A Q & A With LOU Chef D.J. Olsen, Part 2: Life in Strip Malls & Why He's Not a Fan of Spittle on a Plate
In the first part of our interview with LOU chef D.J. Olsen yesterday, Olsen talked about life in the small kitchen of the Hollywood wine bar. Today, he discusses the relative happiness of strip mall food, the problem of culinary foams and the occasional hazards of eating in Taipei. And check back later today for Olsen's recipe for duck with Kabocha squash and bacon.
A. Scattergood LOU chef D.J. Olsen in the wine bar kitchen
Squid Ink: You're from Minnesota; how does food in L.A. compare with that of the upper Midwest?
D.J. Olsen: I haven't lived in the Midwest for nearly 20 years, so I'm a little unprepared to answer that question. But my nephew, Rick Nelson, food critic for Minneapolis' Star and Tribune newspaper, seems to have his finger on the culinary pulse of the Northland. He searches out farmers, cheesemakers, restaurateurs, food artisans of every type. I've learned a lot reading and talking with him. Since the growing season is obviously shorter than California's, the Midwest generally doesn't have available on a regular basis as much local produce as do we. There's sprung up, through CSA memberships and organizations like the Land Stewardship Project, a great network of sustainability for local farmers. The two farmers markets--in downtown Minneapolis, and St. Paul--reflect this. You'll find farmers selling everything from organic, antibiotic and hormone-free meats and dairy products, to organic seasonal fresh fruits, vegetables and products made from them, to extensive plant material for gardening. Very little of this existed when we lived there twenty years ago. I think what's happening there is happening throughout the country. People want more and better control of their food sources.
SI: How about the restaurant scene? Everything is indoors in Minneapolis--how does the outdoor strip mall food world here compare?
DJO: Again, I rely on Rick for direction in this regard, which is why I call him for recommendations whenever we go for a visit. Since the Minneapolis/St. Paul real estate market is much more reasonable than LA's, it's very feasible for a chef to open a neighborhood restaurant in some cool old building, or find a developer who's willing to help bankroll a place. Quite a number of young chefs who trained somewhere else have returned to the city to do just that. All in all that's meant a crop of really good, small, chef- and ingredient-driven restaurants. Even though Minneapolis/St. Paul can boast of the Mall of America, apparently one of the world's largest retail centers, there aren't many strip malls, especially of the variety that houses LOU in Hollywood. Most restaurants I liked were of the free-standing variety, with copious amounts of outdoor dining. Minnesotans are big on getting outdoors in good weather as much as possible, given the impossible winter, so outdoor dining is much revered. All in all, it seems a much bigger restaurant scene than when we lived there, and people seem to go out more at night. We took a reservation at a new Minneapolis restaurant, Bar LaGrassa, for 9pm on December 26. It was a big place, 185 seats in all. I was amazed to see the place still packed when we left at 11:30. Consider most Los Angeles restaurants. They go dark after 10!
SI: Who, in your opinion, is the most interesting chef working in this town today and why?
DJO: I've had rather phenomenal food at Hatfield's. An eight course tasting menu for three turned into 24 distinct dishes, each of us receiving something different as the courses progressed. It was creativity in the extreme but always in service to flavor and taste. I recognize it's a very tough business to stay in year after year, so I especially admire and am interested in chefs who persevere, like Mark Peel. My favorite LA chef, hands down, is Suzanne Goin. I find Suzanne's food deeply refreshing for my spirit. My wife Susan and I find ourselves going back to Lucques more than any other restaurant.
But the most interesting, inspiring food I've eaten recently was in Barcelona. We ate at five so-called "bistronomic" restaurants, that is, small restaurants serving high quality, contemporary cooking at reasonable prices. The level of creativity and commitment was jaw dropping, especially the cooking of Rafa Peña, at Gresca. We had a 12 course tasting menu there that was among the most memorable meals I've eaten. Aside from his now famous souffléd egg--a whipped and bruléed egg white with a perfectly intact raw yolk interior, all resting atop pappardelle made from herbed potatoes--we had a plate that blew my mind. It was an edible, 4" square "painting." The 1/4" wide frame was made from tiny shards of pickled zucchini and piquillo pepper. The image was of bubbles floating in a sea of red, the bubbles made of thin, tender slices of octopus, the surrounding sea of red, a smooth jamon Iberico jelly. The painting itself was draped like a Salvador Dali clock over a purée of silken potatoes or rather, butter and cream emulsified with potato. It was beautiful, even astounding to look at, but even more importantly, it was delicious.
SI: Wow. Okay, one ingredient or technique you wish would go away?
DJO: Foams. Or spittle on a plate, as I call them. They've always looked so unappetizing, like what one might see floating at the edge of a stagnant pool, or rolling up on a nasty stretch of foul beach. You'd think we'd all have tired of that particular circus show. Check out the pages of Art Culinaire, the cutting edge food porn publication, to see foams and spittles floating about otherwise beautiful plates. Even in Catalonia, some 18 years after Ferran Adria first created it, you'll find an elBulli alum, Carles Abellan, garnishing plates with spittle--although now they refer to it as "air". At Comerç24, Albellan's famous modern tapas bar in Barcelona, a purple pile of beet-flavored air spittle adorned the top an oyster. Oysters with beet spittle. Yuck.
SI: One thing you Will Not Eat ever?
DJO: Dog. I once smelled it being cooked when I was a student in Taipei, Taiwan.
SI: You studied in Taiwan?
DJO: I was a foreign exchange student in '77. Studied Mandarin Chinese, Chinese musical history, calligraphy.
SI: So, dog?
DJO: It has an overwhelming, cloyingly sweet and immediately sickening smell. You could smell it blocks away. I don't think I'd ever try seal blubber or seal meat, although I did once eat whale on the island of Smøla off the coast of Trondheim, Norway. It was a great disappointment and waste, considering how poorly it had been prepared.
SI: Worst dish you ever ate?
DJO: I'll be glad to never have to eat or smell durian again. But Hot Vit Lon, the famous Vietnamese fetal duck egg probably is the worst thing I've eaten. My Vietnamese roommate bought it for me when I lived in Taiwan. It was a special gift, one that he'd arranged to have cooked for us at a restaurant in Taipei, and I felt compelled to honor him by eating it. It was memorable, I can say that much. You cracked the top of the egg shell open, revealing a feathery partially formed baby duck. It tasted like liver. That's as much as I care to remember.