In the 1950s, Travis Strickland’s paternal grandfather started a distribution company that delivered bread to local bakeries in northwest Indiana. Over time, he built trusted relationships with a number of business owners, including one who would go on to become the state’s first McDonald’s franchisee. Strickland’s grandfather was in the right place at the right time. He began distributing goods for the fast-food brand, and his work expanded as McDonald’s did.
Naturally, when Strickland wanted a job before he was old enough to legally have one, he called on his grandfather, who pulled a few strings and got him a gig slinging fries at McDonald’s. It was the bottom of the proverbial food chain, but Strickland recalls it with good humor. He’s come a long way, after all — he’s telling this story from the comfort of Baltaire, his latest professional home, and the view couldn’t be much prettier.
“From McDonald’s, I graduated to Dairy Queen, and next to a local hotel, where I was a bus boy,” Strickland said. “The hotel was the first place I worked that was making its own food. All of those jobs made up my introduction to the industry.”
Then came another serendipitous family decision. Strickland’s aunt and uncle opened a bar and grill in his hometown of La Porte, Indiana, and they needed help in the kitchen. It was a down-home kind of place that hosted fish fries and prime rib Fridays. It also was the first spot in which Strickland stood behind a stove (not a fryer), cooking with his uncle in a space that could get up to 120 degrees in the summer months.
“That’s where I fell in love with cooking, in that little shoebox of a kitchen,” he said. “Even today, I find the work almost therapeutic.”
School, work and more work helped Strickland navigate from humble beginnings to Los Angeles' Brentwood. Once he decided to get serious about cooking professionally, he applied and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York — he loaded up his car and moved to Manhattan. He wasn't in the city particularly long, though. Near the end of his time at CIA, he scored an externship at Blackberry Farm, the Tennessee resort and “culinary playground” known for its rustic, seasonal eats, specifically foothills cuisine.
It was mid-August when Strickland arrived at the farm, and one of the first things he did was walk down to the garden, where there were 55 types of heirloom tomatoes. It was something he’d never seen before.
Strickland paid no mind to the fact that he was low man on the totem pole at the farm. He arrived for duty an hour early and stayed an hour late, and when the crew needed volunteers for weddings or overnight pig roasts, he opted in, mostly because he loved the work. His culinary experiences at the venerated site influence the Southern-leaning fare he’s crafting today, he says.
Not long after the externship came to a close, Strickland headed to Chicago — a dream come true for a kid who’d grown up in a suburb a little more than an hour away. He helped open a few restaurants in and out of state before landing a tasting for David Flom and Matthew Moore, owners of Chicago Cut Steakhouse. They brought him on board and charged him with opening the Local, a new casual comfort-food concept where dishes like sliders, jalapeño cornbread and chicken pot pie came to reign.
Strickland was corporate chef for both restaurants for about a year and half before California called. He’d been consulting on the menu and design for a soon-to-open West L.A. steakhouse. Eventually he was invited to lead its kitchen. A couple of miserable winters in Chicago made the Golden State’s weather — not to mention its plethora of produce — look awfully enticing.
“Chicago has unbelievable restaurants, but stylistically, L.A. is so different,” Strickland said. “I knew I’d have an amazing opportunity to work with beautiful produce year-round. It was natural for Baltaire to be about that, not just fat and meat and salt.”
Read over the restaurant’s many menus and you’ll see what he means. There are the expected items to be sure — prime filets and cuts and heavy-hitting sides such as loaded potatoes and creamed spinach. But they’re almost outnumbered by dishes that pack less of a punch to the gut, from the heirloom tomato and burrata salad to the ahi tuna poké or grilled artichokes with Meyer lemon aioli.
Combine the fare with the multifaceted Brentwood venue it’s served in and you’ve redefined the steakhouse experience, Strickland says — no dark rooms full of dark suits.
“The food has to do the space justice,” Strickland said. “We’re not afraid to offer a premium product — for example, a $50 Snake River Farms steak — but there’s also our happy hour menu, which is affordable and approachable enough for students who want to have a beer or whiskey, too.”
On the weekends, brunch fiends might sit down for a latte and whole-wheat pancakes on the sun-soaked terrace with a fireplace and retractable roof. During football season, sports fans can opt to watch the game from a Chesterfield couch or leather armchair in the cocktail lounge. Adjacent to this space, there's another that evokes the vibe of a chic coffee shop. It's not uncommon to see post-workout yogis and local shoppers sit down here for an impromptu quick bite.
“This may be my biggest challenge — trying to verbally convey to someone how many experiences you can have here,” Strickland said.
Another proud touchpoint for the chef? Baltaire’s “interactive” menu offerings. Guests looking for a bit of entertainment while they dine might opt for the Greek salad prepared tableside, the Dover sole filleted tableside or the half roasted Jidori chicken carved tableside, to name a few. The newest addition to this list is a roaming cheese cart laden with nine to 12 local cheeses. Imagine a dim sum experience, but swap the har gow and shumai for bries and chevres.
“We’re having fun with it,” Strickland says cheerfully. “We’re continuing to evolve, which we have and want to do to stay relevant.”
11647 San Vincente Blvd., Brentwood; (424) 273-1660, baltaire.com