It’s nine o’clock on a Wednesday morning and I’m standing in the middle of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market with my buddy Michael Matthews—photographer and recent Illinois transplant. I love this market—sprawling between 4th and Ocean—for it hosts a gorgeous and delicious assortment of what California graciously has to offer. It’s nearing 70 degrees in December and I’m staring at plump tomatoes, freshly picked strawberries, persimmons, and brussels sprouts on the stalk—California is a culinary paradise where seasons do not apply.
I’m meeting Josiah Citrin—executive chef and owner of the French restaurant Mélisse—along with his kitchen brigade for a story on Life & Thyme. With most chefs I meet, I usually focus on their personal story from the beginning but today it’s something different. I’m here to observe, so to speak, and to visually capture the journey of a dish, starting the procurement of its ingredients at the market.
Josiah is a veteran in the Los Angeles dining scene. Before there was Animal, Son of a Gun, Bestia, or any other trendy LA restaurant ruled by tattoo’d renegades, there was and still is Josiah’s Mélisse. It’s French, it’s fine dining, it carries two Michilin Stars under its belt, and it’s sophisticated in a humble way. Los Angeles continues to evolve as food becomes more casual and new restaurant models emerge, but the world of fine dining will always be a pillar of classical culinary excellence and a jumpstart for new ideas.
As for Josiah, he was born and raised in Santa Monica, California, with a French heritage. He primarily learned the craft and discipline of cooking—specifically fine dining—after high school when he lived and worked abroad in Paris. After returning to the states in 1990, he worked at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois, Granita, and then Patina in Los Angeles. Before opening Mélisse in ’99, he opened JiRaffe in ’96 in the heart of Santa Monica, specializing in French bistro-style food using fresh ingredients from California.
He arrives with his entourage of aspiring, young chefs and a towering cart filled with crates of fresh produce. We exchange formalities and he introduces me to his team, including his Chef de Cuisine, Ken Takayama, who has worked with Josiah for over eleven years. His team quickly disappears—and so does Michael, my photographer—to find the day’s bounty.
Josiah and I stroll down one side of the market as we chat about LA’s dining scene. He seems cool and calm—like there isn’t a worry in the world. It only takes a couple of steps before Josiah is approached by a familiar face—a farmer, chef, or old acquaintance. He seems to be a rockstar here and I even overhear someone tell him, “always looking GQ”.
We walk over to a lady who is selling persimmons that look like tomatoes because of how ripe they are. She hands us a couple to taste and I nervously grab one because they literally look like they’re going to explode in my face. I take a bite and I am completely taken aback by how sweet and buttery it tastes. I admit I am not used to eating persimmons raw (I’m usually wrapping prosciutto around them and shoving them in the oven). So I devoured it in front of Chef as one should do when given the opportunity to eat candy in fruit form.
“What would you make with this?” I ask him with a mouth full of persimmon.
“A little crème fraîche and ginger tea,” he replies. Simple and uncomplicated—he believes in the ingredient’s natural flavors.
The same could be said about Josiah—he seems to have a no-BS approach with a humble outlook. When asked about the rise of trendy, rockstar chefs, he replied with “We’re only chefs—we’re not saving the world. We do create good food, but some people take themselves too seriously.”
It’s eleven o’clock and we’re reunited with the rest of the team who will be breaking for lunch—and an espresso break for me. Even at the coffee shop, Josiah is welcomed as a regular and approached by other fellows sitting outside drinking a cup of brewed Stumptown Coffee. The sense of community continues to go through my head as I observe not just Chef Josiah, but others at the farmers market. Something as simple as meeting a farmer, buying a tomato (with real cash), and saying “hello” to other patrons gives me a sense of joy and warmth.
After lunch, Michael and I regroup at Mélisse where the kitchen is already in full swing concocting the evening’s dinner menu. Cooks are unloading the produce from a red minivan, pots are clanking, knives are chopping, stocks are simmering, and the dishwasher is spraying large pots with a hose. Dinner isn’t for another six hours, but there’s much to prepare.
I too am holding a camera to snap photos of whatever happens to interest me. In this case it’s the look of perseverance in faces of the cooks. I try not to get in the way, but have no fear of immersing myself in the action to capture the experience I’m looking for. The cooks don’t seem to mind that Michael and I are creeping around their space like a couple of stalkers.
Click! Click! Click!
The sound of the camera shutter going off adds to the already loud kitchen. Our motions end up becoming one with the movement of the cooks as our cameras snap candid moments.
“Watch your back,” is repeated to me, as cooks pass behind me within the kitchen’s narrow passageways.
Josiah walks in wearing his white chef’s coat, ready to prepare a market salad with fresh produce that was picked up that morning. I ask him what his perspective is on sustainability and buying local.
“Local is all relative,” he begins. “If everyone just ate local, California would really have a serious economic crisis. We export so much to the rest of the country. If people had to eat local in North Dakota, well… there’s nothing there. Local is relative to where you are. I don’t need to do anything to be local here—it’s really easy.”
It’s true, really. The market is less than a mile away from the restaurant and that’s only in Santa Monica. There are many, many farmer’s markets scattered all across Los Angeles, with some of the best produce you can find in the entire country. I guess if you live in California and are not taking advantage of this massive opportunity that most of the United States doesn’t have, there is something seriously wrong with you. It’s like being in Seattle looking for a cup of coffee and you settle for Peets (true story, this actually happened to me with a friend).
At this point, the salad is looking like a piece of art—it’s the sexiest salad I have ever seen. Each green, radish, and beet is carefully picked with tweezers and placed on the plate at the precise location to create a visual masterpiece.
Talking to Josiah made me realize just how grounded he is in his surroundings, and the change that inevitably happens throughout the course of food evolving. Many of his dishes are simply staples of what he enjoys and not the result of trends. Even the concept of “farm-to-table” has become more of a marketing ploy, when Josiah has been modestly shopping locally before other restaurants decided to jump in on the hype.
“TV is the biggest change in culture,” he says. “All these guys doing all this stuff—they couldn’t do it today if it wasn’t for food TV. It’s lifestyle. People wouldn’t be able to serve pork belly if people didn’t see it on TV. Now you can’t find pork belly—it’s high cost.”
The salad is everything I hoped it would be—a perfect representation of our day and of what is in season in California. It was actually quite simple but the intensity of the vegetables is what made it all special. There is an interesting combination of vegetables being raw, pickled, and puréed giving it the subtleties of a memorable dish.
Michael and I begin to pack up our gear in the empty dining room. It’s quiet and still with all of the action happening at the back of the house. We’ll leave, service will arrive to start the dinner shift, guests will begin to trickle in, drinks will be poured, and orders will be taken. However, the cooks and chefs in the kitchen have already been here all along—in fact, since 8:30 in the morning buying ingredients at the farmers’ market. It might take a guest 10 minutes to receive their dish, but the guy preparing it has already been working on his feet for 10 hours and counting.
The kitchen brigade in restaurants are an interesting lot. Whether they are a dysfunctional family of outcasts, chain-smoking addicts, or God knows what else Anthony Bourdain might describe them as, they’re all after one thing: perfection—or the great ones are, at least. Don’t get me wrong, though, perfection is not about creating art on a plate and having every menu align perfectly. It’s about having all of the right pieces come together to invoke a magical experience, from the quality of ingredients, to the service, to that final sip of coffee at dessert. The restaurant is simply a vehicle to take you on a joyous ride from start to finish.
After the wine has been poured and the plates have arrived, there is a moment when the guests drop their guard and begin to open up, laugh, and smile—as if time stands still. That, to me, my friends, is when you’ve achieved perfection.