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From Market to Menu: An Interview With Chef Neal Fraser

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By Eli Sussman/Special to LAist

Chef Neal Fraser of Grace and BLD believes the art of cooking needs daily cultivation. Even if he has 10 restaurants, he will always be exactly where he wants to be - in the kitchen. As an LA native he has “a personal vendetta” to elevate LA into the echelon of the best restaurant cities in the world. With the development of a new Grace like fine dining restaurant downtown that will grow at least a third of the produce on site, and a new BLD slated to open in Pasadena early next year, Chef Fraser shows no signs of leaving the kitchen. LAist caught up with the busy chef at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market (as he bought green beans for his daughter) to provide details about moving Grace to downtown, the struggle of when to pull a dish from the menu and how he is inspired by Wonderbread.

LAist: What do you look for in produce at the Farmer’s market?

Fraser: I look at these squash and they are beautiful. Maybe it’s a little early for roasted squash soup…but looking towards fall, whenever a season is changing you are thinking, what am I going to buy…what is next… And that is definitely something I always look for - squash and beets and some of the heartier greens.

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Tell us what you bought today.

I bought some green beans for my daughter because my daughter’s favorite food is green beans. These radishes are for a hamachi dish. The potatoes I bought from Windrose farms. I’ll probably make some sort of puree and serve it with a chicken dish tonight.

Since LA does not have as clearly defined seasons as the east coast, how challenging is cooking by the season as an LA chef?

It is difficult but it’s a matter of where people’s heads are and if they think seasonally. In LA you always think it’s going to be a bit lighter than it would be in upstate New York or Michigan in the wintertime. If you came to this market with me in 2 months we’d walk around and see the most beautiful heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms… things you’d only see in spring or summertime somewhere else and it is hard to pick and choose. It’s a matter of trying to follow the plan in your head.

At Grace how much of what’s in season dictates what’s on the menu?

I’d say 75%. Definitely some stuff we buy is cultivated and the other stuff is available all year round. We don’t physically come and haul a lot of stuff out of the market but the purveyors we buy from do a lot of that. We are a small restaurant so we don’t have manpower to do it week in week out nor we do have the storage facilities. So it’s easier for us to buy small amounts throughout the week.

How does the meat and fish that you order from a purveyor factor into the process of your dish conceptualization?

I have in my head what I’m going to use at certain times of the year. Definitely August-September I want to use Ribeyes because I like the idea of doing a steak on a BBQ type of thing…and this time of the year I’ll feature a lot of game like venison or wild hare from Scotland and some game birds. So I might come down here and say I’m going to have squab and what’s going to go well with that? A lot of times its something I pull out of my pantry and a lot of times its stuff you pull out at the market. It all depends on the quantity and how it all works together.

Can you speak to the overall flexibility of the menu in terms of how often do things come off?

It depends on the thing. Sometimes stuff stays on too long.

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What do you mean by too long?

You’re bored of it. Sometimes you put it on the menu and you don’t love it, but its such a hit…table of 10 they order 5, next table orders 5, and you are like wow I’m bored of that, but it’s a good seller. Or something that you painstakingly designed. For years its fabrication of a dish upon a dish upon a dish to the point where its like…”this is my best creation”…a lot of times that stuff stays on too long.

Is that ever a fear of yours ever that you are overdoing it? Too many ingredients or too many flavor profiles?

Yea absolutely. That’s always the issue. Do you make it better or worse? How are you making it better? By changing an ingredient that goes out of season? I’m not a 40 ingredient on the plate guy. I’m more like a 4 ingredient on the plate guy. But I want those 4 ingredients to stand.

Can you speak about your relationship with your purveyors and how those relationships are cultivated? Are they passed down through kitchens and jobs?

It depends. Some purveyors will only deal with specific people. They wont sell to everybody. My fish supplier, who I’ve been dealing with for a very long time… some people may have a love/hate relationship with her but I love her and she has the best fish in LA.

What is your time breakdown between your restaurants?

100% at Grace.

Is that the way you want it, or is it by necessity?

It’s both. I’ve worked the line (at Grace) everyday since we opened. I always wanted to be a good cook, and I never wanted to lose that. And I’ve worked for so many chefs over the years that forgot how to cook and that to me is like suicide. Because to me its always been about the craft of creating food. Not necessarily about any of the other aspects. The other aspects come out of necessity.

So you will always be in the kitchen no matter what? Even with 10 restaurants?

I’ll always be in one of them. That’s always been the goal. My goal is not to drive my Porsche around from restaurant to restaurant. Its just not what makes me work.

What is your next project?

We signed a lease for a BLD in Pasadena (at the corner of Holly and Raymond) and we are about to sign a lease to do another restaurant downtown. It will be a Grace-like restaurant in the rectory of a church on the corner of 2nd and Main called St. Vibiana's cathedral. It will be massive and have private rooms and a wine cellar. It will be probably more than I ever could have imagined. Hopefully open downtown in August or September of next year. We will grow somewhere around 1/3 of the produce for the restaurant on the property. There is a lot of green area. We are going to grow vegetables on the roof. The whole south face of the building is a big open bed that we can actually plant there. And I’m hoping that in the summertime we will have enough tomatoes to use for events and for the restaurant.

As an LA native what does it mean to you to have your restaurant in LA? What do you feel about the LA food scene?

I think it’s always been a struggle. We will always be a stepchild to a certain point. To me it’s a personal vendetta. To me it’s always about bringing it to a level where it’s considered a great restaurant city. From a chefs standpoint, someone who’s been struggling in NYC for 20 years, taking the train working 17 hour days not really seeing the sunlight because of where they work and where they live…and they come out here and they walk around and they come to this farmers market. And they experience LA and go to a really great ethnic restaurant and you know…it’s contagious. Especially as a chef because go in January to the Farmer’s Market in NYC and what would be out there? A snowdrift? I mean they’ll be selling something but you will come out here…and there will be girls in bikinis. And they’ll be selling heirloom tomatoes.

Where do you go for food inspiration?

For me I get it more from traveling. I try to get out of the US every other year. I like going to South East Asia. I mean I went to Cincinnati Ohio and had a horrible weekend of dining experiences and came back and was inspired. You don’t necessarily always have to go and eat at chez panisse or le bernardin. You can be like I just ate Wonderbread for 2 days and now I’m gonna cook something really great. My body needs that. That’s my whole psyche. That’s what cooking is all about. Depriving yourself and then revitalizing yourself.

Eli Sussman is one half of the Freshman in the Kitchen duo. LAist spoke with him in April 2009 about his own cooking adventures and philosophy.

Previously on LAist: From Market to Menu: An Interview With Chef Ben Ford