning haul. Providence occupies an unlikely-looking corner for a fine-dining restaurant, on a part of East Melrose where Hollywood meets Hancock Park. Next door is an old-school party supply store. Behind it is a big dirt pit, the size of two lots, where old homes once stood, inhabited by salty characters who, if nothing else, Aitchison and Wolf say, made for good people-watching.
At noon on that Sunday, the kitchen at Providence was silent, sterile and metallic; you could have done a surgery on the prep table.The empty dining room was flush with light that washed over the blue velvet chairs and white tablecloths — as police sirens blared outside.
Wolf changed into her work gear and began unpacking the vegetables, herbs and flowers, putting them away in the fridge and labeling them. Then she started on the sauces. Aitchison changed into his chef attire, then went into the cold room to start cutting fish, a deep red big-eye tuna from Fiji.
He talked about the restaurant’s philosophy, which he was raised abiding by: “We take the best ingredients you can get and try not to mess with it too much. Sometimes simplicity isn’t apparent to the naked eye. Just because something is simple doesn’t mean lots of work doesn’t go into it.”
He mentioned as an example the restaurant's scallop sauce, which takes six hours to make, then showed me a tray of pickled eggplant smushed between big green leaves. It sits for two weeks to ferment to the right flavor before a quarter-sized slice is lopped off for a single amuse bouche.
“Oftentimes all that work gets eaten in one bite,” he said. “Some people eat with the eyes. If they don’t appreciate simplicity, we don’t fulfill their expectations.”
At around 2 p.m., the cooks started arriving for the dinner shift, greeting Aitchison as “chef” before heading to their stations.
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SHOW ME HOW
Soon, a saucepan of vinegar and pink mountain apples was in a rolling boil. Large nasturtium leaves were being cut into circular portions. A Vitamix whirred with a green blend of herbs inside. One cook took two blowtorches (one in each hand) to a pair of red bell peppers until their skins were blackened enough to be removed. Hunks of pork sizzled in a cauldron for that night’s staff meal, creating the kitchen’s first scent of the evening. Amy walked around with a clipboard, opening fridges, crossing things off.
“All our children are here,” she said.
A wall phone in the kitchen rang. Its cord is long enough to reach any corner of the room. Wolf put down her clipboard and answered it, pausing to listen to her boss on the other end of the line.
“Hi chef. ... Good, good. .. 100 tonight. ... We’re fully staffed. ...Yes, there’s plenty of cut salmon. ... OK, see you Tuesday.” She hung up and turned to check on the sauces.