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This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
From cross-cultural mashups to restaurant pop-ups, L.A.’s most beloved culinary icons and rising influencers drive the appetites of Hollywood’s food chain. Some, like Wolfgang Puck and Nobu Matsuhisa, are global brands with decades-long CVs. Others on THR’s first annual Chefs List, such as the young Ari Taymor and Craig Thornton, are under-the-radar breakouts on the cusp of the A-list dining stratosphere.
PHOTOS: Hollywood Power Players Choose Their Favorite Chefs
How the THR Chefs List is chosen
The inaugural 2013 honorees are split equally into Icon and Influential categories, determined by staff analysis based on cooking talent, creativity, clout and relevance. Each Icon has had a key, discernible effect on advancing the L.A. dining scene. Each Influential has clearly begun the process of achieving the same.
Written by Gary Baum and Tim Appelo with reporting by Bill Higgins and Erin Weinger.
L.A.'s 5 Most Polarizing Restaurants
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Sophisticated Italian cuisine is to L.A. what French is to New York: the standard-bearer of fine dining. And for two decades, Angelini has been its defining force, first helming the kitchens at the legendary Rex downtown and Vincenti in Brentwood before heading off on his own in 2001 with Angelini Osteria (7313 Beverly Blvd.).
These days, nearly every Italian restaurant seems to be cooking some variation on home-style regional fare. Yet Angelini popularized the trend by giving a journey through his native province of Emilia Romagna. "I went to the memory of my mother and my mother's mother — high quality food, but very simple," says Angelini, whose latest, the more grandly scaled RivaBella (9201 Sunset Blvd.), opened in January. "The produce, the weather: Los Angeles is the perfect place to do this kind of cooking."
Where else Angelini eats: Chinois on Main, where he orders the Shanghai lobster with curry sauce.
If downtown L.A. is the most dynamic dining scene in the city at the moment, Centeno is its most virtuosic chef.
He was an eclectic interpreter of the gastropub trend at Lazy Ox Canteen before opening the boisterous Baco Mercat (408 S. Main St.) nearby in 2011. Its Mediterranean-meets-Asian menu roams from flatbread sandwiches with shrimp and sriracha to hamachi crudo with Abkhazian chile. In December, he tapped into his Tex-Mex past with Bar Ama (118 W. Fourth St.), where he's turned down-home Frito Pie and Velveeta-esque bowls of queso dip into must-orders for urban sophisticates.
By fall, he expects to open Orsa & Winston, with inspiration deriving from Japan. "I want to expose people to ingredients that I feel are meant to be together," says Centeno, "even if they're not commonly known to go together."
Where else Centeno eats: Gjelina, for the escarole and sunchoke salad.
No L.A. chef in recent memory has experienced as meteoric a rise as Choi, creator of Korean-inflected Mexican cuisine.
His roving Kogi food trucks, supported by oft-tweeted location updates, popularized a kimchi-and-kalbi taco that took the city by storm in 2008. He solidified his influence by making successive sensations out of Asian rice bowls (in a Chinatown mall, at Chego on 727 N. Broadway), picnic basics (in a renovated IHOP at A-Frame at 12565 W. Washington Blvd.) and home-style Jamaican staples (at Sunny Spot in Venice at 822 W. Washington Blvd.).
His gestalt — egalitarian vibe, modest prices, unrestrained flavor-bomb cooking — came to define the recession-rocked city while receiving rapturous reviews. "Chef-driven dining used to seem out of reach for a lot of people," says Choi. "These places help level the playing field."
Where else Choi eats: Tommy's, for the chili tamale and fries.
Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook
The pair — who starred on Food Network's 2 Dudes Catering — gained acclaim in 2008 for kick-starting L.A.'s nose-to-tail craze at meat mecca Animal (435 N. Fairfax Ave.).
But it's Shook's and Dotolo's fish-centric Son of a Gun (8370 W. Third St.) that's at the forefront of a high-end rethink of the traditional East Coast seafood shack. More than any other L.A. chefs, Dotolo and Shook churn out talked-about instant-icon items — from sriracha mayo Chinese shrimp toasts to a fried chicken sandwich with spicy pickle slaw.
"We're always developing dishes, like writers coming up with ideas for scripts," says Shook of the duo, who are also involved in hot new French restaurant Trois Mec with Ludo Lefebvre. Adds Dotolo, "The one thing the dishes all have in common is, they're swinging for the fences."
Where else they eat: Dino's, where they get the grilled chicken with coleslaw and fries.
Brian Dunsmoor and Kris Tominaga
Today, as every other new menu in town offers biscuits, it's worth remembering that 18 months ago, Tominaga and Dunsmoor prompted the copycatting with their acclaimed Venice pop-up Wolf in Sheep's Clothing and its cornbread-and-pimento-fueled inquiry into Cal-Southern cooking.
The pair, who first met while working at Abbot Kinney Boulevard mainstay Joe's, unveiled their follow-up, The Hart and the Hunter (7950 Melrose Ave.) in October, with an even more pronounced Dixie flair: shrimp 'n' grits, collard greens, coconut cake.
"We're about strong flavors but not heavy dishes," says Tominaga. Adds Dunsmoor: "That's our way into this food."
Where else they eat: La Isla Bonita taco truck at Fourth Street and Rose Avenue in Venice, where they order the whitefish ceviche tostada.
Alongside her longtime collaborator Mary Sue Milliken, Feniger has been a key figure in tweaking California cuisine since the pair's 1980s phenom City (Michael Eisner's production company is developing a show about the restaurant).
They then opened Border Grill in 1985, introducing to hard-taco-shell-eating gringo Angelenos a more authentic Mexican cuisine that included now-ubiquitous ceviche. Since 2009, she's been out on her own with Street (742 N. Highland Ave.), a general assembly for global curbside cuisine, including Moroccan spiced lamb belly, with a keen inclusion of vegetarianism.
"I remember taking my first trip to India and saying to Mary Sue, 'We've got to put a vegetarian dish on the menu,' " says Feniger. "Twenty five years ago, this was a big deal. Now it's expected."
Favorite dish of regular Bob Saget: "I always have the Kaya Toast. Everyone says it's one of those dishes you want to rub all over you."
Where else Feniger eats: Sarita's Pupuseria.
Local treasure Goin interned at Ma Maison in 1984 while still a senior at L.A.'s Marlborough prep. Her apprentice years took her to Chez Panisse, among other places, before she opened Lucques (8474 Melrose Ave.) with business partner Caroline Styne in 1998.
Her assured vision became the touchstone for rustic-refined Mediterranean and begat A.O.C. (8700 W. Third St.), helping spur the small-plates menus that dominate today. "I've had a certain idea of California dining," says Goin, who added Brentwood's Tavern (11648 San Vicente Blvd.) in 2009. "It's not traditionally fancy, but it's also not un-special."
Every year, Goin also finds time to co-chair the child-cancer benefit L.A. Loves Alex's Lemonade, which Naegle supports.
Favorite dish of Naegle: Polenta with mushrooms and mascarpone at A.O.C.
Where else Goin eats: Canele, for the grilled whole fish.
Already a critical darling from stints at L'Orangerie and Bastide, ABC's The Taste judge Lefebvre pioneered the pop-up model popular among young chefs today with his LudoBites series starting in 2009. It was known for inventive dishes (think uni creme brulee) and difficult reservations — not just months ahead, but ever.
In April, Lefebvre returned to bricks-and-mortar with Trois Mec (716 N. Highland), in a strip mall kitty-corner from Mozza. In lieu of reservations, there's advance ticketing (set cost of $75 per person for food) at the 900-square-foot space.
"The place is so small that every table is a chef's table," says Lefebvre, whose plates — like barbecued carrots with blood orange, avocado and yogurt — are militantly pared down. "I'm loving the challenge of restraint."
Favorite dish of regular Kyle MacLachlan: "Buckwheat popcorn. It's crunchy goodness."
Where else Lefebvre eats: Ricky's Fish Tacos.
Wolfgang Puck’s Spago aside, Beverly Hills hasn’t been a hotbed of culinary ideas. Yet Puck’s countryman, Patina prodigy Mairinger, has put the Golden Triangle on the map again with his modern-Austrian BierBeisl (9669 S. Santa Monica Blvd.), near UTA.
Mairinger’s refined, precisely plated renditions of standbys make creamy veal goulash sexy, spooned elegantly next to herb spaetzle. “Puck told me he doesn’t have to go back to Austria anymore. He’s had the entire menu, from the schnitzels to the strudels,” says Mairinger with a laugh.
Carl Reiner is a fan, sometimes getting takeout for fellow legendary comic Mel Brooks.
Favorite dishes of Reiner: Weisswurst, finely chopped potato salad and the creamy sunchoke soup with ricotta-truffle crostini and chervil — “sometimes I order two small bowls.”
Where else Mairinger eats: Si Laa Thai, where he gets the blue crab and prawns with chili coconut sauce.
When Matsuhisa started out in the restaurant business in the 1960s, it was hard to find sushi, even in Japan, believe it or not. But he loved it so much that he pursued his dream of running his own sushi place, moving to Peru, Argentina, Alaska and at last to Los Angeles, where, after 11 years of exceedingly hard work and virtually no profit, his gift paid off.
Now, in tandem with patron-turned-partner Robert De Niro, Nobu owns dozens of eponymous restaurants around the world. (The flagship is located at 903 N. La Cienega Blvd.) "Compared to the past, more people are familiar with Japanese food," Matsuhisa says of once-provincial Angeleno palates. "In the past 15 years, changes have occurred, and I think chefs from all parts of the world have been the key turning point."
His obsession with fresh ingredients — honed by haggling with hard-headed fish merchants in Lima at age 24 — helps distinguish him in an era where sushi is ubiquitous, as do such exemplary offerings as tiradito (a sashimi-esque Peruvian dish) and sashimi with dried miso.
What else Nobu eats: Ramen noodles.
Myers, a surfer who came up under Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud and Joachim Splichal, has deftly anticipated successive waves of L.A.'s dining zeitgeist.
First he opened the highly regarded Sona in 2002, which presented French-Japanese in a Zen setting throughout the decade's boom years. Then, for a short time, came Boule, a Parisian-style boulangerie that presaged today's macaron craze, and the still-lively Comme Ca (8479 Melrose Ave.), which was first out of the gate in the citywide French brasserie explosion.
Now there's Hinoki & the Bird (10 Century Drive), his passion-inducing 5-month-old outpost mere steps from CAA, ICM and Fox. Myers is contemporizing pan-Asian cooking, resulting in dishes like a lobster roll with Vietnamese green curry on a bun blackened by Japanese charcoal.
"Right now people want unique flavors, but they want them unadorned," he says. "They want the equivalent of a great pair of jeans and a really nice T-shirt."
Where else Myers eats: Son of a Gun, for the shrimp toast sandwich with sriracha mayo.
Having made his name at NYC's Porchetta, Neroni burst onto the L.A. scene in 2011 at Osteria La Buca, gaining acclaim for his ways with pig. But when Paul Hibler, owner of Venice's Superba (533 Rose Ave.), invited him to helm the restaurant in July, he changed course.
"Chefs take turns in their careers, and I've always been interested in vegetables," he says. "I worked at Chez Panisse." Superba has since emerged as a must-go spot for handmade pastas topped with market-fresh greens, as well as one of the year's standout dishes, the cauliflower "T-bone": half a head of the cruciferous veggie oven-braised in a white-wine broth, then seared in a cast-iron skillet until caramelized.
Notes Neroni: "The key question in our kitchen is always, 'Is it craveable?' "
Where else Neroni eats: KyoChon, for fried chicken rolled in puffed rice with pickled mango sauce.
Somewhere in between heading up 1970s industry commissary Ma Maison and catering the Academy Awards' Governors Ball for the past 19 years, Puck has come to export California cuisine worldwide and pioneered what it means to be a multi-platform, branded chef.
Perched at the center of his domain is Spago (opened in 1982, moved to 176 N. Canon Drive in Beverly Hills in 1997), which sparked the advent of casual fine dining. The energetic, impish Puck went on to found more than 20 upscale restaurants spanning D.C. to Dallas and Detroit and was the first to create the equivalent of a diffusion line to his couture touchstone Spago with 80 fast-food Wolfgang Puck Express outlets. He also acted as the leading edge in bringing serious culinary cred to TV chefdom (from the usual Top Chef and Iron Chef guest stints to a cameo on The Simpsons).
"Food in L.A. has totally changed mainly because now we have so many chef-owned restaurants. In the old times, like Chasen's, it had to be very formal, like being at your grandmother's. Now, young chefs do whatever they feel like, and it's much more exciting than it ever was."
Favorite dishes of regulars Christina Aguilera and Jerry Weintraub: Aguilera likes the tuna cones at Spago, while Behind the Candelabra producer Weintraub goes for the smoked salmon pizza.
Where else Puck eats: Matsuhisa — "I always have the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno ponzu sauce."
In L.A., where vegan restaurants abound, there's been a dearth of high-end spots. Enter 2-month-old Crossroads (8284 Melrose Ave.), backed by Moby and Steve Bing.
Chef Ronnen — who catered Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi's wedding — sends out to a packed room his inspired version of oysters on the half shell (crispy oyster mushrooms atop artichoke leaves, with kelp caviar and a yellow tomato bearnaise) and his kale-based take on spanakopita, accompanied by a harissa-spiced smoked tomato fondue.
"It's an all-plant-based restaurant without being in your face," Ronnen says. "It's my idea of Mediterranean." Fan Ginnifer Goodwin adds: "There's no reason to preface that it's vegan — it's just an insanely cool restaurant."
Favorite dishes of Goodwin: Kale salad with pine nuts, spiced chickpeas with oven-dried tomatoes and "I can't not order the tortelloni." Another fan is Bones' Emily Deschanel, who loves the artichoke oysters and the hearts of palm "crab cakes."
Where else Ronnen eats: Golden Road, for the cauliflower buffalo wings.
"When I opened Campanile in 1989, the L.A. restaurant scene was grim," says Silverton. "A food desert."But the desert bloomed, partly thanks to her.
Silverton has gone through distinct phases: Campanile's Thursday sandwich night with now-ex-husband chef Mark Peel was a smash, and her La Brea Bakery fed a town starved for good bread (the business sold for $6 million in 2001). The to-die-for dough at Pizzeria Mozza (641 N. Highland Ave.) and fancier Osteria Mozza (6602 Melrose Ave.) with partner Mario Batali put Hancock Park on the culinary map, and her new Chi Spacca (6610 Melrose Ave.) has become the town's alpha grill, with salumi made on-site.
"Chi Spacca is meat-centric," she says, "and showcases our philosophy in all our restaurants." The emphasis is on great ingredients, unadorned except for a sprinkling of herbs and a squeeze of lemon. For sheer drama, it's hard to top the 42-ounce Tomahawk pork chop ($72) — heritage pork raised in a non-factory-farm environment so healthy, even a Portlandia character would approve.
Asked what void she detects in L.A.'s food scene, she replies: "Fine dining. Few people in Hollywood want to put on a coat and tie and be subjected to a three-hour meal. Often they're there for business. A business meal is not a fine dining meal."
Favorite dish of regular Kathy Griffin: Mozza's burrata pizza with brussels sprouts.
Where else Silverton eats: El Taurino, for tacos.
Formal venues have been on the wane for years. But Patina, the flagship of Splichal's 48-restaurant empire — ensconced at Walt Disney Concert Hall at 141 S. Grand Ave. — is one of the few temple-of-cuisine holdouts.
The classically trained German chef, who originated Patina in Hancock Park in the space Providence now inhabits, has since imprinted his precise Cal-French sensibility on a staggering array of venues (not to mention events like the Emmys, which he caters), from his eateries at the Music Center and the Hollywood Bowl to restaurants at Descanso Gardens and LACMA. The latter is where his acclaimed 2-year-old Ray's & Stark Bar (5905 Wilshire Blvd.) is now the meeting ground of the city's art, fashion and film crowds.
"At Ray's, we honor the farmers and the foragers," says Splichal of the producers of local goat cheese, wild berries and herbs he utilizes. "Two decades ago, there was hardly any interest. We've come a long way."
Where else Splichal eats: The Kogi truck, where he digs the Korean tacos.
Just as there are writer's writers and artist's artists, there are chef's chefs. And Taymor is their prince of the moment, the still mostly unknown talent most frequently invoked by others on this list as the one to watch.
His Alma (952 Broadway) — a shoebox-size, modestly decorated station next to a run-down Latino hostess club in downtown L.A. — has, since its opening last summer, become a byword for ambitious, superseasonal cooking. Cases in point: Taymor's sea urchin toast with licorice herbs and caviar, or pigeon roasted in a salt crust on a bed of hay. For all its flair, flavor is still king.
"We won't take things and change what they are," says the nephew of choreographer/director Julie Taymor. "It's important to me that everything taste like itself."
Favorite dishes of regulars Alison Brie and Dave Franco: "During my most recent visit, it was the pigeon with roasted blueberries and onions," says Brie, who also calls the seaweed beignets "spectacular," to which her boyfriend Franco adds: "Once you've finished an order, don't fight your instincts to get another."
Where else Taymor eats: Night + Market, where he tucks into the crispy rice and pork salad.
One of L.A.'s most prominent practitioners on the underground tasting-menu scene, Thornton has in just a few short years hijacked the imagination of foodies both local and nationwide.
With his Wolvesmouth, a gastronomy experiment-slash-supper club that he conducts monthly in his downtown L.A. loft, the chef has distinguished himself by employing such dramatic flavor contrasts as halibut with blood orange, coffee, sunflower and beets, to name just one example. While some progressive local chefs have of late shunned self-consciously flashy plating, Thornton, whose website-only reservations are among the most difficult to score in town, unapologetically embraces an asymmetrical spin-art aesthetic that comes from splashes of ultraviolet, neon green and bright yellow sauces.
"It brings movement and energy, a sense of motion," says Thornton. (He plans to soon open a dedicated aboveground location in downtown's Fashion District.) "What I'm saying on a plate is the equivalent of a scream. It's vocal. Think of Freddie Mercury."
Where else Thornton eats: The Hart and the Hunter, where he orders the kale salad.
L.A. is renowned for its sushi spots tucked away in anonymous strip malls from Santa Monica to Studio City.
None is like Urasawa, the namesake chef's tiny, hidden, whispered-about dining den at 218 N. Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, where he administers kaiseki, extensive tasting menus that incorporate not just raw rarities — firefly squid from Toyama, Japan, or uni from Hokkaido (not just the easier-to-obtain variant from Santa Barbara) — but other elements of traditional Japanese cooking, including shabu-shabu.
Urasawa, who eschews press, took over the address from his mentor Masa Takayama after Takayama opened Masa at New York's Time Warner Center. And just as Masa is in Manhattan, Urasawa is by far the most expensive restaurant in town, the bill easily coming to $500 per person.
In April 2009, L.A.'s Peruvian cuisine pioneer Zarate opened low-key Mo-Chica in a Hispanic market stall in the shadow of the 110 Freeway. It caught blogosphere buzz, and by 2011 he had Picca (9575 W. Pico Blvd.), a vibrant, full-scale dining room serving such interpretations as seco de pato, or crispy braised duck leg in Peruvian beer sauce on cilantro rice.
Soon after, he transplanted Mo-Chica to a high-visibility downtown address at 514 W. Seventh St. Paiche, his third outing limning Lima, arrived at 13488 Maxella Ave. in Marina del Rey in June. The accomplished dishes — alpaca hamburgers, stuffed cucumbers, beef heart skewers — roam beyond the entry-level staples (ceviche, lomo saltado) that have long constituted L.A.'s limited engagement with the country's food.
"Peruvian cuisine is wide and there's a lot for me to explore," says Zarate, who worked at London's top Japanese restaurant Zuma and notes the parallels between the melting-pot metropolises of L.A. and his Asian-immigrant-influenced hometown: "When I see Los Angeles, I see Lima."
Favorite dish of regular Adam Sher: The CEO of Ryan Seacrest Productions loves the locro de quinoa at Picca — quinoa and potato stew with fried egg on top.
Where else Zarate eats: The Kogi truck, where he gets, yes, Korean tacos.
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