There are chefs who become celebrities thanks to the quality of their food. There are those who gain fame because of their cultural influence. And then there are chefs who become celebrities for other reasons. Some of them seem more like cartoon characters than chefs, careening across our screens, hollering about diners, drive-ins and donkey sauce. Many materialize as if from nowhere, shiny faces glinting with charm and good looks. Who knows if they can cook? Do we really care?
Curtis Stone falls neatly into this last category. An Australian chef who found TV fame in his homeland before arriving in the United States eight years ago, his journey through American show business has relied much more on his chiseled jaw and spiky blond hair than on his cooking abilities.
Cookbooks certainly have played a part — Stone will release his sixth next year. But Stone's name recognition came from gigs pandering to Donald Trump on Celebrity Apprentice, prodding contestants on The Biggest Loser and hosting the Miss USA pageant.
Recently, Stone has taken on a TV role more suited to a chef, appearing as host and judge on Top Chef Masters. Still, the guy has little reason to tie himself to the daily grind of a restaurant kitchen. He hasn't cooked in one since 2006. He's insanely famous in Australia, and pretty damn famous here as well. If anything, he might consider slapping his name on an overpriced Vegas hot spot and calling it a day.
Instead, he has opened a 25-seat restaurant in Beverly Hills, called Maude, named after his grandmother. It is the first time Stone has owned a restaurant, and the first time in many years that he's served as a hands-on chef. While show business still has its demands, Stone has been present at Maude most nights in its four months of existence, many days getting up at the crack of dawn for TV call times and working in the kitchen late into the night.
It's impossible not to compare Maude to Trois Mec. The size is almost identical, and the draw of a television-famous chef in such an intimate setting makes it practically impossible to get into either place. Like Trois Mec, Maude has a tasting-menu format, serving about nine courses along with snacks, for which you'll pay about $100 (service included).
Each month, Stone chooses a seasonal muse, an ingredient that drives the menu. In February that ingredient was citrus, in March it was artichokes, and in April it was peas. By the time you read this, Stone will have moved on to rhubarb. On Maude's website, you can find the ingredient of the month planned out for the entire year, ending in a December truffle menu.
Maude is named for an Australian nanna, and many of the decorative flourishes are nods to the tastes of that woman. Having had an Australian nanna myself, I found the old flowered plates and antique pitchers and vases that warm the dark space incredibly touching. Of course, these things also fit into the current trend of vintage dinnerware, but the deeper meaning here gives the whole thing more heart. One wall features a line of dried roses hanging upside down against black tile. If this isn't supposed to be a meditation on age, death and beauty, Maude's decorators can be proud that the simple touch at least inspires such rumination.
Of course, looks (of the restaurant and the man) aside, the million-dollar question is, can Stone actually cook? Like, for people and not cameras?
The truth is that Maude's seasonal menus have been some of the most subtly thrilling meals I've had in Los Angeles. As a young chef, Stone sought out the tutelage of legendary chef Marco Pierre White in the U.K. and became his protégé. It's conceivable that time, fame and changing trends could wear away at even that pedigree, but what Stone is delivering tastes very much like the work of a chef at the top of his game.
A monthly ingredient of honor might become burdensome and repetitive in a lesser chef's hands, but Stone is a man who understands balance. Throughout the meal, the flavor is amplified and then subdued, in places used as the main attraction and in others as a subtle garnish.
An artichoke consommé at the beginning of the artichoke meal packed all the sweet, grassy flavor of the vegetable into a few clear sips. But throughout the rest of that menu, artichoke appeared as a quiet undercurrent — as the flavoring for ricotta in a duck egg ravioli, or as a creamy barigoule under the most elegant little salad of black radish, pomegranate and smoked crosnes, a tiny twirl of a tuber that looks like a dense seashell. Only a few bites and gorgeously plated, the salad walked the line between austerity and bright playfulness — it tasted like the transition from winter to spring.
Spring became full-blown exultation with the pea menu, many of the dishes reveling brazenly in their bright green starring ingredient. Perhaps my favorite bite of the evening came early on, one of the snacks presented at the beginning of the meal — a tiny pie shell filled with juicy braised rabbit, crowned with a verdant bubble of pea foam. Fresh, buttery, meaty and sweet, it was a perfect ode to April.
Just as giddy in its own way was a pea soup — not the Army-green, comfort-inducing sludge you might imagine but a soup so young and green it was almost super-real. It came topped with a bright orange carrot foam, like a silky, vegetal springtime parfait.
Though hints of modernism do occasionally appear, such as a subtle "wasabi snow" atop strikingly lustrous trout crudo with pea leaves and edible flowers, Stone is mainly showcasing a steady, astute understanding of classic, French-based technique. His cooking is quietly lovely, and the intimate setting and excitement of actually getting a seat help to amplify the thrill of getting to eat it.
You may find yourself surrounded by wealthy Australian tourists, come to pay homage to their hometown boy who has made it big. One night I had an older Queensland couple to my right, she chattering about the day's shopping in the boutiques of Beverly Hills, he nodding lovingly. On my other side, two young Aussie guys paired their courses with beer after beer, as is fitting for their kind.
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They missed out by not partaking of the wine pairing, delivered by Ben Aviram, Maude's general manager and wine director. Stone wooed the Pasadena native home from a sommelier gig at Alinea in Chicago. Before that, he worked at the French Laundry. Aviram's slightly florid and affected style of service makes more sense, in light of that background, and it made me realize just how casual Los Angeles can be, where even here, in one of the most exclusive rooms in Beverly Hills, a clipped professionalism is striking. No matter — the wines Aviram presents, both on the wine list and the (bargain) $55 pairing, are as compelling and enchanting as the food.
Of all the things Stone could have done with his considerable fame and talent, Maude is perhaps the most unlikely. An operation like this requires a huge amount of attention and effort, and the changing monthly menu means there's no coasting in the chef's future when it comes to keeping this considerable undertaking aloft.
Maude is a deliciously heartening antidote to the cynical business of celebrity in the food world — for us, and probably for Curtis Stone as well.
MAUDE | 212 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills0x000A | (310) 859-3418 | mauderestaurant.com | Tues.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. | Prix fixe menu, around $80, plus service0x000A | Beer, wine and sake | Lot and street parking