Genevieve Gergis first met Ori Menashe while they were both working at La Terza in Mid-City. They each tell a version of the story in the new cookbook they co-wrote with Lesley Suter, Bestia: Italian Recipes Created in the Heart of L.A.. They’ve gone on to marry, have a daughter named Saffron, and open two revered restaurants. Bestia is now an Italian juggernaut with Mediterranean influences that helped to change the direction of DTLA’s Arts District, but in the cookbook’s intro, Gergis calls it “a restaurant that never should have worked.” With success, many of those reasons have melted away, and Bavel is their modern Middle Eastern restaurant follow-up in the same neighborhood and an instant hit. Both chefs have earned local acclaim, and veteran food writer Jeff Gordinier recently named Gergis 2018 Esquire Pastry Chef of the Year, vaulting her to the national stage. Gergis and I recently traded e-mails to get a better sense for her outlook and approach.
Joshua Lurie: What was the very first dessert that you ever remember making, and how did it turn out?
Genevieve Gergis: When I was around 7 years old, my mother was outside deep into conversation with our next door neighbor. I took the opportunity to throw a bunch of stuff together (eggs, flour, sugar, butter, vanilla) into a bowl and mixed it together. Poured it into a brownie pan and threw it into the oven. My mom came back just in time to see it almost fully baked. When sampled, it sort of tasted like a blondie. I don’t recall it being that memorable of a flavor, but my mom claims that it was pretty good.
JL: What are the elements that a dessert needs to make Bavel’s menu? Also, how are those desserts different from what you’d serve at Bestia?
GG: At Bestia, the desserts are a lot more playful and reminiscent of childhood with inspiration from both Italy and California. The desserts at Bavel are classical desserts that have flavor profiles from the Middle East.
JL: How do you balance innovation with authenticity in your cooking?
GG: I don’t. I only think about what tastes good and what I want to eat.
JL: Tell me the story about the most recent dessert you created. What was your inspiration and approach?
GG: Right now I’m working on a new dessert for Bavel that may or may not make it to the menu which includes concentrated roasted pineapple, black tahini ice cream, orange blossom, and yogurt. The inspiration behind this was a cocktail that I tasted at Manresa for our anniversary last year.
JL: Who else do you look to in the restaurant industry for inspiration, guidance, and advice?
GG: I don’t look so much to anyone in the industry, as I look to the flavors that I run into in random, everyday situations. Sometimes it’s from an unknown bakery or a family recipe from a friend. For example, at Bavel the licorice bon bon is from a candy I tasted in Copenhagen. Or the frozen strawberry torte from the Bestia cookbook is roughly based off of the flavor profile of a Good Humor strawberry shortcake bar.
JL: What was your reaction to being named 2018 Esquire Pastry Chef of the Year, and what does the award mean to you?
GG: I was pretty shocked to be honest. I never expected to ever be awarded anything of this nature. I still haven’t fully absorbed what it means to me.
JL: Bestia is by all accounts a big success. What were your expectations for Bestia before the restaurant opened?
GG: Not a whole lot. We were expecting to be more like the bar from Cheers. You know, the restaurant around the corner from your house where everybody knows your name. I hope that for many people, we are that.
JL: What were the biggest challenges in creating the Bestia Cookbook?
GG: Trying to write a cookbook while trying to open a massive behemoth of a new restaurant at the same time. Not recommended.
JL: What was the final cut from the cookbook, the recipe you considered including, but weren’t able to include?
GG: The peaches & cream recipe. My editor told me that I already had way too many complicated recipes. Because the clotted cream takes over 24 hours, they decided that that would be the one that should be axed.