Behind the Counter with Chef Dakota Weiss of Sweetfin Poké

Poké is the Hawaiian verb for “to cut crosswise into pieces.” It is also a raw fish dish traditionally served as an appetizer in Hawaiian cuisine. This dish originated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean… literally. While on the job, fishermen would add different seasonings to small cuts of whatever they would be pulling in, primarily reef fish. These fresh, flavorful bites would fuel them during their rigorous day’s work. Traditionally, the seasonings would include combinations of sea salt, candlenut, and limu (seaweed). As the dish began to popularize on the island, Hawaiians gravitated toward using Ahi as the central protein and added an expanded selection of seasonings to the list,including sesame oil and sweet Maui onions.

Poké was officially introduced to the mainland in the 1970’s, but has had a resurgence of popularity since 2014 — especially on the West Coast. Poké is now so much more than just a snack. Spooned over warm sushi rice or greens and surrounded by everything from avocado to smelt egg, the traditional Hawaiian snack has evolved into the poké bowl and become a full meal — packed with flavor bombs of salty, sweet, spicy, and umami. Diners from Los Angeles to New York have fallen in love with the fresh, healthful dish, which has led to poké shops popping up across the nation. Poké spots continue to claim real estate across the city, captained by both newcomers and renowned chefs. In Los Angeles, fan favorite Sweetfin Poké recently opened its 5th location on West Third, walking distance from The Grove.

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Sweetfin Poké

Chef Dakota Weiss is the chef behind Sweetfin Poké. You’ll recognize her from her time on Bravo’s Top Chef: Texas and as the chef of West Hollywood’s Estrella, a seasonal restaurant inspired by the artistic community of the famed Laurel Canyon. Chef Weiss is a California native with a positive energy that you can feel as soon as she walks in the room. She is overflowing with creativity, visually apparent in her vibrant hair colors and detailed tattoos. She is meticulous in her craft, from the taste to the presentation. Her expertly designed plates at Estrella will make you want to snap a pic and Instagram it immediately… even if you’re not into that sort of thing. The flavors that she has created at both Estrella and Sweetfin are so thoughtfully developed that they are simultaneously approachable and refined. When developing the recipes for Sweetfin, Weiss adhered to the traditional Hawaiian foundations while applying elevated flavors like yuzu kosho, pickled shiitake mushrooms, and wasabi-toasted coconut flakes that the Los Angeles community immediately fell in love with.

We sat down with Chef Weiss talk about her love of cooking, poké recipes, learnings from Top Chef, and the one thing to never do in her kitchen.

Interview with Chef Dakota Weiss of Sweetfin Poké

When did you realize you wanted to become a chef?
 
I was in college and was working at this mom & pop coffee shop. They made everything from scratch. I really was loving getting there early. I would get there at 5am, before class, and start baking off the muffins and scones and everything. I really loved it. I found myself skipping classes just to pick up extra shifts. When I was there, it felt so natural. From there, I decided that I wanted to go to culinary school. I went [to culinary school] and just loved it. I fell right into place.

What your favorite dish to cook, as a chef?
 
I really am a big fan of making soups. Don’t know why, I love making soups. We have a goat cheese apple bisque [at Estrella] that’s really yummy.

What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with?
 
I think it’s always changing. All dishes need to have that sweet, salty, spicy, acidic… all four of those notes to it. I probably put lemon in almost everything. Citrus, just a teeny little squeeze of it, will really brighten up an entire dish.

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Any kitchen pet peeves?
 
Whistling. I will chop somebody’s hand off if they start whistling. (laughs) There’s already so many noises going on in a kitchen, it’s very loud. And then you add that high pitched whistling to it… it just drives me insane. You can sing, sing out loud all day long, just don’t whistle.

Tell me about your time on Top Chef, any pits or peaks? 
 
When we were filming Top Chef, I had just started at the W Hotel. Eric Ripert was the one who said to me, “You need to be careful about how you act on the show. It is reality TV, so you need to be on your game.” I was so nervous about misrepresenting the W as a brand. I cried for the good stuff, I cried for the bad stuff.

I also feel like it was a good kick in the pants, like, get your shit together. So it was good, it was a great learning experience. I met really great people doing it and I feel like what I took mostly from that is I am still close with a lot of people from the production side of it. So the producers, the assistant producers, the casting directors, I’m also very good friends with.

How did you develop the recipes at Sweetfin? 
 
First I came up with the menu, with lots of direction from [partners] Seth, Bret, and Alan. They had a very clear idea of the vision and how the bowls would be customizable. Taking that direction, I came up with a few of the signature bowls. We started with the sauces, what fish are we going to use, and then how are we going to put them together. Then we came up with the rest of the toppings as we went through all these tastings. It was literally about a year and a half process. It could be six tastings, just on the sauces.

What is your favorite sauce?
 
The creamy togarashi. I like the mouthfeel, the creaminess of it, the spice of it. I like it because it’s not the classic spicy mayo. We don’t use sriracha, we use togarashi, which has more of an earthiness to it. Plus it’s salty, it’s just my favorite. I want to keep squeeze bottles of it [at Estrella] because I crave it so much.

How do you feel about the poké trend happening right now?
 
I feel like, with all these different poké places, people want to pit us against each other. Like “The Poké Wars” or something. But, if you look at the poké places that are run by chefs, they are all totally different.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you want to do? 
 
Someone just asked me this the other day. I think I’d be a florist. They smell amazing. Everytime I go to the flower mart Downtown I’m just like ahhh. My tattoo artist, her studio used to be above the flower mart. So I’d go there and it just smelled so amazing. And I love arranging them. Every time we do an event for LA Food & Wine, or whatever it happens to be, I go to the flower mart first thing in the morning, pick up flowers, then I come here, make them all really fun and beautiful and high. It’s a lot like designing a plate. You have to have textures and colors and layers and levels.

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Visit one of Sweetfin’s five Los Angeles locations for a taste of their signature and customizable poké bowls, as well as their teas and fresh made taro chips. Is rice not your jam? Sweetfin can also base your poké creation a kelp noodle-cucumber slaw or a citrus-kale salad. Move over, winter. Spring has sprung and it’s brighter than ever. Learn more by visiting their website.

Originally published at www.chownow.com on April 5, 2017.

Behind the Counter with Zak Fishman, Owner of Prime Pizza

Ask a friend: what’s your favorite kind of pizza? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Chances are they have an opinion regarding not only their top spot for a slice, but also what style and which toppings reign supreme. In fact, I bet you’ve conjured up a personal pizza of your own while reading this. Pizza is very personal.

When interviewing chefs and restaurant owners around Los Angeles, I make sure to ask one key question. This question always elicits one of two reactions. Reaction A: a long pause, folding of the arms, furrowed brow and a scratch of the chin, followed by a carefully decided answer. Reaction B: zero pause, a twinkle in the eye, a wide smile, and a quick response. The question: “Where’s your favorite pizza in LA?”

Oftentimes, the “authenticity” of the pizza becomes the main focus. How the dough is made, the crust, the region from which it hails. Oftentimes, the New York style pizza prevails, with restaurateurs saying “the best pizza outside of New York” to support their answer.

What is it about the New York slice that has inspired millions to dedicate their pizza proclivity to it with unwavering dedication? In this interview I sit down with Zak Fishman, owner of Prime Pizza on Fairfax, to talk slices and pies, pepperoni and sausage, and hear what he has to say about the New York style movement in LA — and across the country.

Tell me about Prime Pizza and your experience opening a New York style pizza spot.
 Well everyone says there’s no good pizza in LA, which I don’t think is true, but I do think is true in the sense that there are not many truly good New York style pizza places. It just seems like there are so many wood-fired pizza places that are doing more Neapolitan style. But, if you’re someone who really loves New York pizza and classic stuff like grandma pies and square pies and Sicilian pies, then there are not a lot of great options in LA.

When we first opened, that was our goal. So what we set out to do was to do the authentic, 20 inch, New York style pizza. Almost everyone else does 18 inch pies. Such a huge part of what makes it New York pizza is the size of the pie, that big slice.

How does the high quality of ingredients set you apart?
 We also wanted to be a good value, especially for what it is. We serve excellent quality pizza. That means using quality flour, using quality cheese, we use Grande Cheese which is the industry standard for New York. It melts really well, it melts differently than other cheeses, which is so important.

Our veggie pie is a great example of the quality. It’s not canned olives and bad tomatoes and bad button mushrooms, we use really good crimini mushrooms, fresh kale, pickled jalapeños. We also don’t just use raw mushrooms, we season them with oil and salt and roast them. It’s the little things that make a big difference.

What are some of the key ingredients in a New York style pizza?
 The pepperoni is another one of those classic New York ingredients. It has a small diameter and cups up when you bake it in the oven. The oil pool in the middle, that’s key.

The dough is a huge factor. That’s the building block of any pizza. We make it in house. A couple keys points include fermentation time. We make our dough and let it sit basically for two extra days. So if it’s made on Monday, we let it sit until Tuesday, and then we roll it, and then it sits again, and then we bake it on Wednesday. The fermentation allows it to really develop the proteins, and that’s where you get that deep flavor.

What makes Prime Pizza unique?
 The sandwiches, they are something we’ve been thinking about for a long time. A few months ago, Noah (Chef), took a trip. We went everywhere from Chatsworth to Canoga Park down to the deep valley, Italian neighborhoods, all the way up to Glendale and beyond to the North valley. We wanted to know, ok, what are the best Italian sandwiches in LA?

We wanted to create a really fantastic Italian deli sandwich that wasn’t just an Italian combo, but also a great sandwich on it’s own. We ended up making three sandwiches: Caprese, Turkey Pesto, and Italian Combo. We use Bub & Grandma’s bread which is hands down the best bread I’ve had in LA. He makes fantastic bread.

Also, the BBQ chicken pie. It’s a collaboration between Bludso’s BBQ and Prime. We use the smoked chicken from Bludso’s, and we use their BBQ sauce.

Me and Noah always joke that it’s the only real BBQ chicken pizza. It’s not just chicken breast with BBQ sauce, it’s actually smoked chicken. It’s the staff favorite for sure. And the block favorite too. All the guys from the block come to get that.

What do people love about Prime Pizza the most?
 They love the pizza. It’s why they come back. It’s a really good mix of neighborhood people and block people. This block has a very strong identity. All of the people who work on Fairfax know each other and they are all pretty tight, so we see the same people every day. It’s beyond regulars. It’s really great, this neighborhood is high density residential so we get a lot of families. I think they all appreciate that we serve really authentic New York Pizza.

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Prime Pizza is located in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Known for their New York style pies (20 inch and grandma style), made with quality ingredients, and open late on the weekend. Learn more by visiting their website.

Originally published at www.chownow.com on March 7, 2017.

Behind the Counter with Sandy Gendel, Head Chef and Owner of Pace

What do you get when you blend fresh local produce with a 70’s-inspired underground music burrow… then put it in the hands of a classically-trained chef with a heart of gold? You get Pace (pronounced the Italian way: “PAH-che”), nestled in the heart of Laurel Canyon.

Not only does the Pace crowd come for great food — they come for the people. Head Chef & Owner Sandy Gendel knew that his space had a unique energy that captured the nostalgia of the Canyon’s musical past. This mellow vibe instantly appealed to the community when it opened 18 years ago, and it has remained local favorite ever since.

Step inside Pace and you’ll see a curated collection of local artwork hung on the walls. You’ll hear music artfully curated by General Manager Joshua Blum. You’ll smell the fresh flavors of that day’s farmers market haul, handpicked by Gendel, roasting over cedar planks or being tossed with handmade fettuccine — using the eggs from Gendel’s chickens, of course. You’ll feel warmed by the intimate ambience. You’ll feel a sense of sanctuary.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sandy and Josh at Pace, in their element. I instantly felt like family. Read on and I assure you will, too.

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How did you get introduced to the restaurant world?

SANDY: Growing up I worked in restaurants, when I wasn’t working in the candy factory. When I was with my dad, we were always eating out. Whenever we went to restaurants, it was always better than the movie that we were going to see afterwards. He was really into it, always looking in the kitchen, loved the energy.

JOSH: The most memorable moment [when I realized I wanted to go into the restaurant industry] is when Sandy made me steak for free. It was so freaking good… he really does enjoy feeding people. And it’s not about getting paid for it, for him it’s about taking care of people and giving someone a good experience. A generous spirit, generous heart, generous soul. It made me, in turn, want to be generous with my time where he was involved as well. I would help him out, he would help me out, and before I knew it, I was working in the restaurant business.

How did you find the space for Pace?

SANDY: I was leasing a room up on Wonderland, here in the Canyon. It reminded me of Northern California, that cozy feeling, removed from the city. I like the city… but I like the view of it. It’s a unique spot.

Why choose Pace as the name?

SANDY: I just thought it was fitting for the Canyon, and the 60s. Laurel Canyon is known for the music that came out of here during the 60s and the 70s. There was a huge peace movement going on there…We’re creating kind of a refuge, an escape from all that where people can just AHHHHH exhale.

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What do your guests love most about Pace?

JOSH: They go very well together, the food and the vibe…Speaks to people feeling like they are getting out of town, getting away from Los Angeles and that hustle and bustle. People from New York come in and say that this is the one restaurant that they could fine that they could embrace.

JOSH: The way that this place has developed and the vibe and the soul that it has taken on has been just a very natural progression with Sandy’s beliefs, core beliefs in food and hospitality…One of my favorite things that people say about this place is that it’s definitely the only place in town that you can find a thousand-dollar bottle of wine and a box of crayons. It’s luxury, but it’s a funky kind of luxury. I don’t know…

SANDY: No, that was right, that’s perfect. Sounds good to me!

Talk to us about your food philosophy. What do you love about sourcing from farmer’s markets?

SANDY: It’s great knowing the people that [grow your food] because it makes it that much more fun to work with the product. You’re just so proud of what they are doing and how they are doing it. It adds a lot to the experience and to the flavors.

Are any of the Pace dishes inspired by chefs you’ve worked with?

SANDY: A huge cooking influence in my life was a gentleman by the name of Wilfred Sang. He was a family friend and knew my father since he was 19. He had a bar in San Francisco called The Rickshaw back in the late 60s. It was the spot.

JOSH: Everyone would go there, the Beatles would go there. He told Ringo Starr to stop playing the drums because it was too late one time.

SANDY: There were two staples that he did. One was the salmon on the cedar plank, no one was doing it back then, but he was. And then these pork ribs. So those two dishes are two of our most popular dishes [at Pace]. He taught me how to do those recipes growing up.

What makes the restaurant unique?

SANDY: The setting is really unique. There are not many Canyon restaurants in LA.

JOSH: The things I love about the restaurant are mostly the quality of the food and also the vibe. Just being in here, especially at night when the lights are down and the candles are going and the music is on and the smell of garlic is in the air.

What your favorite thing about being a chef?

SANDY: The hours…no just kidding. You’re feeding people, man. What better thing is there to do? It’s all about that. Some of the best times are around food and wine. That’s probably my favorite thing. And the energy — it’s like a party at your house every night.

JOSH: The problem is: it’s a party at your house every night.

SANDY: [laughs] The problem is, it’s a party at your house every night, exactly!

Pace is heavily influenced in artwork and ambience by the musicians of the 60’s and 70’s who spent time in Laurel Canyon. How do you see music and food influencing each other?

JOSH: I think it’s super important. I did research on this as I was creating a playlist for the restaurant, about what goes well with food. A lot of people say it’s soft background music. I disagree. I think, especially for a place like this, you want to turn people onto new music, things they haven’t heard as much. Things with a soul. Also, this is such a great date spot. I try to put things together that is a little seductive and a little sexy, without being too overt…because we are eating here.

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Pace is located in the heart of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, California. Their Italian-influenced menu celebrates locally sourced, seasonal ingredients made with love. Learn more by visiting their website.

Originally published at www.chownow.com on January 31, 2017.

Behind the Counter with Cary Mosier, Owner of Cafe Gratitude

Let me ask: what was the first thing you thought of when you woke up this morning? A breakfast burrito? (Me too.) Your regretful resolution to eat clean? (Me too.) The compounding mental to-do list for the day ahead? (Also, me too.)

With each new day we have the opportunity to set a fresh intention. When we wake up, we can choose where to focus our energy in order to self-motivate, be more productive, and feel happier. What if our daily intention, in everything we do, was to be gracious? This is the very concept that Cafe Gratitude, a brightly colored vegan restaurant founded in California, was founded upon.

I sat down with Cary Mosier, owner of Cafe Gratitude and son of its original founders, who introduced me to a revolutionary business philosophy that has grown Cafe Gratitude from a small San Francisco cafe to a successful multi-location restaurant group with unlimited potential for positive impact. Read on, take a page from Cary’s book, and welcome each day in 2017 with gratitude.

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What were the early days of Cafe Gratitude like?

It’s a family-run restaurant, created by my family. We started in 2004, I was working there while I was going to college. I was working behind the juice bar at the first location of Cafe Gratitude [in San Francisco], my brother was the manager, my mom was the cook, my stepdad was the waiter. We all switched off washing dishes for the first week but quickly realized that wasn’t going to last very long. It slowly started building, getting busier, and we opened more locations. Now I’m here, married to an Australian, have a two year old son, and I manage all of the restaurants.

What inspired the creation of Cafe Gratitude?

Originally, it was based on a board game. My parents, who are the founders, I lovingly call them New Age Hippies, because when they got married, my stepfather and mother, they basically said “let’s pursue whatever we are inspired by” — regardless of any practical concern or questioning “will it work?” or “will it make business sense?” or “will it make us money?” Let’s take that off the table and really listen to our intuition and the first thing that they got inspired to do was create a board game called “The Abounding River,” where you roll the dice and travel through these different worlds and it asks you questions about your life — mostly centered around this idea that our lives, the experience we have with our lives, is based around our intention.

So, when I’m focused on “I need more money, or more time” then it gives me a particular experience in my life. But if I focus on “I’m young, I’m healthy, I get to live in Los Angeles where it’s sunny and beautiful” or whatever the example is, then I have a different experience with my life. The trick is, where are you going to put your attention? So the game taught people that you have a choice about where you put your attention and this particular game was centered around teaching people to put their attention on things that make them feel inspired and happy.

That’s amazing! Where did the board game take them from there?

My parents had this game that they had spent all this time and money on, but again, they had no plan because they were just listening to their intuition and they said “Well, let’s open up a coffee shop. We’ll put the board game on all the tables, we’ll serve coffee, we’ll serve croissants, and we’ll hang out in the shop and play the game with people. That’s what we’ll do all day.” And so, that slowly became the first Cafe Gratitude.

Around 2003 my mom got into vegan, raw food. She called me and said “you know that cafe we were telling you about? We’re going to make it vegan, raw food now!” and I thought, (laughs) “this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard of, no one is going to come play games with you mom, especially if the food is not cooked.” Sure enough, that was the birth of Cafe Gratitude.

Are there some original recipes of your mom’s on the menu?

Yes, absolutely. Some of the smoothies like the “I am Grace” is her original recipe. All the crackers, the hummus, the “Yo Soy Mucho,” the “I am Whole,” there are so many, I’d have to ask my brother for more.

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What makes you different from other vegan restaurants in Los Angeles?

On a menu level, we don’t serve any fake meats. We don’t do imitation meats, like using soy in place of chicken. Actually, we’re completely soy-free. We make everything from scratch ourselves. So if it’s lemon juice, we juice lemons. If it’s dressing, we make the dressing. We make our own crackers. We make our own almond milk. We don’t buy anything pre-made, everything is made here daily.

Also, and this is very important to us: everything on our menu is organic. Down to the salt, the paprika, the cayenne pepper, everything.

Where do you source your ingredients from?

California. Our honey comes from Santa Barbara, our olive oil comes from Santa Barbara, our dates come from central California. I have a forager for our lemons and avocados.

Do you offer gluten-free?

Almost everything is gluten-free. And it’s funny because that stuff became a trend. Vegan became a trend, gluten-free became a trend, and so did raw on some level. We’ve been doing all of that since 2004. We got lucky that it became popular and we didn’t have to change our menu at all it, it was already there!

What is most important to you while managing hundreds of employees?

Our philosophy around business is essentially: if we develop great people, then the business will thrive. So rather than me spending a lot of time talking about how to chop lettuce or kale or how to pour a perfect glass of wine, I spend most of my time (and it’s the most fun) talking to my employees about what fulfills them most in life. Teaching them tools for communication, having self-discipline, questions that have nothing to do with the restaurant industry.

I feel that if I provide a work environment where the owners take interest and spend time and energy to make sure their [employees’] lives are thriving, then they’ll be happier and inspired — and therefore the restaurant will be happy and inspired.

Do you have an example of putting it into practice?

We have this practice called a Clearing. Before every shift, everyday, each staff member sits down with another staff member and asks them the two questions that we put on the board daily.

The first one is usually a question that is reflective, speaks to what can be the separation aspects of life. For example: “Where in your life do you feel stuck?” or “What do you say you don’t have enough of?” Everyone can say whatever they want, and there is no right answer. We don’t change or fix it or give them advice — it’s just an opportunity for them to share openly about their lives.

The second question is a positive question. For example: “What do you love about your life?” or “What do you have plenty of?” The last part is acknowledging one another. Usually in a work environment there’s a honeymoon period where everyone is really happy and nice and then everyone gets used to it. So we say acknowledgement is the currency of a healthy community, and if acknowledgment is high, then people enjoy their jobs more.

That practice happens every day with both the front and back of house, which creates a completely different dynamic among people who work together.

What is the intention of Cafe Gratitude?

At the end of the day, it all boils down to serving love. It sounds like a cliche card, but I don’t care. When we’re in our most vulnerable and we’re actually experiencing real happiness it’s usually a loving connection. At the end of the day, we either want to give love to people through our art or our expression, or we want to receive love through expression.

Of course I’m serving you a good salad that’s vegan, it’s local, it’s organic, and those things are all great. But, what this restaurant really is, is a perspective on life.

Most people aim to give people more than what they expect. But on some level, I’m trying to give people something they didn’t know they wanted. So they are coming for a salad and they leave with the experience that they love their mom and they want to call her and tell her how grateful they are. It’s a completely different intention for a restaurant. It makes it harder, but I feel like it’s a worthy use of time. (laughs) And it has to be delicious, right? If I’m distracted by how bad my salad is I’m not going to start thinking about how much my mom loves me.

Cafe Gratitude has three locations in Los Angeles: Larchmont, Arts District, and Venice. Their menu is seasonally rotated twice a year and maintains environmentally friendly practices. You can learn more by visiting their website.

Originally published at www.chownow.com on January 5, 2017.