On Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood there is a restaurant with a sophisticated facade and expensive cars parked out front. A glimmer of the warmth inside peeks through the plants that surround the outdoor patio and, as I walk in, I hear the sound of clinking wine glasses and ambient trip-hop music mingling with the lively conversation that’s being made by well-dressed patrons. It’s elegant and feels like quintessential “classic Hollywood,” and yet there is a humbleness to it all. Welcome to Cecconi’s—an Italian restaurant that first opened its doors in London—founded by Enzo Cecconi, the youngest general manager of Ciapriani restaurant in Venice, Italy. In January 2005, Soho House took full ownership and refurbished the brand to focus on its Venetian roots.
During my visit to Cecconi’s, I sat down with Executive Chef Andrea Cavaliere. He spoke with a strong Italian accent and was extremely courteous as he gave me a tour of the restaurant’s dining room and kitchen, where cooks were preparing seasonal dishes and used a wood fired oven for their Italian-style pizzas.
Here is his story.
Where did you grow up?
Turin, North of Italy. I grew up in a family that owned a restaurant—like a trattoria—a very small place in a village. When I was younger, I remember helping my uncle and my aunt—not just in the kitchen—but also with the hospitality side of things. My mom would leave me there and I would enjoy just spending time looking at people and after people with my cousin. Very family-run place. This restaurant has been there for 3 or 4 generations. There is no menu, it’s all verbalized. My grandma would go in there and say “this is what we’re going to cook” and there wasn’t even a board. So that was my first approach to food.
I would work on the weekends, go to school during the day, and work again at night. It was so fun. I used to work by the sea during the summer season, and in the alps during the winter. So, basically, I was always in the right place. I was also very young, I started working when I was 14 or 15, so I got to experience life very early.
I imagine you always had access to amazing ingredients.
That is Italy. I only realized when I left Italy to work in London and that is when I started to realize how lucky we were without even knowing. Especially at that time—obviously now things have changed—and you can choose what you want and get imported stuff. Before, there was only one way and only one market. I remember the British had a bad reputation for food. When I first moved there, I thought it was so bad. But now, it’s probably one of the best in the world. A lot of great chefs are there now.
I notice that as you get older—especially after moving to LA—people are very self-conscious, they’re on a diet, or very worried about their health. That’s something we didn’t do in Italy but we ate raw and you hear these trendy raw diets in Santa Monica but eating raw food is something we eat a lot in Italy. Raw vegetables, raw salads, raw fish, raw meats. It’s no trend, that’s just how we eat. It’s something unbelievable. My grandma died when she was 102 and she drank a bottle of red wine with my grandpa every day but I love that. We didn’t follow trends and it’s something we try to do at Cecconi’s.
I notice that as you get older—especially after moving to LA—people are very self-conscious, they’re on a diet, or very worried about their health.
What exactly is that philosophy and idea you are trying to bring to Cecconi’s?
Obviously cooking in California is similar to cooking in Italy. The produce is really good because of the sun. I also oversee other kitchens like Cecconi’s in Miami and Soho House in Toronto and New York. And I come back here and realize how lucky we are. I was in Toronto working with artichokes or carrots grown in California but picked two weeks before. Here we are spoiled. We have access to farmers markets and the sun. It’s a privilege and I love it. We really focus on the produce and freshness.
How do you feel about the Italian food in LA?
When I first arrived to LA, I was coming for Oscar parties through Soho House, like pop-ups. I remember looking around and eating at Italian restaurants and feeling very unimpressed. But now, there is great Italian food. I think Cecconi’s helped raise the bar. When we first opened, it was a big change.
Where do you find inspiration?
The ingredients. I start with the best extra virgin olive oil. I try not to cover the flavor; I try to push the flavor—that is the Italian approach. When I first moved here, not everyone would get what I was trying to do. When I do the menu, it’s about balancing. Especially with amazing ingredients, you want to show off.
What’s on the menu?
At Cecconi’s, we’re known for the table-service. Not many do it, but we have a section in the menu for carpaccios and tartar. Again, everything is raw. They’re all prepared in the kitchen and then finished table-side.
The other thing is the ciccheti which are Venetian tapas. The concept and design of Cecconi’s is actually Venetian. The Venetians go to Ciccheti where they drink ombra. There is a big connection between this aperitif and ciccheti. The fishermen would come back from fishing in the morning and it was breakfast. The style and the way we plate our food is very relaxed.
I try not to cover the flavor; I try to push the flavor—that is the Italian approach.
What keeps you going and motivated?
All the guys that work on the line and in the kitchen are all addicted to the adrenaline. For some reason in the world, everyone wants to eat at 1pm and 8pm, so we we have to cook for so many people in a short time—it’s basically a rush. Sometimes I don’t run the pass everyday anymore because I travel or create the dishes, but when I do, I love it. I love it more and more. I can see people behind the line the same. I learn on the job; there is no recipe, I just learn how to control for doing it for so many years. In London, it was especially very wild compared to working in California. California is very controlled and Europe is crazy. It can be a nightmare working in the kitchens of Europe.
In Europe—now it’s changing—but basically the chef is in charge, he does what he wants, and I have been kicked physically and verbally for sure. In California, it doesn’t happen—you’d get arrested. Overall, it’s better to have people love to work where they work and they respect you more. I feel blessed to have seen the Italian way, the French way, the English way, and it’s even different in New York and LA. Not just the food, but the way the restaurant and the kitchens are run.
Something I do, and I expect everyone in the kitchen to do the same is to evolve and get better all the time. I always try to push everyone and also push myself. We change the menu and we don’t change the dishes because they are no good. Evolving is good for everyone and keeps everyone focused. Even the line cook—he doesn’t get bored cooking the same dish on and on. It’s a way to keep everyone more focused. There are more and more restaurants, more and more cooks and chefs, so if you don’t get better, you will get stuck and be out soon.