In June, a quartet of rising stars in the Los Angeles restaurant and bar scene gathered for a roundtable discussion, hosted by Symrise, about new local flavor trends and the creative process behind them. As the three chefs and one mixologist on the panel discussed their innovative dishes and drinks, two central themes emerged: that the global melting pot of LA is a testing ground for bold flavor combinations, and that when it comes to culinary inspiration in LA, anything goes.
Vartan Abgaryan, executive chef at the special-occasion restaurant 71 Above, grew up in an immigrant Armenian family in Los Angeles and, as an adolescent, became enchanted with the city's multicultural flavors, which he now mixes and matches with finesse at the restaurant. "Being in LA for 27 years, and having eaten so much food in such different cultures, I'm at a point where it's not enough just to use my heritage," he said. "I started borrowing from other people." At 71 Above, "There's not a single dish that's solely based on one culture."
The panelists were all in agreement that having exposure to such a tapestry of global influences leads to an expectation among Angelenos that restaurants will serve them bold flavors: not necessarily over-spiced or over-seasoned, but dishes that make a distinct impression on their palates.
"We recently had a menu item which was very mellow, and people did not like it," said Abgaryan. "It was not enough. People come to learn and expect flavor in every bite."
The demand for audacious flavors creates a need for local chefs and mixologists to continually innovate. Both 71 Above and The Bazaar by Jose Andres, where panelist Holly Jivin is chef de cuisine, have dedicated research and development chefs on staff for that exact purpose. But all of the panelists expressed that innovation happens in their kitchens in far less structured ways, too.
Jivin often derives inspiration from one specific ingredient that comes into season for a short while. The Bazaar's truffle series is one example. "You have to come up with 17 to 21 courses that go with truffle," Jivin said. "You think of how many trials and tribulations we go through in order to find that things like vanilla oil and banana oddly pair really well with truffles and go great with a pork dish."
Seasonal cycles are equally important for Allison Trent, executive chef of Ysabel. "As soon as something comes in season, we're at the edge of our seats waiting," she said, noting her excitement to receive shipments of summer's first stone fruit. Trent sees the arrival of familiar seasonal ingredients as an opportunity to create anew: "Every time [an ingredient] comes into season," she said, "it's going to become something completely different" on Ysabel's menu.
But Trent is also driven as much by the look of a new dish as its flavors. "I'm very visually oriented," she said. "I like to have something visually in mind and then get my ingredients to where I want them, so I look at a ton of images and something will just pique my curiosity." At her West Hollywood restaurant, where many of the stylish guests are there to "see and be seen" -- and in a town where the film industry and its focus on image rules -- Trent's visual approach to menu innovation seems synergistic.
And downtown at Otium, bar director Chris Amirault keeps his finger on the pulse of innovation in mixology by drawing on his background in acting, which taught him to find inspiration through observation of the world around him. Burnt brioche from the kitchen, for example, has become the finishing touch on his peanut butter and jelly Negroni cocktail. And in this music capital of the world, Amirault stays on his toes by offering guests the "Shazam" challenge: "They pull out their phone, and the last song they Shazam-ed is going to be the inspiration for the cocktail I'm going to make."
It's that kind of think-outside-the-box, laissez-faire creativity that defines the essence of innovation in LA's contemporary culinary scene. "I think it's important," said Amirault, "that your creative process can kind of focus on other elements that are not just technical, not just on flavor profile, but understanding that your creativity can truly come from anywhere, at any time."
This is article one of a two-part installation from the Symrise-Star Chefs LA Roundtable...Check back next week!