There is something rather peaceful about visiting a kitchen early in the day before the chaos inevitably ensues in the evening. The subtle sounds of stocks simmering, knives chopping onions, and dishes being washed is like music to my ears. And, at Fifty Seven—one of Los Angeles’ most unique restaurants, featuring a new chef every 3-6 months—it’s no different.
In the storage room downstairs, dozens of Muscovy ducks are hung in their grimmest and rawest state for Chef David Nayfeld’s elegantly prepared dish of roasted duck, heirloom carrots, chickpeas, and yogurt. Adjacent to the duck carcasses are carefully twined chickens to be roasted for the “Amish Chicken” dish (my personal favorite), paired with artichoke, potato, and romesco.
In a way, the contents and the concept of the storage room reflect what Fifty Seven embodies. Like the restaurant, the produce, the meat, and the ingredients found in this storage room are in transition. All of these elements are what ultimately build a base for the final product (a beautifully prepared dish which will soon disappear off the plate). But is food ever final? Seasons change, product change, menus change, trends change, mentalities change, customers change… life is constantly in transition. The only thing that is finite is that each second has surely passed.
Fifty Seven—as a dining experience—will change, and continue to change, becoming many different restaurants throughout the year through its chef residency program. Today, Chef David Nayfeld, who previously worked at Eleven Madison Park in New York, is not only the debut chef at Fifty Seven, but also the man that has built a foundation in the kitchen for his successors.
David’s time at Fifty Seven will soon come to a close, he’ll move onto other projects, and allow a new chef to take his place. The menu will change, the cuisine will most likely not be David’s “progressive-American” style of cooking, and diners will be exposed to a different narrative coming from the kitchen. The kitchen staff, however, will remain, regardless of which new chef takes the helm, making the entire project that much more exciting and challenging.
I sat down with Chef David Nayfeld, a cool-headed, no bullshit kind of guy to learn about his journey and what makes him tick on a more human level before his departure from Fifty Seven.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Bay Area, in Oakland. The block I grew up on was quite nice: three bedroom houses, families, very nice. Then at the park where we hung out at, half a block from my house, people were getting into huge brawls, smoking weed outside, rolling dice, and it was really easy to get trapped into that mentality. A block away, life got very real.
Both of my parents worked in order for us to succeed and maintain. I ran around a lot and got into a lot of trouble as a kid. I always had a lot of respect for my parents and how much work they did. My parents came here from Belarus along with my brother. I was the first person in my whole family to be born in the United States.
What drew you into the world of food?
My mom was very health-conscious about the food we had in the house. Everything was vegetables, nuts, and grains. My brother always hated this. He would be like, “Mom, can we have money to go get an icee or slurpee from the store?” And she’s like “Oh, vat are you talking about? I make you a lovely slurpee right here at home with fresh strawberries!”
I almost felt embarrassed to ask them for money because I knew whatever I was asking for was not as important as what they were going to spend it on initially. I was 13, and my mom and I were at this produce stand that we would go to twice a week. It was called Paul’s Produce. I see a sign that says HELP WANTED: STOCK CLERK. So there’s Paul, an ex-roadie for the Grateful Dead, who likes smoking weed, who used to have me go to the store across the street and get him a six-pack of Heineken. His wife, Ida, would get mad at him when he drank on the job, so he would make me hide the beer at the bottom of the ice bin. He would dig in for a beer, drink it super fast, and throw it into the dumpster.
We used to get hass avocados in, and we would have these Mexican tortilla chips. I remember taking a bag of them and cutting an avocado open, sprinkling lime on it, and scooping out the avocado with the tortilla chips. That was something that always resonated with me. I have always loved food, I have always loved the action of eating, and I have always loved the action of flavor combination.
I was still working at the produce market, and this Greek guy drives up and wants portabella mushrooms. He says “Hey kid, what are you doing after you get off work? I own Village Cafe around the corner. I need a dishwasher, my dishwasher didn’t show up. I’ll give you 30 bucks if you come and wash dishes.”
So I go in, and I’m so excited. It was my first time at a kitchen of a real restaurant. It’s loud, it’s hot, and steamy. Pans are being flung back and forth. I just had so much fun. For a hyperactive kid, you want an energy release. You want something visceral, temperatures, sounds, and things that are overwhelming to you because it’s the only thing that keeps you going. Automatically, I fell in love with this industry. The sensory overload, the happiness of being in an environment where I didn’t have to pretend to not be hyper or rambunctious.
When I started cooking, going to culinary school was what burnouts did. It’s not like how it is now where you tell someone you’re going to culinary school and they’re like, “Oh my God!” When I was thinking about it, people were like, “Eww… you can’t do anything else, eh?”
To me, cooking and life is a combination of love, passion, rage, hate, romance, sex appeal… all bottled into one. Sometimes one is driving you more in that moment. But it creates the cocktail of who you are at that point. At different points in our lives, when we’re experiencing different things, we can almost become slightly different versions of ourselves.
There was definitely a time in my life where I had a lot of angst, anxiety, and anger. Every emotion was out and in your face. Everything I was feeling, you were seeing. At a certain point, in order for my professional life to grow and in order to grow emotionally as a human being, I had to learn how to control all of those things. Still say what I mean, say what’s on my mind, but create this filter where maybe the sentiment or the narrative is a little more refined. Rather than screaming something that you’re feeling, sit back for a tick, talk about it, think about it, and that’s how you train a kitchen, to be honest. There are chefs that say something and feel it, and they go fucking nuts right away. The goal is to see something that is not right, to come over, you talk about it, explain it to them, and show them.
Is the role of a chef to be a teacher?
You’re a teacher and a student. Sometimes you learn lessons you don’t want to learn. You learn people are two-faced. You learn sometimes you can’t trust someone, you learn sometimes that people will work hard if you inspire them. If you realize these are lessons and lessons to take into account, then you become smarter for the next day. I’m not saying these are all lessons I wanted to learn. Sometimes these lessons have kicked me in the teeth. I’ve seen how people can be disrespectful, dishonest, or really awful. On the flip side, there are people who give a shit more than themselves. I’ve seen people who truly care about the work, their craft, or people who want to make a difference, leave a mark, and a legacy. Creating legacies is what my life is all about. The only thing that gets left behind of you is an old, wrinkly body, and a legacy. Whatever that legacy is, it will stay way longer behind than your body.
I’m a teacher in here, but I’m a student everyday of my life. If you are smart enough, you’ll learn things by just observing and being a student of the game. I think every artist is a student of the game because they’re observant.
The only thing that gets left behind of you is an old, wrinkly body, and a legacy. Whatever that legacy is, it will stay way longer behind than your body.
How would you describe what you’re doing at Fifty Seven?
We’re doing something that is counter-culture. Not only does it not exist in the city but it’s a concept that—as far as I know—doesn’t exist anywhere. It’s been truly amazing to see this whole thing progress. From essentially being an empty loading dock [for Heinz Ketchup] to a full-functioning restaurant but also having an environment where we bake our own bread, make our own butter, butcher our own animals, and make our own pasta—there are a ton of moving parts. If we’re not going to try to do things the right way, then why are we even doing this? Why are we even making this fake attempt at this culture, trade, and craft? If you’re not going to attempt to do everything the right way, then why are you attempting at all?
The feeling of Fifty Seven feels more like family than it does fine-dining.
If you never know where the line is, you’ll never going to be able to find it and maneuver around it. Everybody says to me, “Well, your background is very much Eleven Madison Park, Robuchon, Aqua…” The thing is, without all of those places, I don’t know where the line is. Now I know where both sides lie. It’s easy to say “Okay, where does the pretense lie?” Does the pretense lie in a movement? On a linen on a table? Or the type of stemware you’re drinking from, the silverware, or the conversation? I would gather the whole team in a room and discuss every point of contact that a guest has from the moment they decide, in their mind, that they want to go to your restaurant to the moment they are driving away. We would sit in the office, for six hours, and have a huge board and write “Okay, when does this moment happen? Does it happen between this or this or before this? Is that something we think works in this environment? Is that something that needs to be stripped away to fit the culture?” In that, you start to find enlightening things.
Something I take away from fine dining is that I only allow my service staff to take two plates at a time. It helps them concentrate on what they’re doing, it keeps the integrity of the presentation of the food and the quality of the food, and it creates a more special interaction between you and the guest. When you only have two plates and you have two guests that you’re working with, that interaction is very synced in. Whereas you have three plates and you’re just juggling them and just trying to get them off your hand before they burn you, that interaction is gone. That one plate has pulled that interaction out because now, you’re in super efficiency mode than guest-pleasure mode.
We also said, “Does this restaurant need to have linens?” Well, what does a linen do? It makes you feel like everything is white table clothed and all of that kind of stuff. The beauty of wood—we didn’t finish these tables on purpose—show a lifetime of stains, wine, and marks because that’s the kind of place this is. We’re in the Downtown Arts District, we are not in Beverly Hills right now. There’s nothing wrong with Beverly Hills, and I would open a restaurant in Beverly Hills if I felt so inclined, so it’s not a diss on them, I’m just saying this is not that.
You see brick, you see mortar, you see exposed pipes, it’s gritty. You need to find a way to culminate the grittiness with the finesse. That’s what true, fine dining is—it’s the sentiment behind it.
How do you build a foundation in the kitchen for a future chef?
It’s always finding the right people, right? But what does that really mean? What that really means is finding the people that fit the space, have an interest level in what you’re doing, people who have work ethic, and people who are dedicated to the project.
To be honest with you, if I tried to tell you right now how this all works, I would be so full of shit. The truth is, I don’t know yet. Nobody knows yet. The only way the model can be proven is with the second chef. Where the model will be proven is when the next chef comes in. Are they set up for success? Are they in a good place to come in and use my systems? That’s when we’re really going to know. Anything else, it would be such bullshit to tell you, “Oh, I know this and this is going to happen.” What i’m trying to do is take everything that I know in life and apply that. But like I said, every cocktail is different—every mix is different. We’ll see how it works.
What I can tell you is that the other people behind this place are really dedicated to this place succeeding. I’m not super worried about it. I don’t feel like for some reason when I leave that it’s not going to work out the same way as if I am because those people truly care about this project and want it to succeed as much as I want it to succeed.
712 South Santa Fe Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90021