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Avant Garde Food Doesn’t Appeal to Chef Michael Cimarusti

His new restaurant, Best Girl, is inspired by home cooking and two decades of living in Los Angeles.

When Michael Cimarusti arrived in Los Angeles two decades ago, he was lured by the city’s preeminent chef, Wolfgang Puck, to cook at the original Spago on Sunset. The alum of Alain Passard’s Arpège, Larry Forgione’s influential An American Place, and Le Cirque decided to stay put on the West Coast.

Cimarusti has put an indelible mark on the city’s fine-dining scene with his seafood-driven restaurant Providence. Back when Michelin still published a guide in Los Angeles, he earned two stars. And even after the guide hightailed out of Hollywood, Cimarusti’s flagship consistently topped the esteemed critic Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Places to Eat in L.A. until this year, when the experimental cuisine of Jordan Kahn’s Vespertine bumped Cimarusti out of the top spot.

Now, for his new restaurant Best Girl in Downtown L.A.’s Ace Hotel, Cimarusti—along with his wife-chef, Crisi Echiverri, and chef de cuisine Adam Walker—he’s stripping away the trappings of fine dining to offer a restaurant that’s rooted in home cooking and pays homage to his adopted city. The menu draws from the myriad cultures that converge in Southern California, and the name is a nod to Tinseltown.

Located next to the original United Artists Theatre, the restaurant needed a name, so the team dug into the theater’s history. “On October 31, 1927, the first film that was shown there was Mary Pickford’s My Best Girl,” Cimarusti says. “The more we all talked about it, the more we all liked it, and we went with Best Girl. So 90 years later, to the day, the restaurant Best Girl will debut here at the Ace.”

As the doors prepared to open at Best Girl, we sat down with Cimarusti to discuss working with the Ace, what inspired the menu, cultural appropriation in the food world, and his feelings on avant-garde cuisine.

best girl ace dtla

Interior at Best Girl at Ace DTLA  Photo: Courtesy Dylan + Jeni

Why did you want to work with the Ace?
I’ve always been a fan and stayed in Ace Hotels around the country, and I’m very familiar with the chefs that have worked with the brand—whether it’s the guys from Giant in Chicago or April Bloomfield at the Breslin in New York or most recently Carlos Salgado from Taco Maria in Palm Springs. Ace has a track record of working with very respectable chefs, and I was excited for the opportunity to work with them. Frankly, it’s very cool and hip—which I don’t know if I’m either of those things, but I’m hoping some of it will rub off.

Unlike your other restaurants, Best Girl isn’t seafood-centric. What appealed to you about doing this project here?
To be honest with you, we never really talked about what should the restaurant be, what should the menu be; it just kind of happened organically. The idea behind the majority of the food is I wanted to do food that I really love to eat, food that I cook at my home when I have friends over on the weekends, food that’s craveable and delicious. It’s not heavy; it’s not technique-driven that much—it’s just really good ingredients and prepared simply, and meant to have tons of flavor.

Was there a dish early on that drove the idea behind the restaurant?
It’s probably the steak for two. I thought, I love this so much and I make it so much that it has got to the point where my wife is like, “Look, you’re not making that again.” I figured, why wouldn’t other people love it? It flowed from there.

How would you describe that?
It’s a porterhouse for two, which is a build-your-own-taco kind of thing. Ask my wife—during the summer on a Sunday, I make it all the time. We go to the farmers market; we buy some great tomatoes and green onions. We head to this great little old-school butcher shop to get the meat. We’ll buy flour tortillas, or corn tortillas, and make a bunch of salsas and pico de gallo and stuff like that. Then just invite friends over, grill some steaks, slice it, put it on the table with a bunch of warm tortillas and all the accoutrement, and people just sit around and make their own tacos, and that’s what we put on the menu here. All of it is just traced to the type of food that I cook at home, or the type of food that my wife cooks at home.

If someone is visiting L.A. and comes into this restaurant and sees a hamburger, a Tonkatsu sandwich, and some chilaquiles, what unifies that menu to them?
I think the menu definitely speaks to Los Angeles. Because all of these influences—every bit of it—if you would ask me to write this menu 20 years ago when I moved here, it would have not looked anything like this. It’s a direct reflection of the years that I’ve spent in this city, and learning to love Mexican food—not that it’s a hard thing to learn to love. But you know what I mean.

You get the nuances of it more now.
Yeah, like in New York, especially 20 years ago, there was very little Mexican food to speak of or Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese—all of those things. The influence that you see on this menu and the influence that you see on the menu at Providence are very much flavors that are native to this city in a way, because it’s a city of immigrants. It’s a city that is fragmented not only geographically, and it’s not only broken up into neighborhoods. It’s a city of small neighborhoods, but it’s also a city of small cultural pockets. The Eastside with South and Central Americans, and Mexican and Chinese and Vietnamese and all of that. I think the menu just reflects L.A. I really do.

When drawing from disparate influences, do you worry about accusations of cultural appropriation?
I don’t see it as being disparate; it reflects what Los Angeles is. How many blocks is it from here to get to little Tokyo? To me, it’s perfectly appropriate to have Japanese influence on the menu. It reflects our city. Chinatown is the same number of blocks away. The pasta on the menu you can trace directly back to when we went to Grand Central Market, went to Bel Campo and bought these beautiful little steaks cut from the neck of pigs. We took them home and made red gravy with it and cooked the calamarata pasta with it.

Whatever the influence is, I think it’s perfectly at home on a menu that’s trying to reflect L.A. To me, it’s not about cultural appropriation. To me, it’s an acceptance of other cultures and a celebration of other cultures. In food, it’s a tired and sorry argument ’cause I’ve heard that before from people. Not that people have necessarily accused me of being guilty of cultural appropriation, but to me if I’m guilty of loving a taco and wanting to re-create those flavors, then lock me up. You know what I mean? Where’s the crime? To me it makes no sense.

What’s the line between homage and appropriation?
Is Pok Pok homage or appropriation?

I think homage.
Why?

Because Andy Ricker has approached Thai cooking with a lot of respect.
And a depth of knowledge. And I would say the other thing that defines the difference between cultural appropriation and an homage is, what’s the reason that it’s there? If all I ever cooked at home was steak frites and frisée lardon, then I would understand your point. You would just say that, “You know you’re doing it for commercial purposes to make this menu more approachable.” That’s not the case at all.

If you come to my house on Sunday, you have no idea what you’re going to be walking into. If we go shopping at Nijiya Market, which is a predominantly Japanese market, we’re going to cook one thing for dinner. If we go shopping at Woori Market on Alameda Street, which is a predominantly Korean market, we’re going to be cooking something else. If we go shopping at Highland Park—which is very close to where we live in South Pasadena—at Super A Foods, we’re probably going be cooking carne asada tacos. So what? It’s all out of love, and it’s all out of respect because that’s the food that we crave, and that’s the food that we find delicious, and that’s what we’re trying to bring to this menu. 

Mexican, Japanese, Korean, and French cuisines have much more defined characteristics compared to the notion of American cuisine. Do you think there are unifying principles that make up American cuisine, or is there not American cuisine?
No, there is an American cuisine. But I think the big difference is it has not been codified the way French cuisine has. With the exception of cuisines from the Eastern world, most of what you’d find, especially with European cuisine, is mostly based on French technique. But now there’s much more of a global sort of aesthetic—especially when it comes to modern cuisine.

There are unifying threads through all sorts of modern cuisine, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. Food being produced in Copenhagen shouldn’t look like food being produced in Los Angeles or San Francisco or Tokyo. There should definitely be differences there, but I think that’s part of the modern world that we live in, where everything is accessible within seconds from all the way around the world due to social media.

Beets salad by @damien.brunet #TheArtOfPlating

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I open my Instagram, and I see throughout my feed from Europe to America to Asia a certain aesthetic of an arch of food covered in flowers on an earthenware plate. If food is fashion, that’s a very fashionable presentation right now.
It’s true. No, that’s totally it. That’s very much the way it is. Which, like I said, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

 But you can also look at a Caesar salad from 20 years ago and say “that’s so ’90s.” Our food, like a certain style of shirt, can have an era to it.
Personally, I think that occurs to the detriment of your own creativity. Because people start to follow certain schools. In the early 2000s, it was all El Bulli, and everyone was following that stream, and then everything switched to Noma and Rene’s cuisine. Everybody was chasing after that, and now there are some influential restaurants—and some right here in this city—where their goal is the abstraction of food. You just take whatever it is that you may have as inspiration and just blow it to pieces, and then bring it back and put something on the plate that might or might not resemble food. To me, that trend I think is—well, I don’t know if it’s a trend. I hope it’s not.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, what does?
The best food I’ve ever eaten, and my favorite chef, and the best restaurant experiences I’ve ever had in my life are at Arpège. His cuisine, and his food, is a food that encompasses no trickery—incredible technique, but all techniques that he’s mastered and created on his own. To me, that level of mastery of craft, and knowledge of ingredients and how they act, is something that everyone should aspire to.

And, of course, there are different strains of thought—just like music. You could be a maestro like Yo-Yo Ma, or you could be a maestro like Nels Cline from Wilco, and still be a true master of an instrument or a type of cuisine. I always come back to people like Passard, Michel Bras, Joel Robuchon, David Kinch—people that are just like true masters of flavor and technique, and have true reverence for an ingredient and desire to do nothing more than to present them in their very, very finest form. To me, that’s what cooking is.

What is it about that style of blowing things to pieces and putting it back together that you don’t like?
I shouldn’t even say I don’t like it; it’s just not something that interests me. If I go to Arpège, I want to eat his guinea hen, or I want to eat his vegetable dishes because they’re so incredible, and so incredibly simple. They’re only profound because of his skill and his craft. To me, one of my real mentors, Sottha Khun—the chef from Le Cirque who was Daniel Boulud’s chef de cuisine and was the last Le Cirque chef to receive four stars—he said a truly great chef could make you something you’ll never forget with potatoes and onions, and that’s true. You don’t need trickery, you don’t need a cabinet full of hydrocolloids, you don’t need any of that stuff. You just need simple ingredients and craft and art. That’s so true. It’s very, very true.

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