Interview: chef Josie Le Balch (Josie + Next Door By Josie)

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Josie Le Balch was practically weaned in the kitchen and started working for her father at his Sherman Oaks restaurant, Chef Gregoire, beginning at age 14. She eventually branched out on her own, working for a pre-Spago Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison. She cooked at Remi, then hit the hills, climbing to the executive chef post at Saddle Peak Lodge, and clocked time at the Beach House on Santa Monica’s Channel Road before opening her self-title Josie Restaurant in 2001. A decade later, she debuted Next Door by Josie, sharing a kitchen with her sister establishment. I spoke with her on April 3 at the Next Door By Josie, and Le Balch shared insights that hint at why she’s cultivated culinary success.

Was it a given that you’d become a chef for a living, or did you consider other careers?

We always cooked in the house, because it was just a thing that we did. For me it was kind of like getting grounded. There was an opportunity for me to hang out with my dad, which I really enjoyed doing. I never really looked at it as a career, per se, but I always wanted to be with my dad. My dad was very French, and they don’t really have women in the kitchen, so it was kind of a thing that my brother should be the chef, and my brother became like the nuclear physicist in the family.

Literally, he’s a nuclear physicist?

No, he’s not, he’s actually a programming engineer, but I always joked with him. It’s funny, because one of the gals that was influential to me was actually here the other day. Her name’s Olivia. There was another woman named Susan, who’s no longer with us, but these two ladies were apprenticing with my dad, coming in, paying for the classes and working there for free. I remember one day, I came in and it was on a Saturday. I probably wanted to go out, but I had to work, and I remember this one girl Susan said, “I can’t believe what an opportunity you have. All these people are paying your dad, and you don’t see it right in front of you.” It changed my viewpoint on what I was doing. I loved to cook, and I loved hanging out with him, and I think I had a good natural ability. Even now, I think 1 out of 10 kids has a really good natural ability, and the other one wants it so bad. And you wonder if somebody became a lawyer and somebody became a doctor, or somebody went to culinary school. Like the idea of the Food Network now. I think it gets a lot of people interested before they actually even work in a kitchen. I was really fortunate. Maybe because it was in the family, I had a natural ability to it. I really loved doing it, and it took somebody saying, “Hey, hello, you can actually do this.”

Would you say you’ve had any other mentors over the years?

Yes, when I went to go work at Remi with Francesco Antonucci, I went to work there because I’d already worked like 20 years in haute cuisine and French cuisine. I wanted to see something different. Ironically, he had just discovered Paul Bocuse, so he was doing all this French stuff, and I wanted to learn all this Italian stuff. But the Venetian style of cooking was close enough to the Austrian and French style that I kind of fit in with him. The owner at the time was Jivan Tabibian and Jivan was also one of Francesco’s good friends. Jivan was not a chef. He was an eater of fine foods and really taught me a lot about palate. I used to play a game with him. I would put something screwy in the dish just to mess with him and he would call me out to the table. He used to smoke like three or four cigars a day. He had the most acute palate of anybody I’ve ever worked with. He really taught me a lot about food and people and the quest for food. I went to Europe on a trip with him and we were riding from Paris to Venice to meet some people and he had some businesses in Paris. We ate our way, and his whole life was the Michelin guide. He had two guides and know where we would go to lunch and where we would go to dinner, which was just an amazing experience with him. It taught me a lot about another side that I hadn’t really been paying attention to. I think you almost take it for granted when you grow up in it. Sometimes I did a lot of travel and I never appreciated it as a teenager, because you were always upset that you lost your summer vacation and had to go live with an aunt in Paris. Now I realize I wish she still lived there. Jivan was a big influence on me.

Ann Ehringer from Saddle Peak, from a different perspective, from a business perspective. I saw a woman, and not just in the industry, but in business, who gave you the tools that you needed to do your job, and then showed me the smarts to then step away and let people do that job. She allowed me to do that. She was great at bringing people together and taught us how to work as a team. From a business aspect, she was a great mentor.

And then my partner that I have here, who gave me the most opportunities. When I met him, I was blessed to have somebody who always has my back. He also taught me about business, but then said to me one day, “Are you having fun? Because if you’re not having fun, it’s not worth doing.” It’s like every level I’ve gotten to in life, I have somebody who steps in and shows me another perspective of what I’m doing.

What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in your kitchen?

I look for a lot of different things for a lot of different positions. One of the things that Francesco taught me…I had always been used to haute service, and he had a totally different perspective of finding people that could smile, finding somebody that has a good, magnetic personality, that has that face and energy that you want to be around, and then teach them how to serve. Because you can’t teach somebody how to smile. I learned that 20 years into the business, and as I’ve progressed, you start realizing, it’s not just about the acute service somebody gives. People want to be around good energy. We have servers that people call to sit with, cause it’s a whole entertainment. It’s the mood when they walk in the door. I think that’s for the front of the house.

And then the kitchen’s interesting. My dad used to call it the power behind the throne. I have a lot of energetic people and they come in and I wonder. It’s like my resume’s complete. I don’t need another person on it. I like commitment from somebody. I want them here for a year, because I don’t want to see another heirloom tomato on another menu. It’s important that we have an exchange of thought and ideas out of respect, and I think some of that’s lost. A lot of people just want to burn through a bunch of kitchens. I want them to be here for a year, if possible, so they can see the whole picture. I have guys that don’t have any aspiration to own a restaurant or be chefs. It’s a job. They have children. They want to come into work and go. But they care about what they’re doing and are the power behind the throne.

Then we have people who are strong and energetic like Milo the chef or Jami, the girl who’s here at lunch. She came here when she was 15. Her mother came up to me at a charity event and said, “My daughter wants to cook.” I said, “Have her come in next week.” She showed up for the interview, a little shy. I started to wonder, is this somebody that doesn’t have a lot of social skills, and they’re not into sports? Totally into sports, total artist, does a million different things, and this is one of the things she wanted, and her friends weren’t interested to do this in their spare time. She showed up, then showed up again, and she’s been with me for – “How old are you, Jami?” “22.” – So she works a couple years, and her mom had this great idea. Instead of sending her to college, they took all the money and send her traveling. She went to Florence and lived in Italy with some friends and worked in a restaurant there. And worked in Venice with some friends of ours. And worked in Sicily, and then went to Japan. She does this travel thing and lives abroad for awhile, and then comes back and always has a job here, so she can make some cash. And helps me. She came back when we were opening and helped train a couple people and worked her way through all our stations. She’s a writer, which is what she wants to do, about her travels and food.

Or my chef, Mai, who started with us on the other side and is now running all the ordering…When we were planning over here, we wanted to do a lot of different things. We were laughing. It’s like the Josie side. “What kind of food is it?” When we were opening, I had a year to plan because they were not letting us open, and I had come up with a tagine idea I wanted to do, and I didn’t want it to be locked into any specific thing. I hate the word eclectic, but I want good food and I want to have fun when I cook.

What’s the criteria for a dish that goes on the menu at Next Door and what about at Josie? How’s it different?

This side, we knew we were going to have charcuterie. We wanted to do that. By the time we got open, which took a year, it’s like everybody’s got one, so how can we do it where it’s unique? So we have American charcuterie. We have hams, and we didn’t do prosciutto, and we didn’t do some of those things. A lot of the stuff, we’re looking for local artisans that are doing Italian style or another style. The cheeses are American. That was one of the things that we took off on. Then I did some of stuff, like the pate that we had was the one from my dad’s restaurant, that we used to do. I wanted to have inspirational dishes to us. When Mai and I were talking, we wanted to do a banh mi sandwich. Now people are doing it. What’s going to make ours different?

So what is the twist on the banh mi that makes it different?

We’re doing it with a duck confit that you don’t normally see. Just that little preparation that makes it something different, but it’s still the classic peppers and the cucumbers. The mayo that she makes has a special little spice to it. There’s a sofrito that she mixes with the duck and ginger. She cuts everything perfectly. The care that she takes in something like that, I think it makes it a little bit different.

The criteria stuff, I have the Remi goat cheese that people always ask me for. I have the kickass chili from Saddle Peak that they don’t have on the menu anymore. I’ve been yelled at in restaurants, like I was working at the Beach House, and one guy yelled at me cause they took the kickass chili off the menu at Saddle Peak. “Dude, I don’t know.” I have a variation of that. We did our favorites and fun things that people wanted and we wanted. It’s just an ever-changing.

We wanted to do that pork sandwich…We wanted to do not a Philly style. I went with a friend, Mark Spanner, he’s a friend of my husband’s. He’s such a foodie. He lives in New York. The first time we went to their house…he picked us up at the airport and stops at his butcher, the fish guy, the little market in town, and I was like almost in tears by the time we’re done, because I’m thinking, “Oh, great, we’re going to get to his house on the water, and I’m going to be cooking for 25 people, stuck in somebody’s kitchen again.” It was not going to be a vacation for me. I was so upset – not saying anything – because he was so excited to show me everything. Soon as we get back to his house, he has a huge kitchen, he has a pizza oven in his kitchen. He pulls out two cutting boards, two glasses, and his knife box, and says, “Let’s cook together.” He was so excited that it changed that view that I had. On the different journeys I’ve been with him now, we went to a Foreign Legion club, someplace in Rye, and we went in, and the guy makes lunch there only. They had this unbelievable pork sandwich I had to have. And it was with steamed, sautéed rapini with a little bit of chile flakes, and that’s where the idea came from for this. Somebody told me it’s like a Philly pork sandwich, which I didn’t know, so we played with that and did fried rapini.

It’s recognizable. They don’t fry their rapini, and there are definitely some differences.

Yeah, so mostly it’s finding fun stuff we want to play with and tweaking a little bit, that tastes good, or we feel like eating. The thing that’s different on the Josie side, it’s elevated. What’s nice is that I work so much with the farmers market, it’s an expense to bring that in, but now that I’m buying a little bit more volume now, I can share those things on this side. I may not do all of the peas I’m bringing in and do a pea soup, because it takes so much. I might do that on that side [Josie], but I may do a hint of it on this side, so we can share a little bit of the flavors. But obviously the price point is 1/3 of the Josie side, and portions are different. It’s more of a gastropub on this side, with a little twist of what’s going on, on that side we have barramundi and some of the more high-end fishes, and try to do some fun stuff on the side. Cod, or fried halibut, there are different things we can do to balance it out.

What’s the biggest challenge about operating more than one restaurant?


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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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