“I'm working, I swear,” Chef Jamie Lauren insists through laughter as she sits in the corner of her kitchen at Beechwood restaurant in Venice, chatting on her cell phone. In fact, she is. She happens to be in mid-consultation on the New Year's Eve menu, scribbling notes on a stray cardboard box. “This is what chefs do on Friday nights,” she jokes.
Not that Lauren doesn't deserve a break. She's fresh off her second round on Top Chef, currently airing on Bravo. Having done well in Season 5, they brought her back for the “All Star” round in which the stakes are higher, the prizes bigger and the egos even more inflated.
From television, Lauren has earned a reputation for having a hard edge. She's tough. She uses the f-word pretty frequently. She's not big on pleasantries. But if you're lucky enough to catch her in her own kitchen, it's a different story. (Except for maybe the f-word part.) Perhaps it's freedom from the fear of elimination or relief Tom Colicchio won't be judging her food. Whatever it is, a busy night makes her downright jovial.
In the first part of our interview, Chef Lauren discusses the differences between San Francisco and L.A. cuisine, eating Indian food in early childhood and why competitive cooking makes you second-guess everything you do.
Squid Ink: How long have you been in L.A.?
Jamie Lauren: I moved down here in July.
SI: What brought you down here from San Francisco?
JL: I was just looking for a change of pace. I was bored in San Francisco. I'd been there for almost 9 years. I didn't really want to leave the West Coast yet to move back to New York, and I just thought L.A. seemed like a really good next step, so I came down here.
SI: You've now cooked in some of the most competitive food cities in the country: New York, San Francisco and L.A. As a chef, how do you think L.A. fits into the world stage?
JL: I feel like L.A. is sort of on the cusp of fitting into the world stage of cooking. There were a lot of chefs around here years ago that did amazing things, and I think that it's starting to get amazing again here. There are a lot of younger chefs coming into play and doing some cool stuff. And you know, with the whole food truck thing and all that stuff in L.A., which isn't really anywhere else, I feel like L.A. has a lot to offer in that sense.
I just think that you can get away with a little bit more here, culinary-wise, for some reason. I don't really know why. Like in San Francisco, everybody sort of did the same thing. Everybody did that kind of “farm-to-table,” everything in “season season season” seasonality. Here you can get away with using different ingredients or different spices, and people seem to be a little bit more accepting of them. At least here that happened for me. I can't speak for everyone in the L.A. food scene, but I can speak for what I see.
SI: You grew up in New York. How did growing up there and being able to eat in Manhattan restaurants influence your cooking?
JL: It was amazing. I was four-years-old the first time I had Indian food. How many four-year-olds get to have Indian food? Not a lot. I was really lucky that my parents took us out for dinner all the time. We rarely ate at home, so I was exposed to a lot of different cuisines and cultures at a really young age. I didn't think that I was going to be a chef — I never thought at age 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11-years-old that I was going to be a chef — but definitely in the back of my head it was ingrained in there, I'm sure, just from being exposed to this food that I got to eat.
SI: Why do you think you were hired at Beechwood? What do you think the owners wanted you to do with the restaurant?
JL: I think it was to kind of help turn Beechwood around. Beechwood has been open for 6 years and I think they wanted to breathe fresh life into it.
SI: It's a great space – one of my favorites in the city.
JL: It is a great space. And I think they wanted a chef who was going to be here and really care about being here. I think with Nick [Roberts] and Brooke [Williamson], they had one foot out the door because they were doing their other projects. [Owner] Dave [Reiss] wanted a chef who was just focusing on this, and I think that was one of the reasons he decided to bring me on board.
He did tell me today, however, he hired me for my name, [laughs] so I'm sure that has something to do with it too, you know, being on Top Chef and people knowing who I am, and the certain level of notoriety. It doesn't hurt a business.
SI: Do you think there are advantages or disadvantages, or both, to taking over a restaurant versus opening your own?
JL: I've done both. Opening your own sometimes is hard because you really have to build the momentum of what this place is. But it also has its advantages because you can start really slow and build into it, whereas if you take something over that's pre-existing, especially something that's busy, which was Absinthe in San Francisco — it was crazy busy — when I took over, it didn't stop. So I had to change everything and we were still doing 400 covers a night. It was like 'Oh my God, how do I change everything when all these people are still coming in here?'
It's been a little easier for me here because Beechwood is not as busy as Absinthe was, so it's been easier to do the transition because I have the time to do it.
SI: What have you done with the menu here?
JL: Completely changed everything. The only thing I kept were the sweet potato fries. I feel like I would have gotten tarred and feathered if I took those off the menu, so I couldn't. I also kept some version of an edamame on the menu, which I never would have done either, but those are two things that just really worked here. I went and read all the Yelp reviews and stuff before I started and that's what everybody talked about, those Goddamn sweet potato fries. So I thought, “Alright, those will stay.” But everything else is pretty much gone.
SI: So switching gears to Top Chef, how do you think being on the All Star show is different from being on a regular season?
JL: I don't really think it's that much different. I mean, it's the same level of pressure, if not more pressure, because people know who you are now. There's this level of intensity that comes from the other chefs and then comes from us internally to do the best job that we can do. I think once people know who you are, it's like you have to prove yourself all over again. I guess that was the only difference for me, but the competition was the same. It was just as hard, and the production part of it sucked, and we were still forced to live together. So it was all of those things we had to do the first time, like sit in the stew room for hours and hours and hours, things you think you'd never want to do again.
SI: Why does it take hours?
JL: Because they reset lights, and then the judges take forever to make decisions, and it just takes a long time.
SI: Is being on the show kind of a mindfuck in that it makes you question your talent, in a way?
JL: Yes. It makes you second-guess every single thing that you do. Everything.
SI: It's such an abnormal situation for someone in any profession. I would imagine you get on the show and think that's an accomplishment in itself, but then you're torn apart by these people — these famous chefs and famous writers — which is not something one would normally go through.
JL: It's hard because it is a TV show, and I think people forget that. It's funny, I was reading reviews of the first episode and some things that people say about me — that I'm smug and this and that — but you see soundbites. You don't see everything I said. I'll sit in a room and be interviewed for two hours and you see 15 seconds of it. So they pull what they want, and that's a big part of it that sucks.
But of course you second-guess yourself because when I cook normally, I don't have 20 minutes to cook, I have hours to cook. So there's only so much you can do in 20 minutes. It's not easy. I don't think there's anything that makes it look easy, but I hate when there's the people sitting at home like little peanut galleries who are all like, “I could have done that.” Then go and try and do it! Because it's not fucking easy. And you second-guess everything you do thinking, 'Should I have done that?' Even little things you've done 100 times. You think, 'that's not right, that's not good enough,' and that never happens in the restaurant, ever.
SI: I would imagine that just cooking in your restaurant must seem like a cake walk after that.
JL: Oh yeah, it is. Even when you're plating on Top Chef and the timer's clicking down, you've got like 30 seconds left and you're like, 'Oh my God, I fucked up that piece of fish,' or 'no it's not crispy enough,' or 'I need to get another pan.' That's what goes on in your head. That's what went on in my head.
Like even that first episode, I remember plating that fish and putting it up thinking, 'this dish sucks.' That's what I thought. I thought I was going to be in the bottom. I thought the dish sucked. But that's what happens on that show. Even when you do a good job, you still think you fucked up. Every time. Even when you know you're being called in first, and usually they call the winners in first, you're still waiting for them to be like 'you're the top!' and you think, 'Thank God.' You never know. It's very nerve-wracking.
SI: Has the notoriety changed the way you cook at all in real life?
JL: No, it definitely hasn't changed the way I cook. If anything, I've had the chance to practice more what I do and play around more with what I do and be inspired by some of the other chefs from the show. I think that's changed, but what I actually do, no.
But I would never do what I did on the show. It's funny, the PR girls that are doing our PR for [Beechwood], they're like 'So, to promote the show do you want to maybe do a thing where you recreate one of the dishes that you did?' And I'm like, 'absolutely not.' I will not serve the food I made on the show. I wouldn't. It's not good! I mean it's good, but it's not what I do here. The food I do here is good.