Q & A With Samir Mohajer, Part 2: The Price of Culinary School, Jack Tripper + A Little Restaurant Etymology
In the first part of our interview with Samir Mohajer, who is opening his third Cabbage Patch in, hopefully, September, the chef gave us a little backstory on his career and his rapidly multiplying restaurants. In this second part, Mohajer tells us more about the new place, the economic circumstances of culinary school, and about why he got into cooking in the first place. Let's just say that the chef apparently watched a lot of television while he was learning how to cook. Turn the page, and check back later for Mohajer's recipes for Cabbage Patch slaw and French lentils with cumin and lime.
Squid Ink: So you grew up in Angeles?
Samir Mohajer: I was born in Iran and raised in West L.A.; been here almost 30 years, so I came here at a very young age, grew up here. I used to go to the farmers market every week with my grandfather and my mom and my grandmother, ever since I was 5 years old.
SI: You went to cooking school in Pasadena [Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary arts in Los Angeles, previously the California School of Culinary Arts] too, didn't you? With Evan Funke [Rustic Canyon] and Paul Shoemaker [Providence, Bastide]?
SM: I did. Evan was a few years after me. Paul was in my class. Roxana Jullapat [Ammo] was in my class. I graduated in 1999. Almost 10 years.
SI: Have you always lived here, or did you escape for awhile?
SM: Yeah. No, unfortunately, you go to culinary school, you rack up a $40,000 bill and there's not much time to travel. And you're already working for peanuts when you graduate, so it's kind of hard to pick up and go. I stayed here and I worked for an hourly wage for many, many years. I was fortunate; I went to Axe [in Venice] right after culinary school. I started at the salad station there, and fortunately the chef got fired a couple months after I got there and I got the opportunity to step into his place and I kind of learned on the job. I did that for about 5 years. Starting at the salad station, and leaving as chef de cuisine. I didn't go to a bunch of other restaurants, but I was very hands-on, I got to do everything myself; from ordering to catering to working the line to scrubbing the stoves to managing employees to dealing with the handyman and the plumber and all that stuff.
SI: Perhaps a better apprenticeship than culinary school.
SM: Yeah, in retrospect a lot of it sucked and it was torture and I don't know why I hung in there for five years, but I did it. It was cool and I'm glad I did it. And that's probably the restaurant that's influenced my food the most is Axe and her [Axe chef-owner Joanna Moore] approach to food and her approach to, I guess, having a restaurant. I think [Moore] had a lot to do with making Abbot Kinney what it is today. Before that only Joe's was a big name restaurant over there, and the rents weren't that expensive back then, and now you go on Abbot Kinney and it's a restaurant row and it's really trendy and hip and all that. [Moore] had a lot to do with that.
SI: What did you do after Axe?
SM: After Axe I went to The Little Door; I was the sous chef, the catering chef there. I got to work under Nicholas Peter, who's a great man and a great chef. The guy runs a really big operation and what I learned over there was how to manage employees and how to do things on a bigger volume and still stay gourmet and still stay high end. I got to do a lot of catering over there: big, big high end catering gigs. It's kind of cool to be a part of that. I came from Axe where it was just me and a salad guy and maybe a dishwasher. You know, then go to Little Door and they have three lead cooks and six separate kitchens, they were getting ready to get the Little Next Door going too. My plan when I got hired there was to stay there and become chef de cuisine at Little Door while the chef moved on to Little Next Door, but then Rustic Canyon came along and I had the opportunity to become executive chef.
SI: You opened Rustic Canyon.
SM: Yeah, it was tough, a whole lot of hours, a whole lot of work, a lot of things I'd never done before. It was a great experience, it got my name out there, it got a bunch of good reviews, more than I could have ever asked for.
SI: And Golden State; you did the menu there?
SM: I did. When we were looking to start Cabbage Patch there was like a one year gap when I didn't work and we were trying to find the right deal. I blew my knee and I wasn't able to work at all -- I'd wanted to stage, to go work at other restaurants to not only make some money but to get some more experience at other places -- but I blew my knee and the only opportunity was to consult and not do any physical labor. I met those guys on the basketball court.
SI: Is that how you blew your knee?
SM: One of them playing basketball, one of them skiing. Blew them both. Three knee surgeries. Dead man ligaments in both knees. So. It's alright.
SI: So tell us more about the downtown location.