The Best Chef in the West Advises ICE Students
The 2019 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: West, Michael Cimarusti visited our Los Angeles campus for a Meet the Culinary Entrepreneurs lecture.
Michael Cimarusti is the executive chef and owner of four L.A. restaurants: Best Girl, Connie & Ted's, Il Pesce Cucina and Providence. He began his culinary career at Larry Forgione's An American Place, where he met his wife, whom he opened a new restaurant with — the first of many.
In September, he spoke at our L.A. campus on building a career in the restaurant industry and what it was like to finally win a James Beard Award after eight nominations.
On his James Beard Award:
It’s definitely a moment of elation. It took 30 years to get there. There’s no way to prepare for it. I put together a little speech on my phone sitting in the hotel room before I went to the awards, but I couldn’t read it because, as you guys say in today’s parlance, my phone was blowing up! I’m trying to read it, and I’m getting a million text messages and every other thing. I couldn’t read my speech and instead, I had to wing it.
Providence was nominated for Best New Restaurant the year we opened, and I had no idea about these things. It was so far beyond my ability to dream that we would be nominated. That year The Modern in New York won, we were in the company of Alinea from Grant Achatz and Joel Robuchon’s L’Atelier in Las Vegas and just remarkable restaurants. So just to have your name mentioned among heroes like that was mind-blowing.
On choosing a culinary career:
At the end of the day, it’s a love of food and a love of eating and being around the table with family and friends. My whole childhood, food memories were some of my fondest memories. My childhood revolved around us at the table — half my family is Italian and the other half is British.
My first job was as a dishwasher at about 14 or 15 years old at the country club in my hometown. That was my first exposure to the kitchen, but like most dishwashers, I didn’t enjoy it. It’s not the most rewarding profession. I started working full-time in kitchens right after high school at 18, enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park when I was 20 and was working in New York City by 21.
On winding up at Le Cirque:
I applied to all the best restaurants — Le Cirque, Le Bernardin, Bouley, La Côte Basque. The best restaurants in New York at the time were mostly French. There were only a few examples of restaurants that were outside of this French cuisine ilk that were highly regarded, so I applied to places like that.
Eventually, I got a call back from Le Cirque. The guy that hired me was Sottha Khunn, he was the chef at Le Cirque for many years under Alain Sailhac, under Daniel Boulud, under Sylvain Portay, and he was the heart and soul of the kitchen. He offered me a job: “You’re starting on Monday, you’re going to make $400 take-home pay a week and that will be that.” What he didn’t tell me was that it was 80-90 hours a week, six days a week, and you would take home $400 no matter how much you worked. If it were a 100-hour week, you still took home $400. That’s the way it used to be back in the day. I’m not saying that’s right, but I’m saying that’s what it was.
On restaurant hours:
I’m grateful for that because if I didn’t have the opportunities that I had there or exposure to what I was exposed to there and work with the type of people I was able to work with there, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I wouldn’t be sitting in front of you. That wasn’t even the hardest. I spent four years there, six days a week, every week. We closed two weeks a year, usually in August. If the restaurant was closed on a Monday because it was Labor Day, you got an extra day off that week. Other than that, the expectation was you’re the chef de partie of the fish station or you’re the chef de partie of the meat station and that was your station six days a week — if the restaurant was open, you were at your station. I came up that way, my wife came up that way, most of the people at that time came up that way.
Things have changed, and people expect to work nine hours a day and five days a week. That’s not how you achieve in any business, not just this business. Every successful person you know, no matter what field they are in, paid their dues. It’s a crucial part of an education. Where you are right now is the basement, you’re starting out. There are many, many floors you need to climb. Each one of those floors that you do climb, you’re going to reach the next floor through lots of hard work, lots of hours, lots of dedication, lots of focus and that’s just reality.
On seizing opportunity:
Every single opportunity to cook — whether it is cooking for your family, cooking for your friends, cooking for your peers in school, an opportunity to cook for a charity event or something else involved in the school — every one of those things is an opportunity to prove your ability and your dedication and love for this craft. Everything that you do, every dish you make, every bit of it is all a reflection of who you are and how much you put into it. There are no days off. Every time you step in front of the stove or pick up a knife or start cooking, whether for yourself or friends or family, it’s got to be something good. You have to put yourself into it, you have to invest in it. It’s really important.
I’m a lifelong fisherman. I still fish every chance I get. It’s one of my passions. Working with fish, I still get that excitement all the time. We work pretty much only with wild fin fish. To receive deliveries every day and see what fishermen have brought us still blows my mind. There’s nothing exciting about an airline chicken breast. There’s just not. There’s nothing exciting about cooking it, buying it, nothing. But, when you’re always cooking with wild fish, it’s a constant pursuit. They’re not always available, it’s subject to wind and weather and all sorts of things. You’re constantly adjusting, it’s a constant hunt for the finest product and that makes it ever-exciting.
We do have some Japanese fish on the menu. We have this incredible vendor that we work with who is based at the Toyosu Market, the new Tsukiji market. There’s this big company at Toyosu called Sakasyu, they are like the third-largest wholesaler, and they sell fish to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, all through WhatsApp. They contact me on the phone and send me photos of fish that’s available in Toyosu Market. We do this on Mondays and Thursdays. Later on today, I’ll get a whole bunch of photos from them of different things available in the Toyosu market, whether it’s sea urchin or live crabs or abalone or wild yellow tail — everything, the entirety of the market is available. Then I tell them what I want, and we get it within 24 hours. Some of the photos are from the live auction, so they’ll send you a picture of a live Thai snapper and I’ll say, “Kill that one!” and less than 24 hours later, it’s here in L.A. It’s amazing. We use that for our sashimi fish. Everything else, for the most part, is from as far north as Alaska to Baja, California.
On pursuing purveyors in L.A.:
You have to learn the players in the market. We work with this guy named Eric Hodge, who’s a fisherman up the coast. He takes such incredible care with the fish. He converted both of his two vessels to biodiesel. He collects our fryer fat from Connie & Ted’s, refines it, puts it in his boat and uses that fuel to go and catch the fish that we use at Connie & Ted’s and Providence. It’s amazing. It’s a great little closed circle. It’s wonderful to work with him.
There are several good wholesalers in town, but you have to develop relationships with people inside those businesses. To me, it’s all about relationships, every bit of it, when it comes to sourcing. You have to have a guy that you can call at 6:30 a.m. and say, “Is everything okay today? Is the salmon good enough? Is the rockfish good enough?” You have to have a guy at the other end of the phone that’s honest enough to say, “You know what? Salmon, you’re not going to like it and maybe you should pick something else.” That’s incredibly important. When it comes to making the right choices in terms of what to buy, it’s a slippery slope and a subject you have to educate yourself about if buying sustainable seafood is important to you. For me, the resource that I always go back to is the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch card. It’s an app you can put on your phone or you can visit their website. They will tell you what you should be using and what you should be buying. Then you have to find it. Whether or not you can actually find sardines or Pacific rockfish or black cod is another question. That’s the best advice I can give you in terms of seafood.
On opening a restaurant:
The first step, in any business venture: Hire a lawyer that you trust. I’m not kidding, it’s the best advice I can give you. Find someone that’s going to be looking out for you and will keep you from making bad choices. I was lucky enough to do that. There’s a guy in town, a brilliant guy, he helped Thomas Keller start The French Laundry, he helped Joachim Splichal build the Patina Group into what it became, he helped Masa in the Time Warner Center in New York, a three-Michelin-starred sushi restaurant, and many other restaurateurs around the world. The guy is the best when it comes to restaurants. It’s not cheap, but it’s money well spent. He will protect you from missteps. You can lose a lot of money in the restaurant business, it’s not easy.
In terms of finance, Providence has survived for nearly 15 years because basically we ignore the bottom line. Like all of the things people tell you, you should pay attention to food costs and labor costs. We basically didn’t know much at all about how to control those costs and focused solely on the guest experience — and it worked — but I don’t recommend it to anyone.
Of course, we’re better now as we have other restaurants that we have to pay attention to and we have people that help us. But first and foremost, what we’ve always focused on, especially at Providence, is guest experience. The quality of the food, the quality of the service — that’s what has kept us busy and made us successful.
You are all aware of the stage process. The advice I would give you is be confident, which I think sometimes can be difficult to do. You’ve spent a lot of time here in school and you probably cook on your own time. Trust in your own abilities. Try to portray a sense of confidence when you walk through the door. Don’t be cocky or arrogant but confident. Keep your eyes open, listen, learn, hustle — you can never underestimate looking like you’re busy, from my point of view. If I look around and I see people actively engaged in doing something and their heads are down and they are focused and working hard, that’s what I want to see. That’s what I want to see from the people who are already employed and that’s what I want to see in somebody that is aspiring to get a job from us. It’s very important. Obviously, you’re new, it’s day one, you’ve never been with us before, but you’ve got to find some level of comfort to go in there and exhibit the skills you have.
A rush to get to a managerial position, earn a title, have a business card, all of those things, really rushing through is not going to serve you well. You need to develop a repertoire and a bag of tricks and some real experience before you aspire to that next level. The further you progress and the faster you progress when you get to the point where your name is on your jacket and you have a title, suddenly you have to be the person with the answers. If you haven’t spent enough time in the industry, you might not have the answers that you need, so these things become holes in your repertoire. You want to be able to build that level of experience.
On professional development:
Find a mentor. Find someone that you can respect and learn from and someone that respects you and values your hard work. I found a mentor with Sottha [Khun] when I was at Le Cirque. I worked for him for four years. I would’ve done anything he told me to do. He was an incredible chef. He was kind, he was generous, he was Cambodian and didn’t speak a lot of English, but better in French. I towered over him, but if he wanted to, he could send me home in tears. I still remember dishes that he prepared. He had an incredible touch, incredible feel, a very intuitive cook. He just knew how to build flavor and make delicious food. He also understood French technique, but he could just make the most ridiculously delicious food. So find someone like that, that you really respect in that way and learn every single thing you can from that person and then move along and find the next person.
On personal paths:
I encourage you to find your niche in this industry. If bread is your passion, become a baker. If your favorite class here at ICE is meat fabrication, become a butcher. And if you’re like me and would almost always rather be fishing, then open a seafood restaurant. Find out what captivates you and build a career around that. Your mission over the next several years should be to develop the skills and techniques that you have learned at the school. Don’t expect your journey to be easy or short, find a job that challenges you, work hard, keep your head down, don’t count the hours or the days that you put in, be reliable, exceed the expectations of your employers. Be exceptional and push yourself each and every day. And above all, focus.
Learn more about culinary and management careers at an ICE open house event.