To tell the full story of how chef Walter el Nagar found success in Los Angeles requires access to a world atlas. The abbreviated version: After bouncing around from kitchens in Italy, Norway, Mexico and here in this town with his Barbershop pop-up, el Nagar officially settled down in August after announcing he had teamed up with Adam Fleischman's AdVantage Restaurant Partners to start Barberia. The brick-and-mortar is scheduled to open in DTLA by spring 2015.
It was an improbable collaboration, considering the duo's first encounter. According to el Nagar, Fleischman made reservations at his Abbot Kinney pop-up and cancelled last minute. “That little accident put everything in motion — and here we are, a step away from having our first restaurant together.” All's well that ends well, and as recent pop-up previews of Barberia suggest, it appears as though this story has a happy (and tasty) ending. El Nagar shared a few words about his nomadic journey and what to expect at his new, permanent address.
Squid Ink: What initially attracted you to the pop-up concept?
Walter el Nagar: I decided that it was best to try to open something on my own than to try to change all the bad behaviors in the Italian restaurants in town. For me it was difficult to deal with chefs using heavy cream to finish a risotto, for example. Or restaurateurs that accept precooked pizzas on the menu.
The final goal of the pop-up is to get the chance to experiment and do things your way, with no commitment to anybody besides you. It's great and painful at the same time. But you also get a lot of visibility among potential costumers, investors, press, etc. With Mario Vollera now successfully running his popular pizza joint in Venice [Southend], I started the Barbershop restaurant pop-up series. We have been the first Italians to do something like it in the States.
SI: What can we expect at Barberia?
WEN: Barberia is a space for creation, a space of familiarity and surprise, a space scented with new odors and amazing flavors. A countertop facing an open kitchen, an interchange of knowledge between costumers and cooks, craftsmanship showcased in front of your eyes. My ultimate goal with this project is to create a world class Italian restaurant, a destination to come celebrate food and culture. Not too seriously, but rather ironically and joyfully. Lots of seafood and pasta too.
SI: One dish that strikes me as particularly inventive is your “uni sponge.” Can you describe it for us?
WEN: There is a concentrated tomato broth on the bottom, then a “1-minute” sponge cake made with Santa Barbara uni, which is deep frozen in liquid nitrogen, then steeped in uni cream. First you eat the frozen uni and then wash everything down with the tomatoe water! Fresh, ocean-y and delicious.
SI: What makes your approach to cooking unique?
WEN: Respect. For myself, for the people that work with me, for the costumers, for the ingredients, for tradition and innovation. That is what I think makes my approach with food different from most of the Italian restaurants in town. I don't consider it bravery to serve contemporary Italian food in L.A.
SI: Because diners here tend to be more adventurous these days?
WEN: L.A. is a perfect place to open a modern restaurant because it's a multicultural melting — the abundance of different flavors and all the influences you can blend in your own cuisine.
SI: What are some of those blends you're currently working with?
WEN: I definitely appreciate Mexican, but I already chose what to discover next: African flavors, starting from [L.A.'s] Little Ethiopia.
SI: How are you able to convey your own discoveries and experiences to the folks you cook for?
WEN: It may be difficult and will take a little longer to explain, but it makes way more sense than serving outdated dishes. Italy has changed in the last 30 years. Now we have so many incredible chefs providing us with great examples of ways to reinterpret our culinary heritage: I chose to follow them.