Evan Kleiman, mover and stirrer on the L.A. food scene


When Jimmy Shaw opened Loteria Grill in the Original Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, customers were scarce. Until one Saturday morning, when his interview with Evan Kleiman aired on her KCRW show “Good Food.”

Within minutes, he says, hungry listeners were lining up. “It was as if people were sitting in their cars waiting for her to tell them where to go.”

When farmers market mainstay Bill Coleman’s Carpinteria house and barn burned down a few years back, he said, Kleiman corralled 14 chefs to cook a benefit dinner, which helped raise enough money to rebuild.

“Don’t get in her way” when she’s determined to get something done, Coleman said one Wednesday at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. One of the things he sells there is a Tuscan herb called nepitella, which he started growing when Kleiman brought him the seeds from Italy. Not far from the Coleman Family Farm stand, Coastal Farm sells “Evan’s tomato,” a variety she ate in Italy and persuaded the farmer to grow.

Funny and self-deprecating, brash, busy and a little intimidating, Kleiman is in some ways the gluten of the Los Angeles food world. As restaurant critic Jonathan Gold puts it: “Evan certainly is a connector. She has everyone on her speed dial, and everyone is willing to do what she wants at the drop of the hat, including me.”

As a radio personality, as the owner of Angeli Caffe, one of the first authentic trattorias in Los Angeles, and as the author or coauthor of six cookbooks, including the classic “Cucina Fresca,” Kleiman plays a larger-than-life role in the city’s food world.

Over the summer, Kleiman nudged foodie L.A. into thinking about pies with her “Pie a Day” project. She baked, she interviewed bakers, she blogged and she organized a pie contest last month with 150 entries. She got Mark Peel, the chef-owner of the restaurant Campanile, to be one of the judges.

“When Evan calls, I answer,” Peel says.

All of it keeps her incredibly busy. Kleiman, 56, calls herself a “culinary multitasker,” or sometimes says she has “culinary ADD.” Whichever it is, she’s got her hands in every pot being stirred, from food politics to pies.

In a recent eight-day stretch, she ran her restaurant, catered a dinner at UCLA’s Fowler Museum for the 100th birthday of the Italian Futurists (an intellectual movement that sought to deconstruct basic notions of art, including a culinary revolution), shopped for and cooked a beer and pie dinner for 45 KCRW donors, conducted half a dozen “Good Food” interviews and catered three weddings.

When the mayor marked the 30th anniversary of farmers markets in L.A. County, Kleiman was emcee. She frequently moderates panel discussions on food and cooking. She helps raise money for schools and judges culinary scholarship competitions. She gives culinary tours of Italy and founded the L.A. chapter of Slow Food.

This is a woman with the world on a string, right? Not quite. Life is more complicated: Kleiman is a frequent public speaker but calls herself “paralyzingly shy”; she’s one of the city’s best-known restaurateurs but also endured the difficult demise of three restaurants in the ‘90s.

Her first restaurant, Angeli Caffe, remains a Melrose Avenue institution. Angeli was remarkable when it opened -- an architecturally angular, culinarily rustic cafe amid the punk scene that offered something new for L.A.: simple food that might have been served in a rural Italian trattoria.

She was inspired in part by the food she ate in Italy, and in part by the time she spent in her aunt and uncle’s home, designed by Rudolph Schindler and “so simple and so beautiful, it had a lot to do with how I think of food.”

When it opened, 25 years ago today, it was just 24 seats in a former screen shop; Kleiman’s then-boyfriend was the architect. Angeli eventually expanded to 64 seats, and Italian food has become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget Angeli’s accomplishment. But in its day it was, Ruth Reichl wrote in The Times, among the restaurants bringing “a whole new character” to the restaurant scene, that of ethnic authenticity “filtered through such sophisticated sensibilities.”

Serious about food

A wily mogul she is not, however. Several friends say she does too much for too little reward, at least financial reward. Kleiman is philosophical about that: “My success is not defined by money -- and that’s a good thing.”

Until recently, her home refrigerator was held closed by a bungee cord. She hasn’t had a real oven -- just a countertop model -- since the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

So what did she do for the summer? Baked a pie almost every day.

When NPR’s Scott Simon asked her about the caloric ramifications of such a project, she replied: “I’m not a lightweight.” But she could as easily have meant her seriousness of purpose and her belief in the power of food.

“I’ve always thought of Evan as a very thoughtful person, a deep thinker, kind of a mother hen,” says Mary Sue Milliken, who with Susan Feniger opened City Cafe (which became Border Grill) on Melrose a few years before Angeli; they also were hosts of “Good Food” before Kleiman. Kleiman often wears jeans and T-shirts, clogs or running shoes. Her arty eyeglasses are surrounded by wavy hair that can be a little unruly. She drives a no-nonsense black pickup truck. But it’s her voice -- and that laugh -- that people know.

Since 1998, on Saturday mornings at 11, Kleiman welcomes KCRW listeners (about 50,000 a week, according to the station) into the world of food for an hour that includes farmers market reports, out-of-the-way restaurants, cookbooks, ingredients, trends, technology, even “Top Chef.”

Throughout, she broadcasts a joyful spirit and a scavenging mind. Her laugh spills out of her with a life of its own. It’s obvious she loves the job.

She tapes segments at Santa Monica College, in KCRW’s basement studios, where she’s brought in a banana cream pie she made one morning. Soon she’ll be talking about it with the author, Rose Levy Beranbaum. They go over how a bit of egg white that attaches to a yolk might change the consistency of pastry cream, about cornstarch versus flour for thickening pies, about butter or lard in crusts.

Kleiman grew up an only child in Silver Lake. Her Russian-born father and Philadelphia-born mother had come to L.A. from Philadelphia after World War II. Her father died when she was a girl. Her mother was a secretary “who should have gone to college” and who taught her daughter to take care of herself, and then trusted her to do it. Kleiman went off to Europe for eight months with a friend at 16.

She became interested in food as a girl, making home-baked holiday gifts, cooking dinner, getting catering jobs as a teenager. She and her mother always took on crafts projects; they both knit.

A love of cooking

Kleiman has a bachelor’s degree in Italian film and literature and an MBA in arts management from UCLA -- an education she thought might lead to a film producer’s career. But she worked at a bakery and for a caterer in college, and later at Italian restaurants, rising to executive chef at Verdi. She caught the bug for her own place.

“The act of going in and making something and serving it and getting an instant review and cleaning up. It was very pure, like a Buddhist practice,” Kleiman says.

Three more restaurants followed the first, including Trattoria Angeli, which was the Mozza of 1987. That meant life as an executive. She was young and making a name for herself, but it wasn’t always fun. She hated trolling the dining rooms and talking to strangers.

“I love being in the kitchen. I love cooking,” she said one day, sitting in the Mid-City duplex she shares with her 89-year-old mother, Edith; Paco, a rescue dog she believes is a poodle-terrier mix; and four cats. “I don’t like being a manager.”

Embroiled in business problems in an earlier economic downturn, she walked away from all but her Melrose Avenue restaurant. It was an expensive and painful loss.

“It took a long time to let go of the desire for a dynasty,” Kleiman says. “The thing I was always drawn to was not fancy restaurants but to trattorias. So for better or worse, that’s what this is,” she says of Angeli Caffe.

For worse? No husband, she says. And, “I hate managing.”

For better? “The good part is how it feels when you come here. People like it. It’s like being in a family.”

In fact, her pizza cook has been there 24 years, the head chef nearly as long.

And Kleiman says she is starting to see adult customers who first came to Angeli as toddlers. “That’s really sobering,” she says, pausing to consider. “And pretty cool.”