Learning to Love LA–a NY chef explores the Los Angeles food scene

Chef Annette TomeiEat & Tell with Chef Annette Tomei

If you’ve read many of the Eat and Tell posts I’ve written over the years, you probably already know that I’ve always been an East Coast girl, even when I lived on the West Coast. To top it off, I’m a New Yorker, and as such, I’ve been a little prejudice against Los Angeles for a good long time. For years, friends have been trying to convince me of the wonders of life in sunny southern California. They’ve met with little success – and a bit of Brooklyn attitude to top it off!

Well, all that began to change after my most recent visit, a detour between a family ski vacation in Deer Valley, Utah and a return to winter in New York. I was only in LA for 36 hours-give or take, but managed to pack in several days’ worth of activities, as well as a few days’ worth of food and drink.

It was a relatively short flight from sunny soft, warm breezes back to the cold and wet of NYC at the end of winter. For the first time, I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to my “reality.” Something about the bright orange tangerines on the tree outside the door as I was leaving, and memories of the exciting new foods and drinks I’d enjoyed the night before were lingering in my mind – making me question my decades-long mental block against the City of Angels.

Seemingly out of the blue, media and magazines were as caught up in the wonders of LA as I was becoming. On my flight home, I read an article in Gastronomica (Winter 2010, Issue 10, Volume 1) about the notable absence of women in the ranks of the world’s top chefs (Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?). The author, Charlotte Druckman, proposes that the two women chefs most likely to be considered for such “honor” found their success not in NYC or even San Francisco, but in Los Angeles. Druckman’s choices to rival the David Changs and Mario Batalis of the world are Suzanne Goin and Nancy Silverton (who actually partnered with Batali on a couple of LA hotspots, Mozza and Osteria Mozza). As a woman chef who has long battled with the same question, this article alone is enough to draw my attention and respect for a city I have frequently dismissed as one in which the restaurant spectacle far outweighed the seriousness of the cuisine. Seems I have a lot more to learn about LA restaurants – that puts at least a couple more trips on this year’s calendar. (Hope Amy’s ready for that!)

Los Angeles food scene

Then when I arrived home, I noticed that my other favorite food magazine, Saveur, also finds Los Angeles worthy of a closer look. The March 2010 issue is dedicated, in it’s entirety, to that city’s gastronomic treasures. Some of the information was expected – Wolfgang Puck’s pizzas, the influence of Hollywood, the fresh produce. Then there were the tidbits I either never knew or conveniently ignored (in true New York fashion) – the extensive influence of a thriving spectrum of immigrant populations, a fascinating culture whose history is as made-up as the best Hollywood movies. As restaurant critic, Patric Kuh, put it in his essay “Nights on the Town” (Saveur, #127, March 2010), “It’s okay not to have too much of a history in Los Angeles. In fact, being without one is something of a tradition…. Nothing was native here, so borrowed themes took on their own, distinctive character.” That doesn’t stop it from growing and developing a lasting influence on popular and dining culture.

I’ve always associated Southern California with an enviable abundance of fresh produce, available year-round to boot. Also, tasty delights like “real” tacos, especially fish tacos that are at their finest on the streets of LA; and now we can add to that the wonders of the Kogi truck – Korean tacos. Need I say more?

What about Persian cuisine? LA has long been an epicenter of Persian culture in the United States. Learning more about the culture and cuisine is high on my “to do” list for future visits. Add that to the long list of others such as Little Saigon, the neighboring Filipino enclave, and a bit more of the historic Hollywood that I still can’t get enough of! I’ll enjoy my multi-cultural tasting accompanied by some great California wines and maybe a classic Tiki drink or two. Then I’ll finish the meal with a nibble of the best bundt cake I’ve ever had from Kiss My Bundt, and maybe a donut from one of the many Cambodian donut shops scattered around the city.

Now, about those plane tickets…

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