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Chef of the Moment: The Churchill's Michael Bryant, a Southerner in L.A.

Michael Bryant's roots are showing. His culinary roots are French-Southern, having grown up in Virginia cooking alongside his mom from France, and now that he's the executive chef at the Churchill in West Hollywood, the menu there is California meets the Continent by way of the Deep South. Bryant started his career as a teenage dishwasher, who then worked his way up in Virginia kitchens until he landed a job with Norman Van Aken at Norman's in Coral Gables, Fla. He opened Norman's L.A. location and has worked at restaurants all over the city, including BIN 8945, Joe's, Father's Office and the Palihouse Hotel. He recently won a job back East on Food Network's "Chef Wanted" but chose to stay in L.A. to join the Churchill. On his menu are dishes such as blistered sweet corn with summer squash and paprika; octopus with preserved lemon, red pepper and garlic butter; spiced diver scallops with summer succotash and peas; and wood-roasted half chicken panzanella with wax beans and baby tomatoes.

Latest ingredient obsession?

Recently I have been going nuts over harissa. It has been in my repertoire for years now, but it wasn't until I took over the Churchill that I fully understood its true potential. It's a North African paste made with various chiles and spices. I use it for many of my dishes that require heat, especially during these months where there are a lot of great fruits and vegetables out right now that are just begging to be balanced with heat.

What restaurant do you go to again and again?

I have become a fan of L.A.'s Mexican restaurant culture, specifically the original El Cholo on Western that is walking distance from my house. There is no pretention and is consistent on all levels. It is a place where I can go and relax and not think about the kitchen life. No mixologists or servers in your face throughout the night telling you how you should eat. And their salsa is great! I get the pork tamale and enchilada, a great combo with the salsa verde.   And they give you a petit four of a nut brittle to enjoy when they drop off the check!

What's the one piece of kitchen equipment you can't live without, other than your knives?

The one piece of equipment I must absolutely have is my infrared probe thermometer. It helps to control temperatures of items that rely on specifics like octopus or pastries or pickles.  

Favorite kitchen soundtrack?

I'm going to say the one soundtrack that I keep going back to is Metallica's "And Justice for All" album. It seems like whenever I play it, whatever kitchen I'm in, once my crew sees me jamming, they follow suit and before I know it everyone is thrashing out cooking to Metallica. I love it.

What's your favorite breakfast?

My all-time favorite breakfast will always be when my dad cooked. He only cooked Sunday mornings as my mom cooked the rest of the time. True Virginia-style Sunday morning: eggs cooked the way you'd like, pancakes, scrapple, fried green tomatoes picked fresh, bacon, toast and jam that my mom made. We were so fortunate growing up because we lived so close to all the farms, we always had the tastiest vegetables and freshest slaughter.  

What's the last cookbook you read, and what inspired you to pick it up?

"Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking." A celebrated Michelin starred restaurant in Spain. I picked it up more for the philosophy rather than the food. I'm at a point now where I just want to have fun again and cook the food I first fell in love with: simple, local and soulful. But I love the kitchen philosophy behind these Michelin-starred chefs -- there is etiquette, precision in thinking and executing, and passion.

The Churchill, 8384 W. 3rd St., West Hollywood, (323) 655-8384, www.the-churchill.com.

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