In Part 1 of our interview with Village Idiot chef and co-owner Lindsay Kennedy, we talked about the early days of his career, his work behind the scenes at the Food Network, and his restaurant's T.V. policy. For Part 2, we discuss some of his favorite restaurants in the city, his personal style of cooking, and a whole lot more. Later today we'll also have his recipe for Rock Shrimp Scallion Fritters with Grapefruit Relish and Crème Fraiche.
SI: How much do you think Village Idiot's menu reflects you personally as a chef?
LK: Well, it's so safe to say 50-50. But the reason I say I was born in Atlanta is that I have this romantic notion that I'm Southern. So you see catfish, fritters, black-eyed peas, those are in there, but they're probably a quarter of the menu. The rest of the menu is food I like to eat. I was telling my cooks that I have this desire right now for hard shell tacos. And he said “you mean like the ones at Jack in the Box?” And I said, “…yeah. I haven't had that in forever. Where you put the meat in it and you fry it whole, and some of it is crunchy and some is chewy.” So that might end up on the menu.
But it's all reflected in the diversity. There's fish and chips, because I love fish and chips, and there's a burger. But people ask me what kind of food it is, and my wife always tells me, “it's been three years and you still can't decide what it is.” International comfort food? That sounds so boring. But it is. I mean, there's no foie gras, just simple stuff done really well. I mean, all of it reflects me. I feel comfortable saying that.
Now, the economics of it reflect the nature of the restaurant. The price points are calculated into it. We want people to eat a burger, get a beer, leave a tip, and still get out for under 20 bucks. I think that value is still there, and we're conscious of that. But that reflects me too. Those are my values, that's where I want to eat too — most of the time. Sometimes I want to eat in other places. But most of the time, yeah. I also work closely with my two sous chefs, and give them pretty much free reign to come up with ideas and present them to me, and if it's something that I want to eat, then it'll probably be on the menu. But I draw the line at Southwestern. Enough is enough.
But we have bánh mì, my interpretation of it. We have a Reuben, and that came out of corned beef for St. Patrick's Day. It was so good, and we knew we had to keep that going.
SI: No Southwestern food? Was that a product of too much Bobby Flay food styling?
LK: I don't know. But if it's got corn and black bean on the same plate, I'm out.
SI: What's it like being the chef at a restaurant with such a strong bar element? Does it change the way you think of things when you know there are going to be people eating your food who are incredibly drunk, or eating your gnocchi while they suck back, say, a Midori sour?
LK: [laughs] I don't know. I mean, we sell about equal amounts of food and booze, and that's a surprising number to a lot of people. Of the 50% booze we sell, it's almost an equal split of beer, wine and hard alcohol. And obviously that skews after 10. They're not ordering the cured halibut at that point anyway, they're getting burgers and beer. So we don't try to structure an alcohol-food program, but if we lean in any one direction, it's toward beer — primarily because of our wood grill. We're lucky because [the grill] is grandfathered into the restaurant.
There's such a diverse clientele, some people do come in for dinner and wine, and a more formal style of dining. And then there are people that come in late night. It's such a broad spectrum. So to tailor it in any one direction just wouldn't work. Yeah, I mean that's part of what we do here. We try to keep everything in balance. There's a social element, there's a bar element, a restaurant element. Depending on the time of day it's completely different demographics.
So we never try to be too much of one thing. That's really what it is. And I guess I'm speaking more in the general design of the restaurant, more so than the food. But I think my approach personally is, since I haven't been a chef my whole life, I'm more aware of the entirety of this restaurant. But the food is definitely not chef driven here, and I'm the first to admit it, and it's easy to admit it because I'm part owner. We try to do everything to compliment each other.
SI: Do you have anywhere in particular you like to eat in L.A. these days?
LK: I don't know. I mean, it seems…I don't know. On a broader sort of philosophical standpoint…we staff 55 people here. And a lot of chefs will tell you that the biggest headache is managing people. And I think what food trucks do is give a lot of opportunity to do what you do best, which is cooking — and not the administrative stuff that takes up your day. And that was my biggest surprise, how much is needed to keep a business going on all levels. So I think it is great for those reasons. But I don't consider them a brick-and-mortar business. It's just different.
And I can see how it can be attractive to more seasoned, accomplished chefs for that reason. Because they don't' have to deal with payroll for 55 people. They don't have to deal with the maintenance of a kitchen. I think they can do what they love more. But I love the business side of it, so I embrace that side of it. Not everybody does. I hope that a lot of it does translate to brick-and-mortar though. There is a lot of talent out there and it's hard to open a restaurant. I don't watch Top Chef, but I just learned that $125,000 is one of the prizes, and I thought, “that's not enough money to open a restaurant!” So hopefully the access relaxes a little bit.
We've been trying to open a second location for 2 years. We've been actively, actively looking, but it's too expensive. We have a profitable business, but people are asking for a lot.
SI: Is there a particular chef you'd most like to see open a restaurant in L.A.?
LK: I'd like to see, I don't know what her name is, but Mary, from Mary's Fish Camp in New York. I think it's in the West Village, but I'm not sure. It's a great spot. Just a no-nonsense fish restaurant. But it's in the West Village, so it's like 38 dollar lobster rolls.
[Here the conversation turns back toward restaurants he likes in L.A.]
I think Nancy Silverton is great, but that's different. She's already here. She and Mario Batali, they're excellent, excellent operators.
I remember, I was listening on NPR and Batali was being interviewed before Mozza opened, and he said “I didn't want to do it because nobody knows food there. But Nancy says she can do it, so let's do it.”
And I think Matt Molina, the chef at Mozza does an amazing job for a young guy. Canelé too, in Atwater Village. Corina [Weibel], I think she's an amazing.