The last place you'd probably expect to find a chef with a Michelin star under his belt would be Mid-City's Paper or Plastik, a neighborhood café that's a favorite of locals but not known as a place to host nationally acclaimed chefs.
But that's exactly where former Ubuntu chef Jeremy Fox has planted himself after helping launch Freddy Smalls earlier this year, with help from Bay Area alum Charlie Palmer. In between time spent working on his new cookbook — the working title is Seed to Stalk: A Modern Culinary Handbook — due out fall 2013, and consulting on a new market-driven menu for Paper or Plastik, Fox is scouting for a space for his newest restaurant in Los Angeles.
Fox's rise to fame began at San Francisco's Ubuntu, where he garnered national acclaim for his stellar vegetarian tasting menus. Critics including Frank Bruni, Ruth Reichl and Jonathan Gold were effusive with praise. (Bruni called it “the Angelina Jolie of restaurants.) In 2010, though, Fox abruptly left Ubuntu behind, working for a brief summer stint at Daniel Patteron's Plum in Oakland before moving south to settle in Los Feliz late last year. From there the rumor mill swirled, speculating as to when Fox would finally confirm his newest endeavor, the elusive Los Angeles restaurant.
Even though Fox's menu at Paper or Plastik just began rolling out this week, he already has one ardent fan: café owner and dance instructor Yasha Michelson. “He has the intensity of a genius inside him,” Michelson says. “I never believed it when people compared food to art, but when I see him work, it becomes clear.”
We talked to Jeremy Fox about his life so far in L.A., his reasons for leaving Ubuntu and what's in store for his upcoming restaurant. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: How has your experience in L.A. been so far?
Jeremy Fox:Well, I've spent a lot of time in L.A. in the past couple years and the more I was here, the more it reminded me of Atlanta, where I grew up, in terms of the sprawling communities and the different personalities intermixing. There's more freedom to be yourself. One of the first real experiences I had in L.A. was cooking a week of vegetarian dinners at Animal with Jon [Shook] and Vinny [Dotolo], and, you know, I have a tremendous amount of respect for those guys, and to see the amount of success they've had here showed me that this city is a place where the public is eager to embrace unique and progressive chef-driven restaurants. The same goes for what Michael Voltaggio is doing over at ink. The Spice Table, too — I never sweated that much during any meal of my life, it was like a cleansing ritual.
SI: How did you get involved reworking the menu at Paper or Plastik?
JF: I knew that [owners Yasha, Anya and Marina Michelson] were looking for a consultant for their new menu, and consulting is how I'm biding my time right now while I'm looking for a new restaurant space in L.A. It's a way to pay the bills that fits my open-ended schedule at the same time. Plus they're really dedicated to bringing in the best ingredients here. A lot of people don't realize they use Straus Dairy for all their coffee drinks, which is pretty rare. I'm also working on my first cookbook in my spare time, too, which is going to be published through Phaidon, once I finish of course.
SI: So what kind of stuff are you cooking right now?
JF: The new menu is about 70% complete. People have been really excited about it, which is great to see. The sandwiches and salads weren't prepared in-house before, so it's been interesting putting some fun, market-driven restaurant dishes on the menu and gauging reactions. Matzah with bacon was one thing we were playing around with.
SI: Is this the smallest kitchen you've ever worked in?
JF: It's close, but by no means is it the most difficult I've worked in. We actually tore down one of the walls to double the size of the kitchen two months ago, but even then it was only about 10 feet by 15 feet, with only a portable oven and one electric burner. Ubuntu was definitely a hard act to follow. I'm not going to lie and say I haven't struggled with that. I think a big part of why I came to L.A. was to have a fresh start and take some attention off myself. I appreciated all the great recognition that came my way, but I think the spotlight always felt a bit unnatural for me. With consulting you get to help out other people's endeavors and try to improve what they're working toward, which is always a good feeling.
SI: What changed for you at Ubuntu?
JF: I was worried that it was becoming more about me personally than about the work I was doing. Cooking vegetables is definitely a passion for me, but it isn't the only part of who I am. I wanted to learn about new things and to explore different mediums and ideas, instead of just having the blinders on with my face in the cutting board. I'm starting over down here, really. I'm paying my dues all over again in a whole different way. It's a lot more fun to attain things than to try and retain them. I didn't want to be the guy who got the Michelin star one year, then live in fear every fall thereafter of being the guy who falls off and having it taken away.
SI: Do you still worry about that?
JF: I did at one point, but not so much anymore. I think the conception part of cooking, the creative aspect of starting everything from scratch, is what I enjoy most and that's what I've been able to focus on. It keeps me from getting bored. I need to have a lot of working parts going on, almost to the point of things being overwhelming, for me to pay attention and figure out a way to make function. I've been cooking for over 15 years and only three of those years were cooking vegetarian, so there are a lot of other influences over my career that I'm still exploring.
Now is a great time too, because people are open to fine dining cuisine without all the white-tablecloth aspects in a way they haven't always been. A friend of mine who worked with me at Ubuntu, Steve Matkovich, has been doing this great pop-up with Alma at Millie's in Silver Lake.
SI: How about a Jeremy Fox pop-up in L.A.? Is that something that appeals to you?
JF: I was doing them for a time in San Francisco and I had planned several more originally, but after a while I got burned out on them. I wasn't happy with the end product and I didn't feel comfortable working in a new kitchen where I didn't have the right groove in place. By the time things were starting to jell near the end of a week or so, it was over. If I can't put out the food like I imagine it, or how I want it be, then I'm not going to do it.
SI: Do you think that there's a rivalry between the restaurant scenes in San Francisco and Los Angeles?
JF: I never felt that there was one. I mean, maybe there is, but I'm just not in on it. I love San Francisco, I love the Bay Area, and I love Los Angeles, too. To me, moving down here was more about a change of scenery than anything else. I've been envious of the Santa Monica farmers market and the Hollywood markets for a long time, and now to have them in my backyard is unbelievable. Barbara Spencer's Windrose Farm baby carrots, for one, are brilliant. She binds her produce with twine instead of those twisty ties, which is just one of those little things that shows extra care. I grew a good amount of my own produce at Ubuntu, and with the amazing climate down here it will allow me to do even more of it at my new place.
SI: The all-vegetarian menu was pretty revolutionary when Ubuntu opened. Do you think things have changed concerning how chefs look at vegetables these days? We know a lot of people who get more excited for a head of Romanesco cauliflower than they do a slab of pork belly.
JF: In the early 2000s every chef, myself included, was obsessed with charcuteries and different cuts of pork. We all read Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli when it came out. The craft of house-curing is definitely a great skill set still, but I think the fad of platters of cured meat on every menu has died down.
SI: Now there are vegetable platters.
JF: For a long time that we overlooked and undervalued the great produce we, as chefs, had at our disposal. I was never trying to make a statement about vegetarianism at Ubuntu, I was just trying to showcase the best ingredients I had available. Obviously, there's a sense of accomplishment when you can show someone that a meal can be really satisfying and balanced without meat . Once you do that, it opens up a whole other realm of flavor profiles. It was a huge learning curve, for me at least.
SI: But your new restaurant will serve meat?
JF: Yeah, it's a combination of things that made me lean toward that. I've already done the vegetable thing, and I had a great time doing it, but I think anyone who does something that's not just a job but a passion will agree, you want to keep growing and moving forward. I change my mind every day about so many things.
SI: So what's the next step for you in terms of what you want to achieve?
JF: I've been trying to absorb all the information I can from people about things like architecture, design, art, packaging, logos, marketing, gardening, carpentry, painting, documentaries, pretty much anything you can think of. It's just I want to know about as much as possible. I don't have any kids, I don't even have pets, but when I think of a parent, I think of someone who knows things about a lot of different subjects. And I would like to be a dad someday, but all I really know about is food and some music. I'm not trying to become an expert by any means, I'm just trying to become competent.
SI: How do you think all that will end up informing the restaurant specifically? Do you see it as being a kind of an “auteur” restaurant where you are planning out a lot of the nonfood aspects as to how the place will function and look?
JF: Well, I've always been interested in restaurants as a whole and not just the cooking aspect. I have some cool ideas as to design that I'm trying to see though, which would definitely be different. I would like to have a pretty concise á la carte menu that's not really coursed out. I find tasting menus not very user-friendly many times.
Another thing that comes to mind is color. So many modern restaurants are dark, with nothing but wood paneling, which I've never been a fan of. I want to have color and light really prominently featured. That's what moved me into studying prefab architecture, like using recycled materials such as old shipping crates and assembling them like a Lego set. I would love to do a prefab restaurant. It would ease a lot of the construction pains, too. Transport it into the neighborhood, plug it in and just go. It's so much more freedom since it's not as permanent.
SI: That last part sounds a lot like the Eames House (Case Study House No. 8) in the Pacific Palisades.
JF: That's a huge inspiration for me right now: the mixture of woods, metals, plastics and Fiberglas. It's just clean, simple and sturdy. I went to the LACMA exhibit a few weeks back that had a re-creation of the living room from the Case Study House, it was really amazing. Even the chairs we sat on in grade school, they pretty much designed that stuff.
SI: Do you have a specific location in mind yet for the restaurant?
JF: I think a lot of the process right now is finding the right location, which could really be in any part of town at this point. It's just one of those things when you see it and it feels right: that's the catalyst. It doesn't matter if it's a dilapidated building or whatever, it's the potential behind the space. It's a long road after that with permits, working with investors, doing the business aspects, all that un-fun stuff, but I'm dedicated to taking it slow and being patient to make sure everything is right. Ideally, I want it be a place where people can come every week if not more. It could almost live anonymously within the neighborhood.
SI: Of course, it might be hard for a Michelin-starred chef to remain anonymous.
JF: Well, not to say I don't imagine it being popular, but not trying to be on the national stage. You have to be a part of the immediate community first and foremost. Ubuntu was great because there wasn't really any rules, which I enjoyed. The way it kind of leapt into becoming a destination restaurant existing under a microscope was unexpected. I turned down a lot of jobs after Ubuntu because I knew that this was something that I wanted to do even it it didn't cash out immediately. If it ends up that I'm not able to pay the bills, so be it. I think that's part of the ups and downs for doing what you love.
SI: Anything else on the immediate horizon for you?
JF: Well, Cube Marketplace & Cafe is going to be the first place in town to start carrying my Marcona almonds with lavender under the label Fox Fine Foods. It's something we served at Ubuntu and selling them retail is a step I've been working toward for several years.
SI: You mentioned your interest in music earlier — any particular kitchen soundtrack you've been digging lately?
JF: Ah yes, music keeps me sane, relatively speaking. Anyone who knows me can tell you how important music is to me. I played the Trash Can Sinatras' 1990 album Cake the other night and it made my heart so happy.