What will you be able to offer diners at Bestia that you haven’t been able to offer them while working in other people’s restaurants?
When I was at Angelini, Gino said, “Whatever you want to do with the menu, it’s yours,” but the main menu that was at Angelini was always there from Day One, so I was not able to touch anything like that. It was a given that it was always going to be there, and never going to change. The special menu would be changeable. I changed it every day, depending on the seasons, what we would buy at the farmers market, just whatever fish is fresh at the market. That was changeable, and when I was there, I probably changed the special menu 10 dishes a day. You saw the menu at Angelini. It’s big. So you had the 30 dishes that were there from the beginning, you had another 40 that I would be able to play with, but again, that main menu, I was not allowed to touch. It was a sacred menu, but with my place, basically, I could be 100% free to do whatever I want, and not to stay with Italian and not using any American ingredients. We have great produce here, I don’t only need to use the bitter stuff. Italians, they don’t like to use sweet potato or corn. They use corn as a dry product, like polenta. I don’t mind using it as a fresh product, but if you work in an Italian restaurant, they usually don’t like to go to those places. Me being Israeli, I can basically do whatever I want, because I’m not Italian, though I’ve been cooking in Italian restaurants for nine years.
Do you see signature dishes as a positive or negative?
I’d say it’s a positive. It’s a positive because customers will come back for that dish, so it will keep your restaurant busy for that time. Angelini had signature dishes that were pretty annoying to make every day, because probably 30% of our stuff would be those signature dishes, that lasagna at Angelini or the branzino, all night. They would order more of that than anything else. It’s good. It’s good if it’s an easy preparation. If it’s a difficult preparation, then it would be a lot of trouble. To serve 50 or 60 of something a night is pretty tough.
Do you already have some dishes in mind that could potentially become signature dishes?
You know what. Some stuff that I like is stuff that probably other people – it depends on the people, I think. The people will choose the signature dishes. I can’t really choose. Usually my favorites at other restaurants aren’t their signature dishes. Maybe I won’t even try them. I’ll go for the chicken liver, or for the tripe, or for the heart, and that can’t be a signature dish, because a lot of people won’t allow themselves to eat those dishes.
How did the partnership with Bill Chait come about?
A lot of business meetings and stuff like that, he would have at Angelini over meals. He would come in many times for different tasting menus, or he would come in and just sit and eat something. I would plate completely different stuff, and I started with Test Kitchen. Him and Amy Pressman were there, and Amy pushed me to do Test Kitchen. From that, he was pretty impressed with the results of Test Kitchen. I did it twice. I did one night, it was one of the most successful money wise, customer wise, the place was packed. It was on a Monday night, and we served 150 people in that small place. I did the last night too. I did the last night that it was a single chef. There was another night where it was five chefs that did it. I was the night before that. I did a truffle dinner that involved the Truffle Brothers as well. That was really successful. I think we served close to 200 people that night. Then basically he approached me, and I decided I wanted to do something on my own, so I approached him. We brought our deals together. He’s a great guy to get into business with, because he has so many successful restaurants. He’s great in business. He knows what he’s doing, and it’s important to have someone in the front of the house that knows what he’s doing.
How did you decide on the name Bestia, and the location of the restaurant?
Bestia means beast in Italian, and I just say that a lot in the kitchen, about the employees and myself. Plus we’re going to have a whole charcuterie program, line of meats, so it pretty much matches what’s going to happen at the restaurant. We’re going to have a lot of fish and vegetarian stuff as well, but it’s going to be a big part of the restaurant.
How did you decide on the Arts District?
That was basically me, my wife, and Bill. We just love what’s going on in downtown. All the architectural buildings, is very our style, metal, wood, and the people there, they want to try new things. They don’t want to eat the normal Italian pasta, ravioli and meatballs, tomato sauce, or fish with salad. They want to try the new, a little bit more creative Italian food. That whole vibe there is great. You go into Church & State and see the people that are sitting there, it’s a bunch that I would want to sit there with them. It’s less flashy, everyone to their own. They want to enjoy the food, they don’t care about what’s going on, or if there’s paparazzi outside. At Angelini, we would have paparazzi there every night. We would have actors that would come in. It’s a little bit more about the food.
What’s been the biggest challenge in opening a restaurant?
Just the wait. The wait is tough. I’m dreaming food. I try to go to sleep and I’m dreaming about new stuff. I have my notebook next to me, I write it down, then I wake up and wonder, “What did that mean?” The wait is pretty tough. I want to start already. I’m so eager. My wife, she’s going to do a lot of the pastries, all the pastries basically, and she’s been perfecting stuff at home. She’s doing a stage at Mezze as well. She worked at Short Cake, the new place at the farmers market. And she’s leaving for Chez Panisse next month to do a stage there as well. She’s testing food all the time. I’m eating so much pastries, it’s ridiculous.
What’s your wife’s name?
Who do you consider mentors, and what did you learn from them?
Gino Angelini is my biggest mentor. The first thing he taught me is you have to work more than everyone else. Gino is the first one in the kitchen and he’s the last one out, even at his age now. Basically, if you’re the first one in the kitchen and the last one out, then nobody can complain, “Oh, I’m tired,” because you’ve been there all day. They’re not even going to even mention something like that if you work harder than everyone else. That’s one thing I learned from Gino, the love for cooking, how many hours he needs to spend to perfect everything, and to manage everything. That was one thing, and he pushed me into situations where – I’m young – he pushed me into situations where I had to toughen up and do them. His whole cooking is just great. He doesn’t rush anything. He cooks everything the way it’s supposed to be cooked. Even if you’re busy, you can’t rush anything. You have to do it the right way. He’s definitely taught me a lot.
Every chef I’ve worked for, I always learn something from them. I worked for Nancy [Silverton] for three, four months when they opened the pizzeria. Even in three, four months, I learned from Nancy. She’s a really, really talented chef. She’s really talented. Just the way she tastes something, every dish that she creates, she’ll taste and run through the whole kitchen and make everyone taste it, and everyone has to have a comment about it. Then she decides what to do with it. If it’s menu worthy, or not menu worthy, or how to make it menu worthy. She’s very obsessed. All the great chefs are obsessed about their food. You can’t just not be in the kitchen and run your kitchen from the outside. You have to be there to make things taste the way they are. That’s why most chefs, the first restaurant they open, is probably people’s favorite, because that’s their baby. That’s where they spend so many hours. You can’t just open a restaurant and then not do that. Nancy’s there every night of the week.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in your kitchen?
I love talented people. There’s a lot of people that love having people that don’t know much next to them, because they can teach them a lot. I’ll give an option to anyone that’s really, really hungry. If it’s a culinary student, I’ll take them in, because I’ll take them in and mold them to what I want them to be. When you have more experienced people, you can’t mold them anymore, because they’ve been doing it for 12 years. I like to have those people in the kitchen too, because it brings the level of the restaurant to a higher level. I’m not insecure to have people who have been doing it for 20 years next to me, because it’s my cooking. It’s not going to change. It’s going to be this way, and if you have ideas, I’m happy to get ideas as well. It’s good to have an elaborate kitchen, where some of them are beginners, and they’ll give anything to get ahead, and it’s good to have people who have been doing it for a long time. That’s how you balance the kitchen. Every group, even if it’s a soccer team, you have to have to have the younger and senior players as well. That’s what balances and brings confidence in the kitchen. You can’t have nervous kids coming in. You’re going to lose your mind. You need to have a great team, great leaders in the kitchen. My sous chef is great. He’s been working in restaurants for a long, long time. He’s a leader.
If you could travel to any city in the world right now, primarily to eat, what would it be and how come?
Probably Umbria. That whole area is unbelievable. Every place you go there, you don’t need to go to a one-star Michelin or a two-star Michelin. You could go into some small restaurant. The first is just great, and so simple, the way they treat their animals. The history of food there is incredible. Probably Umbria. The only problem is every time we go, we gain a lot of weight. Instead of two meals a day, it becomes five meals a day. We have a pre-lunch, after-lunch, pre-dinner and dinner, just to be able to taste as much as possible. All the cheeses and meats during the day, restaurants and lunch for dinner. It’s crazy, all about food.
Do you have any travel plans coming up?
Before we open, probably Israel for a couple weeks, then we’re deciding to go back to Italy for maybe a week or two.
Would that be for research?
Always. Even when you’re in Hawaii, you learn new things, you know? One of those two, or maybe England. I’m really into English food right now too…I like that style. They use a lot of the cheaper parts of the animal, and stuff like that. English food is on the rise right now, because people are not afraid to try those things, like blood sausage and all the liver. Maybe we’ll even go there.
If you could only cook with one more protein, what would it be and how come?
That’s tough. If you tell me which animal, I can tell you which animal. Pig.
Every cut has so much options to use it for. There are other animals as well, but I think pig preserves really well, so you could cure it, you could age it, it’s just so many options, and the flavor’s great. And it goes well with so many things. It goes with fish dishes. It’s just so versatile.