Michael Schlow Talks LA's Cavatina and Boston Plans

By Scott Kearnan  |  December 19, 2013

It's been a year of transition for Boston star chef Michael Schlow. In February, he opened his Fenway-side Mexican Barrio Cantina — then in June, he closed his 15-year old high-end flagship  Radius. He also welcomed his second child to the world, and the tiny tot, he tells us, crawled for the first time last night. (It's not easy balancing a restaurant empire with fatherhood, but "luckily my wife is a rock star," says the chef.)

In January, it's Schlow who will be taking a first step. He opens his debut West Coast venture: Cavatina, which will replace RESTAURANT at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood, a storied hangout for celebrities, musicians and entertainment industry power players. (There are two major recording studios downstairs.) Schlow describes the indoor/outdoor space as a "lush oasis," and though some reports have played up its Mediterranean leanings, Schlow says that will only accent his embrace of clean, fresh California-style cooking. We grabbed him for a few words about Cavatina, his new plans for Boston — and the surprising role that music plays in his plates. 

Zagat: What made you decide to launch your first West Coast venture? 

I actually wasn’t looking to do anything there, but I had been a huge fan of the Sunset Marquis for many years. I’d try to stay there any time I went to Los Angeles to work or guest chef an event. So when the opportunity presented itself I flew out to meet with the owner and see if it was even possible to pull something like this off, being three thousand miles away. I really paid a lot of attention to figuring out how we can make this work so that I can be proud of the restaurant — but understanding that I wasn’t going to be there in the kitchen every day, and that Boston is still my home.

So who will be leading the kitchen on the day-to-day? 

We hired a fantastic chef, Roger Eggleston. He was last at Montage Beverly Hills. As we started working together there was such great synergy; we don’t cook exactly the same, but I love the ideas he brought and he’s a gem: he’s going to be a rock star. I knew he’d be the perfect addition, because the reality is that I’ll be going out there about five times a year. Right now, of course, I’m there more often because we’re getting ready to open. In between, thanks to the world of technology, we do something we never could have done before: Skype! We actually cook together over Skype; we pick a time and make dishes together. He sends me pictures every day, but this is just another tool.

There's a difference between West Coast and East Coast sensibilities. How did that play into developing the menu?

There absolutely is. So first we ate in 30 or 40 different restaurants — sometimes just an appetizer or a drink — to see what the landscape was like. In Los Angeles you have very different neighborhoods; what’s happening in Beverly Hills today is very different than what’s happening Downtown today. We’re in West Hollywood, an interesting place that has its own tight knit community. And we had to make sure what we did would resonate with the locals, as well as people who stay at the hotel. We want to take care of guests, but we also want to be an independent restaurant  that lives within a hotel. We also spent a lot of time looking at who eats at the Sunset Marquis today: about 70 percent of guests who stay at the hotel are from the East Coast, and weather is something that often inspires the way that I cook. Now, when I step off a plane from somewhere where it was snowing, and into 75-degree weather, the last thing on my mind is short ribs with turnip puree. I want a beautiful piece of fish with a raw vegetable salad: full flavored food that is clean and simple. So the food is really inspired by what is local in California, with a gentle kiss of the Mediterranean: some influence from southern France, Italy, and northern Spain. But nothing so authentic, just a bit of inspiration.

Given the Sunset Marquis' music world connection, I have to ask: any musical talent of your own?

Well, when I was a kid I pretended I could play the drums. But I was terrible at it. I’m not very good at playing anything, but I do pick out the music for all the restaurants. In fact, before we build a restaurant, I do something with the design team so they understand every component: I bring everyone in a room, and first I put images on the wall - not necessarily pictures of the space, but of what it should feel like. Maybe it’s a picture of a tree, or of leather. Then I take four burners and cook them dinner so they smell it. And then I put on a portable iPod with a playlist I’ve made of what the restaurant should sound like. That absolutely plays a part in the sensory experience, and for Cavatina I have multiple playlists - for times of day or year - because the crowd is so diverse.

What's on the horizon in Boston? 

I’m planning to open another location of Alta Strada, and we’re in negotiations for that. The restaurant in Wellesley has been a wonderful experience and I’d love to build another somewhere in Boston or suburbs. 

When Radius closed, there was talk that you'd been opening another spot nearby. Is that still happening?

We’re still in negotiations and it’s been slow-going. We’ve got a really wonderful lead that we’re working on, it just hasn’t closed yet. If the location decides they want to do it, I should hear in January. If not, there are other great locations all over from downtown to the Seaport.

Thinking of future ventures, is there any one direction you'd like to explore more?

Well I love all kinds of food — there's no cuisine I don't like. But one thing I’m studying a lot more now, in part because of my family, is Greek food: beautiful, authentic Greek food. I’ve been buying books on it, speaking to my wife’s family about it, and I have my first trip to Greece planned for the summer. I grew up in New York where the Greek food was a little one-paced. What I’m enjoying discovering is that each little province and island has its differentiation and individuality. It’s just like with Italian food, where it’s unfair to say, “Oh, there’s Northern Italian food and Southern Italian food.” No, it’s about all 20 regions. The same is true of Greece. I had no idea that they used kumquat or cinnamon. It is incredibly interesting food and I’ve really loved learning more about it.

Radius opened in 1999, and a lot has changed in the Boston dining scene. What most excites you now? And is there anything you somewhat mourn? 

That’s a loaded question! When we opened Radius it was a different time; economically, we were in a different place and that plays a huge part in how guests use restaurants. I’m sad Radius isn’t here anymore, but it was a wonderful and exciting part of my life and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. It gave me an opportunity to be expressive about what I believe fine dining is. If there’s anything to mourn, it’s that fine dining has unfortunately become something of a bad term, a dirty word. People think it means something is going to be stuffy. It doesn’t have to be that way, and I think there’s a new definition of fine dining emerging that involves excellent food and super knowledgeable service in a more casual setting. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen. That, and the incredible surge of really great restaurants. I’ve always told people that Boston is a great food city. We’re a small city, so we may not have the depth of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco in every category - but we have restaurants that can compete in those categories. It’s just that we may have two, rather than 20. The only thing is, the population of Boston hasn’t grown alongside this incredible expansion. So every restaurant I know needs more professional restaurant workers; something I mourn is the loss of the die-hard line cook and the professional waiter. They’re still out there, but not enough to keep up with everything that has opened.