In yesterday's first part of our interview with Bastide chef Joseph Mahon, the chef talked about his road to the kitchen of Joe Pytka's newly-reopened Melrose Avenue restaurant, his time at the CIA (that would be the Culinary Institute of America, not our national spy shop) and his previous life in sales. These days, Mahon is busy selling red wine risotto with sautéed wild mushrooms and croutons, making his own butter, experimenting with sourdough–Bastide bakes its own breads–and enjoying the pastoral calm of Bastide's gorgeous outdoor patio. Not bad for a location that used to be home to the Manhattan Wonton Company. Check back later today for Mahon's recipe for roasted scallop in basil broth.
Squid Ink: So now for the silly questions. What's your first culinary memory?
Joseph Mahon: A grilled cheese sandwich with ketchup.
SI: And what's your favorite ingredient to cook with?
JM: La Baleine Sea Salt. It's in everything we cook.
SI: What's one thing you wish people realized about cooking?
JM: How many good people are involved in process of a dish. We as chefs are on the tail end of the process. However, there is a vast network of farmers, fisherman, cattle ranchers, dairy farmers that we rely on, so we can shine as chefs.
SI: Your favorite music to cook to?
SI: So you guys listen to music in Bastide's kitchen? I can't picture that for some reason, but I could be very wrong about that.
JM: Well it's early in the morning while were prepping. We listen for two
hours, and shut it down an hour and half before service. It's not
played the rest of the day.
SI: Are you going to start doing tasting menus when you open for dinner next month?
JM: They'll be upon request. I can execute them, but that's not going to be the focus for us. We want less pretension. We want to be accessible, and I think we can do that through an a la carte menu and format. However, if they do want kind of the old Bastide, we can accomodate. But definitely it's the a la carte, and hopefully it's not the 3 or 4 hours; it's maybe 45 minutes to an hour. There's not that commitment of I-have-to-take-a-whole-night-of-my-life, because people just don't have the time anymore. Or people don't think they have the time. It's all so subjective.
SI: About this bookstore. Are you going to convert the book room during dinner?
JM: Ah, that's a very good question. I believe so.
SI: Because otherwise you need a library book cart or something.
JM: No. But once again, you never know.
SI: So have you cooked in Europe?
JM: Yeah, I cooked in Europe. In France. I cooked in London. I staged at Gordon Ramsay's for about 4 or 5 days. Actually there was a French chef at the CIA, his name was Chef Le Roux, and if you showed him the goods, he's send you to France. Chef Le Roux was hard core Escoffier. Butter and cream were bursting through his veins, this guy. Lobster Newberg, béarnaise, even veloutés, chicken liver pâtés, the whole nine yards. I had him in a class and I sought his guidance a ton of times and he was nice enough to send me over there for about six months.
SI: Did you have to cook white food the whole time?
JM: No, not so much. It was called L'Essentiel restaurant in Chambéry, France. It was a 1 star Michelin, but he was a 3 star Michelin chef in Paris for like 7, 8 years. He got the funding, moved back to his hometown, cheated on his wife; his wife owned 51%, he owned 49%. Need I say more. They didn't pay us, but I got free room and board. During school you'd have all these recipe contests, so I ended up making almost 8 grand in recipe contests: first, second, third, runner-up, didn't matter. And who knows where it's printed. Didn't matter. Who cares. So I used that money to go over to Europe and I decided, well, when the money runs out, I'll come back. It was about 6 months and 4 days later, and then 9/11 happened. And I was pretty much out of money, but it was a really odd time, being overseas and not knowing anything. So I ended up coming back. In two or three days, I got on a plane.
SI: Everything changed.
JM: Yeah. It just wasn't worth it. My mom was like, I don't know if you should be over there. Nobody knew. I got back, I went back to Café Boulud, and started there again. What I found out in Europe was that I believe we were doing better food in New York at the time. Now that's just my opinion. What they would do with 40 covers in a night, we'd do with 250 at the same level, if not better. It was definitely a great learning experience. I really loved the lifestyle. They value life a little more. They sleep better at night.
SI: How would you contrast the food scene in New York with the one here?
JM: Oh, it's like night and day. The reason I felt so comfortable at Sona was because David Myers had that mentality. [Then Sona chef de cuisine] Michael David, I worked with him at Cafe Boulud when he was the saucier and I was the scummy stage. He was New York. They had that mentality, the technique; it was just on a smaller scale. People stopped eating at 9 o'clock. And the food allergies are through the roof.
SI: L.A. specific food allergies.
JM: Oh, big big food allergies. We'd do these spontaneous tasting menus, nine courses, and it was like, this has no onions, no nuts; this one's allergic to oil; this one doesn't want butter; this one doesn't like dairy but she'll drink cream. They dictate the menu, right? It was definitely an adjustment. I know we're here to serve, and we serve, but it was an adjustment moving forward. I went around to some other restaurants, and I found that Sona was maybe one of two restaurants that kind of worked like that–at that time. And I just hope we can reach the balance of New York and whatever Angelenos want and we kind of meet in the middle. But it's a very interesting question. I mean, we're neighborhoods, right? That's [New York is] a city. We're kind of more neighborhoods combined together. And I think it's a big transplant town; I think a lot of people come here from all over the world, and everyone's trying to get where they need to get.
SI: And then there's the traffic.
JM: You're isolated. I would love to see the demographic–it's like a quarter or a half-mile radius. This is your comfort zone. Anything else, you can't deal with the traffic, or if it's your day off you don't want to. But at the same time, people yearn for the food maybe they grew up with and I don't know if they seek out the higher end stuff. But I could always be wrong. It's just an opinion.
SI: If you hadn't been a chef you were going to be a partner in a Madison Avenue marketing and advertising agency? Really?
JM: I love marketing and advertising. I read tons of marketing and advertising books. I read sales books.
SI: So do you watch Mad Men?
JM: I like Mad Men. That's a romanticized version. I really think that's a major ingredient of having a successful business or a successful brand. I do think marketing and advertising is dead now, with the rise of PR. But in anything you do, you're going to have to build a brand and market and advertise it correctly to the correct demographic and the correct audience–no matter if it's a food restaurant or a newspaper or a clothing manufacturer.
SI: Okay. But this isn't a bad place to work. Some garden.
JM: I love this place–I love how it transplants you. You forget where you are. I mean, I don't think I'm near La Cienga, and the Beverly Center is a quarter mile away.