It’s safe to say that some people who drive past Valentino on Pico Boulevard think it’s named after the head of the kitchen, because they’re used to celebrity chefs putting themselves front and center. In fact it was named in homage to the movie star of the 1920s, and the most famous person to work there wasn’t the chef but the dapper fellow at the front of the house. Owner Piero Selvaggio has been greeting guests and working the room for 47 years, and to longtime patrons, of which there are many, he is Valentino.
Selvaggio’s reign over this dining room is coming to an end, as he has decided to close the restaurant at the end of December. Before he did, he sat down with L.A. Weekly to muse on the changing scene during his time in business. He was particularly talkative on the curious phenomenon of the celebrity chef. As he explained, when he opened Valentino there was no such thing, and he now believes it’s a trend that is petering out.
“When I started in the business, cooking was a low-status job, and if you asked the average person to name a famous chef they would be stuck after Julia Child. The concept of a celebrity chef came from two things: Wolfgang Puck and television. Wolf went out in front of the house at Ma Maison, his first kitchen in Los Angeles, and he became a star. Then he changed everything with his restaurant Spago, but he was still having ideas. His restaurant Chinois was so, so ahead of its time when it opened, and it was a breath of fresh air. It was brilliant to use French techniques with a creative blend of Asian spices and products. That is a creative restaurant that has lasted 36 years but has never had a chef who has made it their own — it is still his. Wolf was a brilliant chef, he is my best friend, but he’s an impresario now. He stimulates his chefs in ways that are important but he’s now pretty much a businessman, even though he walks around in the white toque and so forth.
“Some of the other big names in the celebrity chef phenomenon are pretty much faded. Television wants novelty. … Whatever happened to Emeril Lagasse, who was a household name with his ‘Bam!’ and his television appearances? So many of these people have disappeared because they just weren’t that good. … They could play a chef on television, but they couldn’t really run a restaurant. What they knew was how to cook in front of a camera, and that’s not the same thing. The best chef in Los Angeles right now is Michael Cimarusti (of Providence). He has never had a show on television, he is shy, but he has universal respect in the industry.”
Selvaggio was quick to note that some excellent chefs have been media stars but that they were frustrated by the demands of the medium.
“Mary Sue (Milliken) and Susan (Feininger) were the first real celebrity chefs when Food Network began, and they created the perfect thing called Too Hot Tamales. They told me how draining it was to go to New York for a few days and cut 25 shows. There are mistakes toward the end of the sessions, because it took so much out of them. … That happened even to people as good as they are, because there is such pressure to perform.”
Even if some of those media stars had developed the talents of a chef who works the line on a daily basis, there are other skills involved in managing a business. TV chefs never have to wonder if their items are priced correctly to cover their food costs, and if they manage a payroll it’s of PR people and personal assistants rather than line cooks, servers, bartenders and busboys. They don’t have to manage a wine inventory or OSHA regulations, not to mention health department regulations, and never worry about late deliveries by linen services or produce vendors. In particular, the skills of a chef, no matter how good, won’t make up for deficiencies at the front of the house, the part of the operation that customers actually see.
“There are still people cooking on TV, but many of their restaurants aren’t good exactly because they are so focused on the chef,” Selvaggio says. “To be a restaurateur you need to know your food, your wine, and everything about managing the front of the house. At any level beyond a little taco stand, the restaurant experience is about the way they greet you, the way they serve you, the way they make you feel important even if you are a working person who saved money for a nice evening out.”
There can even be a perfect storm of errors in which the restaurant is run for the chef’s convenience, not the customer’s. Selvaggio has had recent experience with that — though not at his own restaurant, of course.
“I visited one of these [celebrity-run] places with a journalist who was looking for the best restaurants in the country, and the person at the front desk was staring at the Open Table [app] on a screen and ignoring the customers who were standing there. The restaurant was packed with all these foodies, the music was loud, and we could not hear each other. There was no pleasure — there was suffering. When I asked the manager about turning down the music he said, verbatim, ‘There is nothing we can do because the chef loves the rhythm of the restaurant so the music has to be high to help him be inspired. You don’t mess around with my chef’s inspiration.’ And that was when I realized that this has become a false world of impostors who will never make it in the business. When I see these faces on television that are called celebrity chefs, I wait for them to be deflated. We had 20 years of that phenomenon, and it’s effectively over.”
Selvaggio will still be at the helm at Valentino for a little while — the restaurant’s last day in business is New Year’s Eve. After that he will be at a new restaurant called Louis in Orange County, where he will be managing partner with Ron Salisbury, who also owns the El Cholo in Newport Beach. The menu will be different, offering steaks as well as the Italian specialties that are close to Selvaggio’s heart. The master of hospitality will learn a new staff and clientele but will strive to offer the same welcome that has made every guest feel valued for almost five decades.
Valentino, 3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 829-4313, valentinossantamonica.com.