When Jeffrey Cerciello came to Los Angeles to open Farmshop in the Brentwood Country Mart, in the space formerly occupied by Maury Rubin's short-lived City Bakery, it was a homecoming of sorts. Cerciello, who was culinary director of Thomas Keller's casual dining division and worked for Keller for well over a decade, was born in Torrance and grew up in Laguna, and his grandmother once owned a shop not too far from where Cerciello's restaurant is now. Farmshop took a little longer to open than he'd imagined, with breakfast and lunch coming last November and dinner finally reaching the tables last week. As anyone who's opened a restaurant (or written about them opening) will know, the experience can be maddeningly slow. But good things come to those who wait, even, eventually, to those who wait for city expediters.
We recently caught up with Cerciello, who was looking disconcertingly happy. His beer and wine license had been approved. Dinner was being served. Fried chicken was on the menu. And his market was finally moving forward — expect it to open in time for Thanksgiving. Yes, really. Turn the page, and check back later for a recipe.
Squid Ink: You're finally open for dinner. Congratulations.
Jeffrey Cerciello: Thank you. It took awhile. We opened in November 16th of last year for breakfast and the bakery and lunch and brunch followed. So yeah, quite some time.
SI: Why did it take so long?
JC: Well, how to start. The delays were because you get all these different groups who want to have a say. And a lot of them are legitimate concerns: they're mindful of their neighborhood. They want to be sure that someone's not coming in here to open a saloon. But one of the things that we did when we first started this process — back in April of 2000 — was to go door to door and introduce ourselves, Jim Rosenfield and myself. We said, This is who we are, this is what I want to do. This is a project called Farmshop. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Artisan market. And some people said, Fantastic, brilliant. And others said, Absolutely not.
SI: This space was empty for awhile, after City Bakery closed.
JC: It was closed for a year and a half, maybe two years. It was essentially the anchor. In one form or another, there was food service here: delis, a butcher shop. There was a place called Farmhouse here at one time. So it was a big deal. But people were concerned about noise, and when they found out that we were going to get a beer and wine license that was essentially the problem. Beer and wine brings evening traffic.
SI: But, as you point out, you're hardly a saloon.
JC: Right. But they didn't know. I had a track record with Thomas [Keller] and in the north and in other cities, but they didn't know me. It took about seven, eight months. They didn't want the trucks, the semis, the 18-wheelers. And you have to put yourself in their shoes. You become like a politician.
SI: Trader Joe's was trying to go in here, right?
JC: Right. There were all these conditions, and Trader Joe's backed out. And that was great, a blessing. So what we said was, Trader Joe's is high volume, low price points, a ton of traffic; people are going to be parking on your streets and in your driveways. This? Low volume, higher price tag. And that was Jim's philosophy of how to save the market. So he had this vision and the what we wanted to do fit, so it was just about getting their blessing. And meetings after meetings, going to city council…
SI: You could probably run for office now.
JC: It's amazing, right? But we worked with them and we struck a deal with our neighbors. So we did it; we all came to an understanding and we've implemented a lot of conditions that a lot of other restaurateurs wouldn't have. I had plenty of people say, Why would you give so much away? Because we want to respect our neighbors.
SI: Well, you're a neighborhood restaurant. The last thing you want to do is piss off your neighbors.
JC: Exactly. I've been doing this for 25 years, I know it works, I've been in these conditions before. When I was in Napa Valley, we had a hotel right behind the restaurant. I mean, I know what negative noise impact means. We have solutions to all these things. But it took a lot of time to build trust. Now a lot of those neighbors come in here for breakfast. They just had see it. I don't blame them. They're worried about precedent. So we're on the fast track now. We're doing dinners; we're doing fried chicken.
SI: Speaking of fried chicken, many people seem to think that your fried chicken is the same as the one from Ad Hoc. The transitive principle of restaurant dishes, maybe. Is it?
JC: When we opened Ad Hoc, we used the same brined chicken recipe that I developed for our roasted chicken at Bouchon. I'm happy to hear that after 5 years, the fried chicken being served at Ad Hoc is still so beloved. When we decided to introduce fried chicken here at Farmshop, the first thing we did was go back to the Ad Hoc brine and seasoning profile — and make changes to the original recipe in order to create a Farmshop fried chicken that is uniquely ours. We played with the brine for a really long time, adding new seasonings and adjusting the salt-to-sugar ratio. We also altered the ingredients in the seasoned flour, and we now use more than one seasoned flour to coat our chicken. The one component that stayed the same in both recipes was the fresh fried herbs that adorn the platter.
SI: Cool. So what about the market component of the restaurant?
JC: The beer and wine program — and retail — was a big component, and if we didn't get the license I think there would have been a restructuring of the concept. But we got it. We've had the plans done for 9 months. We're shooting for the November, for Thanksgiving.
SI: You have a bakery, but you're not going to be making your own salumi too…
JC: Correct. We bake all the cookies, muffins, scones, Vienoisserie, everything but hearth breads, which we get from Tavern [Suzanne Goin's nearby restaurant]. That's been a great relationship to have, especially since they're right down the street. Everything else; this is where we want to be really careful about doing everything in-house. Because, as I've said before, the message and the charm wears off. We want to showcase artisans. There's great product, there's amazing stories to be told. One thing we do in-house is our pastrami. Josh Drew has been working on that for 10 months now. But that's it. I don't want to be making salumi. We just don't have the facility to do it. This kitchen is 750 square feet, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. And we have the bakery on the other side.
SI: And what's your priority anyway? Maybe the bakery.
JC: You only have so many hours in the day; you have to pick. To have Brittainy [Turnquist, Farmshop's baker], you have to promote someone like that. Six months into our program here, Intelligentsia came by and asked if we could sell to them wholesale. You know, sure.
SI: Is your coffee from Intelligentsia?
JC: Coffee is from LAMill. But we sell to the Venice, Silver Lake and Pasadena Intelligentsia shops. Then a few others. Now all of a sudden we have this growing wholesale business, which has really helped in the last few months. So it's great and it's helped Brittany develop the staff. Now we're talking about maybe a little space to do the wholesale. So, you know, baby steps. Right now our focus is dinner. We didn't start this to become a wholesale business.
In terms of other products? Cheese is going to be front and center. We'll probably have about 75 cheeses, we'll try and work with as many farmstead products as possible. The charcuterie. We're talking about a meat case, a butcher's case. We'll have produce. I brought in the butcher's block table, I went up to Frog Hollow in Brentwood and picked up 12 cases of peaches, I bought 11 cases of jams. We'll load it up. I just got some of Windrose Farm's grapes, Schaner Farms' juices. I don't make any money selling ten pounds of grapes, but it's the spirit of having the product in here. People know that if they miss them on Wednesdays, they can come in here. That's the story you want to tell.
There's a learning curve there. I came from a restaurant culture where we made everything. The relationships were incredibly important. We're chefs; we're not retailers. But I think that's advantage. We think about it differently. We think like how a chef would lay out a market.
SI: Well, that's better for a home cook; you're thinking about it like a home cook would. Admittedly a very experienced home cook, but you're not thinking about your market like a shoe salesman.
JC: That's one of the reasons why we didn't put a back door to the kitchen. We made it so everything comes from out front. I wanted people to come through the market: It creates conversation.
SI: It's like the kitchen as the center of the home.
JC: Right. It's the same thing with the way we designed the market with the center as a big horseshoe, where everything happens in the center.
SI: How much did you change from the layout of City Bakery?
JC: We ripped it all out. But what he [City Bakery owner Maury Rubin] had in the center is essentially what we're going to do. That was smart. We'll have cheese, prepared foods, foods for people to take home at night, the meat and produce, and then all the wines on the perimeter. The larder. The bakery will move into that space as well. And then that'll become the bar: the whole thing flips at night. It takes on a whole other life.
SI: Not a saloon.
SI: Do you still have family down here? Your grandmother had a shop right down the street, right?
JC: I do. My grandmother had a clothing store on 26th and Wilshire, so a couple blocks away. And my mom went to Santa Monica High and so she grew up in the area. I was born in Torrance and grew up down in Laguna. But I used to come up here and visit my grandma, who lived in the Palisades. So I knew the area really well, though I don't remember ever coming to the Country Mart.
SI: Because it's been around since the 40s.
JC: 1948. So when we had the opportunity to come down here, I was actually opening Bouchon in Beverly Hills. We worked on that project for a couple years. And so Jim Rosenfield, the owner of this property, called me — Jim's wife and my wife grew up together — and said, Can you come over and look at this space? This is what I want. He just called me and asked me for some advice so he could go out and try and find someone. I think I saw City Bakery the last month they were here; they were really done with the program. So I put together this concept, Farmshop, and I gave it to Jim and I said, There you go. And Jim came back and said, I want you to do it. It was really pretty simple, and it all happened pretty quickly.
SI: So you were the culinary director for Thomas Keller's… what?
JC: All of the casual dining. What we considered casual dining.
SI: What for him is “casual”?
JC: Well, right. Fine dining is Per Se and The French Laundry. Everything else is casual dining. In the Thomas Keller restaurant world, that was considered casual dining. And then all the development and the projects we were looking to do, so it was a lot of traveling. It was a tremendous experience.
SI: You were with him for how long?
JC: 13 years. I started at The French Laundry in 1996. I'd finished culinary school, the CIA, and I came out to open Greystone in St. Helena. I did that for a year, and I had a good mate who was on his externship working at Greystone and he did one night a week at The French Laundry, and he came back to me and was like, You need to be here. And I'd just got back from working at El Bulli. It was great — Keller had just opened the year before — and so I went and applied for a line position. Ron Siegel trained me on the meat station. It was amazing, if you think of all the people who've gone through. Grant [Aschatz of Alinea] worked there at the time. Grant and I went to school together.
SI: The food world can be a small one. How long were you at El Bulli?
JC: One season, in '90. I was the first American who was accepted to go there. At the time, no one knew who Ferran Adrià was in this country. I went my first year [at CIA], then stayed in Spain and went to work at a pastry shop in the south. Then I went back the following summer to work in San Sebastián. I just fell in love with it: the people, the culture, the food.
SI: So many people only think of Adrià in the context of molecular gastronomy, for lack of a better term.
JC: The first cookbook he published was really indicative of the cuisine. It was all really rooted in Catalonia. And you could see that on the plate. The year I was there was when he was given his first canister for foams. He was given it as a gift and he played around with it. It wasn't until the following year that he actually introduced doing these foams and all that stuff. I was there when they first redid the kitchen. I had no idea what I had just stepped into.
It was really a pivotal time in my life. I mean, I was studying finance and some of my buddies were in the surfwear business. We thought we were going to open a surfwear business. I mean, I grew up on the beach. So I really felt that I had to catch up quickly. That's why I signed on to do Greystone. I knew I had to get back to California, and one visit to the Napa Valley: I thought, I could do this. That's when this all started. So I did a year there, then I went to work for Thomas. We opened Bouchon, the bakeries, Ad Hoc, New York, you know, and 13 years later, here we are.
But it feels like how I felt 20 years ago. Like doing your first project. You get the nerves and those jitters. But that's good. It's fun.
SI: You're coming full circle.
JC: We're cooking breakfast. We don't have to be nuts here. There's no cooking eggs sous-vide.
SI: No temptation to do any foams?
JC: No nitrogen; I leave that to the pros. I just like identifying with what I'm eating. Spending a year in fine dining, I knew that wasn't the direction I wanted to go. I wasn't quite sure what it was, but I knew it was something more casual. And here we are. We just want people to come in here regularly. Like T-Bone Burnett [he nods at the next table, and lo, there's Burnett]; he's in here every day. Because it's food people can identify with. I think you have to set your ego aside. If you come into a market like this and you don't give people what they want, it's not going to work. You want to do breakfast? Cook eggs. Bake croissants. It's not about turning tables. Let people linger, and then you create community.
SI: Especially in this town, with all the traffic and horizontal living. You want town squares.
JC: Well, that's what drew me to this. If this was somewhere else, in a strip mall, forget it. There's no soul to that. There's got to be some history, and the Mart has that.