Back to the Future
In Josef Centeno, Wolfgang Puck sees another Los Angeles chef capturing a pivotal moment in dining.
When Wolfgang Puck walked into Orsa & Winston—Josef Centeno’s diminutive restaurant in downtown Los Angeles—he found something familiar at the heart of it. “I saw, oh my god, they have a pizza oven like every other restaurant,” he recalls. “Then Josef comes out and says he got it from my little restaurant on Sixth Street.”
The oven makes a good symbol for two chefs who, 30 years apart, arrived in Los Angeles steeped in classical French training, only to turn the conventions inside out and invent a new style of dining in Los Angeles and beyond. Puck—the celebrity chef with 24 fine-dining restaurants around the globe, including Spago, Cut, Chinois on Main, and Postrio—came to prominence in 1982, after he broke from Patrick Terrail, his partner at Ma Maison, and opened Spago on the Sunset Strip. He thrilled both food lovers and Hollywood power players with a creative fusion of French, Italian, and Asian cuisines served in a liberating, casual atmosphere. The open kitchen? Puck practically invented it, as well as many of the tenets of what would become California cuisine. He put pizza (and pizza ovens) in a high-end restaurant, sourced produce directly from the farm, and famously became a regular presence in the dining room. The excitement over this new genre of fine dining energized the food scene for decades, and Puck has never stopped rethinking it, moving Spago to a more formal stretch of Beverly Hills in 1997 and then redesigning its menu and interior in 2012.
Centeno arrived in Los Angeles in 2006, having worked in New York under Jean-Jacques Rachou at La Côte Basque and Christian Delouvrier at Les Célébrités, and under David Kinch at Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif. In 2011 he left the popular Lazy Ox Canteen in downtown Los Angeles to open his own inventively casual restaurant, Bäco Mercat, which became the start of a small empire downtown: In a short time, he opened Bar Amá—his homage to Tex-Mex cooking—and Orsa & Winston, all within the same block or so. Like Puck’s smoked-salmon pizza, Centeno’s breakthrough dish was an irresistible cross-cultural mash-up: an epic sandwich he christened the bäco, made of flatbread filled with pork belly, a Catalan sauce called salbitxada, and all manner of surprises. But Orsa & Winston is where Centeno best expresses the nuances of his talent, with a menu he calls “Japanese-Italian omakase” served in a style being hailed as yet another reinvention of fine dining.
“It was really an incredible connection that he got some of our old equipment,” Puck says. “And then he told me he built the restaurant himself for almost nothing. So it’s good when you start out that you start with bare bones, but what is not bare bones is what’s on the plate, and that to me is the most important part.”
(Continues on next page...)