This is article two of a two-part installation from the Symrise-Star Chefs LA Roundtable.
When a quartet of rising-star chefs gathered at a roundtable discussion in Los Angeles hosted by Symrise in June, they dished on the multiple influences in their process of creating bold new dishes and flavors . But they also revealed that culinary success in Los Angeles isn't just about innovation on the plate -- it's equally about pleasing the palates of the city's incredibly diverse diners.
Each restaurant represented on the panel reflected a different slice of LA's dining demographic. Ysabel, helmed by chef Allison Trent, draws celebrities and glitterati for weekend schmoozing. Chef Vartan Abgaryan's 71 Above hosts large celebratory groups, while The Bazaar by Jose Andres -- ensconced in the SLS Beverly Hills hotel and helmed by chef de cuisine Holly Jivin -- is a magnet for tourists of every stripe. And Otium, where panelist Chris Amirault directs the bar program, appeals to everyone from graying theater-goers to Instagram-loving Millennials.
The challenge for these chefs and mixologists is to offer dining experiences that satisfy as many of these varied guests as possible. "Some might not care about the food," noted Abgaryan, who has customers attracted to his restaurant solely for its sweeping city views.
Others, noted Trent, care perhaps too much. "We get a lot of people who are food driven" and arrive to the restaurant with an elevated culinary vocabulary, she said. That means they're looking for 100 percent organic dishes, gluten-free pasta (which she does not serve), and other health-conscious LA trends. On top of that, requests for food modifications can be incredibly specific. "You take an order of eggs," Trent said, and the guest might ask for "one of them scrambled, the other one half-boiled, but with a little bit of gooey on the inside."
Jivin concurred that modification requests in LA can be so particular that they're downright puzzling. "Like you want the caprese salad but you don't want the tomatoes, you don't want the pesto, you just want a bowl of mozzarella spears?" she said.
Amirault sees the same demand for customization at the bar. Someone might walk up and say, "Can I get this cocktail with vodka, extra spicy, no sugar, a lot of acid, and a flower?" he said.
Trent chalks up Angelenos' penchant for micro-managing what's on their plates and in their cocktail glasses to a quintessentially LA ethos. As she explained lightheartedly, "They want what they want, and it's LA. They should get it."
The panelists talked about balancing the desire to please such guests with the need to stay true to their restaurants' individual concepts. Abgaryan, for one, keeps his focus on his vision and has made peace with the fact that "you can't be everything for everyone," he said. "Somebody's not going to like you."
But Trent and Jivin have processes in place to stay attuned to diners' fickle tastes and special needs and make menu changes accordingly. Jivin frequently reviews sales numbers and stays on the lookout for underperforming dishes. "If I love the dish," she explained, "I will start trying to push the servers or ask them why it's not moving. Or, if I just need to take it off, I nix it and start coming up with something new."
To attract attention to a dish with an unfamiliar ingredient, Trent might balance it with something else guests can readily identify. For example, when she creates an agnolotti dish -- something many diners have never tasted, let alone pronounced, before -- she might pair it with truffle or short rib, "something you know people will respond to," she said. "I reword the menu all the time, and it makes a massive difference."
In addition to menu wording, menu placement is also a factor at The Bazaar, where Jivin oversees a vast four-page menu of 85 items. Diners "look at the first and the last [pages], and sometimes they never go to the middle," she said.
But no matter where on the menu a dish appears, what it's called, and how many modifications guests try to subject it to, a successful dish in Los Angeles always has one underlying element, according to Jivin: "It needs to make you smile when you're done with it."
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