A Closer Look at LA's Culinary Family Tree

By Lesley Balla  |  March 1, 2016

Right now, LA is having a moment as a new culinary mecca, a magnet for the best and brightest talent from around the country. It wasn’t much different 30-plus years ago, when places like Michael’s, Spago and Patina were at the forefront of a new culinary world order. These restaurants helped launch the careers of many of today’s local, national and celebrity chefs. When people like Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton wanted to find their footing in the kitchen, they went to work for Michael McCarty and Wolfgang Puck, two of the most innovative chefs and restaurateurs of their time.

This is the base of our lush culinary family tree in Los Angeles, where patriarchs and matriarchs like McCarty, Puck, Silverton and Joachim Splichal are directly linked to the stars and hot spots of our dining scene today. Think of it this way: if it weren’t for Michael’s, we might not have Sang Yoon’s Father’s Office. Or if not for Spago, maybe Campanile wouldn’t have come to be, which would mean no Mozza, and no Cassia, Bryant Ng’s Singaporean-Vietnamese restaurant in Santa Monica. As different as they are, they’re all inextricably tied together.

Here are the restaurants that played an important role in the genesis of how we eat now — in the Southland and across the country — and the LA culinary scene that grew from each one, including many current hot spots. Note: we're just barely scratching the surface here. There are so many prep cooks, sous-chefs, pastry stars, bartenders and front-of-the-house stars that have cycled through many of these establishments, and those that came after them, along the way. Let's just look at the roots, trunk and big branches for now.

  • Credit: Spago/Wolfgang Puck

    Ma Maison, Spago and the Wolfgang Puck Empire
    The celebrity hot spot of its time, Ma Maison was a precursor to Spago, which Puck first opened on the Sunset Strip in 1982. He opened other restaurants, Chinois on Main and Postrio in San Francisco, before debuting the Beverly Hills flagship in 1997, which became an incubator of sorts for many young talented chefs who are still feeding the scene today. Puck’s empire — more than 100 fine-dining and fast-casual spots across the globe — and influence haven’t waned since.

    Susan Feniger: This half of the Border Grill duo — Feniger met Mary Sue Milliken while working at Le Perroquet in Chicago — worked with Puck before going to France to cook. When she and Milliken both returned to the States, they opened the City Cafe on Melrose, which made a huge impact on the culinary scene in the '90s and was the foundation of their empire. Today there are four Border Grill restaurants in LA and Las Vegas, BG trucks, and Feniger also co-owns Mud Hen Tavern on Melrose.

    Govind Armstrong: He peeled potatoes as a teenager in the Spago kitchen for several summers, worked at Postrio, Puck’s San Francisco restaurant, during college, and proceeded to work in various LA restaurants over the years before opening his own spot, Chadwick, with Ben Ford, in 2000. Today, Armstrong oversees Post & Beam in Baldwin Hills and Willie Jane in Venice.

    Neal Fraser: Fraser worked at Wolfgang Puck’s Eureka Brewery and Restaurant before attending culinary school in New York, and when he came back he landed at Spago, among other well-known LA restaurants. After he and wife Amy Knoll Fraser opened (and closed) Grace on Beverly Boulevard, they opened BLD and now Redbird Downtown. Fraser is also chef of Fritzi Dog and the new Fritzi in the Arts District.

    Michael Cimarusti: He arrived in LA to be chef de cuisine at the original Spago in the late '90s, and then jumped over to helm the Water Grill Downtown. Today Providence, Connie & Ted’s and his soon-to-open Cape Seafood & Provisions are the pinnacle of seafood in LA.

    Antonia Lafaso: For years the former Top Chef star worked in various positions at Spago Beverly Hills under chef Lee Hefter, and now co-owns Black Market Liquor Bar and Scopa Italian Roots with Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix.

    Jason Neroni: Before heading to New York to make a name for himself, Neroni worked at Spago Beverly Hills with Lee Hefter. Orange County born and bred, Neroni returned and eventually opened Superba Snack Bar and Superba Food & Bread with Paul Hibler, and moved to partner with the Sprout restaurant group to oversee the Rose Cafe-Restaurant reboot in Venice (and Catch & Release in Marina del Rey, which is being retooled into an Italian concept.)

    Evan Funke: He worked for Wolfgang Puck for more than six years, first with the catering division, and then at Spago where he advanced up the line to sous-chef. Funke went on to much acclaim at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, and then showed his pasta-making prowess at Bucato (now closed). He’s set to debut a new Italian spot in the former Joe’s space on Abbot Kinney this year.

  • Credit: Michael's

    Michael McCarty opened his eponymous restaurant in 1979 — it's one of the longest-running restaurants on the Westside — and was instrumental in helping to create what became known as “California cuisine.” Techniques were rooted in classical French cuisine, ingredients were fresh and local, and it was all novel, youthful and — just look at that photo — very rock-star cutting-edge. His kitchen gave rise to a generation of innovative chefs, including Ken Frank, Jonathan Waxman, Roy Yamaguchi and many more.

    Mark Peel: Peel got his start at Ma Maison with Wolfgang Puck — peeling vegetables in college — but his first real gig was as sous-chef for the newly opened Michael’s in Santa Monica (pictured above, top row, center). He left to become head chef for the new Spago in 1982, worked at Chez Panisse for a few years and then opened Campanile and La Break Bakery with Nancy Silverton, his then wife whom he met in the Michael’s kitchen. Today Peel’s Bombo Foods is a popular stall at the Grand Central Market.

    Nancy Silverton: As a young twentysomething, Silverton was teamed up with pastry chef Jimmy Brinkley, who taught her a new world of ingredient-driven desserts. Not only did she get her start at Michael’s, she met her future husband and business partner Mark Peel there (they divorced in 2007). He encouraged her to work with Wolfgang Puck at Spago, where she was head pastry chef until 1985, and the two eventually opened Campanile and La Brea Bakery, which deserve their own branch on the tree. Today Silverton co-owns the Mozza empire, including Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza and chi Spacca, with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich.

    Sang Yoon: Before he took over the neighborhood dive Father’s Office and offered the city one of the first gourmet burgers, Yoon worked the fine-dining detail at Michael’s in Santa Monica for several years. He now has a second Father's Office plus Lukshon, his upscale Southeast Asian concept at the Helms Bakery complex.

    Brooke Williamson: Before Williamson became the executive chef of Zax in Brentwood, she was sous-chef working with Sang Yoon at Michael’s. Today the Top Chef celebrity and her husband Nick Roberts own a trio of South Bay restaurants, including The Tripel, Hudson House and Playa Provisions.

  • Credit: Patina

    The Patina Restaurant Group
    By the time Joachim Splichal opened the first Patina in 1989, California cuisine was firmly planted in the mindset and palates of America. Stuffy French restaurants were on their way out, and people wanted to have more fun in the kitchen and dining room. He saw this as a time for more innovation. Patina, which is now located at the Disney Concert Hall, is just one piece of the puzzle; there’s an entire group of restaurants that churned out some of the top chefs in LA, including Ray's & Stark Bar, Nick & Stef's and Cafe Pinot.

    Josiah Citrin: While he first worked at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois and Granita restaurants, Citrin joined Patina and Pinot Bistro in the '90s. He and Raphael Lunetta opened the now-defunct JiRaffe in 1996, and Citrin debuted his home for haute French-California cuisine, Melisse, in 1999, which is still going strong today. He recently opened the more casual, wood-fired Charcoal in Venice. 

    Eric Greenspan: Greenspan was the last chef de cuisine at the original Patina restaurant (where Providence stands today) before Splichal moved it to the Disney Concert Hall. Greenspan has fired up the stoves at many spots since then, but today he steers the ship at Mare on Melrose, Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese and The Roof at Wilshire.

    Walter Manzke: Manzke’s culinary background is impressive, from working with Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adria to opening three successful restaurants in Carmel. In LA, he developed his signature style under the guidance of Splichal at Patina, which garnered much critical acclaim. Today Manzke and wife Margarita oversee their own empire with Republique and Petty Cash in LA, and three Wildflour restaurants in the Phillipines.

    David Feau: The French-born chef had critical acclaim in France, New York and Las Vegas before joining the Patina Group in 2006. He was first executive chef at Cafe Pinot and then corporate chef for the entire group before landing at The Royce at the Langham in Pasadena. Today Feau is making waves for his wine-friendly French fare at Wally’s Beverly Hills.

    Tony Esnault: Splichal chose Esnault to take over as executive chef of Patina Downtown in 2009, and he was widely seen as one of the best chefs to come out of that kitchen in a long time. Today Esnault and wife Yassmin Sarmadi operate the French bistro Church & State in the Arts District, and the brand-new Spring in the Historic Core.

    Kris Morningstar: Before gaining notoriety for his lusty French fare at Terrine, Morningstar was executive chef at the Patina-owned Ray's & Stark Bar at LACMA

    Kevin Meehan: Meehan recently opened Kali on Melrose, a stunning brick-and-mortar offshoot of a popular roving dinner party he's been holding for the last few years. Before that, he did stints at places like L'Orangerie (where he met business partner Drew Langley), Bastide and Patina, which morphed into his role as head chef at Cafe Pinot Downtown.

    Charles Olalia: It's no wonder Splichal saw talent in this young chef when he arrived at Patina, having worked in kitchens like Guy Savoy in Las Vegas and The French Laundry in Napa. He was promoted to chef de cuisine in 2012, where he added his own twists and even dots of Filipino heritage to the menu. Olalia is now chef and co-owner of Ricebar, a Filipino rice-bowl concept Downtown.

  • Credit: Campanile

    Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton opened their La Brea restaurant, as well as the adjacent La Brea Bakery, in 1989, a time when California cuisine was spreading like wildfire across the U.S. This was one of the first in LA to infuse rustic Mediterranean flavors, something we can't escape today if we want to. Here are just a few of the many chefs that sharpened their knives there, and the impact they're still making around town.

    Suzanne Tracht: After working as chef de cuisine at Campanile for several years, Tracht opened the highly praised Jozu in the late '90s, which led to her now famous Jar restaurant, which is still going strong on Beverly Boulevard.

    Suzanne Goin: After working at  L’Orangerie and Chez Panisse, among other restaurants, Goin landed at Campanile, where she rose to become executive chef. She and Caroline Styne went on to open Lucques, A.O.C. and Tavern in Brentwood, and oversee an veritable empire that includes three Larder locations and the newish Larder Baking Co. Goin also co-owns the Hungry Cat restaurants with her husband, David Lentz, whom she met while he was sitting at the bar at Lucques.

    Ben Ford: Ford (yes, son of Harrison) worked with Alice Waters in Berkeley before heading back to hometown LA for his culinary upbringing. Campanile was one of his earliest jobs, it's where he cut his chops before moving onto the Farm of Beverly Hills, opening his own place Chadwick with Govind Armstrong, and eventually Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City. Ford’s is now located at the JW Marriott hotel at L.A. Live.

    Matt Molina: Like many, Molina got his start working with Silverton and Peel, working his way from line cook to chef de cuisine. After a stint at Del Posto in New York, he returned to LA to become executive chef at Pizzeria and Osteria Mozza. Molina left to oversee the culinary offerings at Everson Royce Bar in the Arts District, a project co-owned by another Campanile alum, Silverlake Wine and Everson Royce’s Randy Clement.

    Bryant Ng: Coming from a restaurant family and following that path, LA-born Ng started off at Campanile and went on to become chef de cuisine at Silverton’s Pizzeria Mozza. Although his Spice Table restaurant had to close due to Metro construction, Ng found new life for his Singaporean-Vietnamese-French-American specialties at Cassia in Santa Monica, which he co-owns with Rustic Canyon’s Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb.

    David Rosoff and Chris Feldmeier: The duo recently opened the new Spanish-inspired boîte Moruno at the Original Farmers Market, but they met at Campanile when Feldmeier was sous-chef and Rosoff oversaw the wine program (Rosoff is also tied to Michael’s, where he served as wine director for five years). Feldmeier also met his current wife, Dahlia Narvaez, at Campanile; she’s now the superstar pastry chef at the Mozza compound. Feldmeier and Rosoff both worked at Osteria Mozza together before opening their own restaurant.

  • Credit: Piero Selvaggio/Valentino

    Not only can Piero Selvaggio take credit for bringing buffalo mozzarella, radicchio and beautiful white truffles to the West Coast, he can also lay claim to several successful chefs going through the doors of his longstanding (since 1972) Santa Monica restaurant. 

    Angelo Auriana: After 18 years as executive chef at Selvaggio's restaurant, Auriana and his handmade pastas and rustic Italian specialties can today be seen at The Factory Kitchen and Officine Brera, the two Arts District restaurant he co-owns with Matteo Ferdinandi. Side note: Ferdinandi worked for Wolfgang Puck at both Spago and Cut for years.

    Steve Samson: Samson worked for Selvaggio at both Posto in Sherman Oaks and at the Santa Monica flagship, which was nominated for a James Beard Outstanding Restaurant award under his tenure. After working with David Myers at Sona and Pizzeria Ortica, Samson partnered with chef Zach Pollack (who's now at Alimento) to open Sotto on Pico Boulevard. He's now working on a new project, Rossoblu, set to open this year in the Warehouse District Downtown.

  • Credit: Joe's

    Joe Miller did stints at the original Patina and L'Orangerie before embarking on his own to open his eponymous restaurant on Abbot Kinney in 1991. Sadly, it recently closed. But for 24 years, not only was it a Venice staple, it was a stopover for a lot of young chefs who've continued the legacy.

    Andrew Kirschner: When this Southern California native returned home after college and culinary school, he worked at Joe's among other places (Chadwick and A.O.C. among them). He now oversees two restaurants perfectly situated on one Santa Monica block: Tar & Roses and Santa Monica Yacht Club.

    Brian Dunsmoor: Dunsmoor brought a taste of the South to Southern California when he and fellow Joe's alum Kris Tominaga started their Wolf in Sheep's Clothing pop-up in Venice. He is now co-owner and executive chef of Hatchet Hall in Culver City.

    Kris Tominaga: After his first round at Hart and the Hunter with Dunsmoor, Tominaga went to open Cadet in Santa Monica, which recently closed. He's back overseeing all culinary operations for the Palihouse group, including updating the menu at Hart and the Hunter.

    Michael Bryant: Bryant fired up a lot of stoves around Los Angeles, including Joe's and Father's Office, before landing at his current spot, the Larchmont Bungalow

    Josef Centeno: Before Centeno opened his Historic Core quartet — Baco Mercat, Bar Ama, Orsa & Winston and Ledlow — Downtown, he spent time at Joe's in Venice, as well as the now-defunct Meson G and Opus, and Manresa in Los Gatos.

  • Credit: Nyesha Arrington/Leona

    The New Guard
    We’re already starting to see young chefs move on from posts from third- and fourth-generation restaurants to open their own places. Here are some of the newest branches, leaves and shoots growing on the tree.

    Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook: They worked with Ben Ford and Govind Armstrong at their former restaurant, Chadwick, and now have their own empire together with Animal, Son of a Gun and Jon & Vinny’s, and their partnership with chef Ludovic Lefebvre (a L'Orangerie alum) at Trois Mec, Petit Trois and Trois Familia. They're now working on a project with Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson from Madcapra, which will open in Los Feliz sometime this year. 

    Jonathan Whitener: The Zagat 30 Under 30 alum recently left his chef de cuisine post at Animal to open his own restaurant, Here's Looking At You, with another Animal/Son of a Gun coworker, Lien Ta.

    Jerry Su: The former Son of a Gun chef is now steering the ship at Eagle Rock Public House.

    Ted Hopson: The chef worked with Sang Yoon at both Father's Office and Lukshon, and last year opened his own restaurant, The Bellwether, in Studio City with fellow FO alum, Ann-Marie Verdi.

    Nyesha Arrington: On another side of town, the Top Chef star making a splash at Leona in Venice was a protégé of Josiah Citrin’s at Melisse. 

    Zak Walters and Chris Phelps: The duo behind Salt's Cure in Hollywood met while working at David Lentz's Hungry Cat in Hollywood. They opened the first iteration in West Hollywood in 2010 and moved it to much bigger digs in December 2015.

Places Mentioned