When I worked at The French Laundry, we did foie gras almost every single day.
I worked there for 13 years and we did it every single way imaginable, so when I finally opened up Otium—which is right next to The Broad Museum in Los Angeles—I wanted to make foie gras a lot more approachable. Serving foie gras with brioche is classic, but I wanted something different. How about serving foie gras with a funnel cake instead?
This approach of mixing highbrow and lowbrow ingredients comes from growing up in a family with a lot of kids. I grew up on home cooking but I didn't really eat anything fancy until I was way older. In fact, I didn't even eat fish until I was 19-years-old. Eating simple food growing up, and then being trained at such a high level, gave me the reference points for my New American food-based menu now. I had chilaquiles for lunch and I'm going to have Korean food for dinner. As an American myself, this is what American food means to me.
I have another item on my menu that involves French toast, which is a dish that you can essentially go to Jack in the Box and get nowadays. I serve mine with truffles in a Japanese donabe pot with smoke added to it, so it is a smoked French toast. This is another example of my approach: elevating a classic but keeping it simple. It's not that I'm not trying to impress you. I'm just trying to make food more casual and fun, and if you don't like my restaurant, then you don't like my restaurant.
I'm just done making food that is fussy. I still want to cook with amazing ingredients but I don't want to have the same level of precision and craziness when making them. At The French Laundry, we served 80 people a night. It is a bucket list restaurant, but how many people are you really reaching when you are cooking? I wanted to reach people like my family, so I'm trying to make sure to cook the type of food that they wouldn't mind eating. There are a lot of chefs who are doing this, too.
I didn't need 19 different types of wine glasses or 12 pieces of silverware to eat a meal.
What it really boils down to is whether you can wear jeans and sneakers into a restaurant and still have a great experience while eating things like truffles, caviar, and foie gras. Not to knock ultra fine dining but I don't want to make a reservation two months in advance anymore. I don't want to get dressed up. Also, I've found that three hours into a fine dining meal, I am done and tired. By that point, I'm hungover from the drinks and from the food.
The turning point for me was when I realized how much I would stress out every single day and worry about cooking something that was perfect. Then, people wouldn't even notice if you messed up or not. I found out that I can serve you something with ten things wrong with it, and you're probably not going to know the difference. You then realize that you are freaking out about some super high level cuisine. Coming from this prestigious place and having won James Beard Awards and competed in Bocuse d'Or, I'm not trying to be The French Laundry anymore.
I remember I would question why we would have to change the menu every single day while working there. Sure, it is what pushed all of us and made us all better chefs, but it also caused me to ask myself: Why am I doing that if the menu that we rolled out with last night was perfectly fine? I started to get burnt out at 33 years old. When I decided to leave The French Laundry, I didn't have a job lined up. I originally thought I wanted to open up a taco shop, but the opportunity opened up at Otium and I took it. Though, not before answering the questions: What does a restaurant mean to me? What do I want to achieve out of a restaurant if I opened one?
For me, it was a place where I could go downstairs for a bite to eat and have a good cocktail if I lived next door and also a place where I could take my wife for our anniversary. This meant that I didn't need 19 different types of wine glasses or 12 pieces of silverware to eat a meal. Not to mention that I wanted a better quality of life, too. I took a step back and reevaluated what success and life mean to me. I love cooking but now I have a wife, a baby, and a dog, so I redesigned my life to fit this.
The kitchen is an evolving thing. My transition out of fine dining happened naturally. I used to spend all of my money eating out at the best restaurants—Urasawa, Meadowood, Saison, you name it—and then spent even more money on wine afterward. This is all I did at one point. However, this got old fast.
If I were to offer any advice to younger chefs right now, I would say to put yourself out there. You're only going to get what you put in. Ask questions while you are doing something. If you are working in a specific area of the kitchen, focus on that position. For example, if you are butchering meat then you should be reading how the Japanese butcher meat. Take advantage of your position.
You will learn a lot faster this way and it will be worth the small paycheck that you are receiving because ultimately, working the line is like going to college.
As told to Javier Cabral