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Chef Interviews

Q & A With Eleven Madison Park Alum David Nayfeld: Redefining Fine Dining + His DTLA Restaurant Plans

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Thu, May 30, 2013 at 7:28 AM
click to enlarge Chef David Nayfeld - URBAN + ALLEN
  • Urban + Allen
  • Chef David Nayfeld

For most of his career to date, David Nayfeld has cooked at restaurants that often rank high in either critical acclaim, cultural cachet -- or both. Next Tuesday, June 4, he'll add ink to the list, when Michael Voltaggio opens up his kitchen to the former Eleven Madison Park senior sous chef for a joint dinner.

Nayfeld will helm a new restaurant in the Arts District scheduled to open later this year, which is why he intends for the six-course collaboration with Voltaggio to be a kind of debut. It's his way of introducing himself to a community he'll soon join.

"I'm new here and I realize that I'm not necessarily anyone here. I have my credentials and I have my skills, but I believe when someone is new it's his responsibility to reach out to the community," says Nayfeld. "I reached out to [Voltaggio] and he was incredibly gracious."

Though likely unknown -- for now -- by most Angelenos, Nayfeld boasts a pedigree recognizable to anyone who follows the development of fine dining restaurants. Since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, during which he held internships at Nobu in New York City and Aqua in San Francisco, Nayfeld has worked for several notable names in food such as chef-restaurateur Joël Robuchon, who owns various Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. When the 29-year-old chef left his most recent post at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, he traveled around Europe for nearly seven months, working at restaurants and furthering his experience.

Nayfeld recently shared what Angelenos can expect at the upcoming dinner, what fine dining means these days, and his plans for his new restaurant here in L.A.

Squid Ink: What's the dinner going to be like next Tuesday?

David Nayfeld: I'm going to try and show a variety of how each vegetables could be diverse in texture and flavor. This is essentially the most beautiful time of the year. The farmers market is incredibly vibrant. There's a bounty of vegetables and you get everything from summer bean varieties to beautiful asparagus to glimpses of stone fruit.

SI: How would you describe your approach?

D.N.: It's modern regional cuisine or progressive American cuisine. Progressive American cuisine in Southern California is very different than progressive American cuisine in Northern California, New York, or Massachusetts. I use a wide range of flavors, but it is very unique to wherever I'm cooking. There may be a dish that contextually you might think Moroccan or Mediterranean, but the basis is always rooted in local, seasonal produce, local cuisine, and simplicity. Spending so much time at Eleven Madison with Daniel Humm and also working with Joël Robuchon, you start to develop a respect for the simplicity of ingredients and how to showcase things so that they're presented masterfully.

SI: How did the idea for a collaboration with Voltaggio come about?

D.N.: Showing beauty in food is an art and it's something that many people try to do but very few people can do it at the level that Michael Voltaggio does it. When the idea of doing a collaboration dinner with someone came up, the first person I thought of was Michael. ink is an incredible restaurant and it fits stylistically with what I would like to do and that's how it came about.

SI: At this point in your career, why return to California?

D.N.: When you're young, you want to venture outside of your comfort zone. I wanted to test myself and see if I could survive with the best chefs in the world, not just the best chefs in California. I got to a point in my career where I was ready to do my own cuisine and my own restaurant. I ended up doing some traveling around Europe to re-engage myself with cuisine of the world. You start to realize along the way that home is where your heart is. At the end of the day, for me, it's California. This is where my family is. I grew up in California and went to public school here. When I got back, I was really focused on finding a place to land. I'm really proud and happy that Los Angeles ended up being where I'd stay.

SI: Why did you want to come out to L.A.?

D.N.: The day I graduated from high school I packed all my clothes in my car and I drove to L.A. because my brother was going to college here. So I drove here, not knowing what I was going to do. I started hanging out and cooking in kitchens. I was here for a couple of months before I decided I wanted to go to culinary school at the [Culinary Institute of America]. I always thought it's a great city with great weather, and people. The product here is superior. I've always wanted to come back. I've been visiting LA one or two times a year because my brother lives here. My father lives here now too.

SI: What is your impression of this town now?

D.N.: I love the growth that Hollywood is going through. It seems like it's going through a true renaissance. You can kind of see it from the exterior. It's almost reverting to the Golden Age of Hollywood with all this high-end, beautiful shops and spaces. I think the West Hollywood area is beautiful. Venice has undergone an incredible shift in the past 12 years with these cool, beautiful, more casual restaurants that have been popping up all over. I love Superba. I think it's incredible and I love eating there.

Los Angeles in general has been going through this whole culinary overhaul where you still have some of the best chefs in the world here like Michael Chiramusti, Josiah Citrin, and Nancy Silverton, but you're getting a lot of the younger generation coming back from working abroad or in other places because they realize that Los Angeles is a true culinary potential.

SI: What was it like working for Danny Meyers?

D.N.: I was at Eleven Madison Park for about three and a half to four years. I took every chance to go to the Union Square Hospitality main office for classes on everything from new management to empathy. I have such a high level of respect for Danny that it's not hard not to want to mimic exactly how he deals with people. He along with Daniel Humm and Will Guidara are three truly huge influences on me.

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