A Side Order of Art

By Tara de Lis

Most talented chefs consider food a form of art, whether it’s in the inspiration for eloquent flavor combinations or simply pretty plating. For some, the artistry of their chosen craft was itself inspired by other artistic callings of their youth. For others, being a chef has led them down a path in which the need for expression carries over into new creative hobbies.

Photo by Joshua Lurie

As the world learned in one of Top Chef’s more awkward moments, “Malibu Chris” likes to paint nudes. Whist’s Chef de Cuisine, the handsome Fan Favorite on the ninth season of the reality cooking series, is a self-described “amateurish” artist. But what the show sensationalized is mostly just a PG-rated hobby that he picked up about three years ago. Crary says, “[My art] is very playful and somewhat childish. I am by far not an educated painter. I just paint what I’m feeling, just to relax and escape. It ranges from abstract, splatters, lines, all the way to nudes. It’s really a lot like cooking. I get inspired by new paints, colors, textures and, of course, my mood. I use acrylic on canvas. I also like to add random items to the paint to add texture, like foil, paper, rocks, whatever I have laying around.”

A French harmonica player? Trés curious. Even more so for a 17-year-old kid in culinary school in Paris, which is when the Langham’s executive chef, Denis Depoitre, first took it up. He loved the accessibility and portability of the instrument, the ability to “carry it anywhere and play it anywhere.” But it wasn’t until 10 years ago that he decided to go semi-pro. He now performs at least once a week and has played at blues clubs all over LA, including the on-site Tap Room at the Langham. In fact, it was at this very venue where the biggest thrill of his moonlighting career took place, when he got to sit in with Kim Wilson (lead singer and harmonica player of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) for the first time.

Eva chef/owner Mark Gold, his wife Alejandra, and bar manager Gabriella Mlynarczyk are on the road to realizing a longtime dream to make all serving pieces and plates in house. Gold, who lives right behind his restaurant, already claims a tiny carbon footprint in his “10-second” commute, and is also in the process of planting a garden in the backyard. “The goal,” he says, “is really to become self-proficient, growing the majority of the food we use in the restaurant.” This includes cheese-making and house-made vinegar. As of three months ago, the plan broadened to encompass ceramics classes at Bitter Root Pottery across the street. To date, the team’s creations include several bowls, plates, one large platter, as well as a flower vase.

Gold explains, “We are very attuned to what we want to do and how we want to present it. Ceramics are a great step … I haven’t gotten that advanced yet, but we have made some beautiful stuff that we are presenting our food on. The color and shape of the plate enhances the presentation of [food] on the plate.” At first the process was very much about finding the right serving mechanisms for specific dishes, such as white asparagus, but the process has evolved where now sometimes the dish itself comes first and the decision for what to put on top of it later. Gold says, “The two really inspired each other.”

Photo by Urbano Pizza Bar via Facebook

Bruce Kalman may now be known best for his unique flatbreads and pig parties at Urbano Pizza Bar, but back in the ‘80s, he rocked long hair and leather pants. As the guitar player and lead vocalist for a band called Phoenix, the highpoint of his rock star career was opening for Meatloaf at a college gym in South Jersey. Jon Bon Jovi was at the show, and they all hung out in the dressing room after. These days, he’s more into the singer/songwriter genre, and was recently asked if he was interested in session work.

But his primary passion is for cooking. He says, “I love Italian food, and [my bosses] say, ‘this is definitely your wheelhouse.’ I think I put the Urbano menu together in half an hour, and haven’t changed it much. Real regional Italian cooking is back to the roots, and that’s what America is striving towards with the farm-to-table movement. That’s what they’ve always done there: serve what’s indigenous to the area.”

Photo by Joshua Lurie

Forage chef/owner Jason Kim likes to mix it up—literally. Back in his college days, before he helped home growers get restaurant-certified, even before he got into cooking, he was a battle DJ. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a very different style than club DJs. Kim explains, “The only way I can explain it to people is you go head-to-head [with another DJ] for about three minutes. You try to ‘out DJ’ the other guy. There’s a lot of scratching, trick mixing, crazy stuff … In a three-minute set, I got through probably 20 records, mostly hip-hop.” And he was good at it, too. Trained in L.A., which he describes as a “breeding ground for battle DJs,” he had an advantage competing in Boston, usually placing first or second. These days, Forage comes first. But he still “messes around at home,” and has a “yearly gig” DJing at the annual party his former boss Suzanne Goin throws for her employees and friends and family. Here, he’s less battle DJ and more master mixer. He says, “I know tons of people who work there and what kinds of music they like. I want to get everyone to dance. My goal is that if ... Suzanne and [business partner] Caroline [Styne] have a good time, then I’ve succeeded.”

Photo by Saddle Peak Lodge via Facebook

Saddle Peak Lodge chef de cuisine, Christopher Kufek comes from a long line of carpenters. It’s the family business, and he’s been working with his hands his entire life. He jokes that he didn’t even realize until he grew up that it was normal for other people to call servicemen to fix or install things. Now Saddle Peak Lodge doesn’t need to outsource that work either. Kufek recently redid the main bar in the lobby, putting in new coolers, a new bar top, changing the moldings, and building a new bottle “staircase.” He plans to eventually scratch-build a rack for storing the red wine inventory. He’s regularly asked how he made the transition from carpentry labor to cooking. He says, “It wasn’t that hard. The mentality is the same. The work ethic is the same. Whether it’s cooking or finished carpentry, there’s a sense of urgency, the clock is running … [either way], I’m using my hands and tools.”

Food styling by Robert Liberato | Photo courtesy Robert Liberato

BLT chef de cuisine Robert Liberato has made a whole cycle from “a passion for photography” and freelance graphic design work before “jumping into a cooking career.” It was only later that the paths “collided,” combining into the culinary/visual arts synergy of food styling. Ironically, what looks best on the plate doesn’t always taste good, a fact that Liberato chuckled at when it was pointed out. “It’s true,” he says. “But for the most part, you have to stay very true to the dish, especially if it’s [your recipe]. Recreating someone else’s dish is not about the palate, but [capturing] the concept in an image. The picture is not always going to be representative of what the food will taste like. You are just documenting it and making it look good.”

The former chef de cuisine at GO Burger has styled a lot of hamburgers. According to Liberato, “It’s really popular for a lot of food stylists to shoot them barely cooked. Sometimes the patty is not even cooked, only marked to look like it’s cooked.” Instead, he captures them fresh and insists on great lighting. “A burger can only sit for so long before it looks absolutely unappealing. There’s only a small window without any trickery or props … maybe two minutes before the juices start going everywhere,” Liberato shares.

He’s also into more abstract photography, often inspired by farmers’ market finds that he is able to see in a whole new light. He says, “I like to zoom in and find a lot of little things you never really notice. Normally with food, you grab it, chop it, cook it, eat it … [this way], sometimes you can discover a whole new creature. Things like vegetables, maybe just focusing on the carrot tops, which isn’t really a part you’d want to eat, but it looks awesome, especially heirloom carrots in oranges, yellows and purples.”

Salvatore Marino applies the same philosophy to the floral arrangements at both Il Grano and his family’s namesake restaurant. They may include anything from daffodil bulbs in the small, engraved vases from Italian artisans Vietri Sul Mare to big bunches of pea tendrils gathered in the entryway. Marino doesn’t have any one favored flower. Instead, he lets climate and geography dictate the décor of the dining rooms. He says, “You have to appreciate the season for what it is. Last month, my favorites were lilacs. Now, it’s cherry blossoms.  Soon it will be peaches. It’s a philosophy thing—you can get roses 12 months out of the year, but it’s someone in Ecuador growing them. Nothing against Ecuador, but I want to bring the beauty of the outside inside the restaurant, from the flowers that are blooming [locally] to the food that is swimming in the ocean, flying in the air or growing in the earth at that time.”










Photo by Tara de Lis

Chef Morihiro Onodera opened Mori Sushi in 2000, and had a hugely successful run before he officially sold it to his apprentice Masanori Nagano in May of 2011. Along with the name and the reputation, Nagano acquired Onodera’s handmade plates and bowls, which continue to be a hallmark of the Mori Sushi dining experience. Onodera estimates that at one time, 80 to 90 percent of the plates were his own. The sushi veteran, who is far from retired from ceramics or cooking, says that he’s very happy just making plates right now. What he isn’t doing, though, is making them for any Japanese restaurants. Instead, he’s slowly stockpiling a collection of beautiful bowls, chopstick holders, amuse bouche serving “leaves” and other items for his next restaurant—whenever and wherever that may be.

He’s also been collaborating with three acclaimed LA chefs: Michael Cimarusti (Providence), Josiah Citrin (Mélisse) and Salvatore Marino (Il Grano, Marino). He says, “Each chef has a different idea. Salvatore told me he needs something for crudo … Now I’m making a bread and olive oil dish for him … Josiah’s likes different textures … We are introducing color with French food. For Providence, Michael likes very dark, kind of Japanese-style dishes ...”

Photo courtesy The Tasting Kitchen

Justin Pike is not only the main mixologist at The Tasting Kitchen, he’s also the one responsible for the awesome chalk art covering its walls. Pike has a background in illustration—he went to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and studied in Italy for more than a year. He’s also very experienced in oil paintings, street art, found-object art and photography. Pike has been featured in gallery shows in Boston and Portland, as well as the Venice Art Crawl.

But using chalk as a medium took him by surprise. He recalls, “I had never tried it before working at the Tasting Kitchen. When I started [here], the chalkboard was blank every night. I was nervous to do anything, because I don't have the best handwriting. I started [making] old bar-book drawings on the walls and using old fonts from them. I realized I could write well, as long as I thought of the fonts as images and not words.”

He’s learned that as much as he enjoys the process of creating them, he can’t get too attached. “I had to get over the fact that if I put time into a drawing, it will eventually be smudged, drawn on or erased. On the other hand, artists like Banksy are really bringing into question the idea of art as something that is going to be gone eventually. Then the definition of art is no longer an item to be owned, but becomes a moment of creation/viewing,” he explains.
Pike sees obvious similarities between art—in whatever form—and mixology. He says, “Art is about the moment of impact … the moment of connection with something or someone, whether it's paint and a canvas, chalk on a board, or found objects on the street. It’s a moment when time starts to relax a bit, and I feel my personality dissolve for a brief moment, and I am connected with the world outside myself. In this way, art becomes more about being aware than anything else. It’s closer to meditation than any sort of ‘magical talent.’ If you go into our kitchen, you can see the same type of awareness happening.”  

Photo by Lazy Ox Canteen via Facebook

The Lazy Ox Canteen’s chef de cuisine, Perfecto Rocher, was almost famous before he ever stepped foot in Los Angeles—at least in the punk world. He played in two bands during his teens, one in Valencia, Spain, and the other in London. His biggest success was with the Ulcers. Google the band name plus “action” for clip from a live show. So how did he go from guitar player/vocalist to chef? He actually went back to his roots. The paella pan was always his instrument of choice by day, and eventually he realized his destiny was not on the cover of Rolling Stone, but in the kitchen.

He recalls, “I never wanted to be a chef because my family comes from the restaurant business. When my friends used to go play soccer, I had to help my father at the restaurant. I hated it.” The change came when he was about to lose yet another restaurant job over commitments to his band, and his boss suggested that he actually focus for once on his cooking instead. Rocher jokes, “I was thinking to myself, I am not John Lennon. I decided to cook. I wanted to be a musician, but now I love cooking.”

8720 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 310.360.1950


7458 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, 323.634.0700

3823 West Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, 323.663.6885

Il Grano
11359 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., 310.477.7886

The Langham
1401 South Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena, 626.568.3900

The Lazy Ox Canteen
241 S. San Pedro St., Downtown, 213.626.5299

6001 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, 323.466.8812

1104 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, 310.395.0881

Mori Sushi
11500 W Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, 310.479.3939

5955 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, 323.460.4170

Saddle Peak Lodge
419 Cold Canyon Rd., Calabasas, 818.222.3888

The Tasting Kitchen
1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, 310.392.6644

Urbano Pizza Bar
630 W. 6th St., Downtown, 213.614.1900

1819 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, 310.260.7511