My Son, the Chef

Laurie Winer is a contributing editor at the magazine. Contact her at laurie.woner@latimes.com.

Hannah and Jeff Kirschner eat at Wilshire, the relaxed yet sophisticated restaurant in Santa Monica, at least once a week.

It's hard to say which they love more--the food or the chef.

The food is earthy and honest--wood-grilled steaks, tangerine-and-chili-spiked mussels, a dramatic deep-fried whole Thai snapper. The chef is their youngest son, Andrew.

Andrew Kirschner is a local boy made good, a chef coming into his own after steadily working his way through town, first at Joe's and Axe in Venice, then moving on to the short-lived Chadwick in Beverly Hills. He's worked with Suzanne Goin at Lucques in West Hollywood and Silvio De Mori at De Mori (now closed), and he's partnered with Govind Armstrong at Table 8 in Los Angeles.

In 2007, he landed at Wilshire Restaurant as chef de cuisine. When executive chef Christopher Blobaum left in February, Kirschner stepped in to fill his shoes.

"His instinct for what people in L.A. want to eat right now is dead-on," wrote L.A. Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila in March in a three-star review of his "effortless-seeming" California cuisine.

His parents try to appear nonchalant, but they are obviously bursting with pride. "He was born ready," Hannah says. The daughter of Holocaust survivors who were naturally protective parents (Hannah had to live at home while attending UCLA), Hannah tries hard not to hover. "We let Andrew and his brother know we would get them through college, and then they would be on their own. Andrew was very capable and very independent early on."

"He puts his artistic feeling into his food," Jeff says. "It smells good, tastes good and looks good. I cook, but I don't have artistic talent like Andrew."

Andrew cooks for his parents and their friends from time to time, for New Year's Eve and their gourmet society dinners. "He always asks, 'What is the budget?' And I always say, 'Do whatever you want,'" Hannah says. Their friends are still talking about a lobster bisque he made for a many-course dinner party several years ago. The guests begged Andrew to come and sit with them, but he kept his chefly distance in the kitchen. He maintains a professional attitude, making his parents look even better.

As a successful son with adoring parents, Andrew works at cultivating an independent demeanor. His left arm is covered in skin art ("I'm the black sheep, the Jew with the tattoos," he says), but a little of that rebellious zing had to have withered when his father got a matching (though small) turtle tattoo on his upper left arm. Andrew sometimes rides a vintage (1972) BMW motocycle, and he wears his brown hair spiky with artful touches of platinum.

But Andrew's "black sheep" line fools no one. When together, this family feels entirely whole.

Though Andrew has cooked many meals for his parents, this is his first Mother's Day dinner. He usually makes brunch, like sons all over the country, but this year he was bored by the thought of pancakes. "I can spread my wings with dinner," he says. "I can emphasize the season more."

Hannah and Jeff are classic foodies. "It's a huge passion for them," Andrew continues. "All of their travel focuses on food, on what the next meal is." Understandably, he tends to express his affection for his mom through cooking. "I love to make her happy. When I can make her proud and happy and put a smile on her face, I do. There's always a great connection when she comes into the kitchen to help out. We have a lot of our best conversations there."

For this meal he has planned a quintessential spring menu with a wide range of flavors, a feast that looks like more work than it is. His roasted leg of lamb makes an impressive if Flintstonian visual centerpiece; its shank bone sticks out like a mother-of-pearl handle. The easily sliced meat (great for next-day sandwiches) is sauced with piquant mint salsa verde, given a tangy depth by white anchovies. With the lamb, he serves creamy morel mushroom risotto speckled with plump green fava beans. Asparagus is roasted with thyme sprigs, charred quickly on a hot grill and finished with shaved Parmesan and baby arugula. Then comes a lovely salad of frisee, Belgian endive and parsley, punctuated with English peas, grilled lemon slices and roasted Marcona almonds, and a treasure of prosciutto underneath it all. For dessert, Andrew offers a wonderful trembly panna cotta with balsamic-streaked strawberries.

He lives in Mt. Washington with his striking and witty fiancee, Dragana Davidovic, who left her native Yugoslavia during the civil strife of 1994. She met Kirschner in 1999 when she was waitressing at Axe, so it's been a long courtship. Andrew gave her a ring last year, but no wedding date has been set. One gets the feeling that everyone is just waiting patiently for Andrew to seal the deal. "Dragana's already part of the family, but still, more grandkids would be nice," Hannah says. (Their older son Jason lives in Portland, Ore., and has a son.)

"I missed not having grandparents and aunts and uncles," she says. "My boys were very close to their grandparents." Hannah's mother, Lydia, who lives with the Kirschners, fled Czechoslavakia with her husband and 2-year-old daughter 59 years ago. This event, in part, is responsible for the deep, almost primordial, connection between the family and Dragana. "They have a common understanding," Andrew says.

The Kirschners, joined by more family and friends, sip Pinot Noir in their Hancock Park backyard that abuts a golf course. Two large dogs, Redford and Byron, chase and rest. A photographer for Ralph Lauren would have no need for props.

All the dinner dishes are now on the table, and the guests look excited as they sit. Food is not just at the center of the table but at the center of the conversation. Several meals eaten in other countries are lovingly remembered, and the necessity of finishing scrambled eggs with creme fraiche is discussed as if it were as important as the economy or the war. Jeff, of course, ate at Wilshire just the other day and has a question about how the croutons are prepared. When his son explains, "We brush them with lemon juice and olive oil before we grill them," he listens as if Andrew is imparting the meaning of life.

Here, at Mother's Day dinner with the Kirschners, a visitor can see that food and all things food-related may in fact be the meaning of life. It's at least as good as any other.

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Menu

Frisee salad with English peas and prosciutto

Morel and fava bean risotto

Roasted leg of lamb with mint salsa verde

Grilled asparagus with shaved Parmesan and wild arugula

Panna cotta with strawberries and aged balsamic vinegar

Recipes adapted from Andrew Kirschner

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Frisee Salad With English Peas and Prosciutto

Serves 6

1/2 cup English peas (about

1/2 pound in the shell)

1 lemon, cut into 1/8-inch slices

Canola oil for brushing

the lemons

14 thin slices prosciutto,*

divided

2 heads frisee, dark

green leaves removed

2 heads Belgian endive, cored and julienned

3 tablespoons aged

sherry vinegar *

2 tablespoons lemon juice

6 tablespoons

best-quality olive oil

1/4 teaspoon sea salt, and

freshly ground black

pepper, to taste

20 Italian parley leaves, roughly chopped

1/4 cup roasted and salted

Marcona almonds *

Blanch the peas in salted boiling water for 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and shock in ice water; set aside. Brush the lemon slices lightly with canola oil and grill them on both sides on a stove-top grill until they're tender and a little charred. Set aside. Wash and dry the frisee and tear into bite-size pieces. Set aside. Roughly chop 2 slices of prosciutto and set aside.

To make the vinaigrette, pour the sherry vinegar and the lemon juice into a small bowl and whisk in the salt, then whisk in the olive oil and add pepper to taste.

Lay two slices of prosciutto on each of six plates, bunching it up a little to create a base. Toss the frisee, endive, lemon slices, parsley, peas, chopped prosciutto and almonds in a large bowl. Dress with the vinaigrette to taste. To serve, divide the salad among the plates, heaping it atop the prosciutto.

* Andrew Kirschner recommends La Quercia Prosciutto Americano, available at Whole Foods. Aged sherry vinegar is available at Surfas in Culver City, Whole Foods and Wild Oats markets. Roasted, salted Marcona almonds are available at Bristol Farms, Gelson's and Whole Foods.

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Morel Mushroom and Fava Bean Risotto

Serves 6 to 8 as a main course,

8 to 10 as a side dish

2 quarts chicken stock or

good-quality chicken broth

11/2 to 2 pounds fresh morel

mushrooms, cleaned

and halved lengthwise

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 cup diced onion

1 garlic clove, chopped

2 fresh bay leaves

Grated zest of one lemon

2 cups Vialone Nano

or Arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup cleaned and blanched

fava beans (from about

2 pounds whole pods)

1/2 cup best-quality ricotta*

In a large saucepan, heat the chicken stock to a simmer. Stir in the morels, remove from the heat and allow the mushrooms to steep for 15 minutes. Strain the mushrooms from the stock, reserving both. Return the stock to the pan and keep it warm over low heat.

In a large, heavy-bottom pot, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion, garlic, bay leaves and lemon zest and cook until the onions are translucent, 7 to 8 minutes. Stir in the rice, and cook for about a minute, making sure all the grains are coated with oil.

Raise heat to medium, pour in the wine, and cook briefly, stirring until the wine is almost completely absorbed. Add a ladleful of the hot broth to the risotto and cook, stirring frequently, until the broth is almost completely absorbed. Add additional broth, a ladle at a time, and cook (stirring frequently) until the risotto is al dente, about 20 minutes. (You may not use all the stock.)

Remove the risotto from the heat and stir in the grated Parmesan and butter. Gently fold in the favas and morels, and season with salt to taste. Serve each portion with a dollop of ricotta.

* Good-quality ricotta is available at Bristol Farms, Whole Foods markets and Italian delis.

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Roasted leg of Lamb With Mint Salsa Verde

Serves 8

1 1/2 ounces fresh rosemary, chopped (about 2/3 cup)

1 ounce fresh thyme, chopped (about 1/3 cup)

1 cup smashed garlic

cloves, loosely packed

(about 2 heads)

Zest of 4 lemons 1/2 cup olive oil

1 semiboneless leg

of lamb (femur removed,

shank intact, tied)*

1 tablespoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground

black pepper

Combine the rosemary, thyme, garlic, lemon zest and olive oil in a small bowl. Place the lamb in a large, nonreactive container or brining bag and rub it with the marinade. Cover or seal, refrigerate and marinate for 24 to 48 hours.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the lamb from the marinade, brushing off the garlic and some of the herbs, then season with salt and pepper. Place the leg on a rack in a large roasting pan, and roast until the internal temperature reaches 125 degrees for medium-rare, about 1 hour and 45 minutes, or 130 degrees for medium (if the lamb starts browning too quickly during roasting, lightly tent with aluminum foil). Remove the lamb from the oven and allow the meat to rest, lightly tented with foil, for 20 minutes before slicing. Serve with the mint salsa verde.

* Ask your butcher in advance to prepare it this way.

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mint salsa verde

Makes 2/3 cup

1 large garlic clove, chopped

4 white anchovy filets

Pinch chili flakes

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1/4 cup chopped mint

1 teaspoon chopped

oregano leaves

1 tablespoon chopped

Italian parsley leaves

1/2 cup best-quality olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Sea salt to taste

Using a mortar and pestle, or in the bowl of a food processor, combine the garlic, anchovy filets, chili flakes and lemon zest and work (or pulse) to a paste. Add the chopped herbs and grind into the paste, working to extract the oils from the leaves while breaking them down (if using a food processor, pulse them into the paste until combined). Add the olive oil a little at a time (if using a food processor, drizzle it in slowly while the machine is running), allowing the oil to loosely emulsify with the mixture before adding more oil. Finish with the lemon juice, and season with a generous 1/4 teaspoon of salt, or to taste.

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Panna cotta with strawberries and aged balsamic

2 cups whole milk

2 1/3 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup sugar

1 vanilla bean,

split lengthwise

1/2 tablespoon

powdered gelatin

1 1/2 pints strawberries, trimmed

and sliced (about 5 cups)

2 1/2 teaspoons aged balsamic

vinegar* (at least 12 years old)

Place the milk, cream and sugar in a medium saucepan. Use a small knife to scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean halves into the saucepan, then add the pods themselves. Whisk to dissolve the sugar and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, then remove from the heat and allow the mixture to steep for 10 minutes. Remove the pods and discard. Sprinkle the gelatin over the mixture and allow the gelatin to rehydrate, then whisk thoroughly to incorporate. Ladle the mixture into 10 lightly oiled 4-ounce ramekins and cool to room temperature. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight to allow the panna cotta to set completely.

to serve: Invert each ramekin over a serving plate and tap gently to remove the panna cotta. Garnish each serving with 1/2 cup sliced strawberries and drizzle with 1/4 teaspoon balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately.

* Aged balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico) is available at better supermarkets and gourmet shops.

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