Interview: chef Ori Menashe (Bestia)
Childhood bode well for Ori Menashe’s culinary development. The up-and-coming chef, who was born in Los Angeles, raised in Israel, and came of age with Gino Angelini restaurants like Angelini Osteria, first started eating at illustrious multi-starred Michelin restaurants from iconic chefs like Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse at age 8, on family trips to France. In elementary school, his dad used to pack pita with smoked salmon (and sometimes caviar) whereas his friends got PB&J. This type of lunch resulted in puzzled looks from friends in the cafeteria, but it left a lasting impression on an aspiring chef. Now, his father and brother run a vaunted sausage grill in Tel Aviv called Vitrina, and Ori’s teaming with red hot restaurateur Bill Chait (Rivera, Playa, Sotto, Picca, Short Order) on an Italian restaurant in downtown L.A.’s Arts District called Bestia. On January 30, we met at Cafecito Organico, and Menashe shared several culinary insights.
Where are you from originally?
I was born here. My parents were from Israel. My dad’s parents were from Georgia, and my mom’s parents were from Morocco. Both of them moved here. After my dad was in the military in Israel, he moved here. They met here. We moved to Israel when I was seven years old.
You served in the Israeli military?
What brought you back to Los Angeles?
Opportunities here are much better, and I knew I wanted to get into cooking. Restaurants in Israel, they’re pretty good, but it’s very, very simple food, grilled meats, simple salads and stuff like that. I wanted to do something extra, so I came here and started my culinary career.
Do you feel like Israel influences your cooking at all?
Definitely…It’s a lot of memories from my childhood. When I cook, I try to get to those same flavors. Sometimes you just taste something and you know it’s right because you had it before, or something similar… Plus Italian cooking and Mediterranean, same flavors. There’s saffron and rosemary and a lot of garlic, same seasonings, just prepared in a different way.
What’s the very first dish that you ever remember cooking?
Probably spaghetti carbonara. That was one of the dishes that was hard to make perfect. I learned it actually from Gino Angelini, three or four years into my cooking. That was probably the dish that didn’t make any sense to me in the beginning, but after you eat it, makes so much sense. To make it perfect, you need some technique. First time trying it, the eggs curdled a little bit, and I had to understand why, how to make it perfect. You could make carbonara with cream, and I don’t know what other people do, but Italians use only egg yolks, or pancetta or guanciale fat, emulsify it, and then black pepper, Parmesan cheese or Pecorino, one of those. I’ve seen it before made with cream, and it just doesn’t taste the same. The first time tasting Gino Angelini’s carbonara was one of my favorite pastas, ‘til today. It’s a classic, really, really good.
What was your very first restaurant job?
I actually worked in a Kosher restaurant on Pico when I first moved here. It was called the Blue Café. It had everything on the menu. It was Mediterranean. They had pasta, and it wasn’t that great. When I started in my first professional kitchen, I was pretty much a deer in the headlights. I was in shock. All the names of all the tools, just a different demeanor in the kitchen. A chef who was really respected in the kitchen by the employees, answering the chef all the time – “Yes, chef. No, chef.” At that restaurant, no one really spoke that way. It was more like, “I need this and this and this,” and you just prepare it.
To review your different stops at restaurants along the way, where did you go after Blue Café?
Yeah. Then I worked for Jason Travi at La Terza for a year-and-a-half. I learned a great deal from him as well. It was a rocky start for me because it was completely different from what I was used to, but Jason pushed me to the limit too. I started there from the lowest and became the sous chef after a year, basically. Jason left Fraiche with Elderoy, the sous chef, so basically, I got the job. They got an Italian chef there, that was the sous chef there for awhile. I started at the salad station, to the pasta, to the rotisserie, to the fish, then I would be able to do any station in the kitchen. Jason has a very similar type of style. He’s a little more on the French side, but him being Lebanese, I kind of understood a lot of the flavors he used to use, like cumin, the same seasonings that were easy for me to understand. Same thing. Elderoy always pushed me to work more hours. Basically he always told me, the people, if they come in at 3 o’clock ‘til 12, if you work from 9 a.m. ‘til 12, you’re going to get another six or seven hours on those people and you’re gonna become better. I always worked two jobs. Always. I worked at one job from 9 in the morning ‘til 3, then leave at 3 and drive to another restaurant at 3:30, and work ‘til 12, six days a week.
Which were the two restaurants you worked at?
When I started doing that, I was working at the Israeli restaurant in the mornings and driving to La Terza at night. After I started working at La Terza more hours, I quit that job and Gino Angelini had me go into Angelini in the mornings. That’s really where I learned to cook pasta and prepare pasta. That’s where I learned the right Carbonara. I would work at Angelini from 9 a.m. to 3, leave and from 3:30 to 12 at La Terza for probably a year. Then I left there and was at Mozza for awhile, at the pizzeria. I was working there and doing some catering with my friend Matthew [Poley].
The same thing for awhile there, and they were building a new restaurant on Melrose called ‘All Angelo. They called me and asked me if I wanted to be sous chef there. After a month, I became the chef de cuisine there. I’d never been a chef ‘til then. They wanted to see how good I was, and stuff like that. A lot of that menu was prepared by me, and Mirko [Paderno] as well. Mirko is a very, very talented chef. I learned a lot from him. Then I brought Matthew into that restaurant as the sous chef there. Me and Matthew worked the line there for probably a year. I was there for another six months. When I worked there, I got a call from Gino Angelini to go be the chef at Angelini Osteria. I got the call from Jason Travi that he was opening a new restaurant in Santa Monica – [Riva] . I spoke to Quinn from Hatfield’s as well. He was looking for a sous chef there. Basically, I met Jason Travi that day and I asked him, “If you were me, what would you do?” He said, “You can’t say no to Gino Angelini. You have to work there.” I spoke to my boss and gave him my normal one or two months, whatever they need to be stable in the kitchen. I left after a month, and two days later I worked at Angelini. I was 27 when I started working there. It’s pretty tough to work in a kitchen where everyone’s older than you and you have people who have been there since the opening, nine years, they don’t somebody that age to tell them to be the boss of them. I’m pretty aggressive in the kitchen.
Do you remember your very first night in that restaurant? How would you describe it?
I still liked it. I learned a lot of stuff there, like all my knife skills, basically. It was fun, but I didn’t think, “Okay, this is going to be my career.”
Did you ever keep Kosher?
As a child, yeah, up until seventh grade, then McDonald’s came in and we’d have cheeseburgers and stuff like that.
How much harder is it to produce a great restaurant if you keep Kosher?
Impossible. You could do it, but I just love pork. That’s one of my main ingredients.
Was it a given that you’d become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
After a year or two in cooking, I knew this is what I want to do. It’s something that gives me adrenaline. I love cooking. I love seeing people smile after they eat something. I would always get that same feeling when I would play soccer. I’m not in the highest level of a soccer player…I can’t see myself working an office job or something like that, something that doesn’t give me satisfaction.
Do you still play soccer ever?
Yeah. We meet up with some people from Terroni and Cecconi’s, mostly Italians. We play soccer. All of us are a little rusty, but you know. You have to see Max Terroni play soccer.
Not bad. For his age, yeah. The truffle guys, they’re actually really good.
The Truffle Brothers?
Yeah. Michael and Marco. They’re good. Michael is really, really good. He probably could have been a soccer player in Israel.
What are some hallmarks of your style as a chef? What would you like to be known for as a chef?
I’ve been creating a lot of cured meats for the last five years, just testing everything. I would want to be known for my cured meats, all-around Italian food, pizza, pasta, everything. I basically want to be known for, I do everything in the house. I don’t buy prosciutto. I make it. If it’s mozzarella, ricotta cheese, burrata, all that stuff, I want to be known as someone who makes it homemade…I want to make everything in-house, go through that whole process and make the flavors my own. I don’t want to use someone else’s flavors at the restaurant.
What will you be able to offer diners at Bestia that you haven’t been able to offer them while working in other people’s restaurants?