Michelin-Starred Chef At Mélisse Discusses L.A.'s Food Scene Fifteen Years In
It's hard to keep up with the breakneck pace at which restaurants open in L.A., and Chef Josiah Citrin, who owns Mélisse in Santa Monica, has seen it all. As a native Angeleno, he grew up going to the Santa Monica Farmers Markets before they became the institution that they are today. He studied cooking in France, and came back to his hometown to open Mélisse 15 years ago. It is one of the last standing true fine dining establishments in town. (Note: though they do have an awesome cheese cart and purse stools, the reverent dining experience is hardly as fussy as one might think.)
After solidifying his name as one of the city's truly great talents, Citrin is finally working on opening a second restaurant called Charcoal next year, which will veer from his fine dining roots and offer wood-fired, smoked and grilled meats as well as a tartare bar with wild raw proteins like beef heart and lamb in a more casual setting.
Mélisse is celebrating its anniversary this month, so we decided to sit down with Citrin over a plate of French cheeses to discuss how the food scene has evolved in L.A. since he started, and where he thinks it's going.
LAist: Can you paint a picture of what the dining landscape looked like in L.A. when you first opened Mélisse 15 years ago?
Josiah Citrin: When I left L.A. for France in the 80s, you still couldn't find things like epoisse and camembert here. Seeing those cheese boards coming to the table was always the greatest time of the meal, and so I wanted to bring that back here to the States. Now those things are sort of commonplace. We take it for granted.
Nowadays its easy to get products from all over the world. The way information comes out via Twitter, Instagram, and social media means that things trend and fall off so quickly. At one time tuna tartare was revolutionary. But we forget that because now it's just overplayed. That can happen a lot more quickly now with how information is spread.
Considering how quickly things move, how do you evolve and remain relevant but also stay true to yourself?
My vision has always been to do fine dining. It's all I ever really wanted to do. So that's what I was drawn to when I became a cook and trained and went out on my own.
Raphael [Lunetta, Citrin's former partner at Jiraffe] and I worked at Capri, and finally decided to open Jiraffe together in 1996. We had very little money, and after three years we saw this space here and I decided I really wanted to go out on my own.
I'm constantly trying to challenge the idea that Mélisse is a fussy restaurant. It never was. I think the decor used to be a bit hoity toity and old Frenchie, which is why we remodeled in September 2008. People just assumed that it was fancy because of my training. But it's always good to freshen things up to stay relevant while keeping to your core.
What is the key to longevity when it comes to owning a restaurant?
Really it's all about stamina. People always say the first year is hardest. But your first two to three years are easy. You're busy, you have press, you're new, people want to try you —if you have a name. Then you hit four, five and six years you're not old, you're not a standard, but you're not new anymore. If you get past there, you kind of become the older brother that everyone looks up to.
How has the L.A. diner changed over the years?
Over the last 15 years we've definitely seen the more casual trend come in. That's not to say that fine dining restaurants were a dime a dozen in the 90's. But I'd say in general that diners are way more adventurous than they used to be.
What about the up-and-coming chefs? Some claim that young chefs aspiring to get into the kitchen are softer and are just interested in being on TV. Do you see that at Melisse?Kids don't want to do fine dining because they don't see that there's money in it. There's also a change in drive. Older chefs used to say that about us too, though. But now there's too many people that want to be celebrities.
When I started, I just wanted to be the best chef I could be. Now they want to win "Top Chef." It's not a real kitchen environment. It's not the same. Being a chef that owns a successful restaurant is a lot longer of a process than winning a season on TV show. I don't think anyone works harder than the other, it's just that the goals are different.
I guess the definition of what the "best" is has changed. How do you keep yourself motivated to keep progressing after all this time?
I'm all about retail therapy. Buying new exciting products, tools, and glassware. I love it. I always sign my cookbooks, "Let knowledge fuel your passion." If your passion is cooking, then you have to keep fueling that passion with knowledge. If you don't, then your passion fades out.
I read a lot. I travel a lot. I taste a lot. I'm always trying to find something new or exciting, even if it's something as simple as a new plate or a purveyor, that keeps you alive.
What are some food trends that you think are on their way out, or that you wish would die?
I think there's a general trend of over-plating dishes [and being unnecessarily fussy to the detriment of the food.] I think there's also way too much piling on of ingredients. It's a walking contradiction, and you lose the integrity of the flavor when you do that. You find the best product, and then pile 20 things on top of it, you can't even taste the quality anymore. What's the point?
At the same time there's a fascination with Japanese food and the simplicity, so I think that's moving things in a good direction.
You travel a lot with your family, and I’m sure you’re gathering inspiration from the places you dine. What do we need more of here in L.A.?
It's sort of scary to think of what would happen if Providence and Melisse closed. What would happen? Who's left? Providence and Melisse always push each other. And of course there's Patina Downtown. But it is something there's less and less of.
Is there any advice you'd like to give aspiring chefs or restauranteurs out there?
Just to remember that at the end of the day, it's not about you. It's all about creating an excellent experience for people. Whether it's having a dinner party at home, cooking for your kid's bake sale, or owning a restaurant, have integrity.