In the first part of our interview with Evan Kleiman, chef-owner of Angeli Caffé and host of KCRW's Good Food, she was considering the somewhat disconcerting fact that her Melrose Avenue restaurant recently celebrated its quarter century anniversary. In the second part of the interview, Kleiman discusses, among many things, the role of the food truck in Los Angeles, the existential hell of interviewing Swedish cookbook authors, and the many joys of talking to Jacques Pépin.
Kleiman also gave us a recipe for peach, tomato and burrata salad (check back later today for that one) and, in the process of making said salad, decided that among the many advantages of in-season tomatoes is that they make for good ad hoc prep kitchen facials. Which explains this photo, and, perhaps, provides us with another way of defining the market-driven chef. And restaurant.
Squid Ink: So how much has changed in L.A.'s Italian food scene?
Evan Kleiman: So much has changed. When I came up, in the Italian bistro scene, there were all these ethnic dives and then there was the very, very top end, that was just transforming from red leather booth red sauce restaurants into very high end northern Italian restaurants. And I was part of the generation that came in and started to fill in the middle. We were sort of the great promoters of California Mediterranean. It's based on the markets, based on fresh vegetables, simple, olive oil, grilling, what you see on the plate is what it is, nothing's obfuscated. And now that infects every part of the culinary scene, from very very very fine French restaurants to wine and cheese bars, so it's no longer the purview of just Italian chefs and people cooking Italian food, and I think that's a good thing.
SI: So, what do you think of food trucks?
EK: Well, I love food trucks. First of all, I grew up in L.A., in Silver Lake and Echo Park, and so I sort of grew up around street food and an acknowledgment that the eating experience wasn't only home food and then you go out for a special occasion. For us–only child, single mom who worked, we didn't have a lot of money–we would go out and eat in coffee shops. For us a big night out was eating at the counter at the Thrifty Drug Store. So food trucks and street food was an appreciated part of the experience, because if you could find something great to eat that only cost a dollar, man, you were ahead of the game. And I think that food trucks are uniquely suited to L.A. because we're so geographically spread out, and it enables a spontaneous plaza to happen wherever the truck is. Which is so rare in L.A. So you get a nice bit of experience and a decent price, and you get to have the spontaneous street thing happen, which we're so starved for.
And I don't really understand why right now my high school compatriot, whom I went to high school with, Mr. LaBonge [City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who has proposed food truck-only parking zones]… I don't understand why there's this push back from the city, because I think it should be the opposite. I think the city should be doing everything possible to make sure that people who want to work and have great innovative ideas get to do so within the city, serving consumers who really want to be served, and paying their taxes, and hiring people. I mean, I don't see any downside. And you know, a food truck isn't a brick-and-mortar restaurant. I can understand how maybe some restaurants get freaked out, but you know, that isn't how people think when they want to eat. If someone wants to go to Restaurant A because they're craving what Restaurant A has, then that's where they're going to go.
SI: Right. Especially in an economy like we have now, they're fulfilling a niche. People who want good street food, and who maybe can't drive to East L.A.
EK: Or who have too many cultural prejudices to drive to East L.A. Or don't have the time. The great thing about the truck is that it comes to you. And you can decide how far you're willing to drive. You know, I live right near the hotbed point of contention on Wilshire Boulevard. And whenever I drive home from the restaurant I've always been struck by these huge plazas that sit in front of these office buildings that are always deserted, and it's so not a human landscape. And then the trucks started coming and I would just hang out sometimes, not even to eat from the trucks but just to watch. And it made me feel so good, because you would see people come out from the office buildings, some of them going across the street to patronize brick-and-mortar restaurants, and some choosing to stand, people who maybe would have just gone down to the coffee shop in their building, and now they have another option where the food is maybe a little better. And they end up talking to each other, they sit on the stairs, it's so social; it's what everybody talks about Los Angeles missing.
They should have a separate fast track system to take people through a permitting process where they learn what they need to do so they can run a good business. Not a process where there are obstacles at every turn. But of course this is all happening in a climate where the city doesn't have enough funds, the county doesn't have enough funds, the state doesn't have enough funds.
SI: Would you ever open a food truck?
EK: Oh, yeah. I've thought about it a lot. After all my kitchen is sort of like a food truck, in terms of space and submarine-ness, I've sort of been working in a food truck for 25 years.
SI: So what's your favorite of the radio interviews you've done?
EK: Oh my God. You know, my favorite interviews are the ones where I expect very little. And it might be some weirdo subject that we've just picked because we think it's going to add texture to the show, and it might be something wacky, like the giantest pumpkin of the county. And then you get the person on the phone and they're fabulous. They're so completely possessed by what they've done: grow the largest pumpkin, make jewelry from dried apple slices. And those to me are the best interviews, when you can really be surprised by someone's passion, which always makes you look at that subject again and say, well, hmm, maybe I should grow a pumpkin that weighs 350 pounds.
There are some greats who are great for a reason. They're not only good at what they do but they're able to talk about it in a really articulate and entertaining way. And that is a gift. Many people don't have it; many chefs don't have it. And so the fact that I got to interview Julia Child several times with Jacques Pépin, together, and watch them interact. He alone has been just lovely to interview. A gentleman of the old school, and yet still so with it at his age and able to comment on the business through a place of longevity. Anthony Bourdain, who everybody loves: everybody loves him for a reason. I would love to just be his best friend and hang out with him on a beach, drink a beer and talk with him for hours. I tend to like people who are very self-reflective, able to do what they do but also able to step back and be able to comment about who they are within their world. And he is a master of that. He's a voyeur. Which gives us a better view.
SI: So how did you get into radio?
EK: When the show first started, with Mary Sue [Milliken] and Susan [Feniger], when they were in the throes of their Two Hot Tamale-ness, I would come in occasionally as a garden-to-table kind of guest. Or, a What are you making for the Jewish holidays, Evan? kind of guest. And at some point their schedule heated up and they wanted to change the format of the show a little bit, which would have a larger time commitment, and so Jennifer [Ferro], who's now the head of the station, asked me if I would want to do it. And I said yes, being completely and absolutely terrified. Because I was the shyest person in the universe.
SI: You know, sometimes shy people make very good extroverts. Many actors, for one.
EK: Really!? I'll have to Google that. I think she [Ferro] knew I'd be good because I would be willing to do the work. I'm such a food geek, I'm reading constantly, and now I have a job where I have to read. And it's nice when people who you interview who are maybe on a book tour will say to you afterward, Oh, this was the best, you were totally prepared.
SI: You're like Jon Stewart. You read the books.
EK: Exactly. Yeah, like why would I invite you if I didn't want to. People we're not interested in, we just don't ask on.
SI: I've always wondered about that. You watch these talk shows and the interviewer clearly hasn't read the book…
EK: Yeah. And I mean, especially when it's not TV. You're not going too look at their boobs or their fashion, so they better have something interesting to say. Can I tell you who the worst interviews have been? Swedish cookbook authors. There have been three. Every time: one word answers. And it's like, I know Swedes have a reputation of being sort of dour, not really talkative. But they wrote the book, they want to come on the show so they can sell more books, they know what they wrote. No waxing poetic there about food. And can I tell you, nothing is worse than when you're stymied by a guest in that way. Because you can't carry the burden by yourself. But then I also have that weird kind of Asperger's thing, where if they get uncomfortable then I get uncomfortable and then they get more uncomfortable and I get really uncomfortable.
SI: ABBA might help.
EK: ABBA? Yeah, in the producing room we should actually have some sort of signal to have like disco music hit the room or something. Flashing lights. Can I get you a cookie?
SI: You don't have a secret escape hatch?
EK: Well, the interviews are not done live, so we're not broadcasting. But yes, instead of using a talk-back button into my ear, Harriet, my producer, will say, Okay, you can stop going down this road. We've mined this subject; let's move on.
SI: You get editorial privileges.
EK: I do, and it's what makes the show so good: it's a produced show, it's not just me.
SI: Do you ever just can the whole show?
EK: Oh yeah, like several times. (Kleiman has since amended this response to: That would be a no. Never a whole show; very occasional segments, yes.)
SI: Any Swedish cookbook authors?
EK: I think a couple of them, maybe, yeah. And every once in awhile, a subject will seem so riveting and we'll be really excited by it but the person who has chosen to speak for that organization or the person who has been sent to the radio station is just not articulate. Or they're really nervous; if they get really nervous sometimes it's bad. And you can't stop in the middle and pull the plug and say, Oh, I'm sorry it's not working, see you in a couple of years. You have to go through to the end of the interview knowing that you'll never use it.
SI: So what do you say? I'm sorry, the cat ate my radio show?
EK: I don't say anything. I just say, The producers will let you know when it's going to air.
SI: If you could have one person on the show who would it be?
EK: I would love to have Heston Blumenthal back on the show. He was on when The Big Fat Duck Cookbook came out. He wasn't there in person. Because he's one of these people who is really able to describe his fascination with what he does. And I think a lot of people do not understand why those guys are so involved in what Ludo [Lefebvre] calls “molecule cooking.” And I understand why they do it. I wouldn't want to eat it all the time, but I really understand why they do it. And I just love to listen to how they come to that place and how their minds work. I mean, that's the best thing about my show. How many times can you listen to somebody talk about how they make… Well, actually I was going to say Spaghetti Bolognese, but I probably could listen to that a million times. But you know, there are certain subjects that are just done a lot. But when you have the opportunity to talk about somebody who is doing something very few people are doing. Ferran Adria himself is not a great talker, he's a fascinating man, but in the venue where I am I don't think he's at his most comfortable. But I loved talking to Heston.
I would also have loved to talk to [Salvador] Dali about food. You know he did a cookbook, Les Diners De Gala. And it's this insane collaboration, some are images, some are actual food. A lot of subjects I like are really geeky, so at the radio station they tend to choke off my geekiness. They'll throw me bone every so often.
All of Kleiman's Good Food interviews are archived and available on the Good Food website.