When we left off talking to Jason Travi, the chef was discussing the relative merits of being a third generation chef, why he didn't start cooking until the comparatively ancient age of 15, and how his father didn't want him working in the family business. In the second part of the interview, Travi (Spago, La Terza, Fraîche) talks about taking over the stoves and the menu at Firefly, the importance of wearing flipflops to Spago, and what he loves about his veggie car. Turn the page, and check back later for Travi's recipe for burrata fritters.
Squid Ink: So what was your first job?
Jason Travi: I was a busboy at another restaurant. So, it's still a restaurant job! But it wasn't for my dad. It was like a pizza joint in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts. It's like 20 minutes away from Plymouth Rock. I grew up in Thanksgiving country. I love it, I go home every year to visit. When we split from our restaurant group I went home for a month, it was so much fun. It's so great to bring your children where you grew up; it was really special. I really have no plans on living there. If my wife could deal with cold weather, we'd move back, but she'll never do it.
SI: You guys met at Spago, right?
JT: Yeah, we met at Spago, Beverly Hills. She's born and raised here. Parents from Japan but got married and moved here and then they started having kids and they're still here. I like California. There's a lot I don't like about it, but the weather keeps me here. I've had several friends from the East Coast who get fed up with whatever it is: they hate the people, they hate the food scene, or whatever, they move back to the East Coast, they spend one winter there, then they move back [here]. You're wearing flipflops year-round. That's a really good lifestyle for me.
SI: You can wear flipflops to Spago.
JT: I've work flipflops to some of the most expensive restaurants in Southern California and man, I love it. I'm joking around, but I really do like the lifestyle. Yeah, it's tough. The food business in Southern California is really tough. You get into cliques where it's all about what's hot and what's hip and those restaurants don't last longer than six months or a year, or you get into the cliques where the restaurants are crazy expensive for nothing on the plate. But now, the last 5-6 years, the restaurant scene has just gotten great. I really believe L.A. has a great food scene — and it's all over the map. You have fancy restaurants that do really high-tech or innovative food, like Providence, and you have taco trucks that do decent food that are everywhere. Some people will claim it's great food, whatever; it's apples and oranges.
SI: You mean restaurant food vs. truck food, regardless?
JT: Regardless of what the truck is. I've had some of it, some of it's really good and some of it is awful. But the same can be said of restaurants. But you know, we have the whole spectrum of dining in L.A. You don't have that in the rest of the country, you really don't. And I really like that. Especially when I go home and visit Boston. It's still, you know, 5 or 10 years in the past. It's catching up, it's getting better, and I've had a lot of great meals in Boston, but it doesn't have that spectrum that L.A. does.
SI: The truck scene did kind of start here.
JT: That I love. I love the idea of a taco truck, and I love the idea of people branching out and doing new things with that. But I think it's also become a crazy saturated market. You have in a lot of instances just the wrong people doing these things.
SI: In what way?
JT: Well, you have people thinking it's a get rich quick scheme. They're just riding the new fad. It's not. You talk to people who have had taco trucks their whole lives, it's not a get rich quick scheme, trust me. It's a job 7 days a week. There's only a handful of people who have made a fair of money off a taco truck. You can only make so much money off one truck; you have to have a fleet. The guy who made money was the guy who leases them out to people.
SI: Or Roy Choi.
JT: Great idea. Well-executed. And it is what it is. At the end of the day, it's really great drunk food and that's kind of what it was supposed to be. I don't know Roy, I've never met him, I've had his food, but what it seems to me that it was supposed to be, is really good drunk food at 2 in the morning. And it is. More power to him. From that vantage, the truck scene is awesome. I just would like people to stop going in there thinking that they're going to win the lottery and whatever.
SI: Well, with L.A. traffic being what it is, how many trucks do you need? And with what kind of carbon footprint?
JT: The carbon footprint is hilarious. Because you've only got one or two of those trucks trying to be green. I'm a big proponent of recycling…
SI: You have a veggie car.
JT: I have a veggie car. I love it and I do whatever I can to keep that thing running. I save $2,000 a year not buying regular gas: that money goes into fixing that car every year and keeping it on the road. I have an old Mercedes, I love it to death. It runs well, it's in the shop couple weeks out of the year. But that's worth it to me. I don't have a brand new car. My wife has a Prius, but I don't drive that. I love my car and I love that I'm recycling the restaurant's oil. Not all of it goes to me; some of it goes to the recyclers who pick it up, but we're using the restaurant's oil and it's going away into my car. That's a great thing. I would love to see more chefs and more restaurant people doing that. A lot of my friends do it. Quinn Hatfield does it.
SI: You used to get oil from Grace, right?
JT: I never got oil from Grace. Quinn got stuff from Grace, because Quinn doesn't really use fryers in his food. Plus his first restaurant was so small that you couldn't fit a fryer in there. So Quinn would take oil from Neal [Fraser], because BLD uses a lot of oil, they have a fryer. I started this when we opened Fraîche. We made French fries there, so I used a lot of oil. I never had to get oil from anywhere else: my own restaurant supplied me with more than enough. That was great. Now with these restaurants it's the same way: I borrow oil from the restaurants, I recycle it in my car, I have a straining system in my garage. It's work, it's not like pulling up to the gas station, but it's worth it. There's no excuse for restaurant people not to do it, unless you know, you buy an electric car. If you can make enough money to buy an electric car, I get it. Not many of us can afford those.
With taco trucks, the other annoying thing is, you drive up Wilshire, where you see like 11 taco trucks parked, taking up all the metered spaces. It's kind of ridiculous. Granted, the poeple that they're hurting the most, business-wise, are Marie Callender's and if the Koo Koo Roo is still there… They're fighting against giant corporations. But when they're parked up against little mom-and-pop places, it's kind of frustrating. A taco truck parked up against Spago, you're not stealing their business. There's nobody in a suit that was thinking of going to Spago, and like, you know what, I'm going to have whatever at the Dim Sum Truck.
SI: So now that you're here?
JT: I'm just trying to refit Firefly. They've had three major chefs over the years, like pretty big chefs in LA. Gary Menes, David Lentz, Kelly Courtney. They've done really well with who they've hired over the years. The last couple years it's just been holding the line, they didn't hire anybody, they've kept the menu the same. Now I'm here to try and change it. Keep the same style of food, but clean up a little bit, keep the regulars happy. That's the thing, you walk into an environment like this, you can't just change everything. We have a lot of regular customers, you'll lose them. You pick your battles, you see what the customers like, you look at the plates when they come back.
SI: Always wondered about that: how much do chefs analyze what comes back?
JT: It depends on what your job is in the kitchen. When I worked at Fraiche, I worked the line every night. I never expedited, so I couldn't: I cooked every night. I didn't get to see a lot of the plates come back. I'd see some, but for the most part I was really busy. Here my job isn't necessarily to cook every night. My job is to make sure the staff we hire to do the job, so I'm expediting every night, I see every plate that goes out and every plate that comes back. It's a good barometer. If a dish comes back half-eaten once, no big deal. And if they take it to go, great; maybe they just had too much to eat or whatever. But if you see that dish coming back again and again, hey, you have your answer. You can't expect your clientele to give you the answers.
SI: It's like when servers ask you, How was it? You're not necessarily going to tell them the truth.
JT: Well, I'll tell you if it's good or great, but beyond that no, in all honesty. I'm having a conversation or I'm enjoying whomever I'm with. Even when we have a bad meal, we're still having a good time. I'm with my wife, I'm with friends, whatever. I'd rather just tell you what you want to hear so that you'll go away and I can go back to my conversation. So you can't expect them to tell you.
SI: Like if the potatoes are over-salted.
JT: You know, every now and then, if they say something's too salty, that's great criticism. It really is. It helps me. I don't always get a chance to taste everything. Or if something's overcooked. But if a dish is just way off or whatever, most customers aren't going to bother, and I can't blame them. But seeing the plates come back, you have your answers. Because I'll finish something. If it's good, I'll finish something, no matter how full I am, I'll find a way to finish it. You don't want to waste anything, and if something's good, you want to remember it.