The main drag of Abbot Kinney in Venice has many exceedingly fine restaurants (Gjelina, The Tasting Kitchen, Joe's, 3 Square), but wander a few blocks north and you'll find Sauce on Hampton, a permanently crowded little restaurant that spills between two casual dining rooms and into sidewalk café tables, even seemingly to the bikes and motorcycles that often line the curb.
Sauce is run by, well, Sauce, which is how you pronounce the family nickname of chef-owner Sassan Rostamian, who opened the place at the end of 2008. Rostamian, who just turned 28, serves market-driven -- literally, as the guy spends every Wednesday at the Santa Monica market, purposefully dressed in his self-described Where's Waldo restaurant shirt -- food, equal parts organic comfort food and more interesting dishes with a vaguely Middle Eastern flair. Rostamian, whose family is Persian Jewish, is a local guy (check out the Buckley t-shirt) and has a lot to say about making his restaurant a source not only of good inexpensive food, but of community. Turn the page for our interview, and check back later for his fennel citrus avocado salad with blood orange vinaigrette.
Squid Ink: So, you've been open two years now.
Sassan Rostamian: Two and a half now. It was December 22 of 2008, right around the time of the entire financial meltdown. We opened escrow a couple of days after Lehman Brothers collapsed. There were lines out the doors of banks of people waiting to withdraw their money. And I was in escrow to open a restaurant. It was hilarious. I was looking into the area, into what was here and what wasn't here, and what this area needed and the people wanted. I'd been going to the farmers market and working at Rustic Canyon, and then this movement [local, sustainable, organic, etc.] wasn't anything new I was doing, it was something that started 40 years ago in Berkeley and I was just redoing it a little bit and bringing it to a small little neighborhood that hadn't had it. Around here, you're usually paying twice as much because it's a place with a beer and wine license, a large overhead, done by people who've been in the restaurant business for many years.
SI: Gjelina's not too far from here. It's amazing, but hardly inexpensive.
SR: Part of that is a function of the size of the operation. So what I'm trying to do is a local-style diner. The menu is a function of where we are, as well as our clientele. So we're in Southern California, we have a huge Mexican population, a huge Metropolitan population, so we can generally serve food from all over the world and it'll be able to fly. Locally speaking, we have customers who are health-conscious, who are eco-conscious, and that are craving a less refined and less processed product. We're going through about 700 pounds of sweet potatoes a month.
I was doing a 50 week set -- I just finished this a couple weeks ago -- of farmers market tasting menus. A 7-9 course tasting menu every week. I bought everything on Wednesday, wrote the menu on Thursday, cooked it on Thursday and served it Thursday night. For the first feast, I printed out a menu and what I saw was that people created in their heads some sort of preconceived notion about what it may or may not be. And that's not what we want; we want people to enjoy food based on where it's from, and that it's created with love and attention and energy.
SI: So you stopped giving out menus?
SR: I started the project so that people could come in and trust me, for 2 1/2 hours, just come in sit down, I'm going to close the door, lock it, and feed you. It's going to be incredible. Whenever you go to a friend's house for a party you don't ask them what they're serving, say I may not eat this, I may not eat that. That's not how it works.
It was amazing to see how much more adventurous people are as eaters when they're not told what it is. On one of my first days at culinary school, we were in the first series of classes, and they'd bring in dishes prepared by the second series so you can see what they're doing. They brought something, beautifully sliced, beautiful puree, dots of whatever, and I went up there and I was about to ask the chef, what is this, and I've been a picky eater, and I thought: You're in culinary school, figure it out yourself. The only way to train your palate is to eat something and not know what it is and try and figure it out.
Like when you're talking to a friend and you're trying to figure something out, as opposed to just Googling it. So I was like, Try to figure it out. There's a little apple there, Oh, what's that meat, it kind of tastes like pork. I don't have too much familiarity with pork, so it was a great way for me to develop my own notion of what pork is. I grew up Persian Jewish, so there was a lot of weird things I'd heard about pork. So there's ham, which is very salty and smokey and you're like, What the hell happened. There's pepperoni, which your parents sort of tell you not to eat but it's amazing. And there's salami, which is incredible. So I'd never had an experience with a mild pork; to me mild pork didn't exist. It's either bacon or sausage or whatever. So this was a way to open my mind. A pork chop.
SI: Where did you go to culinary school?
SR: It's now the California School of Culinary Arts, on Sunset. It was incredible, but it was a short program. I loved that it was a short program, because I'd just done a bachelors in chemistry. Which was hilarious. I loved chemistry: you get to learn how all this food in front of us works.
SI: A good background for a chef.
SR: I loved it.
SI: What's the food scene in Venice like these days?
SR: I would say it's trifurcated. There are some [restaurants] that are just living off the tourist or the evening scene. There are a good big set of Italian restaurants. And then there's the new food wave. Part of the older food wave was the Italian, the Japanese, the sushi. There's body-builder food. There are a number of places that just need to be closed and redone to suit the need of the community. Because every time something new opens that does that, it's full. We started out with a 600 square foot restaurant; it's now over 1600 square feet and there are plans in the works for other projects that tie in with service in this area.
There's such a huge need for good food, real food. And the turnover of restaurants isn't fast enough, it hasn't kept pace with the turnover of social consciousness. Too many of the restaurants that are still around were the ones that were successful 15, 20 years ago, when the veil was pulled over the consumers' eyes and they could feed them whatever they wanted. All the butter and salt, and nobody knew. Food costs were so much lower as a proportion of restaurant costs. So I think with the new wave -- Gjelina is a great example of showing how there's a giant need, even though it's priced where it's priced, people go in droves. There's that huge of a void for real, lovingly prepared food. The Tasting Kitchen, same thing.
SI: What about the food trucks? Do they affect your business?
SR: I've never thought about it affecting me, because we serve a very different product. I actually thought about doing a food truck of my own>
SI: Before you opened this place?
SR: No, no. Over the last couple of months. And we even have a lot more reason to do it because we have a built-in customer base. But even with that, the amount of work that goes into it... to create great food in a set location is difficult enough, let alone to try and do it on the move, and to park your truck in a commissary, and to pick it up and come back. It is such a train wreck waiting to happen. Also the food that we serve here you just can't physically serve street-side. So food trucks may be a great way to make food more accessible, and allow entrepreneurs to do it on a smaller scale. Thankfully my brother is a corporate attorney, so he could sign on the dotted line. But this place didn't take too much to get started, probably about what it would take to get a food truck started. The issue is that you don't need somebody to sign a 5-year lease on a food truck.
Accessibility and community have always been the main themes of this restaurant. My favorite part of my job? Going to the farmers market. The part of my job that customers appreciate the most? Going to the farmers market. The fact that these two come together is heaven. I go to the market on Wednesday and buy 80 pounds of flavorellas and it's hilarious. Farmers work harder than anybody than anybody. All this work for the entire week and then they have 4 hours to sell it all. And then people haggle with them and throw their food around. It's unbelievable.
SI: Yeah, and it's not like you're making food in aspic here: the whole point is to elevate what's there.
SR: Exactly. To step out of the way. That's really the only way to have this be a sustainable food service. Get everything to the plate as fast as possible; freshness causes incredible flavor. And if you need sugar, use carrots. There are so many novel ways around it, and a lot of that came from my chemistry background. A lot of people asked me: Are you going to make foams? No. Absolutely not. At least not for everyday eating.
SI: You can have your own private chemistry experiment.
SR: It may be good once a year. It may be nice for me to go out and appreciate the work of somebody else who does all that. That may have been my education, but my culture and heritage is from one-pot meals. My grandmother makes her own yogurt, her own own cheese, her own fruit roll-ups. I'm going to be making fruit roll-ups; I have a couple gallons of apricot puree. I take all of the stuff that the farmers are going to throw away, all of the over-ripes and under-ripes, put them in a pot, cook them for 6 hours, get the right texture, put it on a Silpat, bake it. I do mine in the oven. My grandmother used to do hers out on the patio because she's in the Valley.
SI: Where is she?
SR: In Encino. She gets a catering tray, puts plastic wrap on it.
SI: So did she teach you how to cook when you were a kid?
SR: I was very much raised by my grandmother and grandfather. My mother's a registered dietitian. When she was in school, my grandparents were my babysitters. And they're from Iran, old school Persian-Jewish culture. They're from Kermanshah, just outside of Tehran. My grandfather back in Iran had a piece of land -- although they lost everything when they left during the Revolution -- and the local villagers would grow what they grew, and once a week my grandfather would go and they would have a box of produce waiting for him. A bunch of eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes.
SI: His very own CSA.
SR: Yeah, the original CSA. And I'd hear about it here: Have you heard of this thing, it's awesome, a CSA, 50 bucks a week, they drop off this box at your house. And I thought: This sounds very familiar to what he was doing 60 years ago. It's interesting. Right now I'm cooking food and selling it directly to customers; the next step may be to actually create the food, or to work much more closely with the farmers.
When I opened this place, this was an idealistic goal. I was traveling the streets of Amsterdam thinking: What do I want to do with my life? I want to create a product of real value to a community. I want to actually know people and be able to better people's lives. My life has always been about food, so I thought: what better than a restaurant. Perfect.
SI: It's like the town square. The farmers market is as close as we get to that in this town, especially the Wednesday Santa Monica market.
SR: Yes, a lot of people tell me that they want to come to the market with me. I didn't understand when I first got into this what a difference it could make. And so the issue that I'm now realizing is going on and one of the main reasons that people aren't choosing healthier food is the price. So the next idealistic goal I have is trying to figure out how to teach and train children, using more of a summer camp method. A 6 or 8 week program, with a nursery and a greenhouse, and then you can have the food aspect, as kids don't get home ec training anymore. I'm not going to be training them how to make this for themselves [points to food on the table]; what I'd be training them is about how it's made, so that they can be more educated consumers.
SI: You can demystify what's on the plate. That's a plant. How many of this came from plants.
SR: Parents now know their children need to know these sets of things. They see themselves as ill-equipped to teach them. So what it's leading to is training a team with this food idealism so I'll be able to teach and train, in some ways, the next set of my own customers. 10 or 15 years down the road when we'll be able to have a Sauce on Hampton at a Westfield Shopping Center. This place is a launch pad; it's always been a launching pad, a testing ground.
I've had to make some concessions to make the menu more accessible. Things like offering the turkey meatloaf, or a grilled cheese. There's a few items, but that's for the hardcore meatloaf and potatoes people. And we're serving quinoa. Revolution through modification. People's food habits... Something my mom always used to tell me, and she's a dietitian, was that shock diets have over a 90% failure rate. They just doesn't work. And they don't work for very specific reasons. So you slowly modify.
SI: It's kind of Pavlovian.
SR: Over the last couple years I've learned so much about peoples' food psychology. I'd always watch how my grandmother fed people, and how she'd get people to eat more. My grandma has these food habits and tactics. For example, if there's one thing there's not very much of, she'll reserve little bits of it. And she'd always have a plate of fruit open on the table, and people would eat it. If you ask somebody, Do you want a piece of fruit? No, I'm okay. But if you leave it there...
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SR: And so I've been doing that, messing around with people here for the last couple of years. There's 4 people at a table; give them 5 cookies. If it's four ladies, nobody will touch it. If there's one guy in the group, he's right on it.