Samir Mohajer had his hands on the copper pots of not a few notable Los Angeles restaurants — Axe, Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen, The Little Door, Golden State — before he opened his own place, Cabbage Patch, early last year in Beverly Hills. Born in Iran, Mohajer moved to L.A. as a kid, and grew up in the farmers markets and culinary school hallways and restaurant kitchens of this town.
Now the chef and his business partner Harold Karsenty are setting up their third Cabbage Patch — a second opened in Playa Vista about two months ago — in a downtown location that is substantially bigger than either of their current spaces, both notable for serving beautiful, nicely executed and dangerously wholesome food, for their casual coziness, and for being only slightly larger than a smallish, comfortable living room. Which is perhaps why one feels happily at home eating Mohajer's mostly organic, farmers market-oriented food. The new Cabbage Patch is set to open in the fall, probably September, at 520 West 6th Street, downtown. Turn the page for our interview with Mohajer, and check back for part two and a few recipes from the chef. Yes, they'll probably be good for you, but, not unlike the chef, you can always go to Fatburger after you're done cooking.
Squid Ink: So you're about to open your third location. Tell.
Samir Mohajer: Yeah, downtown L.A. It's very cool because it's a really big location; it's probably going to be our flagship location. You know, having to work in a small space like this and being super busy, it's tough. But downtown, hopefully we can do a bigger menu, do more specials, kind of get more creative with things. Also we're planning on starting a catering [business.] Well, we already do a lot of catering, but we're planning on expanding it. A lot of gigs we can't handle now, we're going to be able to do over there. A 3,000 square foot kitchen, which is double this place right here. Two stories. I've never worked in a kitchen that big.
SI: Yeah, Rustic Canyon is tiny too.
SM: Rustic Canyon; most kitchens are tiny. Everywhere I've ever worked, relatively speaking, compared to the dining room. Little Door was probably the biggest kitchen, other than downtown; but Little Door had 160, 170 seats, so. Compare it to the amount of seats you have, you don't have a big kitchen at all.
SI: So you opened this place how long ago?
SM: I opened February 2009. The second place, Playa Vista, I believe we opened in April, March. It's a really small space, we do a very limited menu over there. We have a really captive audience, we're in Frank Gehry's lot. We have a bunch of young, hip people with good taste, who I think appreciate what we do. A lot of them are foodies and they like us.
SI: Three locations in just over a year. Not bad in a recession.
SM: Not bad at all. Knock on wood. [He does.] You know, my partner [Harold Karsenty] and I, we came up with this concept because of the recession. I have not a fine dining background, but a pretty upscale, casual type of background, and by the time I had the opportunity to get investors and partners and people to help me open a place, the economy had tanked and we came up with the thought: why don't we do really good gourmet food, fast and easy and affordable, and thank God it's caught on.
SI: This food IS kind of good for you.
SM: It's definitely wholesome. We try to keep things organic and natural. Of course, at this price point it's hard to do; you have to make substitutions here and there, but we try our best to get everything straight from the source, from the farmers; if not, I have a really good produce guy.
SI: Would you say that in the current economy, in the current climate, that this is what people are wanting? Good, cheap?
SM: I think that the whole food truck movement is testament to that. People are definitely appreciating chefs or people who can make good food and who don't charge up the wazoo for it. You know, you don't really have to. And of course the margins are smaller and you have to do higher volume, but it's doable. We're doing it. Other places are doing it. All these food trucks: you have a bunch of gourmet chefs who are tired of selling $30-40 plates, or who might have been laid off, or who might have left their restaurant because business has dropped and they couldn't afford their high salaries, or this that and the other thing, and they're doing, you know, street food. It can still be wholesome and good quality and affordable.
SI: It seems, from a consumer's standpoint, that it was a necessary adjustment. You're not paying for the frillies.
SM: Yes. The extra frillies and the high rents and all that. I think restaurants are popping up in a bunch of weird places. People are finding places where they can keep their overhead low so they can afford to cut their food margins a little bit, you know what I mean? You don't have to be on Beverly Boulevard, you don't have to be on Third Street anymore, on Abbot Kinney anymore; people are traveling, people are blogging and following these Twitter things and this and that. And they're finding where the good food is being made.
SI: Well, you're in Beverly Hills.
SM: It's not a bad thing. At all. But I don't think we get the Beverly Hills crowd, really. Most of the people who come eat here are employees who work in Beverly Hills; they don't live in Beverly Hills. Of course we do have people who live in the area who come in and support us. But for the most part, the 200-250 people we serve a day at lunch time are employees, they're not people who are making $2-3 million dollars a year. A lot of them are making $30, 40, 50 grand; they're answering telephones and doing office work or whatever else they might be doing around here.
SI: So what happened to Spoc's Sausage Stand?
SM: Spoc's didn't make it. The original concept I had was a hot dog and sausage concept. When I opened it I'd just opened Cabbage Patch, it was six months old; this place was kind of on autopilot and I had the opportunity to go into a space that I used to frequent when I was a kid. A little kiosk in Westwood that's been famous for years. I used to go there a lot when I was younger and I always wanted it. The opportunity came up but unfortunately my partner, who was one of my best friends, he was supposed to invest the money and I was supposed to operate it. His father passed away the day we were supposed to sign the lease. Yeah, which I think was a bad omen. He ended up dropping out and I didn't come up with nearly enough money for it. I was still gung-ho, I wanted to do it, so we opened up and we were pretty much playing catch-up since our investment wasn't there. My luck, Cabbage Patch got busier and it wasn't on autopilot anymore, so I had to choose between one and the other. You loose some money; you learn some lessons.
SI: Do you want to go back to that project, or have you kind of moved on?
SM: The thing about Spoc's was that space. I liked that space; it was nostalgic. It reminded me of my childhood. I have a lot of thoughts about things that I want to do later on, but Cabbage Patch is my priority. You know, later on in life…I love street food. I'd love to open up small places and serve good, cheap food. It doesn't necessarily have to be organic. But for now I'm going to concentrate on this.
SI: After a few years of eating organic, you can probably afford to open a sausage stand. I mean, calorically.
SM: Yeah, I cook very, very wholesome; I don't eat that way, I'll be the first to admit it. When you work in a kitchen and you're surrounded by all this good food, it doesn't mean you're always eating it. I get off late at night and sometimes you go to Fatburger, you go to In-N-Out. You go home and eat it, or eat it standing up.
Check back later for part 2 of this interview, plus a recipe from the chef.