Initially, Brian Dunsmoor and Kris Tominaga were key players in a very Venetian story. The chefs met while cooking at Joe’s Restaurant on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Dunsmoor was the daytime sous chef, and Tominaga handled the nighttime shift. They bonded on First Mondays, becoming friends and bridging culinary philosophies when they ate with the kitchen crew at different restaurants on the first Monday of each month. They eventually joined forces, presiding over the kitchen at an extended Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing pop-up at Capri, fusing Dunsmoor’s comforting Georgia born approach with Tominaga’s seasonal California craftsmanship. This fall, the duo made their concept permanent with the opening of The Hart + The Hunter at Palihotel in Los Angeles. On November 27, I met with Dunsmoor and Tominaga, who shared culinary insights.
At what point did you start to think it might be a good idea to do your own thing together?
Tominaga: I don’t think we started talking about it until Brian had already left Joe’s. We were both sous chefs at Joe’s. He was the daytime sous chef and I was the nighttime sous chef. We didn’t really work together a whole lot because there was a crossover in the daytime, but we’d go out drinking and talk food and things like that, but mostly we would do this thing called First Mondays. The first Monday of every month, we would bring the whole crew out to eat somewhere, so everybody would get out and see what’s going on in this town. It was always the first Monday of every month because Monday is the day everybody had off, and it was always the day after the paycheck, so we’d go eat and drink. I think when we first started talking about our own spot, we went to Lazy Ox Canteen. We got stuffed and wasted and said, “We should do our own spot.”
Dunsmoor: We were sitting on the patio just like [groaning].
Tominaga: We might have been lying on top of a table.
Dunsmoor: That was rough. We ate the whole menu.
Tominaga: Then we just started talking about it a little bit and would revisit it every once in awhile. A lot of people in the industry tend to fantasize a little bit. “We should do a spot. What should we do?” And then just casually go through it. We’d talk about it, and it really came up when the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing opportunity came along.
In what ways do you complement each other in the kitchen?
Tominaga: If we were going to go specifically on food basis, being Southern, Brian does a lot more braised and long cooking. He’s a lot better at the braised long-cooking thing, with black-eyed peas, collard greens, longer cooking meats and developing flavors in a long period. With the California side, I’m a little more vinaigrettes and fresh things and salad-y things, and it’s not that we’re not both strong with those things. We both do those things, but I think just where our heads tend to go on certain things, but if you look at our menu, our dishes are combinations of those things. Like deep, developed braised flavors, long cooking flavors, and then we’ll freshen them up with a lot of bright salad-y things, not that they’re salads.
Dunsmoor: That’s exactly what it is. I’m heavy handed, he’s light handed. When you put it together, it just kind of levels out.
What would a dish have to be for you to serve it here? Are there any common threads?
Tominaga: The common thread at the end of the day is that it has to be high flavor. There’s almost never anything we want to do that’s conceptual. There’s nothing we want to do because it’s cool or because we did it a certain way. It’s all judged by flavor.
Dunsmoor: If something’s not going to affect the flavor, we’re not going to bother with it, because that’s the only thing that really matters.
Tominaga: I think we both have pretty good palates, but we’re also both big on big, in your face flavors.
Dunsmoor: Everybody does sautéed broccoli with chile and garlic. It’s all over the place. We do baby broccoli on the grill with a chile vinaigrette with anchovy and pickled garlic and stuff like that, and it really makes it pop. We think it’s on a different level, same concept, but more flavor packed in.
What’s the most recent dish that you came up with? Tell me about the collaboration.
Tominaga: We haven’t moved the menu that much since we opened. With the new season, we’re going to have to start changing it around a bit. The most recent dish that we put back on was the scallops. If you were going to go through the collaboration on the scallops, it’s a butter based dish and it’s real rich and it’s vermouth heavy. I would say Brian is a heavier user of vermouth than I am, but it works really well. It’s basically a dish based on butter and likker of the scallops, so you’re taking bay scallops and getting all that sweetness and likker out of them so you can mount with the butter, and you taste all that scallop flavor in the sauce, and it’s almost more about the sauce than it is about the scallops, because it lets off all that rich scallop flavor. Then you have this grilled piece of bread underneath that kind of sops it up and gives it some texture. That’s kind of the rich of the dish. It’s a lot of the brine. To top it off, we take pea tendrils and chiles and this soleto that we make. That’s something I’ve been carrying around with me for awhile. We use it on a lot of things. That’s the bright, Mediterranean flavors. It’s an anchovy syrup.
Dunsmoor: Colatura di alici, is what they call it.
Tominaga: Anchovy syrup and olive oil, so it’s a real Mediterranean thing, real strong, bright spicy flavor, with the greens and it comes together and balances out that richness.
What’s your favorite part about running your own restaurant?
Tominaga: It really is everything. We like all aspects of it. We’re not just chefs. That’s what comes first. The food comes first. Part of The Hart + the Hunter is a food forward eatery. Then there’s a lot of other aspects to it. We’re not just doing food and passing it out. There’s a lot of other elements, like the design element. We like having our hands a little bit in the front of the house. We’re using mismatched plates. We have kind of a homey feel.
Dunsmoor: We pick our own dishes and nobody tells us what’s right or what’s wrong. We get to pick everybody that we work with, which is one of the biggest and most important things about us coming up. The front of the house that we chose at the beginning just nailed it, the first time around. That was a huge part of Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Right neck and neck with the food. Vibe and food go together.
How many people from the old incarnation are still with you?
Dunsmoor: Everybody, except one guy who recently had to leave to go take care of his kids.
Tominaga: The whole front of house crew from the last round, from bussers to servers, is still with us. The bulk of the kitchen is still with us. We had to slim it down because we’re a smaller operation, so we have less cooks, but they all came with us.
Dunsmoor: It’s very family oriented.
Tominaga: At a lot of restaurants it tends to be front of the house versus back of the house, and the front of the house is all friends and the back of the house is all friends and we don’t really cross over. Here it’s all one big family. In the middle, there’s kind of us cooking and all the servers are there in the kitchen. They have no problem with helping to garnish plates and finish off plates, knowing everything. So they’ll get in there and taste everything, knowing what everything tastes like and everything should look like, just like any kitchen should be. They’re a little bit more in there because they’re in that kitchen, seeing everything that happens, how long everything takes to do, how everything should be on the plates, and in what order. So they can kind of help to push everything out.
What’s the biggest challenge for you in running a restaurant?