Jason Travi has cooked in some of the best restaurants in Los Angeles (Spago, Opaline, La Terza), including Fraîche in Culver City, which he co-owned. Travi and his wife, pastry chef Miho Travi, both left Fraîche over a year ago, to raise a family (the couple now has two small children) and to work in an environment more suited to family life. If such a thing is possible in the restaurant world. Travi now works for Jeffrey Best, who owns Firefly, Mesa and Darkroom, and the chef says he's pretty happy to have a corporate position that includes, at least in theory, the possibility of a vacation.
We caught up with Travi recently, in the kitchen of Firefly in Studio City, where he's recently taken over the stoves and has been revamping the menu. It's easy to miss Firefly if you're not a local or amongst the initiated: there is no sign and the restaurant has no website. On the day we visited Travi, it could easily have been mistaken for something else entirely, as the dining room was occupied not by diners or servers or wandering prep cooks, but by singer and Firefly regular Lucinda Williams' entourage. As good a reason to go back as Travi's remarkable burrata fritters, the recipe for which we'll be bringing you later, along with the second part of this interview. So turn the page.
Squid Ink: So it's been awhile, no? What are you up to now?
Jason Travi: Yeah, it has. Now I'm a corporate chef for this restaurant group. They have three restaurants, several bars, and then a fairly large private events company. So I was in Orange County for the last five, six months; now I'm at Firefly in the Valley. And very soon we're going to be putting a kitchen into one of the bars in Hollywood, but it's been eternally delayed for the usual reasons that everything gets delayed, so we'll see. I'll be dividing my time between Firefly and that place, which is called the Darkroom.
SI: Are you working on a menu for that?
JT: Yeah, we're playing around with it. We're always just throwing around ideas.
SI: So, how much of this menu is yours? All of it?
JT: The menu is changed for the most part, and we'll probably be be putting food in one of our bars on Melrose in February, so I've been busy testing recipes for that as well. There will be about 20% that I can't change, which is fine by me. Regulars. The place has been open 8 or 9 years, so obviously there are dishes that I've been warned about, that I'm not allowed to change. That's just the way it is; it's fine.
SI: Are there any dishes that you've taken with you wherever you've gone?
JT: Yeah, there always are dishes. You know, there's some dishes that we did at Fraîche that took on a life of their own and I kind of just left them there, because it feels to me that the identity of that dish is at that restaurant. So I don't want to feel like I'm knocking off that restaurant even though I created it. It's mine, but it in my head the identity of that dish is in that restaurant. But I've brought a couple dishes over so far that have done pretty well and I really like and can be reproduced out of this kitchen.
SI: Like which ones?
JT: The beef tartar: grilled bread, hand-cut beef, a bacon-flavored hollandaise sauce. It's a really simple dish, not too healthy — which is kind of my style unfortunately. Yeah, I think I mask California produce and great quality meat and fish with lots of pork products and things of that nature. But it's wintertime and it's cold.
SI: Spa food can be overrated.
JT: Yeah. But then again, it's not like I'm one of the guys at Animal. I don't have pork in every dish on the menu. Works for them, but I'd prefer a little more variety in my cooking.
SI: The all-bacon menu has its limitations.
JT: It does. As amazing as it is. I think those guys do a really great job but I'd be bored to death after a couple months. But more power to them.
SI: The obligatory question: are you still planning on opening your own place someday?
JT: Well, that kind of got pushed to the back burner. My wife and I had our first child 20 months ago, and our second child two months ago. Yes, thank you. I needed a job where I didn't have to work 80-100 hours a week. The people I work for have been great; they understand family life and that's what I needed.
SI: And also a job where your wife [pastry chef Miho Travi] wasn't working fulltime too.
JT: Two kids… my wife is semi-retired until the kids can fend for themselves.
SI: When they can make their first crème brûlée. Is she consulting?
JT: A lot of people ask her; a lot of our friends and customers will ask if she can help them, especially like wedding cakes or helping to open a business. She doesn't have a free minute in her day. It's, man, I don't envy her job; because that's a job. I'm actually pretty happy to go to work. I deal with the kids for a couple hours and hand them back and then go play with the adults for awhile.
SI: So what's it like cooking for Lucinda Williams?
JT: Yeah, she's a regular. She's a great customer, she's taking photographs for her new record today. She asked the manager and the manager said, We never do things like that here. The owners never close the restaurant for private events; they don't like to do advertising.
SI: You don't even have a sign.
JT: Yeah, we don't have a sign. I don't even think we have business cards. Or even a website.
SI: You don't.
JT: But it's worked out for them really well. Lucinda Williams literally eats here four or five nights a week. It gets hilarious. I love that about customers. At other restaurants you always have one or two who come in like once a week, or twice a week. But they're like four times a week, at least. But I don't really pay attention to what tickets belong to what customers. A lot of people get wrapped up in like who they're cooking for. Me, I don't want to know. I want to make sure that every person gets the same meal.
SI: If you're going to have a regular…
JT: She's a really cool regular to have. Better than having some flash-in-the-pan 22-year-old who six months from now won't be here.
SI: They'll be in rehab.
JT: Yeah, or they'll be living somewhere else. She's a legend.
SI: So your kids aren't old enough to cook yet.
JT: My daughter helps my wife make pancakes once a week, but the word “help” is a relative term. It usually involves throwing flour on the floor and trying to drink the milk out of the carton and just getting in the way. I don't cook until she's sleeping. Cooking for me, as much as I love it and as fun as it is, I just need to do it in a professional atmosphere or it gets nuts. It's just one of those things.
SI: I ask because you're third generation, right?
JT: Yeah, my grandfather started a restaurant in Massachusetts about 55-60 years ago. My father runs it now. And I've got like three or four uncles who are chefs too, so it's my whole family. Everyone cooks.
SI: How old were you when you learned to cook, given that environment?
JT: 15. I was old. Because I had cousins who went to go work in my family's restaurant when they were like 12. When you're family there's no child labor laws; that's just the way it works. But my dad was adamant that I didn't go into the restaurant business. He didn't want me ending up like him. It worked out for a little while: that wasn't my first job. But then one day the dishwasher walks out, my mom gets a phone call, and an hour later I'm at the restaurant and yeah. Somebody walks out I got kids, that's your labor force right there.
Check back later today for the second part of this interview, and a recipe from the chef.