Q & A With Joseph Mahon: The Bastide Chef on His 16-Course Try-out, the CIA + Why He Once Quit the Business
When Bastide reopened, after a year-long hiatus, a month ago, it was with a recalibrated feel (it's also a bookstore, of all things) and a new chef. Joseph Mahon joined the impressive list of chefs who have helmed Joe Pytka's Melrose Place restaurant, a catalog that reads like a Michelin inspector's Post-it jigsaw: Alain Giraud, Ludo Lefevbre, Walter Manzke and Paul Shoemaker. We caught up with Mahon the other day, as he was cooking lunch and putting the finishing touches on the dinner menu. (Bastide will open for dinner next month.) Mahon sat down in the outdoor patio, breeze in the olive trees, Frank Sinatra singing from the speakers, and talked about his route from OC through the CIA to Joe Pytka's culinary universe.
A. Scattergood Bastide chef Joseph Mahon
Squid Ink: So tell us a little bit about your background.
Joseph Mahon: I've been cooking since I was 16. I cooked locally in Orange County and saved up enough money and invested it with my mom. She's a stock broker, she tripled it, and with that money I went to the Culinary Institute of America [in Hyde Park, New York]. From there I worked weekends, I staged all over New York City for about a year and a half. Anytime I was in school I was working in the city on Saturdays. I was 19. So I had my girlfriend drive me to the train station and I'd go down there every Saturday. It was nice because you could read a review and be in that kitchen the next week. I just wanted to be involved in the process, to see how things worked in different kitchens, different set ups, just saturate myself with everything.
One of the stages was with Café Boulud, anther with Daniel, also with Andrew Carmellini. Andrew Carmellini was a real hotbed for everyone, anybody in that kitchen wanted to be the next Daniel Boulud. It was a very intense kitchen. I went with Boulud because he's technique driven, he pays homage to his history and his heritage, and there are no tricks up his sleeve. It's very sincere and approachable cuisine, but it's done at the highest level, and I thought I needed to get that. From there I went to David Bouley. Everybody wanted to work with him, or everybody did. He had a crazy reputation; I kind of enjoyed that. He was completely opposite from Daniel Boulud; he was about technique, interesting flavor combinations, flavors, juices, foams, froths, caviars. He'd just come from El Bulli and basically brought it to us. It was completely at the opposite end from where I had been, and I thought, if you could combine those two and land somewhere in the middle, maybe you could have something.
SI: So how did you get back to L.A.?
JM: I worked with Noriyuki Sugie, who's at Breadbar right now. Wow, he's a great chef. I never thought he got all the credit he deserves. He was on a whole different realm. Japanese, French, worked for Katsuya and Charlie Trotter. For me it was the completely opposite end of what I'd been working on at the time: it was Asian-based. I kind of wanted to choreograph each move to make sure that I got to see as much as I could with my time in New York. I was talking to Nori and he knew David Myers and I came out here. I always wanted to come back to Los Angeles. This was my master plan, which never goes accordingly. You always sit there in your room and you think things are going to work out the way you think and nothing ever does. You hope to reach halfway--even a quarter.
I worked for David Myers at Sona, I was their sous chef for under a year. And then I quit the business. I got into sales, I was a sales rep for Epicure, now it's called Village Imports, and I had Orange County. I was a good salesperson. I was a damn good salesperson. It was good money, it was like four days a week, I knew how to talk to the chefs. It was coming on a year and I got a little scared.
SI: Why, because you thought you'd end up staying there?