Duncan Stewart
Jason Travi at Fraîche.
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Small Is The New Big

Merrill Shindler - October 2007

Two young chefs are finding that, even though every kitchen's a stage in Hollywood, its size doesn't matter.

We live in an age of mega restaurants with kitchens so supersized it's a surprise there aren't greyhound races around the work stations. Kitchens so massive the chef runs up international phone charges trying to communicate with the sommelier. Kitchens so immense the sous chef and the garde-manger are in different zip codes.

Study the high profile restaurants of New York City and Las Vegas and you'll find kitchens large enough to prepare banquets for a thousand, even though the dining room only holds 100. Chefs love big kitchens. Or at least, a lot of chefs love big kitchens. But in Los Angeles—where grandiosity has long been a way of life—there's a new breed of chefs for whom smaller is bigger and less is more. They have barely enough space to scramble an egg—and they're happy as can be. This isn't cuisine minceur; it's cuisine (as in "kitchen") miniscule.

"This isn't a kitchen," says the affably diabolical Eric Green­span, chef/owner of The Foundry on Melrose. "It's the world's biggest Swiss Army knife." Then, he leans back and lets gales of laughter flow out, the soul patch between his mouth and his chin quivering with glee.

Greenspan—a veteran of the kitchens of Alain Ducasse and David Bouley—knows what it's like to prepare his food in spaces that are more like arenas than closets. At the late Meson G (about half a mile east on trendy Melrose Avenue), he worked in a glass box the size of a gymnasium, dazzling diners with the sheer number of cooks needed to create their dishes. By contrast, at The Foundry, every inch—every millimeter—is accounted for. And Greenspan couldn't be happier—even if there isn't actually any room in the kitchen for, well, him.
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"At Ducasse and Bouley, we had lots of space. But sometimes the kitchen can be too big--the food comes out cold because of the distance it has to travel. Here, we have no problem like that. I also have no labor cost problems, because I have no room for the full team of cooks—we're down to the bare minimum. When you have no room, you have to make certain decisions. You have to decide that everything you've done in the past was wrong and find a new way. I'm doing the same fine, intricate food I've done in the past. It takes a lot of planning to make that work in a small kitchen. Part of it means hiring young cooks who don't know that what I'm asking them to do is impossible.

"We set out to prove that we didn't need a big kitchen to do great food. We only do dinner because we have no room for prep. Our prep cooks come in at seven in the morning because that's the only time there's room for them to work—all the prep has to be done before the cooks show up. I have one line, that's all I have. I have a miniscule walk-in. I temp-controlled my dry storage so I could store wine in there too. And as we worked things out, I made the decision that there wasn't even room in the kitchen for me."

One of the most notable elements of the kitchen at The Foundry, about half of which is visible to patrons in the 90 seat dining room, is that Greenspan isn't in it. "Basically, from six till we close, I'm standing at the pass. I'm on the dining room side of the window, pulling the plates and plating everything--and it works great. My job is to make sure the kitchen gets everything right, not to cook the meat and the fish. I stand on a platform, looking in at everything. I'm a conductor in front of an orchestra. I get pretty wild. I never stop moving. And it makes sense. Otherwise, I'd be taking up room that could be occupied by a vegetable cook. I'm also the idiot who decides to bake his own bread, just to make it that much tougher."

What Greenspan inherited when he took over the space was a kitchen that had been used by several generations of restaurants, each of which had taken things from bad to worse to even worse than that. "It was called Joey B's, then Indigo, then Caffè Luna. The kitchen was a mess. It was like an archaeological dig, with layers of things on top of other layers of things. It had a four-burner system and a two-burner system that was jerry-rigged on. There was a rickety stand-up refrigerator, an old style steam table. I knew right away what I needed to do—which was completely rebuild it, from the ground up. I also knew I had to rethink the way food is prepared."

At Meson G, Greenspan juggled a menu with 65 items on it. At The Foundry he reduced that number—a lot. "Our menu has five appetizers and five entrées. When you have a smaller kitchen, you have to have a smaller menu, which allows me to really focus on the food. So, the kitchen dictated the menu—and then, the menu dictated the kitchen. Once I had figured out the menu, I knew how I was going to use the space. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, fitting in the pieces, sometimes trimming them to size.

"And while a lot of restaurants are trying to maximize their seating, we wanted to minimize the number of dinners we serve. That's why I planted a tree on the patio and put in a fireplace, and I still have more seats than I want. I decided to take everything I had learned in corporate restaurants—and do the opposite. The one thing about this business is it's not like any other business. You have to run it organically. You have to find your way as you go and forget the models. I'd rather have fewer seats, and have a tree. Corporate would be figuring out what the tree cost. To me, the question is: How many people will get engaged under that tree? How many memories will that tree give customers? I came into this business because it's about people, not about maximizing profits.

You can't take out the human element. We're all about making people happy."

And in the process, making Greenspan pretty happy too. Though it did take awhile. "Everything in the kitchen had to be gutted, totally gutted, gone. As soon as we started, everything went wrong. We wanted to move the bar. So, when we tried to move it, we discovered an $80,000 plumbing problem. That was the first week of construction. All the plumbing in the kitchen and the bathrooms had to be replaced. We had to dig an 18-foot trench in the back patio and put in a whole new plumbing line.

"On the other hand, the gas was fine. And we wound up with a kitchen I love. I really do. I don't have to yell as much because everyone's right in front of me. We built the kitchen so there's economy of motion. What I've learned is I can take over any space and turn it into one that works for me. I can make great food in a humble space, and it can be done with fewer people because everyone who works here has got heart. And they're all crazy. I told my sous chef Fonzie—he's got no dry storage, he's got a box of a walk-in—that I want to change the menu every week. He tells me I'm crazy…and it's no problem. Bottom line: You better love what you're doing if you work in a restaurant, because you can make better money at the post office."

Greenspan shows me a prep sink that doubles as a work station. It has a custom-built stainless-steel cover that goes over the top. He points out that everything in the kitchen is on wheels, so space can be created where necessary. He shows off the custom-built Delfield refrigeration units underneath the cooktops, so the cooks don't have to move more than a few inches to get their ingredients. He's proud of his "good old-fashioned American griddles—everyone's into planchas, planchas, planchas. But planchas have just one setting. You can cook anything on a griddle." He points out that what he's created is a "vertical kitchen," where even the condensers for the refrigerators are on the roof—"funny for a chef who's five-foot-five. He takes me to the walk-in. "It's not a walk-in…it's a crawl-in." And he points out a small door above a hallway that's used for more storage: "We call it the Anne Frank room. It's where I go when the Germans come."

At The Foundry, Greenspan isn't just the conductor, he's the string section and the woodwinds as well. "Everything goes through me. They hand me the ingredients, I plate them all. We put in a custom plate warmer, so I can pull plates from the dining room side and the kitchen side. If we're swamped, I can plate and the kitchen can plate. From where I stand, I can reach salads over here and grilled food over there. It's all within reach. And I don't give anyone tickets. I call out the tickets. People ask why I'm not in the kitchen. I am in the kitchen. This is as in-the-kitchen-as-can-be, just not in front of the stoves."

And, to make things even more fun, Greenspan decided to install an online Web camera, visible on the restaurant's Web site (www.thefoundryonmelrose.com), so that anyone can watch him in action. Which has not led to any improvement in his dining room decorum. "Do I watch my behavior? I should. But I don't. People like the show. I try to get people pumped. You sit at the tables near the kitchen, you get the whole deal, raw and uncensored. I don't hide anything. There's cursing, there's joking, there's laughing. I just don't sneeze. That's the one thing you never do." But he also knows he can't do it alone. "What's my favorite thing in this kitchen? Easy—it's my team. Without them, I'd be a very busy man."

At Fraîche, about 20 minutes south of The Foundry, in the heart of Culver City's downtown renovation (a small miracle, expected by none of those for whom Culver City was more a punchline than a city), chef/co-owner Jason Travi and his pastry chef/wife, Miho, work out of a space only a bit larger than the one in which Greenspan has found such comfort.

Travi, whose full beard gives him the appearance of an affable bear who's figured out how to cook, began with dreams of a big kitchen—and kept cutting back as they discovered (like Greenspan) that a lot can be done with a little. "I basically wanted as much space as I could muscle out of my partner. We knew the dining room wasn't going to be that big, so a small kitchen seemed doable. And then, the city gave us a permit for an outdoor dining area that was much larger than we had expected. And suddenly, the kitchen was way too small. So we had to do a lot of rethinking."

One of the problems with the space that Travi was working with was that "this was a bank 20 years ago. We had to put the dishwashing area in what used to be the vault. There are three feet of concrete surrounding the dishwashers. There used to be a vault door too, but it wasn't a really nice one, just a big slab, three feet thick."

As at The Foundry, Travi created the Swiss Army knife version of a kitchen, with storage spaces burrowed out of every nook and cranny. "The whole idea of this kitchen is shelving everywhere. We take advantage of every inch of space we have. We could only physically put an 18-foot hood in the kitchen, so we were limited to whatever we could cram under those 18 feet. It's amazing how fast you run out of space when 18 feet is your limit."

The result is a traditional straight line, with three ovens—two French flattops and one half flattop/half burner—and a plancha, with convection ovens in the pastry department that occupies the corner between the cook­tops and the bar. ("I have the best space in the kitchen," says Miho. "With four people it gets tight, but we're each in our own area." To which Travi adds, "Tradi­tion­ally, the pastry de­part­ment is hidden away in whatever space is left over. You can do that unless you're married to the pastry chef. Miho has ample space because I don't want to hear her complaining.") There's a tiny office in what looks like a closet adjacent to the dish­washers. On a small table outside the office, there's a pasta maker. Not a space is bare. And that's of what can be seen.

"Anything you can hide is great," says Travi. "Being able to get things out of sight means a lot to chefs. You have to search around to find our sous-vide room. It's in a stairwell, where we were able to squeeze in two immersion circulators; my wife makes ice cream there too."

Unlike Greenspan, who loves being the center of attention in the kitchen, Travi isn't all that comfortable. "I don't enjoy having people watch me cook. But I had no choice—we ran out of space. I wanted a glass wall at least to separate us. I didn't want people complaining that the kitchen is noisy. If the dining room were empty, it might be noisy. But it's not, thank goodness—so no one pays us any mind.

"As a chef I only see downsides to an open kitchen. I don't like watching people eat, especially if they're eating my food. My sous chef and I have to will ourselves not to stare at people while they're eating. We've had couples who looked miserable, like they were having the worst time imaginable. And then, they'll tell us what a great meal they had and how they're coming back."

When he's in the kitchen, Travi stands dead center in the middle, "between the fish and meat stations. Because the kitchen is small, it's an easy reach to the double deep fryers—one normal sized, one half sized; the split oven—the flattop plus two large sized burners. I can reach anything without even having to stretch. And I like the equipment I went with—a lot. I decided on American Range," he says, explaining that he went to their factory to kick the tires. "I slammed the doors, looked at how everything was made. I decided that the ratio of quality to price is unbeatable. The guy who runs American Range used to run Jade. He knows quality. They give great service."

After his time at the kitchens of Granita, Spago, and La Terza, Travi knows what it's like to work in a big space. But he's learned it isn't necessary to make great food. "Every chef wants a bigger kitchen. What we want is a bigger dishwashing area. It's so small we break too many things. But most chefs have also worked in kitchens that are really bad. The trick is to figure it out. I worked for Joe Miller, chef/owner of Joe's Res­tau­rant in Venice, California, in his old kitchen before he renovated it. His burners wouldn't boil water. But we made it work. It was a nightmare, but the food was good. You find ways of working around the problems—you have to. If necessary, you can cook a turkey in a toaster oven. That's what being a chef is all about."

Equipment

"Merrill Shindler"

The Foundry on Melrose
Coffee grinder Mazzer Luigi
Coffee makers La Mill, Fetco, Bunn
Combi-steam oven Rational
Cooktops Jade
Drop freezer VenCold
Espresso maker Rosito Bisani
Gelato machine Nemco
Ice maker Hoshizaki
Meat slicer Pronto
Mini pots Sitram
Mixers Robot Coupe, Vita-Mix
Ovens Jade
Ranges Jade
Refrigeration Infinity, True Manu­fac­tur­ing, Delfield
Retractable heat lamps Merco Savory
Salamander Jade
Shelves Commercial Kitchen
Sinks Commercial Kitchen
Sous-vide MiniPack Torre
Speed rack RubberMaid

Fraîche
Bakery prep table John Boos
Blender Hobart
Coffee makers Fetco, Bunn
Convection oven American Range
Cooktops American Range
Dishwashing equipment Auto-Chlor
Dough maker/mixer Berkel
Dough scraper Matfer Bourgeat
Espresso maker Faema
Fryers American Range
Heavy-duty ranges American Range
Ice maker Ice-o-Matic
Mixer Vita-Mix
Pasta cooker Desco
Pasta roller Roga
Refrigeration Delfield, True Man­u­fac­­­turing
Slicer Emilio Miti
Spreader plate American Range