In a town full of people who've built their name on a TV-star reputation, Curtis Stone stands out for proving that he's more than just a pretty face: at Maude, his first restaurant in LA, he became a fixture at the stoves, making incredible tasting menus that rapidly demonstrated he was no food-stylist showboat but an absolute next-level chef. For a sequel, he brought the city the grand, beautiful Gwen, which has become a must-visit food destination in Hollywood -- and when's the last time that part of the city had one of those? We talked to him about what the year's meant for him, what it's like working with his brother (who's a partner at Gwen), and what's next:
Tell me about what 2016 has meant for you...
Curtis Stone: It's been a good year. It's been a lot of fun, a lot of action, a lot of stress. We opened a new restaurant half way through the year. It's a funny feeling: that first six months of the year, I guess I spent planning, and plotting, and trying to get it all together conceptually while running our existing one, Maude.
Maude's an interesting concept, because we literally write a new menu once a month, so it all evolves around one ingredient. We, I guess in some ways, have to open a new restaurant [at Maude] each month, which was sort of the intent behind it, to keep it fresh, and it keep it interesting from the chef's perspective, because you're constantly having to develop a new menu that makes real sense. It isn't easy, but I guess the initial ambition of it was to stop that complacency that you fall into as a chef. You've got a million things to think about; the last thing you really worry about is writing a new menu. You want to make sure that you got enough portions of Kampachi done, if you know what I mean. To continue doing that and try to conceptualize a new restaurant [with Gwen] was a fun period. And when I say "fun," it was stressful, too. You're dealing with architects, designers, and complications... if the building's fire-safe, and all the shit that we're not used to having to think about [at Maude].
Then the last four months or five months has been that opening process, where you've got a lot of new employees and a lot of new things to think about and concern yourself with that you didn't think about beforehand, trying to make sure. You spend the first few weeks thinking, "God, where are all the guests? What's going wrong? We're not as busy as I wanted." And you get through that friends-and-family phase, and then suddenly you get busy and you're like, "Oh, holy shit, I wish I had a minute to figure it all out before we're thrown into the weeds."
But I guess that's why we all do what we do as chefs. We like living in the weeds for some reason or another. It's fun. It's a busy joint. I've just got to learn to spend my time trying to learn how to be in two places at once. It isn't easy.
Yeah, I was going to ask you that, because I feel like one of the things about Maude that was really clear after you guys opened, and has been clear, was how present you were there. Has that been a tricky balance for you, having to do that in two places at once?
Stone: I think in the short term I haven't been in two places at once, which has been interesting. I've managed to be here at Gwen and just like my attitude with Maude was you've got to build a culture and establish a certain way of doing things, and that only happens by leading the charge from the front. So I've had the same attitude here at Gwen. The beautiful thing about it is watching the team at Maude grow and develop and spread their wings without any help from me, or with limited help from me. I've got such an incredible team down there. Justin Hilbert, who's the chef, he's just such an [amazing guy]. I don't want to talk about them like they're beneath me in any way, because they're not, but there's a little something similar to watching your kid develop and learn a new skill and do something different. You're kind of like, "oh, look at them go," you know?
It's a little something like that with your team, whether it's getting through the week without a phone call, or watching the menus come out of the test kitchen, they have really been lead by Justin. And just to see how fabulous they are, it reminds you of why you do what you do, that sort of collaboration with other talented people that you really want to learn from and grow with. It's been a really cool process, actually.
Tell me a little bit what it's been like working with your brother so closely this year on Gwen.
Stone: It's been awesome. I mean, look, it's one of those things that everybody warns you about, I guess, working with a family member, and probably for good reason. You have a much shorter fuse with someone that you've known your entire life. There's no need for politeness in a family, which is what makes Thanksgiving such an interesting time of year, right? So that's good and bad. There's parts of it that you think, "I wouldn't have spoken to someone else like that. It's only because he's my brother." Or he wouldn't have spoken to me like that. But the good news is neither of you has got anywhere to go either. So, shit, you get to the arguments quicker, but you get to the solutions faster too, I think. That part of it's been awesome.
He's my big brother, so I have to learn to shut my mouth, because chefs are normally the boss. But in this instance it's not necessarily that way. There's the personal things that have been going on since his family's lived in Australia their whole life, so to watch him and his family move over with their three kids and adjust to a new culture and get to spend some real time with his family has been great. To watch my kids and his kids become real cousins is awesome. So, yeah, it's been fun.
Tell me a little bit about what you're looking forward to in 2017.
Stone: It's an exciting year, because we'll have caught our breath from the opening. We'll no longer be opening a restaurant. We'll have two operating restaurants, which is a nice feeling. You probably get a better snapshot of where your are financially, too, because you never know exactly how things are [during the time period] when you're opening. I think that it'll be a really good year to focus in and consolidate what it is we do, both here and at Maude. I think at Maude we've got some exciting ideas on how we can keep that restaurant as fresh as it's ever been and unique as it's ever been. The last thing I want to do is for that to become stagnant. I want it to evolve and get better and stronger. I'm really looking forward to not having to open another one, and just be able to focus on the quality of it.
It feels like you've, really since Maude opened, really established yourself as part of the dining culture in LA. What do you find exciting about food in LA right now?
Stone: There's so much exciting about LA. There's always good ethnic food here. There's always the amazing sushi and there's always the good cheap eats, if you will. That's always been here. We've got a real culture of it, and it's awesome. I think over the last 10 years -- and that probably started with Jon and Vinny opening Animal -- people started to become more adventurous in terms of what they would eat outside of those ethnic or cheap dining rooms. We've got a thing where it's improved our menu, and that's certainly evolving.
But I think now what is happening is people are a little more open to thinking of food as more than just something to get while you've stopped off somewhere, or just a quick cheap meal. Again, I hate that word, "fine dining," but it's allowing chefs to really elevate an experience to something that's really special. This influx we're about to see -- and where there's interest from around the country, I think it's really exciting. I think that the LA diners might have been a little skinny [with fine-dining restaurants] at the top end. We've had a couple of great restaurants [like] Providence, but there hasn't been a giant [fine-dining] restaurant movement. There's other cities in the world like that, but just go to Chicago or New York that have seven or eight real world-class restaurants. I think LA's about to get a couple of them, which is really cool.
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