Q&A: Bestia's Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis
When Bestia, which tops the list for Best Newcomer in the 2014 Los Angeles Restaurant Survey, opened in its tucked-away corner of the Arts District downtown, no one was really sure it would be the hit it is today. Chef Ori Menashe, relatively unknown even though he was chef de cuisine at Angelini Osteria for five years, and his wife Genvieve Gergis, a self-taught pastry chef, teamed up with successful restaurateur Bill Chait to open the industrial-chic Italian restaurant almost a year ago. But from day one, the place was packed, people clamoring for a seat at one of the bars for cocktails, for Menashe's house-cured charcuterie, pastas and seasonal salads, and for Gergis' desserts; wine director Maxwell Leer was also a recent 30 Under 30 winner. Surrounded by lofts and warehouses, it's the last place many Angelenos expected to find their favorite restaurant of the year, and yet it's almost impossible to get a reservation. The only way to really get a seat at any of the bars is waiting in line at 6 PM, when the doors open, and even then chances are iffy.
How did it happen? Almost one year in, Menashe and Gergis sat down with us to reflect on how Bestia came to be, why they think it fits the LA dining scene now, their little corner of Downtown LA and where they're going next.
Zagat: When did you open Bestia?
Ori Menashe: We had a test kitchen for a full month here, but the actual date was November 26, the day after Thanksgiving. I wasn’t so sure that that was the right day to open, [and thought] that we wouldn’t be busy enough. Bill said it’s better to start slow, and maybe by the fourth or fifth day, when it will be busier, we’d be ready.
Zagat: And how busy was it?
OM: We served 120 people on our first night. And we kept it at that for a while because we didn’t want to be so overwhelmed. When we transitioned from 120 to 200 people a night, it was difficult.
Zagat: How soon was that?
OM: Two or three weeks. And we had OpenTable reservations, and we didn’t set it up where you have slots. So we had a rush right at 6 PM, and in a matter of five minutes, the whole place was completely full.
Zagat: We were there one of those nights. [Restaurant critic] Jonathan Gold and his family were waiting in line too.
Genevieve Gergis: It was crazy.
OM: We took some of the slots off of OpenTable, and now it’s like 50%, with the rest coming from reservations from the phone. That’s how we can manage it, so we don’t get hit right away. And we do get hit at 6 PM. Because we offer a lot of walk-in seating at the bar and in front of charcuterie. We get hit with around 25 people right away, and that's before reservations kick in. After that it becomes a little aggressive.
Zagat: What's the trick to managing that sort of rush?
OM: We didn’t expect it to be this busy right away, so we only had seven people on the line, and to serve that 120 people or so, it just didn’t make sense. Now the max is 10 to 12 people in the kitchen, and it gets a little tight. We’re happy with this number, and we don’t want to do more. This is enough. We now get around 300 people a night, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Saturday or Monday. We hit maybe 340 or 350 on the weekends because we’re open an extra hour. I closed the kitchen maybe at 1:30 AM this past weekend. People had their last order in probably at 12 o’clock.
GG: People will take that time too. They’ll come in for dinner at 11 or 11:30 PM.
Zagat: Every restaurant should be so lucky. So why do you think Bestia resonated with the LA diners?
OM: When we opened, I wasn’t sure that simple food worked for this type of clientele. Simple food, I mean, it’s difficult to execute and to prepare but looks simple. That’s the way I cook...
GG: That’s the way we both cook. Both of our philosophies is that less is more.
OM: Absolutely. It’s from the heart. It’s been done in Europe for so many years. I mean, why do need to have so many ingredients on the plate? It’s about not rushing anything. I have ragùs on the stove that could go for 10 hours, and it’s so slow, and my employees… it drives them nuts. And I tell them, “Wait… let’s do it right. Just wait.”
GG: We’re both like that. My pistachio ice cream takes three days. Because I don’t want nuts in the ice cream, so I make like a pistachio milk and steep it, and the next day I heat it and make the base, and the next day I spin it. It tastes like fresh raw pistachio instead of the quick way, just grinding it up. We both don’t take the fast route. But it is really simple.
Zagat: When you say you weren’t sure if the clientele would eat this way... is it not the same clientele that you had at, say, Angelini?
OM: Definitely not. I do get that clientele, but we have people that come in from Pasadena or Orange County. But I feel like when they drive that far, they are forced to accept what we’re doing here. I tried to sell organs at Angelini but it never worked.
GG: The gizzard salad here, he put it on the menu at Angelini and no one ordered it.
OM: I sold one. But here, Italian food is for everyone. We have a mix, some things for who will eat the more intense things, and some for people who aren’t the most adventurous eaters.
Zagat: What other dishes surprised you? Things people were ordering and loving?
GG: When we were creating the menu, I remember Bill telling Ori, “Don’t put too much of that on there.” But things like the beef heart tartare and the gizzard salad ended up being our best-sellers. I think LA is ready to say, wow, this is what I’ve been missing. Like the tartare, the taste is so clean and lean. It’s not iron-y and gamey. They’re surprised with how good things like that taste.
OM: You could have a really bad experience with these kinds of things. But we source everything from local farmers, and they’re super, super fresh. I feel like we need to use these types of ingredients, because if we don’t, they just go to waste. To me, it makes sense to kill one less cow, or two or three, a year.
Zagat: How did you get involved with Bill Chait?
OM: He was involved with Rex, I think, when Gino Angelini was there. He used to come to Angelini Osteria a lot, and I met him there. When he did Test Kitchen at Sotto, he asked me if I wanted to try it out. We did one dinner, and it was one of the highest volumes that Test Kitchen did.
GG: After that, it gave an awareness of who Bill was and what he was doing. But we planned to open a restaurant, to be just something with me and Ori from the beginning, something really tiny. But we started to realize that with the really tiny spots... it's hard to make money with a 10-seat restaurant. You basically work your whole life and make minimum wage.
Zagat: So you didn’t expect something this big?
OM: We didn’t want this big. We were looking for maybe 80 seats, and we looked for a couple of years. And we checked out a few different locations.
Zagat: Always downtown?
OM: Yes, downtown, Los Feliz, Silver Lake. This type of neighborhood.
GG: So Ori and I were looking for these spots, and we found Duval, the owners of this building. And he showed us another location near here…
OM: …but we couldn’t put a wood-burning oven in it. It just didn’t work out. So we looked at this. And when we walked in, the hairs on my arm stood up.
GG: We both got goosebumps. We knew this was the spot. And we were nervous because we knew it was so big but so perfect.
Zagat: And then Bill got involved.
GG: Yes, we wanted to see if his vision matched ours. We knew he knew what he’s doing, but that doesn’t always mean the perfect fit. But after our first meeting we knew it would work, just the way he gets so excited and gives so much artistic freedom. It was actually the perfect fit. And we knew that the whole time.
OM: He’s a great partner because he knows how to complement what you want to do, he has so much experience. This is my first restaurant, and it’s…
GG: …a monster. For us.
OM: It's a lot of stress. And when I don't know something, I’ll call Bill and say, “Bill, what do I do here?” It makes it easy because he’s so experienced. The next restaurant I do I’ll be able to do alone, but I won’t want to because he’s such a good fit to us.
Zagat: Were you ever nervous about the location?
GG: Yes. I actually pushed it. I walked in and said this is it. And then his family and friends came down...
OM: My mom actually said, “Are you f***ng crazy?" And my mom doesn’t use bad language. And I said, "Mom, I promise, people will come."
GG: Everyone was kind of freaking out. Except Bill. He was super calm.
Zagat: So are you working on something new?
OM: Yes, we’re talking. We want to open a Middle Eastern restaurant.
Zagat: You were born in Israel, is that right?
OM: Born here but moved there as a kid.
GG: Truth is, he’s cooked so much for me, and Middle Eastern food comes naturally. All the ingredients and spices comes naturally. It’s literally instinct.
OM: It’s natural. And what I learned from all of these chefs before I opened this restaurant is technique and ingredients, and how to combine different ingredients. With that I’ll…
GG: He’ll be able to elevate his Middle Eastern food.
OM: Right. With Southern Italian food there’s a lot of Middle Eastern in it. That’s why I was drawn to Italian food. It was something that felt natural. I just needed to understand how things needed to taste and why we do them that way.
Zagat: How did you two meet?
GG: I was working at La Terza when he was making salads, and I was a hostess. I did not do pastries then. Pastries happened because of Nancy Silverton [of Osteria Mozza]. I made all the desserts for Amy Pressman’s [founder of Pasadena's Old Town Bakery] funeral, out of respect for her. Ori was doing the food. And I made them, and she tried my stuff, and flipped out, and told me that I should be doing pastries. She really believes in me. She sent me to Chez Panisse for three weeks. It was right before the restaurant opened, and I didn’t even know what a professional kitchen looked like.
Zagat: Has Nancy been in?
GG: It was really great. She came in a couple of months after we opened and tried all of my desserts, and Nancy can’t hide her feelings. And her face just said, “You did it. And you’re doing it, and it’s so good your crusts were perfect." And it was one of the most amazing moments in my life. When someone you’ve been reading about your whole life, and she’s in your life, and now telling you that you’re doing it. It’s amazing. It never gets old by the way.
Zagat: What about Alice Waters [of Chez Panisse]?
OM: She came here twice to have dinner.
GG: And wrote us a note telling us how much she loved the food. A personal note. That was so nice.
OM: Genevieve was only there for three weeks and told her that’s what we wanted to do in LA. She came here two times and sends in so many friends. They tell us she says it’s one of her new favorite restaurants.
Zagat: It’s amazing that your peers are fans. What does it mean to be voted best newcomer by customers?
GG: It’s hugely notable. We know every day that we’re very lucky.
OM: It’s like, when we just opened, I was obsessed with all the ratings and reviews. Just making sure they’re telling me everything’s ok. And they are, and now we can experiment even more, do even more extreme things.
Zagat: Like what? What’s on the menu that can’t come off?
OM: We have the cavatelli with truffles, it’s so popular. But there is like one month when we probably won’t have any sort of truffles, so it will be here 11 months of the year.
GG: Now that fall’s coming, everything will be switching out. Two things that have never left, one is the chocolate budino. But the other is the panna cotta, that will never go. I didn’t think it would stay on the menu, but it probably won’t leave. I have one woman come in every Sunday night, and even though she orders different things, she always gets the panna cotta for dessert.
Zagat: We love the drinks here. Will the cocktails change for the fall too?
OM: Yes, Julian Cox oversees things. He’s like the consultant. But our bar manager Christina and her team come up with the seasonal drinks. It [the menu] changes like four times a year.
Zagat: So much has opened in this corner. Stumptown opened recently, and Bread Lounge is right here. And a new restaurant, Fifty Seven, is coming soon. Is that good for business?
OM: I can’t wait for everything to open. It’s so important. It will make people feel like it’s more of a community. It will just bring more people to this part of downtown.