Q & A With Evan Kleiman, Part 2: L.A.'s Italian Scene, Food Trucks + The Radio Hell of Swedish Cookbook Authors
In the first part of our interview with Evan Kleiman, chef-owner of Angeli Caffé and host of KCRW's Good Food, she was considering the somewhat disconcerting fact that her Melrose Avenue restaurant recently celebrated its quarter century anniversary. In the second part of the interview, Kleiman discusses, among many things, the role of the food truck in Los Angeles, the existential hell of interviewing Swedish cookbook authors, and the many joys of talking to Jacques Pépin.
Kleiman also gave us a recipe for peach, tomato and burrata salad (check back later today for that one) and, in the process of making said salad, decided that among the many advantages of in-season tomatoes is that they make for good ad hoc prep kitchen facials. Which explains this photo, and, perhaps, provides us with another way of defining the market-driven chef. And restaurant.
Squid Ink: So how much has changed in L.A.'s Italian food scene?
Evan Kleiman: So much has changed. When I came up, in the Italian bistro scene, there were all these ethnic dives and then there was the very, very top end, that was just transforming from red leather booth red sauce restaurants into very high end northern Italian restaurants. And I was part of the generation that came in and started to fill in the middle. We were sort of the great promoters of California Mediterranean. It's based on the markets, based on fresh vegetables, simple, olive oil, grilling, what you see on the plate is what it is, nothing's obfuscated. And now that infects every part of the culinary scene, from very very very fine French restaurants to wine and cheese bars, so it's no longer the purview of just Italian chefs and people cooking Italian food, and I think that's a good thing.
SI: So, what do you think of food trucks?
EK: Well, I love food trucks. First of all, I grew up in L.A., in Silver Lake and Echo Park, and so I sort of grew up around street food and an acknowledgment that the eating experience wasn't only home food and then you go out for a special occasion. For us--only child, single mom who worked, we didn't have a lot of money--we would go out and eat in coffee shops. For us a big night out was eating at the counter at the Thrifty Drug Store. So food trucks and street food was an appreciated part of the experience, because if you could find something great to eat that only cost a dollar, man, you were ahead of the game. And I think that food trucks are uniquely suited to L.A. because we're so geographically spread out, and it enables a spontaneous plaza to happen wherever the truck is. Which is so rare in L.A. So you get a nice bit of experience and a decent price, and you get to have the spontaneous street thing happen, which we're so starved for.
And I don't really understand why right now my high school compatriot, whom I went to high school with, Mr. LaBonge [City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who has proposed food truck-only parking zones]... I don't understand why there's this push back from the city, because I think it should be the opposite. I think the city should be doing everything possible to make sure that people who want to work and have great innovative ideas get to do so within the city, serving consumers who really want to be served, and paying their taxes, and hiring people. I mean, I don't see any downside. And you know, a food truck isn't a brick-and-mortar restaurant. I can understand how maybe some restaurants get freaked out, but you know, that isn't how people think when they want to eat. If someone wants to go to Restaurant A because they're craving what Restaurant A has, then that's where they're going to go.
SI: Right. Especially in an economy like we have now, they're fulfilling a niche. People who want good street food, and who maybe can't drive to East L.A.
EK: Or who have too many cultural prejudices to drive to East L.A. Or don't have the time. The great thing about the truck is that it comes to you. And you can decide how far you're willing to drive. You know, I live right near the hotbed point of contention on Wilshire Boulevard. And whenever I drive home from the restaurant I've always been struck by these huge plazas that sit in front of these office buildings that are always deserted, and it's so not a human landscape. And then the trucks started coming and I would just hang out sometimes, not even to eat from the trucks but just to watch. And it made me feel so good, because you would see people come out from the office buildings, some of them going across the street to patronize brick-and-mortar restaurants, and some choosing to stand, people who maybe would have just gone down to the coffee shop in their building, and now they have another option where the food is maybe a little better. And they end up talking to each other, they sit on the stairs, it's so social; it's what everybody talks about Los Angeles missing.
They should have a separate fast track system to take people through a permitting process where they learn what they need to do so they can run a good business. Not a process where there are obstacles at every turn. But of course this is all happening in a climate where the city doesn't have enough funds, the county doesn't have enough funds, the state doesn't have enough funds.
SI: Would you ever open a food truck?
EK: Oh, yeah. I've thought about it a lot. After all my kitchen is sort of like a food truck, in terms of space and submarine-ness, I've sort of been working in a food truck for 25 years.
EK: Oh my God. You know, my favorite interviews are the ones where I expect very little. And it might be some weirdo subject that we've just picked because we think it's going to add texture to the show, and it might be something wacky, like the giantest pumpkin of the county. And then you get the person on the phone and they're fabulous. They're so completely possessed by what they've done: grow the largest pumpkin, make jewelry from dried apple slices. And those to me are the best interviews, when you can really be surprised by someone's passion, which always makes you look at that subject again and say, well, hmm, maybe I should grow a pumpkin that weighs 350 pounds.
There are some greats who are great for a reason. They're not only good at what they do but they're able to talk about it in a really articulate and entertaining way. And that is a gift. Many people don't have it; many chefs don't have it. And so the fact that I got to interview Julia Child several times with Jacques Pépin, together, and watch them interact. He alone has been just lovely to interview. A gentleman of the old school, and yet still so with it at his age and able to comment on the business through a place of longevity. Anthony Bourdain, who everybody loves: everybody loves him for a reason. I would love to just be his best friend and hang out with him on a beach, drink a beer and talk with him for hours. I tend to like people who are very self-reflective, able to do what they do but also able to step back and be able to comment about who they are within their world. And he is a master of that. He's a voyeur. Which gives us a better view.