Jason Travi grew up in the shadow of Plymouth Rock and first jumped into the kitchen at Vin & Eddie’s, becoming the third generation of Travi men to man the stoves. The Culinary Institute of America grad relocated to L.A. to cook at Granita in Malibu, shifted to Spago and La Terza, and eventually opened his own restaurants, including nationally acclaimed Fraiche. Travi is now executive chef of Superba Food & Bread in Venice and Littlefork in Hollywood. On August 8, I met Travi at Superba, where he shared insights into his background and approach.
JL: How old were you when you got your first shift at Vin & Eddie’s?
JT: I started when I was 15. I had cousins who started when they were 12. I’m not sure of the legality of that one.
JL: Were you allowed to consider other professions?
JT: I was encouraged to consider other professions. In fact, my parents never wanted me to work in the kitchen. I completely understand why now, as an adult. It’s just one of those things. The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it, and the more I felt like I was getting better at it.
JL: What’s the first dish you ever remember cooking?
JT: Probably chicken Parmigiana, clams casino, veal Oscar. Those were a lot of the dishes we made at my dad’s restaurant. Clams in red sauce, really generic sounding East Coast Italian food that’s delicious. When I go home, that’s the first place I go. It makes me feel like I’m a kid again.
JL: I miss that stuff. I grew up in New Jersey, so I can relate.
JT: It’s great food. Every now and then, I consider, “Should I open a place like that in L.A.?” You don’t see it very often, and when you do, it’s done very poorly. I think it would do really well. The first time I ever talked to Patric Kuh on the phone, from LA Magazine, he asked me about my background. I told him, and he was like, “That place would kill it in Los Angeles.”
JL: No doubt about it. So what’s stopping you?
JT: I don’t know if I really want to cook that food. It’s monotonous, and you can’t change. That menu is the menu, and it’s set. That’s all people want. They don’t want anything creative, and I don’t blame them. That concept, you want the same 15 or 20 dishes. You want prosciutto and melon, you want veal Oscar, and you can’t change anything. From a chef’s standpoint, it gets boring really fast, because you always want to change things. Either you want to work with food that’s really in season, and that changes quickly, or you feel like you can make a dish better, so you want to change it to make it better. That frustrates customers.
JL: What does a dish have to be to go on the menu at Littlefork?
JT: It has to have my approval and Josh [Rabbie]’s approval. It just has to match the concept. The concept is New England and Montreal style food. We’re not necessarily looking for traditional, regional dishes. We’re looking for dishes that make me feel like I’m there. Being a New Englander, that could be anything. Spending time in Montreal, you’re pinpointed to the five or six things that call out Montreal. Obviously maple syrup, smoked meats, poutine, things like that. You just want to evoke those dishes.
JL: What does a dish have to be at Superba Food & Bread?
JT: One of the criteria for Food & Bread is bread being part of that dish in some way. 35 – 40% of our menu is bread focused. It would be difficult in Los Angeles to do that. We do get a lot of flack for it. We definitely try to help anyone who has food intolerance or Celiac or anything like that. We are a bakery, so we can only do so much. Bread is usually the impetus for most dishes. The other thing is, we just want to have fun. We have a really fun environment and atmosphere. We know we can’t make the food too fancy. Also, with an open kitchen, you want to see people having fun. People don’t have fun at fancy restaurants. You might have a great time, but fun is not usually the word used to describe those places.
JL: People don’t even have the option to go to that many fancy restaurants in L.A.
JT: Yeah, but the older you get, likely, you worked in some really high-end restaurant at some point in time. Myself and all my friends who are around my age, we all feel exactly the same way. We all have those thoughts, like, “Maybe I’m going to be the guy who recreates these fancy restaurants and opens something that’s really high end and uses nothing but the best and unfortunately has to charge accordingly for it.” Then we all chicken out because we know that no one wants that anymore, but it goes through all of our heads.
JL: Are you okay knowing that nobody wants [fine dining] anymore?
JT: It’s frustrating. That’s part of the reason we like to travel to other cities. You can go to Napa and get experiences like that. Even in New York, you’ve seen it falling by the wayside. It’s getting harder and harder to find it. From a chef’s standpoint, those are the places you go to see things that are different, to see things that you couldn’t do. It’s a learning experience and it’s getting less and less like that. The good thing that came out of that is you’re seeing crazy techniques that only restaurants can do, in mom and pop style places. They spent nothing to get it open, just to get it open, but they’re utilizing all the techniques they learned at fancy restaurants, and not charging an arm and leg for it. That’s great to see. All that stuff’s trickling down into more everyday style restaurants.
JL: What’s the most recent dish that you developed here at Superba Food & Bread, and what was your approach?
JT: We got these really beautiful candy stripe figs. They’re green on the outside and have yellow stripes. When you open them, they’re purple on the inside. They’re really beautiful, from the desert in Southern California. We make a toast. On the bottom of the toast is mascarpone, crème fraiche and blue cheese. That’s mixed together and spread on the toast. Then just sliced figs with salt. With that is bacon confit – bacon cooked in duck fat and crisped up a little bit – and then saba, which is similar to balsamic vinegar, but not the same. Super simple, really delicious, and really obnoxiously seasonal, but we’re enjoying every minute of it.
JL: What was your first night like cooking in a professional kitchen? I guess it was your family’s kitchen.