This was a FREE event, as part of the Zocalo (public square in Spanish) Lecture Series. For the life of me, I don't remember how I came upon it to begin with, but suffice to say, as soon as I saw Jonathan Gold on the docket as moderator, I knew I had to go. By the way, you may have noticed I mention Jonathan Gold in basically every one of my posts. This does not make me a crazy stalker. When I start posting wide-angle lens shots of him doing various private things in his home you can start to worry.
I knew there would be some heavy hitters of the LA food world there, but didn't really pay attention to who was on tap. Lo and behold, the first two people JG introduced were Nancy Silverton and Jimmy Shaw--the creators of Campanile/Mozza and Loteria Grill, respectively. I wrote last year about Pizzeria Mozza and its magical powers, but haven't gotten around to waxing poetic about Loteria. It is worthy of a full post, but until then just know that it is kickass!
I don't think the question of food authenticity was ever really answered last night (and don't think that it really can be--it's a totally subjective thing), but learning about each chef's path to creating the regional food that each of them brings to their respective kitchens was fascinating.
Silverton spoke first, and quickly acknowledged being the only impostor on the panel--a Jewish chick from the Valley who specializes in Italian cuisine. However, it was her experiences living, cooking and eating in Umbria (I think), among other areas of Italy, that spoke most to her and caused her to start her mini-empire. (She announced last night that they are opening both an Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza in SINGAPORE of all places. Now it's starting to really look like an empire...)
Jimmy Shaw looks like a white guy from Southie, but turns out he spent his formative years in Mexico City. He explained to us how difficult it was coming to LA, with all of its CalMex and TexMex restaurants, but no truly Mexican cuisine restaurants. He said the idea of going into a Mexican place and seeing "carne asada" on the menu is the equivalent of going to a steakhouse and just seeing "charred meat" on the menu. What are you actually getting? What cut of meat, etc? How is it prepared? His version of authenticity is borrowing from all of the regional Mexican cuisines that he knew as a boy--he claimed that it is the Americans who sometimes complain about the food, saying it's not 'authentic, whereas visiting Mexicans always visit his restaurant before any others for a taste of home.
Roy Choi was third. He looked to be about our age, and wore a black Dodgers pulled down almost over his eyes. Before he was introduced, I have to say I was wondering what the heck he was doing up there. This is the man behind the Korean taco truck. I had read tidbits here and there about it, but after hearing about the mad scene that surrounds whatever neighborhood said truck lands in each night, I can't wait to experience the madness firsthand. The idea of the trucks come from Roy's own view of authenticity. A totally Americanized (his words) Korean who has spent a lot of time in LA's Koreatown, like Shaw he realized that the Korean food people were getting was nothing like the Korean food one would get IN Korea. He coupled that idea with an ultimate LA enterprise--the taco truck--and in a short time KoGi BBQ was born. OK, there is more to it than that, but check out the very first link in this post to get the rest. Apparently the truck (or trucks--I think there are two) has only been around for a few months. As more and more people tried it, and got location updates via Twitter, the crowds each night grew. Talk about a viral phenomenon--so cool. Needless to say, today I signed up for a Twitter account and I think I am already a little addicted. Thanks A LOT, KoGi BBQ. You've ruined me.
Last up was Sirintip "Jazz" Singsanong, owner of Jitlada Thai in East H'wood. I've actually never heard of the place, and it appears that up until a few years ago, that was a good thing! When Jazz and her brother took over the restaurant, they kept the name, which at first meant they were not very popular. The original Jitlada was known for middling-to-bad Americanized Thai--when the Singsanongs took over, they wanted to bring a taste of what they knew as Thai food. Specifically, the food that was cooked within their family in Southern Thailand. This regional cooking is apparently quite different from what we know as Thai food...but no one even knew they were making it! The Southern Thai specialties on the menu were only listed in Thai. It took an out-of-towner with a minimal background in the language glimpsing the menu by chance and realizing that he didn't recognize any of the dishes listed. With some help from Jazz's brother, he translated this menu, which made the rounds through the food blogs. The rest is history.
I think that the devout following of these restaurants is proof that a clear vision of your cuisine, coupled with creativity and WoM, is a major key to culinary success. Each of these chefs authenticate their own food histories in their dishes, and in turn all of us who experience it open our eyes to whole new universes of what authentic means to each one of us. If nothing else, these chefs represent authentic Los Angeles cooking and the melting pot that is this city.
Here are handy-dandy links to all the above-mentioned restaurants again:
Campanile (beautiful place with GRILLED CHEESE THURSDAYS)
Mozza (with links to the fancier Osteria and more casual Pizzeria)