“Being a cook was out of the question,” Gary Menes says of his childhood aspirations. The reason: his father. And why do you suppose Menes' father wanted him to become something, anything, other than a cook? Because, of course, he was one himself.
This was not a matter of pulling an heirloom white jacket out of the closet, dog-eared copies of Escoffier tumbling off the shelves. Menes' father was a Coast Guard cook, having joined the service to get out of his native Philippines, where his grandfather had himself been a Navy cook. His grandfather “used to brag about how he used to make soft-shell crabs for the admiral,” Menes says.
“There were only two opportunities for Filipino men in the service: You were either a steward or a cook,” he adds. “He's actually very proud of what I've accomplished, but I think my father would have preferred me to become a lawyer.”
Menes did not go to culinary school but instead apprenticed himself, working for free, as young men did long before somebody invented the Food Network. He worked gratis at Patina, the epicenter of Joachim Splichal's culinary empire. He pilgrimaged up to Yountville, where he spent more than a year as a stagier — because working for free sounds better in French — for Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, where Menes lived off ramen and crackers in “a perfect storm of anxiety.”
There were stints at Octavio Becerra's Palate Food + Wine and Andre Guerrero's Marche (both closed; both lamented). Then Menes did what so many young, peripatetic and deeply ambitious chefs do these days: He opened a temporary restaurant.
After popping up in Glendale for a time, now his movable feast occupies the counter of Fred Eric's downtown Tiara Café. Menes' current installation is called Le Comptoir, his Gallic renaming of, well, Eric's actual counter, and the conceit is to him not unlike the bar is to the bartender.
“I never wanted to be somebody's sous chef,” says Menes, 42. “I just wanted to learn my technique.”
It's the sort of thing he will tell you as he cooks for you, whether he knows you or not. He'll talk as he loads loaves of bread onto a wooden peel, as he pours cauliflower velouté into your soup plate, and as he arranges exactly sourced local vegetables onto rectangular plates so they look oddly like Kandinsky paintings.
“I'm never going back,” Menes says as he places a charred green onion onto your plate with a pair of culinary tweezers. And by that he means working impossible hours in someone else's regimented kitchen and never seeing his family (he lives in Long Beach with his wife, their four young children and a large extended family).
Or, at least, you think he does, although as the nighttime traffic lights swing beyond Tiara's huge windows, the cars moving like waves, you think of the months of Yountville ramen, and you could easily believe he means going AWOL from something else entirely. Because you imagine that even on a Coast Guard boat, this man would find a way to rig an immersion circulator to the galley and make a perfect 62-degree egg — for the admiral, for you or for anyone who pulls up a chair.