Perfection Is the Point
Merrill Shindler - January/February 2008
David Myers may be a samurai trapped in the body of a matinee idol but his cooking at his new sizzling hot Comme Ça is drawing a Francophilic crowd hankering for steak-frites and onion tarts—cooked perfectly, of course.
For David Myers—a chef, restaurateur, entrepreneur, and visionary with a languid Lake Como/Armani model look that's the equal of his many bold-faced customers—it all comes down to "kata."
Kata is one of those Japanese notions of perfection that's hard to perfectly define if you're not Japanese. Traditionally, kata is used to describe (according to Wikipedia) "detailed choreographed patterns of movements…used in many traditional Japanese arts such as…kabuki schools of tea ceremony…"
But in the world of culinary aesthetics, it's about finding the finest ingredients imaginable—perfect both in substance and soul--and preparing them in a ritualistic fashion that Myers likes to refer to as "the poetry of the kitchen." It sounds ephemeral but it tastes so good. So…kata.
A classic tale of kata happened back in January 1999 at the fabled Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. A tuna of exceptional quality came on the block. The bidding began at about $75 per kilo. But it quickly escalated to nearly $1,000 a kilo. The whole fish sold to a restaurateur who was obsessed with the kata of the fish. He had to have it. He paid $170,000 for that fish—an amount he could never recoup. As a result, he went bankrupt. His restaurant closed. He was heard of no more. But he had experienced one shining moment of kata, of perfection beyond perfection.
"I understand completely," says Myers, sipping a cup of perfect espresso in his remarkably neat well-organized office across the street from Sona, his Asian-inflected French restaurant in West Hollywood, a one minute walk from Boule (where he fabricates his pastries and his chocolate), and a seven minute stroll from Comme Ça, his new spot-on replication of a Parisian brasserie (with oyster bar, cheese bar, pastry bar, and a drink bar decorated with books by James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway…and more Hemingway).
The walls of the office are lined with books--not stacked in a haphazard Leaning Tower, but books carefully assembled on shelves. While we speak, one of Myers' chefs hesitantly knocks on the door and asks to look for a book. Myers pauses for a while to help her hunt it down. "I never throw a book away," he says. "I think I have every cookbook I've ever bought, probably every cookbook I've ever read. I have even more books at home. These are just the basics." Hundreds and hundreds of basics.
In his career, Myers has cooked at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago; for Gérard Boyer at Château les Crayères in Reims, France; at Daniel in New York City; at Patina in Los Angeles; and at Jaan at the Raffles L'Ermitage Beverly Hills. Six years ago, he opened Sona in a space that had been home to many restaurants over the years on traffic-intensive La Cienega Boulevard, just north of the upscale shopping mecca called the Beverly Center.
But it's been on his many trips to Japan that Myers has felt most at home. He's a New Yorker who's cooked on the coasts, in the heartland, and in France. But none of those places have spoken to his soul, to his need for kata, like the Land of the Rising Sun.
"I think I was Japanese in a former life. It's great to believe that I was a samurai. I feel a calm I never feel here. Japan has given me restraint, purity, a sense that I have to go deeper for pure flavors than ever before," Myers explains. "Because of my time in Japan, I buy only the absolute best—going to the extreme of the best where the cost is astronomical. No one is buying Kobe like us. The beef arrives virtually locked to the distributor's wrist, straight from Japan. It's the best beef I've ever had. It's real Kobe.
"When I go to Japan, I always visit a great sushi bar where the chefs all have their heads shaved. They do that so they can focus on their work, with no distractions, not even their hair," Myers says with quiet admiration. "For them, there's a reason for every action, everything must fit. They know exactly where every fish comes from and who caught it. I had an eel tasting there. I had parts of the eel I could do without, but it was superb, perfect. I went to another restaurant where they serve ‘hand sushi.' No utensils, no plates. You put out your hand and they place it on your palm. Your hand is part of the process.
"Did you know that when Masa Takayama [now of Masa in New York City] was in Los Angeles, he flew to Japan once a week to bring the fish back himself? He would leave after dinner service on Saturday night, buy the fish Monday morning, then fly back Monday night. Every week. He wanted kata. He couldn't get it here, so he had to go there".
Myers has dreams of going to Japan himself. Not just as a visiting fireman, but as a restaurateur creating perfect meals in Kata Land. "It's very challenging to open in Japan. You need a Japanese partner. You need a team from here plus a Japanese team. You have to understand the subtleties of the Japanese palate," he explains. "You have to raise your game about 10 times what we do now. Even their fast food is better than anything we make. You go to McDonald's, you can get a McTuna sandwich flavored with wasabi.
"The service there is perfect. You go to a Starbucks in Japan, there's perfect service. I go to Starbucks here, I want to swear off coffee. There, even the way they hand you the coffee is remarkable. It's ritualistic. It's how I want our people to be. I go to a bar there, they use block ice, they pour so gently, and push it toward you. It's like the tea ceremony transferred to cocktails. I even love the pachinko parlors, though all those flashing lights are like being in the the middle of an epileptic fit. But a perfect epileptic fit".
Sona was Myers' first restaurant. But Sona isn't the restaurant that Myers wants to bring to Japan. Instead, it's a combination of his patisserie (Boule) and his brasserie (Comme Ça). "This is our model. I'm going to spend the next year perfecting this model. And then, I'm going to re-create this in Tokyo, exactly as it is. When it's working perfectly here, it will work perfectly there. My goal is to create a template that can be literally lifted from here, flown over there, and dropped in place. And once it works in Japan, we can re-create it around the world".
What Myers dreams of re-creating—like the replicants in his favorite movie, Bladerunner, a futuristic detective story about a world very much like ours right now—is the perfect bistro. "I come from New York, where there are bistros everywhere. I got here, and it was, ‘Where is my Balthazar? Where is my Pastis?' Finally I've been able to do in Los Angeles what I've always wanted to do—create a real bistro. I thought, ‘Enough is enough. I want to eat this food.'"
To do that, Myers set out to create his dream kitchen. He took a space that had belonged to a Middle Eastern fast-food joint and gutted it, taking it down to the studs. In his first plan, the restaurant had a 1,600-square-foot kitchen. But that didn't leave much room for the bar and dining room, so he cut it down to 1,200 square feet, and then to 900 square feet. "Nine hundred square feet was our biggest compromise. If we had the extra space, I would have used it for prep and walk-ins. But we're very, very happy. The kitchen is at least three times the size of the one we work in at Sona."
In terms of kitchen design, Myers called on Food Arts contributing authority Mark Stech-Novak, who was given an unusual degree of autonomy. Myers says, "We left it up to him. We said, ‘These are our requirements, you're the master, go to town.' The one thing I didn't want was to go with one of the million dollar kitchen suites. To me, that's like buying a Bentley to keep it parked in front so everyone can see it. We went with Jade Range, which offers exceptional quality. For six years, we've used U.S. Ranges at Sona; we like Jade so much, we'll probably change to it when we remodel at Sona next year.
"There were other decisions, made for reasons both aesthetic and ecological. Like the butcher paper that covers the tables. Butcher paper is green, it's easy to change, and it gives the feeling of a bistro." As do the bar chairs from United Metal Fabricators and the unexpectedly comfortable low metal stools from Tolix.
To create Comme Ça, Myers took everyone who works with him to the City of Lights. "We hit every bistro and brasserie in Paris. Now these guys understand. They learned about it at the source."
The result is a kitchen that uses "a classic line, with a fry station, 12 burners, a plancha, two salamanders, a double-stacked Rational, stacked Vulcan ovens, aluminum cones for the pommes frites—all the bells and whistles you need for a bistro. Even the chalkboard walls [covered with drawings of food, quotes from Hemingway, and a recipe for French onion soup] are authentic. And look at the tile floor. It's salvaged from Paris. Somewhere there's a bistro missing a floor."
It's working in Los Angeles, where Comme Ça, opened in October, instantly became the Restaurant of the Moment. But Myers knows that for his concepts to work in Japan, he has to work even harder. "I feel like the Bill Murray character in Lost in Translation. I want to be Japanese. I haven't yet figured out how.
"My best friend here is Kazunori Nozawa, the master chef at Sushi Nozawa in Studio City. He's the toughest person I've ever met. But we communicate perfectly. We speak a language of perfection and small gestures. But he's so much tougher than me, because he was raised that way. He grew up working 29 out of 30 days a month, from four in the morning to one in the morning every day. He's learned to live on two hours of sleep a night. He did nothing but wash rice for the first three years. He believes in the inner truth of everything he does. I want to be like that. I want to believe in every piece of food I prepare. That's so Japanese."