R: Let's start with the basics. What is food to you? I was talking with my brother the other day, and he put it really well when he said that growing up, food was fuel. In the Midwest culture where I came from, the rural farming community, you make hearty food that sustains you. If it's salty, it's good. If not, add a little hot sauce. But that's it. It's fuel. So how do you think about, what do you think of when you think of food? Its obviously more than that to you...
O: Absolutely. that's a terrific question. I think for me it's a lot of different things. Certainly it's fuel. But I think that when it is fuel, when it's at its basic, it should be tasty. Food is love. I also then think it's a time for people to come together. We didn't say, "Let's just go talk at the park." I mean we could have, "Let's meet at x place." But we said, "Let's meet, let's have coffee, let's get lunch or breakfast or whatever." So food plays a very unique role. It's the one thing that everybody does, from ISIS to the Pope. And every culture has some sort of ritual with food involved in it.
And to that end, I see the infinite possibilities with food, because you're transforming these ingredients into a little bit of magic (hopefully). And if it isn't, it's okay, because the ingredients aren't really that expensive. Yes, I know food can get expensive if you go crazy, or go to Whole Foods (laughing), but if you can just get a chicken and say, "I'm going to try to do something with this, and I don't know what it's going to be, but it's going to be something"--and don't be afraid! It's not brain surgery, so have some fun with it.
From a creative standpoint, it's all the senses. Certainly flavor, smell, sound and crunch and all that. Also visuals, texture, feeling and a tactile quality. I can't think of anything else that does all that. You know, music, I love music but it doesn't satisfy the senses that way, visual art doesn't do it that way, but food does. And, yes at the same time, it is nourishment and sustainability.
So to me, you asked "what is food?" Food is all those things. And when you think of it that way, it's fun again.
And that's the other thing I'd like people to think of when they come together. Even when it's simple you do not... I hate more than anything when people are like "I don't want to cook for you because you're so good." It's almost insulting. First of all, because when you're hosting, it's such an offering. I'm so grateful! You are giving, and opening your home and your creativity and your self... how could I ever think of judging you? It's simple, and it doesn't take anything to do this. Even if you're living in your dorm room, even if you just make peanut butter toast, and opened a really nice bottle of... what would go with peanut butter toast, maybe a Merlot? I'm just kidding, probably a white wine actually (laughing). How fantastic! And I would love for more people to do that! We're human beings and we're social creatures, so why not gather around food, why not explore your creative side?
So how's that for a really long answer to a really small question?
R: You're making me think now, and I wonder... Some people approach food with a consumer mentality of "tried that, ate that already, had that dish, went to that famous restaurant." They're just checking off a list in their heads. It's about saying they've done something more than it's about probing and inquiring into rich new experiences. I had never consciously thought about the textures and sounds of eating before, so when you said that it was an epiphany to me. It's the crunchiness of a chip or a juicy carrot that, beyond the flavor, brings satisfaction. And the simple awareness of that fact, the act of searching for textures and sounds, increases enjoyment. So how do you encourage somebody to go from just eating food to that whole experience?
O: Hmm, that's an interesting point actually. I think it is about going beyond, just like you said, the aspect of "this is just fuel," and obviously at times you have to grab a quick burrito, because you're driving and your head's throbbing, and your kids love it. I get it. But even then, I hope it's going to be a good burrito, you know? And paying attention, I think that's an important thing. Just taking a moment and asking "what is this?" In a way, this whole food movement and all these crazy foodies is fantastic, because people are paying attention more. On the other hand, I think people are becoming a little too precocious about things. it's like, "What's the pedigree of my chicken?" I mean, come on people, relax a little bit. It's not like everything has to be organically grown in a perfect little facade or something...
R: I'm getting the impression that you could start by telling someone just to start by asking, "What if there's more? What if there's more than I assume this is going to be? What if the burrito is more than just a quick bite?" Or another example, so many people treat coffee like it's just the vehicle for caffeine, so get it in my body regardless of taste or temperature. And they're skeptical of anyone who pushes them to see further. But if we can get them to ask that question, "Well, what if there is more? What if there's something fruity in there beyond the bitterness?" ...
O: Yeah! And maybe they don't taste it, maybe they find it bitter, so, "How do I come to an appreciation of this? How do I explore this a little bit more?" Maybe it's something that you don't like, maybe you like tea more, so maybe explore that a little bit more. I mean, there is something for everyone.
But it's about taking a little bit of time and appreciating more because... we're lucky enough, those of us who have access to good food, to be able to appreciate it and not just check it off the list. And it doesn't have to be a three Michelin star or two Michelin star restaurant where we have that experience. A beautiful bowl of soup and a wonderfully, perfectly done grilled sandwich, that's fantastic! And hopefully you take a moment and savor those flavors.
So yeah, I like the way you say that. What if there is more, what if it's not just a cup of coffee? Maybe I can think about those flavors a little more closely.
That's certainly what wine is, which is why I like wine. I like spirits, like a martini, too. But really, with a vodka martini, we're just trying to make it taste like nothing. I mean, it's kind of the antithesis of what a chef wants. I'm not trying to make food that has no flavor. "Here, here's a potato. I made them taste like NOTHING!" You'd be like, "Why am I eating this?" "Oh! Because it's great and it will fill you up!" That would be crazy! Which is why bartenders love gin so much. Gin is infinitely more interesting. There's so many kinds of gin. I didn't realize that until we had our bar program. We started it at Elements (Onil's former restaurant). and the guy that was doing it... we all said we liked vodka and he said whaaaat? Because it doesn't taste like anything! And then he started showing us all these gins and I was like "That's fascinating!" The florals, the citrus notes, the herbaciousness... and wine certainly has that too. You open a bottle and you don't know what you're going to get, so "Whoa, I wasn't expecting that!" It's the different grapes and then the different vintages and the different styles of winemakers, it's amazing. It really is. But it's subtle. You really have to pay attention.
R: I like to use the idea of listening to a wine. You're smelling and tasting of course, but listening captures a certain focused attention... what is the wine saying? But let's switch gears. What do you have in mind when you go to the store? What are you looking for on the shelf? When you buy a bottle of wine what's in your head? Are you watching for something on the label?
O: Well maybe it's the label; it's interesting, it's a varietal... you know I like these bigger red wines like a Cabernet Franc or a Petite Syrah, maybe a Pinot Noir. But I know there's so much hype about that, so maybe a Merlot or a Cab. But these are just the wines that we know. There's always the other varietals, the Italian wines and so forth. When I have the time, I really like going to a wine store:
"Oh, well this might be nice! Maybe this Cab Frank would bring out... there's a little berry and I think it might contrast..."
"Okay, so tonight I'm cooking a pork shoulder and it's going to be braised with a lot of flavors like juniper, fall like kind of things. What do you think would go well with this?" "Well, what price are you looking at?" "Eh, let's go with twenty bucks, I don't care." "Okay, great!"
R: So there's a communal aspect which I think is key. There's an excitement that builds. It's one thing to say "I'll try this, it's something I can afford." It's another if someone is recommending it. They've increased the anticipation, so when you go home, there's something else...
O: Then it becomes this whole bigger thing. You said it so perfectly. So now I've gone to Everson Wines, and I'll say I want these different pairings with this food. And I've explained "This is spicy, this is a little this." And they'll go, "Oh well let's go with a Bruna Bansigu for this. This is good, because it's spicy and kind of salty, this is going to be a great key, it's got a lot of nice acid to help it."
So now it's become, "Let's see if this works!"
I've got a lot of the pieces, so you know, you take your first bite of your really crunchy shrimp dish that you made and you take a sip and say "That's great." Or you go, "No, it's okay." Who knows? So there is a little bit of an aspect of discovery with each bottle of wine.
I know a lot of bartenders will say "I can do that with a cocktail," but to me alcohol is so much more in your face. it's hard. I can't sip a martini. Maybe with an hors d'oeuvre or something. But with a meal I don't enjoy it as much. So there is that part of it.
R: It seems like memory is a key part of why we eat good food and why we drink wine. The first glass of wine I ever had, we were boating on the Ohio river, and somebody in the cabin next door was making wine in his basement. He had given us a small bottle, and it was a sunny August day and we were on the river. Nothing has lived up to that experience. Every other wine is somehow going back to that. Then there was a scotch that I had in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was with an old friend I hadn't seen in years. We met at a dark little pub on High Street. I don't have a clue what the Scotch was, but the experience is something I'll never forget.
O: I love that! That's a wonderful view! Did you write about that in your blog?
R: It's in the works.
O: I love that!
R: Do you have specific memories tied with foods that stick out to you?
O: Well, I'm glad that you asked that, because I just had this conversation with someone who said the best meal she ever had was on a very cold day, I think she was in Scotland too, she said she walked into a place and they had this stew and bread, and it wasn't anything... but it was everything. And I think she said that right.
New Orleans is one of my favorite cities. It's sort of this arrogant place; you're there on vacation, you're there with your friends. The air feels a certain way. The temperature, the texture. Put all that together, and the moment is fantastic. But the memory is almost better! I think, oh gosh, there are so many, there's a lot of food memories...
R: You made these margaritas once at Elements for Chris' birthday. It was impromptu. You cracked some limes and made the first fresh margarita I had ever had. Wonderful.
O: Yeah! Wonderful! You know, just last night we were going to hang out with a friend in Altadena, and he said "why don't you just come over, don't do any shopping." I told him I had some chicken marinating (which I didn't, but I had chicken thighs, which I then marinated). So I took them up there and asked him for the grill. It was charcoal, which was fantastic. And he had some rice-a-roni, the San Francisco treat, that he put on, which I hadn't had in years. We added a plate salad, and all of a sudden it was this wonderful moment of simple food that comes together.
I think that's the other thing that I'd like to impress upon people. It doesn't always have to be the best. You know, people are always like "This is the BEST. I want to tell you that the best coffee you should have is..."
R: But you'll never live up to it!
O: Yeah! And what is the best? Because, really? I saw an ad for a job and I liked it because it said, "We're looking to make good food. We're not trying to win any awards. We just want to put out good food." I'm like, thank you, because I think people feel like they need to have those four stars from the LA Times, need to be told that was the best macaroni and cheese... I can't promise that, but I can promise you it's going to be good macaroni and cheese. It's going to be the best I can make, I wouldn't make it any less than that. Will it be the best for you? I don't know how your mom used to make mac and cheese. You might think its way better than moms because she just used to make the Kraft dinners. But by the way, those Kraft dinners were the inspiration. I don't know if you've ever had the Kraft macaroni and cheese...
R: Out of the box? Yeah!
O: Those were the inspiration behind mine because we used to eat those when I was young. My best friend bobby and I, we would, I remember once summer his parents went to Spain. We couldn't drive then because we weren't old enough. We were 15 or so, and it was hot. we would play monopoly and...
Waitress: Would you like more coffee? Sure.
O: We'd play monopoly and it was too hot to go outside, so we'd go to the movies on his moped. But we'd have these vegetarian steaks, corn, and mac and cheese. And you know, when you're 15 you eat like a horse, crazy amounts of food. But that mac and cheese was so creamy and yummy. I'm sure if I had it now it would taste terrible. But that memory... it was because it was so much fun to be with my best friend. Just being 15 year old boys hanging out and doing not really too much, just summer vacation.
So mac and cheese has to be creamy and the way I remember it. I'm not trying to go with 17 kinds of French cheese, because for me that's not mac and cheese. It is for someone else, and I betcha it's really tasty, which is cool ...
R: So there's an aspect of authenticity with food and wine where you're not saying "I'm trying to be this," you're asking a question: What's going to happen when I open this bottle? I don't really know what it's going to taste like. Maybe it's terrible, but in this moment when I'm sharing it with somebody, I'm being myself. And that's going to be where the memories are at, that's going to be where it's enjoyable.
O: Yeah! That's a big part of it. Over time I've learned that with food and cooking and entertainment and the whole whole thing that goes together- I'm not trying to impress anyone. I mean, certainly you want to try your hardest. I'm not going to sit there and give you toast. But I don't have to impress you. We're friends and we're together, so we're not trying to impress each other. Listen, I know you cook well; I want to see YOU. So even if we order a pizza, I'm so happy because we're going to eat pizza and open a bottle of wine. It might not be the best pizza in the world, or it might be really great pizza, who knows? But that's not really what matters is it? It's us coming together.
Say you've never tried something, like roasting a duck. Try it! And have a backup plan just in case (laughing) so that you guys aren't starving. But listen, if you invited us over and we had never roasted a duck before, and we take it out and the duck is not edible, we would laugh! And I would not walk away from that situation saying "Can you imagine they invited us over?" I would be like, "That was so much fun!" So, did I answer that question? There is an authenticity...
R: Yeah! It's about the moment itself, it's not about impressing,..
O: The best creative ventures come from an honest place. I think I'm best cooking wise when I'm being true, when I'n not trying to be Thomas Keller. When I'm just being "This is me, this is what I like," that's when its usually the best. Always I would say. When Elements was reviewed in the LA Times, the very last line said "Elements can be one of the best restaurants in town if Chibas forgets the cheffy tricks and just keeps cooking soulful food." I look at that line a lot, and I use that word when I write because there's something about soulfulness that's important. Soulful food is honest, but it's not sloppy. You have to think about it, but it's not over thought. And it's not self-conscious, because it's easy to be self conscious and I think that's a problem. Certainly, you should never be self-conscious in the home situation.
R: It seems like soulfulness is about Being, in the sense that you know yourself, you know who you are, you know what you like, and you're confident in that, and that's what you do. And you invite other people to accept it or to walk away from it, but you're comfortable with your tastes.
O: Exactly. When you are comfortable with your tastes, you relax, you're open to things. It's like acting. I've never really done acting, but I know when I was doing animation as soon as the camera came on you can just see people become self-conscious. The best actors are the people who really are lost in the moment and they're engaging with their partner in that moment and they're honest. Cooking is the same sort of thing, that honesty. I'm going to keep it simple, I'm going to... I Like a good amount of garlic, so I'm going to see what happens if I try this. And you keep going and you try things. You have to correct things too. Okay, that was a little too much garlic and I couldn't taste the shrimp, but that's all right. You didn't do anything bad. It's food, you get to try it again. I think that's a really good point. Thanks for that question.
R: So walk us through this scenario: Someone is cooking dinner, they don't have the budget to go to a wine store and talk to somebody, so they're going to go to the grocery. How do they do it? Or maybe, how do you do pairings? You have a couple of wines on your shelf that you've had before, what do you do to pair a food and wine together. How do you begin to think about that process?
O: The whole idea of food and wine is that you don't want either to overpower the other. If you're on a budget and you're thinking okay tonight I'm just going to grill a steak, and you know, traditionally steak and red wine go together. So say you like red wine and you end up at Ralph's, I'm probably going to do a big red wine. Maybe this Cabernet. $7.99? I can afford that. I'll try it and see how it works. What if you don't like red? Well, you still need something big enough, so I'd probably go with a chardonnay, and then the same sort of thing. And keep it to what you like. Don't sit there and conform. I will serve red wine with fish because usually its about the sauce anyway. I'm not going to serve a huge overpowering Barolo with it, although maybe the way I prepared this salmon dish has some sausage with it and some big flavors, so maybe it could stand up to a Barolo, so you never know. And I think that's part of it. It's experimentation. It's not the end of the world if it doesn't fit perfectly.
I think you learn that way too. When it does work together you have that aha moment of "this is great!" If it doesn't work, its not a huge moment, it just kind of stays flat, and so you learn. Some people are overwhelmed by all the possibilities. They walk into one of those big rooms full of wine, and there are just too many choices so they turn around and walk away. But you just have to start somewhere. Start where you're comfortable and with what you know. If you don't like seafood or red meat, don't force it. Try it, but if you don't like it, that's fine. Move on. Ultimately, just make it work for you. And then, have fun and hopefully share it.
R: These are life lessons- Let go of the fear of doing something you don't want to do. If you want to try something, try it. Start where you're comfortable and go from there.
O: Exactly. I certainly think about that. I wrote in one of my blogs about getting out of your comfort zone. You almost always learn something about yourself when you do. Do I ever cook octopus for instance? No. I probably should, but I don't know... there's a lot of legs. But I've had it when it's good, so I know I should try it. If you don't know how to butcher it, there's always someone on YouTube who is willing to show you! That's the other thing nowadays, the Internet is a whole different world. You can go on there and ask "How do you do potatoes faux?" or "How do you butcher an octopus?" Oh, I see, you take off his little legs like that, and that's great. Okay, let's do it. What's the best way to cook it so it's not like little rubber bands? Got it.
So take advantage of those things, and you never now what you'll find. And you may also do it and say wow that was awful and that's okay too.
R: Do you ever think about seasons?
O: As far as cooking? always.
R: Would you carry that over to wine?
O: In the summertime there's nothing more pleasant than having bottle of rosé. Let's sit on the porch, open a bottle of rose and just have the beautiful breeze blowing. For me that's terrific. And I suppose in the winter I want a big heavy bottle of red wine sitting by the fire eating a stew, because the food you're making is probably a little different. In the summer you're probably cooking lighter things, salads, fish, a lot of grilled things. So when I'm doing that I want a lighter wine to accompany it.
Then there's things that happen in the world of wine, like Beaujolais Nouveau, that comes out around Thanksgiving, and so that's always something that people associate with Fall and Thanksgiving and turkey. In the winter, it's wine, cocktails for me. I tend to like darker spirits in the winter, and in the summer I'm a happy guy with gin and tonic. I don't want a gin and tonic on a cold day. An old fashioned? Yeah! But an old fashioned on a hot summer afternoon? Probably not. It's not going to be calling my name as much.
R: Are you a scotch drinker? Whats your scotch?
O: I like scotch, but I don't know that much about it. I don't like it when it goes too too peaty, although as I've started sipping more and enjoying more, like, what did I have the uh, the Macallan 18, which is really nice. Glenmorangie...
R: I have a bottle of that right now.
O: Then there's these Japanese scotches which are very interesting. I just heard on NPR that a Japanese scotch won an international blind tasting. Fascinating, but it makes sense. Japanese culture is very precise. They've been able to make this very expensive 25 year old Yamazaki. I'm trying to remember it, but it's so wonderful. Scotch is interesting like wine, because there's so much complexity and I would enjoy learning more about it for sure. I do enjoy it. I also like Irish whisky like Bushmills. Do you like Bushmills?
R: I do.
O: I just got a bottle yesterday, getting ready for St. Patrick's Day!
R: What's interesting to me is the difference, like for me Jameson is a rainy day in the fall or winter. Somehow I have this craving for green tea and Jameson, and it's raining and I'm curled up on the couch with a book. I don't know why. But I love the difference between an Irish whisky and a scotch and a bourbon... they have their own bodies and textures...
O: I went to a fundraiser the other day, and the guy who was making the drinks has come up with several different bar syrups for cocktails. The one he was using for my old fashioned was burnt sugar, along with a big sweet orange rind. And it gave that smoked essence with the bourbon. Delicious. The name of the company was Glossops, really interesting, definitely work looking up. I don't know what the other flavors are, but he just started making these because he saw a need and took a risk and now he's bottling it. I love that. That's so exciting for me, because that's what it's all about.
Our meal was over, I was buzzing with caffeine, and the meter maid had just placed a ticket on both of our cars. It was time to go. But as I pulled away from the curb, I left with a sense of contentment. Our conversation was more than words. Onil embodies his ideas. Food, wine, spirits... it's about discovering who you are, letting go of your fears, and embracing the world and all it has to offer.
My warmest thanks go out to Onil Chibas for taking the time to have this interview with me. Onil blogs at: http://onilchibas.blogspot.com/