It may have been the Pacific Ocean currents, but Providence chef/co-owner Michael Cimarusti landed onshore in Honolulu for the inaugural Hawaii Food and Wine Festival. One of L.A.’s only true fine dining practitioners became well known for his commitment to sea creatures, first at Water Grill, and now at the Melrose restaurant he co-owns with front of house counterpart Donato Poto. Given that, it was fitting that Cimarusti showcased Kona kampachi for the fest’s weekend finale at the Hilton Waikiki Beach, titled From Mauka to Makai: Hawai’i’s Sustainable Future. However, before he did, the CIA grad discussed his background and touched on the future.
Why is it important for you to open a second restaurant?
It just seems like a natural sort of progression. We have a lot of talented people at Providence that have been with us – many of them – since the day we opened six and a half years ago. Opportunity is an important thing for young people and more than anything else, one of the biggest reasons we want to do this is to give opportunity to people that have been loyal to us. Opening a second restaurant gives us that chance.
What was your very first night like working in a professional restaurant kitchen?
My very first night in a professional kitchen was pretty difficult. I was working at a small mom and pop place, so in a place like that you’re called on to do a lot of different things, and my skill set was pretty limited, so it was a test. From the beginning I was just sort of hooked on the speed of the whole thing, the adrenaline rush that really being pushed brings you, and that was it.
Where was it?
It was at a restaurant in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the Forager House, which was a small, but really really great restaurant that I spent probably two-and-a-half years working at. I wound up working there because as a kid, it was the special occasion restaurant I used to go to with my parents. I enjoyed many, many meals there at the table, then I wound up working there as a young adult.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in your kitchen?
I look for people that are hard working and earnest and sort of understand what we’re going to expect of them. I look for people that just come without pretense, that come to work without any pretense whatsoever. I think people get kind of swept up in the whole celebrity aspect of cooking. For me, that’s not nearly as important as the craft of cooking. If you want to be successful at Providence, you have to be fully invested in improving your ability to cook. If that’s not something you’re interested in, we’re not interested in you.
If you could only cook with one protein, what would it be and why?
It would probably be Santa Barbara spot prawns.
Because I think they’re just one of the most delicious things that I’ve ever come across. We’re lucky in Southern California to be able to get them nine or 10 months out of the year. I’ve traveled in quite a few places, and I’ve never had a prawn as good, I can honestly say.
Who’s the person you’ve never cooked with that you would most like to cook with?
I’ve never cooked side by side with Thomas Keller, and I think that would be the one guy. I’ve done events with him and stuff like that, but I would love to cook breakfast with him in my house, or in his house, whichever.
What was the last meal that you cooked at home?
It was probably a couple weeks ago. We did grilled rib-eye in the backyard on my trusty Weber grill.
What was the last international trip that you took and how did that impact what you’re doing at Providence?
Last week, I was in Mougins in the south of France at Les Etoiles de Mougins. It was a big culinary festival. I was cooking. I FedExed a bunch of ingredients over there, and then the tools that I needed to pull of the dishes that I wanted to do were unavailable to me, so I improvised and did a completely different dish which is now on the menu at Providence.
It’s a smoked crème fraiche panna cotta with geoduck clam, Santa Barbara sea urchin and Santa Barbara spot prawn.
How would your restaurant be different if it was in North Dakota?
If it was in North Dakota, I think we’d probably be serving bison, beef and wheatgrass.
What and where do you like to drink when you’re not working?
I like to drink Pliny the Elder at 38 Degrees in Alhambra.
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