When creating new dishes for sbe restaurants Cleo and Mercato di Vetro, Danny Elmaleh leads a team of four in search of something that gives what he calls a pop of flavor. This can come from anywhere: an herb, a certain spice, or one in the range of vinegars they are experimenting with. It's an ingredient capable of cutting through everything but bringing it all together at the same time -- the kind of culinary paradox.
"Whenever you're eating something, we want to get you in the first five to 10 seconds after you put it in your mouth. We don't want you to think about it for too long," Elmaleh says.
Elmaleh's recipe for eliciting an immediate impression can be more concretely seen in how he approaches vegetables, which is inspired, in part, by the customary array of complementary vegetable dishes available from the start of a meal to its end in Israel.
"Every opportunity that we get to put more flavor into a vegetable, we make the best of it. We try to keep things simple but at the same time we try to have a contrast of flavors. We pair it up with something that really speaks to that vegetable," he says.
If the chef understands the coexistence of various influences well, it may have something to do with growing up amidst cultural contrasts. Elmaleh spent part of his childhood in Haifa, Israel, before the family moved to Kobe, Japan.
"There are a lot of rules when it comes to the Japanese culture and there's a lot of respect that's involved -- not that they didn't have that while I was growing up in Israel. But there is definitely a very open culture. So going to Japan from Israel was definitely a bit of a culture shock," he recalls.
Whether in Haifa or Kobe, Elmaleh has always been surrounded by good food. His paternal grandmother taught his mother family recipes like making couscous by hand. When the family gathers for dinner to this day, it's more likely that his mother will lead in the kitchen, putting forth Moroccan, Japanese or Chinese dishes.
Before attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Elmaleh learned from his father, a self-taught Moroccan chef who speaks five languages and incorporated a Cryovac in his repertoire some two decades ago before it was fashionable.
"He was sous-vide cooking when nobody knew what a Cryovac machine was. Not that he was into molecular gastronomy or anything like that, but he loves new things. He would use sous-vide cooking for a lot of his braises," Elmaleh says.
His father ran a Moroccan restaurant in Kobe with a small kitchen that belied a menu with 50-plus dishes, leaving Elmaleh with a value for organization. It was also during the time spent with his father that he honed fundamental skills in how to use spices and taste one's food while cooking.
While working at restaurants in Japan, Elmaleh saw chefs and cooks treat their careers much like those in Europe, perfecting their respective stations for years at a time.
"It's a different environment when you're working with people like a saucier who has made a career out of being one. These are chefs who have worked certain stations for so many years and just understand the subtle differences," he says.
"When you look at the food, it's beautiful but there's not a lot of decoration. It's more about the subtle things and the attention to detail when it comes to prep work. You might not see it in the final presentation, but there's a lot of work that goes into it before it goes on that dish," Elmaleh says about Kobe's aesthetic.
It's an awareness of the complex art in simplicity that translates to the cornerstone of Elmaleh's perfect meal: properly made white rice. It requires a confluence of factors, including a skill in washing rice that can take more than a decade to master, as Nancy Singleton Hachisu illustrated in Japanese Farm Food.
Having lived in L.A. for the past 11 years, Elmaleh still regards Kobe as home. It's also where, regionally, the eats ran the spectrum, from soul food, in the form of takkoyaki and okonomiyaki in Osaka, to kaiseki, or multicourse fine dining, in Kyoto.
"Kobe is in the Kansai area, which includes Osaka and Kyoto. In general, Kansai is considered a little bit lighter in taste than Kanto [a region that includes Tokyo and Chiba]," he says.
With restaurants serving Japanese cuisine in Los Angeles, Elmaleh notices a tendency to offer a wide variety instead of the convention of specializing in one dish or style, as in Japan. While he recognizes it may stem from a motivation to meet customer expectations, he finds there are nevertheless issues that can arise from trying to cover everything at a restaurant. He notes a recent shift toward the other direction wherein restaurants are keeping their focuses specific. The Sawtelle section named after Osaka hasn't escaped his attention, either.
"I think it's great. I love it. I'm not sure why they call it Little Osaka. When you look at that strip there on Sawtelle, there's a lot of soul food; there's ramen; there's okonomiyaki. That's kind of what speaks to Osaka, which is the mecca of soul food. That would be my interpretation," Elmaleh says.
Now executive chef at sbe, Elmaleh has parlayed his experiences living and traveling in different parts of the world into managing the restaurants under the sbe Group, a diverse portfolio that includes Katsuya and Gladstone's Malibu along with Cleo and Mercato di Vetro.
Elmaleh offered a recipe for artichoke flatbread for at-home cooks.
From: Danny Elmaleh
5 tsps. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 clove fresh garlic, crushed
2-3 baby potatoes
1 3/4 cups fresh arugula
1 piece lavash bread (about 8 inches x 10 inches)
2 oz. lebaneh (yogurt cheese)
1/4 cup grated mozzarella
3 baby artichokes, peeled and quartered
2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan
Maldon salt to taste
1. Pour two teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil over crushed garlic in a small bowl. Set aside to infuse for 1-2 hours. Preheat the oven to 425º Fahrenheit.
2. Add baby potatoes to a small saucepan and fill with cold water just until the potatoes are covered. Boil over medium heat for 4-5 minutes, or until tender. Drain the potatoes and set aside to cool. Once cool, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices.
3. In a pan over medium low heat, sauté the arugula with one teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil until wilted or cooked down. Set aside.
4. Brush the bottom of the lavash with the remaining olive oil. Spread lebaneh evenly across the lavash. Top with wilted arugula, mozzarella, artichokes, potatoes, and Parmesan.
5. Bake in the oven until the cheese is bubbly and melted. Finish with a drizzle of garlic extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of Maldon salt. Slice and serve.
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