Michael Cimarusti has been at Providence Restaurant, his Melrose Avenue seafood palace, for five years and 2 Michelin stars now. The spot is a cozy one, despite the odd mushroom-shaped art on the walls and the possible ghost of Joachim Splichal (just kidding: the location previously housed the old Patina). Maybe that's because Cimarusti wears it well, or maybe because his team–wife and business partner Crisi Echiverri, maître d' and co-owner Donato Poto, pastry chef Adrian Vasquez, and a slew of kitchen sous chefs–works so well together. Add all that to the fact that Cimarusti is one of the most technically perfect chefs working in Los Angeles, and you have some restaurant.
We caught up with the chef on a relatively leisurely afternoon, just after another fish delivery, while Vasquez was microwaving a cake in the kitchen (don't ask). Cimarusti talked about his recent trip to Japan, his even more recent pilgrimage to the CIA (where and Echiverri met) for the Bocuse d'Or, and his knife collection. And check back tomorrow for the second part of our interview, and Cimarusti's Alaskan halibut recipe.
Squid Ink: So you recently got back from the Bocuse d'Or competition in Hyde Park, New York. What was that like?
Michael Cimarusti: It was great. First of all, it was like a chef orgy. Everyone you could think of was there. A lot of modern day and past generation French chefs, all lending their support to the American team, which I thought was very interesting. Guys like André Soltner of Lutèce; Georges Perrier from Le Bec Fin, the iconic restaurant in Philadelphia; Daniel Boulud, chairman of the Bocuse d'Or Federation of the US; Laurent Torondel; all getting behind the American team. You could argue that some of them are American now, but the French are the French and they really hold onto their roots, so I thought it was intriguing that all these guys were lending their help and support to the American team. There were 12 contestants altogether. The cream certainly rose, you know, and the best team won. From the work that I saw that they did, it was truly impressive. It was a team from Eleven Madison Park in New York City, Daniel Humm's restaurant. He trained two young guys in his kitchen, both sous chefs, and their work was beautiful.
The interesting thing was that the chef can be any age. I'm 40, I could compete if I wanted to. But my comis, who's the only assistant you have in the kitchen, can only be 21 years old and no older. Which I think is really cool, you know. So you have these very young chefs competing at this very high level, which is nice to see. All the teams did amazing work, and it takes a lot of courage to put yourself on the line like that. There's very strict time constraints, the rules are very strict with regard to how the work is to be accomplished, and you're cooking for people who are icons in the industry, like Daniel and Thomas Keller and all the names I mentioned before. It's daunting enough when someone like that is sitting in your dining room as a chef, let alone having to cook for a panel of 12 of them. And do it in a foreign kitchen under not the most ideal circumstances, so it was really cool. Socially, for a chef it was great, just to see all those people in one place and hang out with them and drink wine and eat food.
SI: So how do you judge those plates?
MC: I actually didn't judge, I was on the advisory council. I was there helping out, walking around in a toque, which I haven't worn in 20 years, since I was at CIA. I sat on a panel, which was great. That school has changed so much since I went there, it's such a different world now. The guy I brought with me to help from the kitchen here–because we also cooked for the event–he didn't go to school there. We were walking around and it's got all this Gothic architecture; he was like, This place is like Hogwarts.
SI: You met your wife there.
MC: Yeah, we both went there. 19 years on, you know, there's several more big beautiful buildings on campus, but the most remarkable thing is that the student body hasn't really gotten any bigger. They still only have about 2,000 students, which is what they had when I was there. So those 2,000 students are really, really pampered.
SI: So you're going to Japan again? You've been there a lot.
MC: Recently. Compared to the previous 40 years of my life.
SI: Why the fast track to Japan?
MC: Both times I've been invited. The first time it was on behalf of the Japanese Culinary Academy, which is a small foundation that works out of Kyoto. They invite four chefs every year from around the world to participate in this program they put together. You spend time working in very highly regarded restaurants in Kyoto. You also get to learn about Japanese cuisine and culture. One day we visited a miso factory, we visited a yuzu farm, we visited a sake brewery. All sorts of things. We were cooked for by all these incredible Japanese chefs. And then the day we cooked for them.
SI: What did you cook?
MC: I cooked a couple of dishes, both derived from dishes I was inspired by when I was there. For one I made tofu and did a little sashimi dish on top of it. I did another dish with wild Japanese yellowtail, which was this gorgeous fish we picked up in the market in Kyoto. Grilled over wood, which was fun. It was a simple dish, but reflective of what I do here. It incorporated a lot of what I learned when I was in Japan. Because I learned more in those two weeks than I've learned in how many years. Partly because I realized that what I really knew about Japanese cuisine was almost nothing. I thought I had an understanding of it, but when you get in the kitchen and work with these chefs and see what they do and what are the true foundations of Japanese cooking are, you realize that you didn't know a damn thing. It was really cool, very enlightening.
I'm going back again to go to Kobe as a guest of the Japanese government to learn about the production of Kobe beef, what typifies quality within Kobe, how it's created and judged. And then I suppose the idea is that I bring that back and apply it to what we do here. I mean we use a lot of Kobe, or Wagyu beef, here. The mission is to educate American chefs. We'll see the farms, the production plants, how the animals are raised and cared for, how they're processed. Should be fun.
SI: Did you buy any knives this last time?
MC: Yeah, I bought a few. I bought one for my wife, one for Donato. Both of those I bought at Tsukiji Masamoto. Masamoto is a venerated brand when it comes to knives; that brand is like the GM of Japanese knives.
SI: Not the Toyota?
MC: No, not the Toyota. No recalls of Masamotos. Very high quality knives. He's right outside the gates of Tsukiji Market. You could walk in there and spend 50 bucks on a knife, or 5,000 on a knife. That's due to the quality of the steel, and the quality of the wood of the handle. The workmanship from one knife to another is very high quality, especially the knives on the higher end. We traveled from Kyoto to Sakai, where 90% of the knives in Japan are made. And we went to a high school which actually had a forge to teach the students how to make the knives in the traditional way, and we got a chance to do it, myself and the other three chefs. We got a chance to put the steel in the forge and pull it out and pound on it for a little while to make the rough shape of a Japanese blade. It was incredible. I think I bought my first Japanese knife probably 18 or 19 years ago, when I was working in New York, and ever since then it's been a bit of a fetish. I've got lots and lots of knives and I love them all, use many of them on a daily basis. To see how they're made, the level of craftsmanship, the technique, it's just incredible.
Also I didn't quite know that we were in a high school until a couple hours after we'd left and we were driving back to Kyoto and one of our hosts explained it. How incredible is that. Imagine an American high school where they taught blacksmithing. It just wouldn't happen. It's an art that's already gone from American culture. Maybe you go to Gettysburg or historic Williamsburg or something, but more in a Disney sense: it's just there for people to see. There they've taken steps to preserve the art and the craft. It was really impressive. There were so many things. I wish I could have seen the high school students working on the knives.
SI: What's your go-to knife?
MC: Right now it's a Nenox. Most of my knives are either Nenox or Masamoto. The Japanese name [for Nenox] is Nehoni. Those are my two favorites. The one knife I bought over there for myself was a Nenox. They have a shop too right outside of Tsukiji Market. Nenox to me is like a Ferrari or Lamborghini, to put it in car terms, and to go there and see their shop. It's like a stall in a swap meet, you know what I mean? I had a picture of it in my head, how it would be like, and it was no less impressive. I mean, there's like a half million dollars worth of knives sitting on the walls. There were a couple of knives I picked up that were like $16,000. Just incredible, real art. Something that you'd hang on the wall above your sushi bar or the entry to your kitchen and rarely pull down and cut something with.
SI: How many knives do you have?
MC: A lot. In my bag down here probably 10. But I have a lot more that I don't use on a daily basis. Probably 30 Japanese knives, anyway. If you to get into all the knives, it's easily 100. Our knife drawer at home is pretty chock full of knives.