Exploring the Los Angeles food scene with Sydney Adams, of Curating My Cooking
My interview with Sydney Adams, author of the blog Curating My Cooking, exemplifies both the simplicity and complexity of Los Angeles food scene. Her approach to food is something she likes to call “culinary anthropology,” and it’s not hard to see why after sitting down with her for a few moments – just mention the word ‘marrow’ and you’ll unleash a torrential downpour of facts about meat, bones, and everything in between.
Though I only asked her three (albeit vague) questions and allowed her room to roam in terms of her answers, her level of detail and the passion with which she responds is tangible. Her intimate knowledge of the Los Angeles food scene gives us a glimpse into the world of all things culinary.
As someone who is immersed in the Los Angeles foodie/restaurant/food blogger scene, what has been your experience with cultural culinary niches? Are there any standout characteristics that define each culture’s attitude toward their food and their ingredients? (i.e. Italian food, French food, etc.).
Cultural culinary niches are what comprise Los Angeles food culture and make it so unique. New York City may have the most fine dining restaurants per square mile, but there’s nothing like the multi-hyphenates cooking in kitchens, food trucks, and bars here. That analogy doesn’t include the multitude of neighborhoods where authentic and culturally specific food is found. Regardless of the culture it originates in, everyone anywhere who cooks food for a living wants you to enjoy the experience. (Or they should.)
I’ve also noticed how important it is to chefs and cooks from each culture to properly execute definitive dishes. Knowledge and authenticity should come before an individual spin is put on anything. How can a chef who makes Italian food “reimagine” pasta, unless they’re hand-rolling, hand-kneading, hand-stuffing a perfectly light and elastic pasta dough from scratch at the start of their experimentation? How can pad thai be contemporized unless the chef making it has access to a gigantic wok for the proper amount of heat/burner size and sear on the noodles?
Love of distinct ingredients varies based on the chef, cultural background of the food being cooked, and what iteration (rustic, classic, modern, etc.) the chef is cooking the food in. Regardless of what these loves are, the standout characteristic of a contemporary line cook, prep cook, or chef in the industry today is someone who understands and cares about the beauty of cooking seasonally and locally (that includes meat and seafood products), importing as little as possible unless it is absolutely impossible to get bread starter, spices, alcohol, vinegar, etc. from anywhere else.
When I say ‘Italian food in LA,” what first comes to your mind? Think of your multisensory experience. People. Place. Briefly explain what & why.
Italian food in LA is embodied in a mixture of restaurants. Locanda Positano, Scopa Italian Roots, and Gjelina in Venice, Chi Spacca and Osteria Mozza on Melrose, Bestia in Downtown Los Angeles, Aroma in Silverlake, Bucato in Culver City. I’m a believer in the combination of “romantic/trattoria” when it comes to Italian food. These places do a great job of both, whether they’re from the traditional or contemporary school of thought.
The aroma from sauce being cooked down should permeate the air, and in an ideal world, in the more casual environments, whatever wood is stoking their fires will provide that subtle bonfire ashiness. There should always be conversation and laughter around food. In contemporary spaces, the sound of conversation will echo due to exposed pipes, brick walls, and/or large glass windows. Unless there are more than two dollar signs next to this restaurant’s Yelp review, I love seeing an atmosphere fusing younger with older with hipster, classic, and fierce. Wine is a huge part of Italian culture, but there should never be the scent of cheap wine sugar in the air. Clinking glasses, sloshing liquid, and the chink of cutlery should all be happening at a dull roar.
The restaurants I listed above are all places that glow from within after-dark. In Italian culture (as with so many other cultures), the kitchen is the centerpiece and heartbeat of the home, so if a restaurant looks like the stereotype of a postcard, you’re in good hands. The restaurants above are also great with service. Italian food isn’t supposed to be stuffy – a familial and fun sense should pervade, regardless of how formal or informal your dining experience is. A diner has hit the jackpot if they feel like a movie mob boss as a result of the amount of respect they receive.
Where have you found the best Italian food in LA – like the meal that knocked your pants off – best Italian recipes, and places you’ve bought ingredients?
Locanda Positano was recommended to me by a chef, and I swoon thinking about it. Gjelina slays every single time, no matter who’s cooking. Bestia is not for the faint of heart (it’s easy to spend a lot of money there), but Chef Ori has such a badass contemporary “I’m going to go for it” take on Italian culture and food, it’s hard to be irritated.
I judge Italian chefs and restaurants on three things. If they pass these tests they can put whatever they like in front of me, and I’ll eat it. Carbonara, Risotto, and Bolognese Sauce. I’ve managed to develop two signature recipes for carbonara and risotto for myself after a multitude of experimentation. For carbonara, only heavy cream will do. I am not a fan of cooking with cream because of the way it coats the tongue, but carbonara without real cream is anemic and boring. I also use half thick-cut bacon and half pancetta with cinnamon sprinkled over the top, because the fat from the bacon rendering out in the pan will render the cinnamon *into* the bacon and pancetta. I didn’t realize bacon could be complex until I tried this. Slow stirring over low heat is best, otherwise the egg mixture will scramble and curdle. There’s nothing worse than pancetta that tastes like a stale omelette. The rule of thumb with any pasta is to both SALT THE PASTA WATER and then SAVE about 1/4 cup of the pasta water after cooking the pasta to drizzle a few tablespoons over the cooked pasta with to achieve ideal texture. I make risotto year-round, but my favorite iterations all involve white wine. Also, never trust a risotto recipe that involves dairy product. The creaminess should come from the rice cooking, not anything else.
As far as ingredients, it’s a crapshoot when it comes to Italian deli. I buy pork from Peads & Barnett at the Santa Monica Market and seafood from Santa Monica Seafood. For cheese I go to Wally’s Cheesebox on Westwood Boulevard; it’s one of the few places in Los Angeles with good lardo (cured fatback) in stock, and the reps there actually know what they’re talking about. For wine I go to Wally’s wine next door. Ask for the sexy Spaniard Jordi or look for the Asian chick that looks like she wants to beat you up. She’s incredibly sweet. Spanish wines are his speciality, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else discuss flavor in as in-depth a manner as he does. She’s an arsenal of knowledge, so don’t be afraid to ask her questions. Bay Cities Deli is always crowded, but the boys there are warm and welcoming and the prepared foods/salads are better than the usual deli stock. Nothing revolutionary, but better than the norm.