Alain Giraud, chef-partner of Anisette Brasserie in Santa Monica, spends a lot of time at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market, shopping for the restaurant, drinking coffee with friends, checking in on the Anisette crew that is often offering small bites under a tent in the center of the market, and buying fresh lavender. (Before Anisette, Giraud's American resume includes Citrus, Lavande–hence the lavender–and Bastide.)
Last Wednesday, the Paris-born chef took some market time to chat about life at the brasserie, Bastide (where he was the opening chef, in its previous incarnation), American football and his plans for the future. He also told us that Anisette is now partnering with Intelligentsia to do their breakfast pastries–including Anisette pastry chef Noubar Yesayan's awesome pain au chocolat–at the Intell Venice coffee shop. This fills the gap left when comme Ça's bakery stopped their wholesale production. If not an Anisette Bakery (they considered one), it's maybe the next best thing. Check back tomorrow for Giraud's recipe for Provençal vegetable soup au pistou.
Squid Ink: How long has Anisette been open now?
Alain Giraud: We opened in June 2008.
SI: So how's it going?
AG: It's a work in progress. It's a life experience. We're just starting to figure out what it's supposed to be, from the initial vision, which was not very ambitious but very classy–with the decor, the service, the food. The biggest challenge was hours of operation, because our vision was to be open 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., and well, we don't scale down but we adjust to the market. It's hard to know if it's just the economy, or it's Santa Monica, or the concept.
SI: Or maybe just Los Angeles. People don't stay out too late here.
AG: Yeah, I was very surprised because I imagined that the brasserie would be a place for after a movie. Exiting at 10 o'clock, I know what I would like to have would be a big ice cream, something sweet. Maybe just a bite, a burger, a tart, oysters. And we can't find the audience. We stayed open for awhile until 1, and we have like 2 or 3 totally drunk people. It didn't make sense to have a full kitchen in operation. That's not a negative; it's an experience. The positive is that we found a perfect audience at night. When I say a work in progress, it is a day by day searching for the best. The one thing we learned is that if you base the concept on a real classic brasserie, the menu is almost the same from 7 a.m. to midnight. And if you look at New York or the East Coast, it's the same. Here in L.A. you can't run the same menu at night that you're running at lunch. People want something, they want light food, they want a salad.
SI: But you guys are doing pretty well.
AG: We made it. We survived the most challenging economy ever. It's like any project: If somebody told us 4 years ago it would be like that, we'd maybe scale it down. But the building is beautiful, the decor is beautiful. I think any type of restaurant is challenging in L.A. The question for me is, if you want to be a neighborhood restaurant, you limit yourself to being a neighborhood restaurant. And if you're a special occasion restaurant, you limit yourself to being a special occasion restaurant. Some concepts find exactly the right balance. Going from a high end restaurant to a more everyday restaurant is an interesting challenge.
SI: What's been the hardest transition for you?
AG: To keep the quality of ingredients and find the right price point. How to keep the food interesting. I know some of the media look at it and say, oh, it can be more exciting. If you exit too much from the format, to have more chef-driven things, you have to play all the time with the business.
SI: And it's a brasserie.
AG: Yes, it's a brasserie. We make it more seasonal, using the farmers market. It's a statement we're doing, but not too many people notice this, notice the market influence.
SI: Are you still serving breakfast?
AG: We do the brunch. And we started a few weeks ago a partnership with Intelligentsia. it's a perfect scale for us, a very good match. We're starting slowly with the breakfast pastries, then we'll add desserts, cookies, like madeleines. At first we wanted to add a bakery to the place, but we didn't have the space to do it.
SI: Really? If you did, you'd hope it would be on the first floor. You guys run up and down the stairs all the time. [Anisette's kitchen is on the second floor.]
AG: It's one of the challenges of the space. It's the price you pay to be in so beautiful a building. I wish the kitchen was on the same floor, but we're used to it. To be sure to have the French fries hot enough when you go for half a mile–it can be a challenge.
SI: Any big stair accidents?
AG: No, a few plates plates maybe. We have an amazing team; the runners are amazing. When I was at Le Grand Véfour in Paris you have the stairs, what do you say when the stairs are like that? [Indicates a spiral staircase.] Each end of the week we have an accident with a waiter dropping the tray.
SI: So have you been to Bastide since it reopened?
AG: No. I haven't been since I left. I wish I could go and just see what happened to the place, because it was a big part of my life. It still hurts somewhere, because I put a lot of myself inside it. I had a vision–I don't want to say that I had a dream–but I had a vision, and I met somebody who could exceed my expectations. I knew it would be risky, in the long run. We had a different vision. It was 2 1/2 years in preparation, so a lot of hours. And I came up with the concept. I wish they'd change the name.
SI: I always wondered where that name came from; it was yours?
AG: I never told you that story? My daughter was friends with Joe's daughter; they were in the same class together. Joe's ex-wife was friends with my wife, and we started to carpool. I carpooled with my Honda, Joe carpooled with his Bentley. It was fun. Joe and I had lunch together; I was looking at my options and I looked at what Joe was looking to do, a sort of everyday restaurant, simple, close to his office. And I did a lot of thinking about it, and I said, I will do it with you on one condition. And he asked me what it was. And I said, I have a Plan B. And he said, what is your Plan B? And I said, it's the name Bastide. He's a very smart guy, so he asked me to do a presentation about Bastide. I said, Bastide is a vision of a restaurant. You have a courtyard, you need to have the gravel, the garden with the water, a very civilized place. I was already seeing the harmony between the good wine and the good service, something unique. Something where you take the people from L.A. and you bring them in the countryside. It's sophisticated but it's not stuffy. One day–I'm a very impatient guy–I said, why don't you go directly to Plan B.
I tell him I need 6 months, it was 2000. One day I came with a budget; he likes things on one sheet of paper, very pragmatic. I said, wine budget to start: 50,000 thousand. He looked at it and said, you know, we can buy only one case of wine with that. Oops. Okay. A lot of positive things happened for me because of Bastide. The exposure, the experience, the team. I survived. Next question after Bastide.
SI: Okay, next question. You're a big 49ers fan. How exactly did that happen?
AG: JFK airport. January 1988. I arrive in New York and it was the Super Bowl. Joe Montana. Watching on the small screen, you know. And I say, what is this sport? I mean, I'd heard about American football but I'd never seen any. And I see Joe Montana and his team and I think, these guys are amazing. They're focused. The drive, there's two minutes left, and I think, what kind of guys perform like that under pressure. And I think they are very cool. When I stabilized in L.A. there was not really a team to support here. Most of my friends are Raider fans. Raider Nation! And I don't know, they went into a big decay, but I still watch them. They'll be back one day.
SI: So will you have any Super Bowl specials at Anisette?
AG: No. No. We don't have a T.V., you know.
SI: Why don't you have a T.V.?
AG: There are a lot of sports bars around, where I go to see soccer and rugby games once in a while. I think people coming here want a feeling of a brasserie not a sports bar. There's nothing wrong with sports bars; I love going to sports bars. I eat spicy chicken things, I have a beer. They don't match. The sports bar is sports bar, brasserie is brasserie. It would be tacky to add a big screen.
SI: Where do you like to go to watch sports?
SI: For soccer or football? They don't show American football, do they?
AG: No, American football is something I watch once in a while at home. We go to the soccer games, but mostly the rugby games. 6, 7 a.m. The real fan. Rugby is my real passion. American football I learned here, but rugby, more than soccer. Rugby is a man's art.
SI: Of course. So are there any new restaurants you like?
AG: Usually it takes me awhile to go to new places. I don't like to go when they just open. I let them set up. What is the last one…. I went to Gjelina once, Mozza, I went to Riva when it was Riva so that my daughter could eat the potato pizza. She did one at home. It wasn't bad; she tried to recreate the recipe. She loves to cook, she loves pastry. When you have a night off, you stay home. I went to Bouchon's opening. I'm going to Robuchon this year; it's our 20th anniversary. My wife hates Vegas, but we go and do a show and make it civilized. Where else? I went to Bistro LQ when it just opened. It was very nice; Laurent Quenioux was very nice. Nothing to do with a bistro, from my point of view. I asked him why. He said the last place he had was a bistro and he wanted to keep the name. I said fine, but people are very confused already with the bistro concept. Now they'll be more confused. I don't go out too much, but I read a lot.
SI: What's your favorite cookbook?
AG: Ali-Bab. Ali-Bab's Gastronomie Pratique Etudes Culinaires. It's an amazing book. It was my first “serious” cookbook, offered by my parents for my 16th birthday. I have about 300 cookbooks. But I'm more interested in reading magazines, like Marie Claire; mostly the woman's magazines. You look at the food section, it's very interesting. The way they treat their subjects I think is more inspiring than the books. To come back to Ali-Bab, it's a yellow book. Intense. I open Larousse, I have three, the last version and two old. For pastry, the two first books of Gaston Lenôtre. Faites Votre Pâtisserie Comme Lenôtre. It's amazing.
SI: So tell me about your plans for the future.
AG: When we did the deal with Mike and Tommy [Giraud's partners Mike Garrett and Tommy Stoilkovich] to do the brasserie, one of the conditions, one of the reasons, was that I wanted to have the support to develop a signature restaurant. But in the last 3-4 years, I challenge what is a signature restaurant. You want to do a 3 star Michelin, or you try? The more I'm thinking you have to really fit the culture of L.A., so the direction–it's a work in progress–but I think L.A. is ready for an ingredient-driven restaurant. I did that at Bastide, when you have a menu with asparagus only at the peak of the season, and really it's very a very slow evolution. Doing something that would be different than what people expect. Put yourself on the plate. I think this will be the direction. But again, with the economy, going too far can be dangerous. The high end restaurant that I was raised with…
SI: Doesn't exist anymore? Are we past that?
AG: We're past. I mean, you look at the Michelin. Hello. L.A. should be one of the most exciting cities in the world. Look at Tokyo, what, 7, 8 three-star, whatever. All the restaurants in the Guide Michelin Toyko have a star. The way we see the high end restaurant is over.
SI: Do you think that's more true for L.A. than other cities?
AG: Intimidating the guests is not good in L.A. Making people scared of the menu is no good. It doesn't fit here. So, the signature restaurant thing.
SI: Do you have a timeline for it, or is it in your head?
AG: It's in my head. I know when it will be ready. Location, location, location.
SI: Do you know where you want to be?
AG: Somewhere nice. I love Santa Monica. The biggest problem in L.A. is if you go somewhere where you can afford to pay the rent, there's no traffic, its difficult to survive. Again we go to the neighborhood restaurant. I know for years people say, why don't you open in Malibu? And I said to the guy, are you coming to the restaurant Monday night, or just Friday and Saturday nights? I think that's what makes the city so difficult is the difference in business between the weekend and the day. If you go to Manhattan, it's Monday, Tuesday, whatever, it's the same. That's why when I opened Bastide, we did Monday through Friday. The old idea was that in big restaurants, the 3 stars in Paris, they're closed on weekends because civilized people go out of town. I used to go to movies on Saturday night, have popcorn and hot dogs, and it was fun.
SI: So one last question. Do you have a prediction for this year's Super Bowl? I'm sorry about the 49ers.
AG: Not really a prediction, but I guess I would like to see Minnesota vs. Indianapolis. The 40 year-old quarterback vs. the commercial one!