Andre Guerrero can't imagine living anywhere other than Los Angeles. Save for his earliest years in the Philippines and a couple spent in San Francisco when his family initially moved to the United States, Guerrero has essentially been a lifelong L.A. resident.
Over the course of a 30-plus-year career as a chef and restaurateur, Guerrero's restaurants have spanned the city, from downtown to Woodland Hills to Malibu. These days the Glassell Park resident owns two restaurants (in partnership with others, including his two grown sons) within a few miles of where he went to high school, as well as Little Bear in the downtown Arts District.
The Oinkster in Eagle Rock and Maximiliano in Highland Park have become recession-appropriate fixtures of their respective neighborhoods; they also reflect where Guerrero is at in his career, and where he thinks our collective food culture is headed. He had a couple days to recover from Burger Week at the Oinkster before sitting down to chat with us in the dining room at Maximiliano.
Squid Ink: So you've always sort of circled around Highland Park?
Andre Guerrero: Well, my family opened a restaurant in Glendale back in 1979.
SI: What was Glendale like then?
AG: God, almost the same as it is now. I know the residents have changed; There are a lot more Koreans, Filipinos, Hispanics and Armenians there now. After that I worked in Pasadena, downtown L.A., Malibu, West Hollywood.
SI: You've covered a huge swath of the map. What was the style of cooking?
AG: Well, I guess I should go back a little bit. I was an art major. I went to UCLA. I was a painter. When I got out of school, my family always wanted to open a restaurant. My dad had owned a bakery in the Philippines, and my mom did some catering. So when I got out of college, I thought: What am I going to do? I don't want to paint anymore. I need to do something. I need to start being an adult and taking care of myself.
SI: You didn't have the romance of being a starving artist?
AG: No. Actually, I worked with Ed Moses. I was one of his favorite students, so he took me on. I would prep his canvases and help him a little bit. I remember him telling me, “Andre, you're a very talented guy. But I'm going to tell you, in this business it takes a lot more.” I don't know what he was trying to tell me. He was trying to discourage me somehow.
I realized I could go to grad school, but what does that look like? I'm going to be a teacher's assistant and I'm going to struggle for a long time, like I saw a lot of artists doing. Or else I can do something else for a while; I almost went to architecture school.
Once my family opened the restaurant, I started cooking. I didn't know what I was doing. I had worked in some restaurants, and I had taken a bunch of courses in restaurant management. I took a few cooking courses. And I had to figure it out. It was at a time when this whole celebrity chef thing started with Wolfgang Puck, he was still at Ma Maison. And Michael McCarty opened his restaurant. There was something in the air, just like now.
If you really pay attention and listen, you get a sense of what's happening out there. There was a little bit of a food revolution happening. And here I was, this young guy with a lot of passion, a lot of desire, not a lot of experience. My dad wanted a French restaurant. I had this crazy idea to do eclectic cuisine. So it was called Café Le Monde — food of the world — and we started doing food from the Philippines. One of my brothers went to chef school in Brussels and we were doing Belgian food, and Chinese. It was kind of a crazy menu. No one had done anything like this before. My dad thought I was nuts.
SI: In L.A. in general or in Glendale specifically?
AG: In L.A. And then [Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken] did City Café, but it was after we started. They opened, I think, in the early '80s. Like I said, there was something in the air. I don't think it really matters who came up with the first idea. Eventually somebody's going to do it better. That's kind of where I started. I guess we got some journalists' attention, and started getting great reviews. And then I got the bug for the business and I got pulled into it, and never looked back.
SI: How did you actually learn to cook?
AG: I learned from my parents. I learned how to do French pastry when I was 9. A lot of it was my family. I would help my mom with some catering. My dad was a closet pastry chef, and he made sure that we learned. I could make pâte à choux and sponge cakes and mousses when I was 9. So I learned some skills.
SI: Did you have any other chefs who you would describe as mentors?
AG: I got to work at the Biltmore Hotel with Roland Gibert, and at the time Bernard's and L'Orangerie were the two highest-rated restaurants in Los Angeles. That was one of the most important jobs I ever had.
SI: How long were you there?
AG: I was only there for about a year. A lot of what you learn, you learn because you want to learn. I've known chefs who have worked with some great chefs, and they never really paid attention. They just kind of followed the routine.
SI: Is there anything you missed not having gone to culinary school?
AG: Not really.
SI: So where do your best cooks tend to come from?
AG: There's this whole network out there, and one of the toughest things is if you're a chef and you're coming to L.A. for the first time and you don't have that resource of the networking, it's really hard to find good people. I've had guys who have been with me for 25 years. I've watched these guys grow up. There was a time when, if I was opening up a new restaurant, I'd make a few phone calls and then these guys would put in their notice and they'd come work for me, and they'd be calling all of their friends. And all of a sudden I've got a whole crew.
SI: Loyalty is very important.
AG: Yeah, you get loyalty from certain types of cooks. There are some cooks who, this is what they do. They don't want to be chefs. They don't want to make a name for themselves. They just want to be cooks. A lot of the Hispanic guys, they have families and they have kids. They want to be able to pay their rent. I treat them well. I think one of the most important things is treating people with dignity and respect.
SI: You now have three restaurants. How do you spend your time as a proprietor and in the kitchen? What's an ideal balance for you, if such a thing even exists?
AG: I'm still learning that because it was one thing if I was a chef. Some of the best work I ever done was when I was a chef and I worked for somebody else. I didn't worry about how taxes got paid, how the rent got paid. All my focus was putting the food on the plate and managing my kitchen.
These days it's different. I've had to relinquish a lot of that work to other people. And I've gotten to the point in my life where I don't hang onto stuff so much. We focus on the customer now. I don't have a lot of ego attached to it because I've been around so long that I don't have anything to prove anymore.
SI: That must be liberating.
AG: It is because I see a lot of these young guys, and I get it. Everyone is kind of jostling to be a celebrity or make a name for themselves, and maybe even just getting some notoriety or attention that “I exist. I'm a chef. I do good work.” There are a lot of people struggling out there. I'm in a place now that I'm comfortable with what I do. This place [Maximiliano] was a little scary.
SI: Why scary?
AG: Well, every time you do something, there's always that fear in the back of your mind,: well, what if. What if people don't like it. There's little nagging doubts. Was this guy right telling me I'm crazy for coming here. But you have to keep moving forward and be very confident. It's easy for me to say that now because this place is working and it's busy. The Oinkster is doing very well.
SI: When did you open the Oinkster?
AG: We opened in '06. I like to think that we impact neighborhoods. Whether it's us [or not], I know a restaurant can have a very important impact. When Auntie Em's opened on Eagle Rock Boulevard, that was a pretty dreary street. L.A. is so fragmented, you've got these little neighborhoods.
SI: So it's become a neighborhood anchor, too.
AG: We just wanted to open this restaurant. We never had any of those intentions, but it just kind of happened.
SI: And what would you say to people who see places like this as an agent of gentrification?
AG: I would say it was already happening before we got here. We just made it all visible. I mean, I was blown away when we opened here and I saw the crowds coming in. I thought we could be in West Hollywood, we could be in Silver Lake, we could be in South Pasadena.
SI: When you decided to do an Italian restaurant, how much experience with Italian food did you have?
AG: In the early '90s I was doing Italian food. It's an interesting topic because there are some people who are very passionate about ethnic foods. There are some people who think, if you're not Italian you shouldn't be cooking Italian food. If you're not Chinese you shouldn't be cooking Chinese food. Well, one thing that happens in this country is you take a place like New York and Los Angeles, and you become exposed to so many people and different types of food. We have some of the best Chinese restaurants here in Los Angeles. There's some really great Chinese chefs, some Chinese master chefs who are brilliant. And there are a lot of bad chefs. But it's the same in any culture. Every ethnicity, you've got a bad version.
So if you've got a chef who understands food, who understands the cooking process, who understands baking, who understands flavors and temperature, they're going to end up making better food. It's about paying attention. It's like our cacio e pepe. We're on, like, our third round of making a fresh linguine for it. It's one of the simplest dishes, but you have to understand what that dish is in order to prepare it correctly. I bet you there's a lot of Italian chefs out there who can't make that dish very well.
SI: What kind of restaurant are you still dying to open, or a kind of food you haven't gotten to yet?
AG: I want to do a ramen noodle place. I don't think only Japanese people can make good ramen.
SI: What's the most significant change in food culture that you've seen in — how many decades you've been doing this?
AG: About three decades. I think the economy has had a huge impact on the way we eat. Chefs have had to become more creative and keep their prices low. Also the type of restaurants that have been opening. Look at all the restaurants that have closed [L'Orangerie, Ortolan, La Cachette, Bistro LQ]. In a way it's kind of sad, because as a city you don't want to become known for just burgers. But also it's the whole culture here in L.A. — people don't want to get dressed up. You go to a restaurant like Gjelina, it's easy to drop $150-$200 for two people, but everyone's wearing jeans and shorts.
Restaurants are becoming less formal. They're becoming more affordable. And you're starting to see some real value. If you look, there are a lot of really cool places to eat out there, where you'll get a lot for your money.
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