If you’ve spent a lot of time at Curtis Stone’s Beverly Hills restaurant Maude – which structures its menu around a particular ingredient each month, usually a meticulously-sourced vegetable or fruit – you might be surprised at the focus of his new project, Gwen. Because although the restaurant, which the Australian chef just opened with his brother Luke, is also structured around intricate prix fixe menus, it is first and foremost a butcher shop.
“Luke’s and my first jobs were in butcher shops,” Stone said recently, as he walked around the location on Sunset Boulevard, in the heart of Hollywood. The butcher shop opened in early July; the restaurant will open later in the month. The complex takes over a 1928 building, with 650sqm that encompasses the butcher shop, an open kitchen and dining room downstairs, a mezzanine wine room and a state-of-the-art test kitchen on the second floor.
“Coming to LA, we always thought, ‘Where do you get great meat?’ ” Stone said. “We always had a real love for it. We’re both keen carnivores.”
Walk into Gwen – which, like Maude, is named for one of the Stones’ grandmothers (“two grannies, two restaurants”) – and you’re at the butcher’s counter, behind which is a massive dry-ageing room, a charcuterie room, a slicer and a butcher’s block.
“You’re walking right into a meat market,” Stone said. “It’s a custom-and-cut butcher shop; we have the whole animals, the dry-ageing.” Go past the counter and you can see into the vast open kitchen, which includes a custom-built fire pit, and from there, into the dining room.
Take the staircase up and you’ll find a mezzanine like a secret chamber. This is the wine room, which has about 2,000 bottles, a bar and 24 of the restaurant’s 86 seats. Ascend to the second floor and you’ll find the new test kitchen. This will function as the R&D kitchen for both Gwen and Maude, which is moving its test kitchen from a house in Beverly Hills into the custom-built Hollywood space.
“I’m an Aussie; we have butcher shops on every corner,” said Stone, explaining why it made sense to them to structure their new restaurant around a fancy meat counter. Luke, whose background is in Melbourne’s flower industry, took over the business end of Gwen as manager-owner, while Curtis is the chef-owner and Gareth Evans the executive chef.
And Gwen has not one but two head butchers: Alex Jermasek, who previously worked at Lindy & Grundy, Ink, Chi Spacca and Belcampo, and Daniel Roderfield, who came from Eataly and Dean & DeLuca in New York.
“It’s funny how cooking goes,” Stone said. “Five years ago, everything was about gels and foam and technology. Now we’re seeing how primitive we can make it.”
Gwen is a mash-up of a different kind, not of cuisines or cultures but of genres: an expensive prix fixe restaurant, albeit one with a fire pit paired with an artisanal butcher’s shop.
Thus there will be the happy option soon for a long evening dedicated to a fire-heated tasting menu. Or you can just use Gwen as your neighbourhood butcher’s shop and pick up a simple roast beef sandwich. Or some of Gwen’s pates, terrines, rillettes and charcuterie.
This is only the beginning, as a project devoted to cured meats takes time, by definition. The crew at Gwen started testing 2½ years ago, but it will be a while before they can accumulate the charcuterie that they’ll be making in-house: “You can do duck pastrami in six days. The salamis will come later; Prosciutto will take a year,” Stone said.
“Primitive elegance is our battle cry,” he said. The chef was in the backyard of the house in Beverly Hills that has been Maude’s test kitchen and where he, Jermasek and Roderfield have been working on curing and ageing, cooking and grilling the meats and other products for the new menu.
Stone stood above a wood fire that he’d built on a network of cinder blocks arranged to duplicate the dimensions of Gwen’s fire pit. On the blocks: a giant sheet pan, a metal grate stolen from a fireplace, some glowing coals – and a massive 80-day-aged Tomahawk steak. He watched the beef sizzle and flame, holding a pair of tongs in one hand, a blow poke in the other, smiling his trademark wide smile, clearly enjoying the “very Flintstones” moment.
“It’s where so much flavour comes from,” Stone said, when asked about the current trend for live-fire restaurants. “It’s that exploration, I guess. There’s nothing simpler and more difficult.” As for combining that vaguely prehistoric model with the conceit of the tasting menu, Stone acknowledged a need for some orchestration. “You need to help curate an experience for your guests. Maybe it’s a touch arrogant. It does give you more control. It gives you more time too.”
As Stone rotated the hissing steak and a column of smoke rose into the trees, he considered his restaurants in the context of contemporary fine dining. It had just been announced that Washington would get a Michelin Guide, while Los Angeles continued to be passed over by the prestigious French dining publication, which stopped publishing in LA after 2009.
“The truth of Los Angeles is that we don’t have restaurants at the level of other cities. LA has a real opportunity now to redefine fine dining, and I hope we’re a part of that.”
The Stone brothers and their butchers aren’t the only ones trying to redefine LA dining in terms of dry-aged meat and Tomahawk steaks, or with live fire. Some of the best restaurants in town have stellar meat and charcuterie programmes – Chi Spacca, Republique, Salt’s Cure, just to name a few. And restaurant fire pits soon may be as requisite as immersion circulators and liquid nitrogen tanks were a few years ago.
“You need a balance; it can’t be too meaty,” Stone said of Gwen’s menu, as he and his chefs knifed through the beautifully cooked steaks – a bit of salt, the char and juice, better than any sauce. “We live our life by a set of rules: It has to be more delicious. Otherwise, why do it?” — Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service