There was an interesting interaction during an episode of the current season of Top Chef between contestant Phillip Frankland Lee and fellow L.A. chef Michael Voltaggio. Voltaggio, a former contestant who was there as a judge, stopped by Lee's workstation to discuss the challenges of the show. “I thought that I was gonna come in here and just do my food my way,” Lee said. “But on Top Chef, they want us to cook food to make the judges happy.”
“For me,” Voltaggio responded, “it was just about cooking good food.”
In a season in which Lee had many memorable scenes (he played the part of villain perfectly, either through force of personality or force of clever editing), this moment was the most telling, not least of all because Lee and Voltaggio appear to be cut from the same cloth. As young chefs driven by ambition, the food at both of their restaurants — Voltaggio's ink. and Lee's Scratch Bar — is inventive above all else. It's clear that both see themselves as rebels looking to redefine American culinary modernism, as well as poster boys for the kind of tattooed badass who embodies a culture as much as he does a career. #cheflife, and all that.
But dig a little deeper, and the two are quite different. For starters (spoilers ahead), Voltaggio won season six of Top Chef, while Lee was kicked off in the middle of the current season for serving a salad made of strawberries that the judges deemed too dessertlike. Lee has said his philosophy is to do “whatever the fuck you want” — and perhaps that's the reason the Top Chef judges didn't understand him. Without that attitude, he asks in his exit interview, “How will [the food industry] ever move forward?”
Voltaggio may give off the appearance of doing whatever the fuck he wants, but underneath it all is a rigorously trained chef, one who understands the rules before he breaks them.
This is the conundrum that lies at the heart of Scratch Bar: Can a chef really just do whatever the fuck he wants — with no classical training, no years spent working his way up through the ranks? Should the truly talented be able to fly free early and without constraints?
Scratch Bar first opened in Beverly Hills in 2013. In July 2015 it closed, and rumor was that Lee had a falling-out with the restaurant's main investor. A week later, the Beverly Hills version of Scratch Bar reopened, without Lee's involvement. It's not clear how long that lasted; though a website still exists for the Beverly Hills Scratch Bar, it appears to have closed again.
In October, Lee's new version of Scratch Bar opened in the second story of an upscale strip mall in Encino. We now know that he was also filming Top Chef in the midst of all this drama.
Lee started working in restaurants as a teenager, went to culinary school but quickly dropped out, worked as a cook and sous chef for a couple of years, and then became the chef at Scratch Bar when he was 26. Somewhere in there an attempt was made to crowdfund a movie called Cook, which Lee planned to write and direct, and if you Google his name along with “movie,” you can find a very bizarre trailer for the project, one that's full of knives and tattoos and hot waitresses, along with a brooding voice-over about dreams and ambitions.
The new Scratch Bar might as well be the restaurant version of that movie, without the hot waitresses (there are no servers at all). The kitchen stretches along the back wall of the small room like a stage, and much of the seating is at a bar facing the kitchen, where the cooks also act as waiters. The space is all gleaming steel and dark walls and glowing embers from the large, open wood and charcoal grills.
These dudes are undeniably excited to serve you, to tell you all about the $40, $80 or $120 tasting menus, to watch you watch them put together dishes with the obvious goal of making them look like art (paintbrushes are utilized). Chef de cuisine Jonathan Portela is most often running the show, both in the kitchen and as the master of ceremonies. “We got two ways you can do this,” he'll tell you from behind the counter as he looks at tickets and surveys his cooks. “You choose or I choose. I always recommend the option where I choose.”
If you go with his suggestion and opt for one of the tasting menus, you'll likely start with a sake shooter layered with sea urchin and avocado mousse, with a green mussel and a sliver of serrano chili speared across the top. Right off the bat, this gives you an idea of what might go wrong with the meal ahead of you: The sake itself is assertively sweet, and it sets off the seafood in the most disconcerting way possible, like a dirty martini garnished with a maraschino cherry.
From there you might get a bowl of popcorn touched with butter and thyme and salt and, yep, sugar. The salty-sweet combo doesn't work any better this time around.
Sugar is an issue throughout many dishes, and Scratch Bar's greatest successes come when Lee resists his obviously strong urge to combine dinner and dessert. There's a soft roasted salmon, some of it cooked through and some of it rare, topped with beautiful rainbow carrots, salmon roe and daubs of yogurt. A dish of torched escolar over sunchoke puree with puffed amaranth doesn't even need the nubs of sweetbreads under each slice of silken fish, but they don't hurt, either.
Certain ingredients show up again and again, sea urchin and salmon roe in particular. The roe is best used on a dish of house-made chorizo over a smear of mushroom paste, the combination of the three disparate ingredients somehow coming together to taste like washed-rind cheese. Sea urchin appears in that sake shooter, over foie gras and in the kind of insane ode to lowbrow sushi rolls that the staff refers to as “dirty rice.” The dish is made up of a base of sushi rice topped with torched sea urchin, nubs of pork belly, diced cucumber and tons of salmon roe. Is it brilliant or an abomination? It's hard to tell, honestly. It tastes good the way salacious sushi rolls taste good, and it leaves you feeling the same kind of queasy.
In case you missed the connotation, the “scratch” in the name refers to the fact that Lee and his band of cooks make everything, including bread and charcuterie and four kinds of cheese. Few chefs in America have a similar self-made cheese program, and some of Scratch Bar's cheeses are pretty good. The cheddar tasted a little past its prime, but the ash-covered soft goat-and-cow cheese was tasty.
If you can get past the undercurrent of machismo that permeates Scratch Bar, there's something genuinely heartwarming about the enthusiasm and sense of adventure that drive this troupe of cooks. I mean, they're making their own cheese, for chrissake. When Portela delivers a scallop dish with apples, apple gelée and “apple jus” and describes it as “a redundancy of apple,” it's hard to know whether to slap him or hug him.
But the truth is, you can't just decide “I'm gonna make charcuterie!” and look at a book and play around and get it right. For many kinds of culinary techniques, there really is no substitute for learning under a master, for being an apprentice rather than a wunderkind. This shows itself most obviously with disciplines that are entire professions: the aforementioned charcuterie (which in the case of Scratch Bar is mainly smoked or cured pork that turns out far too salty and slick in all the wrong ways), as well as baking (the bun on the Scratch Bar burger is supposed to be brioche but is dense and almost crumbly and overwhelms the other ingredients).
Lee obviously revels in the passion of his chosen career path, but I wonder if he's considered how he might register to a chef who has dedicated her life to charcuterie or baking: He appears to be someone who believes that training in those fields is optional, that some chefs can succeed through the sheer force of talent. Talent can get you far, but it can't get you the precision that comes from years of training, and in this way Lee does a disservice to the very profession he aims to glorify.
Scratch Bar is all a little bizarre, as if you've stumbled into a community theater production putting on a play called Restaurant. (Or, perhaps, Cook.) The earnest enthusiasm it takes to launch a passion project like a community theater production or a hyper-modern restaurant can be charming. Scratch Bar goes so far as to make its own mustard, and when Lee steers away from his unfortunate penchant for sugar he comes up with flavors that are confounding and exciting.
But Lee eventually will need to learn the lesson he seems to have spent a lot of time deflecting: Being a chef is hard, and not just because of the hours, the cuts and burns and the tough-guy environment. It takes more than just talent and chutzpah. It takes training and time and the ability to recognize when people “not understanding” your food is actually just the food not tasting very good.
There's plenty that tastes good at Scratch Bar. There's inventiveness and excitement and food that could only come from the freedom Lee has given himself and his crew. But there's also a lot that's the result of someone so wrapped up in boundary-pushing that he can't taste the flaws in his own cooking.
There are many chefs who have managed to push food forward. I doubt many of those greats would credit their success to doing whatever the fuck they want.
SCRATCH BAR | 16101 Ventura Blvd., Encino | (818) 646-6085 | scratchbarla.com | Lunch: Tue.-Fri., 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner: Tue.-Sun., 5-10 p.m. | Plates, $9-$70 | Beer and wine | Street and lot parking