One of the hottest tables in town isn't at a restaurant. New York chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit has cooked here. So have local chefs Susan Feniger of Border Grill and Street, Evan Funke of Rustic Canyon, and Church & State's Joshua Smith.
The culinary team behind Red O by Rick Bayless served sopes and ceviche here weeks before the restaurant opened on Melrose Avenue. And former "Top Chef" contestant Jamie Lauren recently cooked chermoula-rubbed lamb loin and seared scallops with favas, mint and bacon for dinner guests including Wilshire restaurant owner Steve Levine and Grace partner Richard Drapkin.
All of this has been going on not at an underground supper club or the latest trendy pop-up, but at the modest Santa Monica home of restaurant recruiter Brad Metzger.
Last year he decided to build a kitchen, not just any kitchen, but a place where top chefs could come try out for prospective employers. In the few months since it has been finished, it's become an unlikely regular venue for a revolving cast of insiders. Chefs such as Samuelsson and Feniger have conducted cooking demos; others have cooked in the souped-up kitchen just to check out the equipment.
But the dinners that play out here are often more than eat-and-greets fueled by wine and industry gossip. They're an unusual part of a behind-the-scenes process that can connect chefs to their next jobs and sometimes serve as incubators for restaurants-to-be.
With fine-dining restaurants continuing to face economic challenges — according to a 2010 forecast by the National Restaurant Assn., casual eateries will account for most of the expected increase in overall restaurant sales this year — some are turning to independent recruiters to do the jobs of managers whose positions have been cut.
"The test kitchen is totally smart," says Feniger, who has hired several chefs and managers through Metzger. "The best way to know whether [chefs] are as good as they say is when they cook for you."
But why in Metzger's home? A chef looking for a job doesn't always have a professional kitchen in which to cook for potential employers, and an employer sometimes doesn't want anyone at the restaurant to know that a new chef is being considered, Metzger says. New restaurants might not even have a kitchen ready, as was the case with Red O, which used the test kitchen so that chef Michael Brown, a Metzger recruit, could run through some of the dishes on Bayless' menu for managing partner Jorge Pultera.
"It was an issue that came up again and again," says Metzger, who launched his recruiting business, Brad Metzger Restaurant Solutions, 7 1/2 years ago while still waiting on tables. So when he moved into a new house, he was determined to set up his own test kitchen. "I said, 'Why not? Why not? Why not?' "
Metzger's is certainly fancy for a home kitchen, built by the same contractor who did Huckleberry Bakery in Santa Monica. It has a commercial stove, built-in salamander broiler, refrigerated drawers that hold full sheet pans, CaesarStone counters and Italian porcelain tiles, but might still be a Vitamix short of a professional kitchen. Metzger declined to say how much he spent on the kitchen, but he says range manufacturer BlueStar comped about $45,000 worth of the equipment.
And then there are the two ceiling-mounted cameras, one above the stove and one above the prep area, connected to a 35-inch TV screen facing the dining room and a 63-inch screen in the living room so guests can watch exactly what's happening in the kitchen.
During tastings, guests can use a remote control to toggle between cameras, pan, tilt and zoom in on the action — from a seat at the dining table you can see the sear on a piece of steak.
On a recent afternoon while Metzger was still at his 14th Street office, Lauren, who appeared on Season 5 of Bravo's "Top Chef" and is planning to move to Los Angeles from San Francisco this summer, was preparing dinner in the test kitchen a few blocks away — an informal tasting, she says, "just to get to know some people here in L.A." From his computer, Metzger logged in remotely and observed Lauren at work, zooming in on her mise en place: sliced bread for bruschetta, burrata, marinated anchovies and beet puree. The camera zooms out; she's applying her lip balm.
"It's a good sign when they're relaxed," he joked. "But it really has come in handy to closely watch how organized, clean and technically sound they are."
Frequently the dinners occur when restaurateurs or potential investors invite colleagues or friends to a tasting to meet a chef applicant and evaluate the food. The atmosphere at the tastings is a cross between exclusive-but-casual dining club and more-real-than-reality-TV cooking competition.
"I skipped Clive's party for this," said an entertainment lawyer, referring to Sony music executive Clive Davis' pre-Grammy party. (The restaurant owner, guests and chef can't be named because the owner wanted to keep the hiring process confidential.) Instead of hanging out with Jay-Z, Russell Brand and Demi Moore, he was sampling Point Judith squid with hand-cut squid ink pasta, Calabrian chiles and tomato consomme.
But as much as the tastings can come across as swank dinner parties, they are about jobs, or more specifically, pairing up the right chef with the right employer.
"I don't say a word" about the food, Metzger says. "I'm not here to be a cheerleader. At the end of the day, it has to be a right fit. Let's just see if there's a love connection."
Though recruiters have the reputation of being, as one chef put it, "equal parts career advisor and used-car salesman" motivated by commissions, Metzger comes across as slightly aw-shucks. "If you told me 10 years ago that I'd be a recruiter, I'd have said, 'What's that?' " he says. He had worked in catering or restaurant jobs all over L.A. since he was 14, including Spago, Vincenti and Chadwick. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, he passed up the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. "I had worked so hard to get in there," says Metzger, now 42, "but I'm not a corporate, stuffy kind of person."
He came back to L.A., waiting tables and managing at Ruth's Chris, then working the lunch shift at the Grill on the Alley — "a gold mine," he says. And not just in tips and contacts. "That really shaped a lot of my philosophies, especially how to treat employees, how to form a cohesive team."
People were always asking him where there were jobs, and a publicist who was also a family friend encouraged him to start a business. "I closed my first deal on the phone in the employee restroom at the Grill," he says. "It was amazing. That chef went on to become a Food & Wine 'best new chef.' "
Metzger won't say how much he makes, but the range of fees varies widely, depending on the terms of the negotiated contract and the complexity of the search. It is usually a percentage of the employee's first-year salary, paid by the client. According to a 2008 survey by StarChefs.com, the average salary of an executive chef in Los Angeles is $79,995.
Metzger has carved a niche by plying his connections at local higher-end restaurants. He recently has placed managers and chefs at Red O, BP Oysterette, Wilshire, Bar Pintxo and Jose Andres' ThinkFoodGroup. His office has expanded, with an associate in Las Vegas and another focusing on positions for restaurant managers.
Metzger's office is lined with shelves holding thousands of resumes. Before any tastings happen, he sets up interviews and thoroughly checks references. "You wouldn't believe the B.S. artists out there," he says. "One reason I think we've gotten more business in this economy is because [restaurants] can't handle 200 responses to a job listing — calling, checking references, interviews. It is a process."
Ravine Hiranand, who plans to open Fresh East this summer, a casual pan-Asian restaurant in West Hollywood, learned the hard way. "I tried the whole Craigslist thing, but I came up with a list of rubbish and got tired of it. I was referred to Brad."
So on a spring evening, Hiranand, his girlfriend and a few friends arrived at Metzger's home to try chef candidate Jonathan Schwichtenberg's food — 11 courses of bao, wraps and rice bowls influenced by the flavors of Thailand, Japan, China, Korea and India.
Schwichtenberg has since been hired. It was, as Metzger might call it, a love connection.