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Pasadena heats up as a culinary hub

Julia Child, who would have turned 100 this year, found her life’s calling only by leaving her hometown of Pasadena for China and France.

Had the pioneering celebrity chef stayed in her “parochial” Pasadena, she once confided to a biographer, she might have “become an alcoholic.”

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Today, she would have been able to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu, the American version, without going all the way to Paris — or even leaving her hometown. In recent years, the famed culinary school has colonized more than 100,000 square feet near downtown Pasadena. It’s just one sign of the frenzy of culinary activity in a city that has grown and changed drastically since Child’s upbringing.

Today, with 550 eateries, Pasadena has more restaurants per capita than New York City. And it has attracted name-brand Westside chefs who once would not have considered setting up shop this far east.

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The city’s emergence as a culinary hub owes to a larger revitalization of Old Pasadena, along with that of downtown Los Angeles, encouraging an eastward migration of culinary culture. The rise of Asian food meccas still farther east has made substantial drives inland more appealing to foodies. Pasadena also draws sophisticated diners from San Marino, one of the country’s wealthiest communities, but one with comparatively few dining options.

More broadly speaking, Child’s lifelong campaign to elevate Americans’ dining standards has affected her hometown as much as anywhere else. Many of Le Cordon Bleu’s students enroll after years spent watching the Food Network. Many local chefs grew up using Child’s cookbooks.

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The local palate has also grown more adventuresome with an influx of immigrants from Asia and Europe, often drawn by Caltech.

“After living so long in Hollywood and on the Westside, here it’s a total paradise,” says Laurent Quenioux, who came to Pasadena in 2006 after 22 years in West Hollywood.

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He is the French-born executive chef at Vertical Wine Bistro, situated atop a quaint 100-year-old courtyard on Raymond Street in Old Pasadena and owned by Hollywood producer Gale Anne Hurd (of “Terminator” fame, and also a local). “For a restaurateur, for a chef, this is where you want to be.”

West comes east

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Like Vertical, a number of other inspired eateries run by established or up-and-coming chefs have come to Pasadena. That includes the Basque tapas restaurant Ración on Green Street — the favorite local spot of legendary restaurateur Joachim Splichal, of Patina Group — along with the French bistro Noir Food & Wine on Mentor Avenue and the new Trattoria Neapolis on South Lake Avenue.

Newcomers from the Westside include the highly rated sushi chef Hiroshi Ikeda, who opened Sushi Kimagure near the Del Mar Metro stop last year after selling his location of 25 years at Hollywood Boulevard and Gower Street. Vegan mecca Real Food Daily, of Santa Monica and West Hollywood, opened a new location this year in the South Lake shopping district, following Lemonade and Tender Greens. Urth Caffe, which packs in patrons in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and downtown, is building its “most beautiful location yet” on Colorado Boulevard, to open in 2014, says owner Shallom Berkman.

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Urth’s new California-Spanish style structure, with lots of balconies and curving wrought iron, will sit a few paces from Le Cordon Bleu. “I hope we can hold events together,” Berkman says.

The presence of the cooking school means that chefs in tall white toques blanches and students in white skullcaps regularly stream down the sidewalks of Colorado Boulevard like some new migratory species: the wannabe celebrity chef. All wear white jackets with the blue logo of the 117-year-old institution stitched on the left shoulder. You’ll find graduates or externs sweating in the kitchens of most of the city’s restaurants.

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“I get students from there all the time,” says Chef David Féau, executive chef at the Royce restaurant, the highest-end establishment in town at the Langham Huntington Hotel, formerly the historic Huntington Hotel. Féau, who also owns a bistro in the St. Germain des Prés neighborhood of Paris, has stocked his kitchen with seven Cordon Bleu Pasadena alumni.

When the day comes for him to leave the hotel, Féau says he won’t return to Paris or New York. Instead, he hopes to open a bistro in Pasadena, or maybe neighboring South Pasadena near Mission Street, where he can translate the high standards of the Royce’s French cooking for diners with smaller pocketbooks.

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“I really believe there will be more and better restaurants here than there will be in downtown Los Angeles,” Féau says.

Splichal, who lives in San Marino, says everyone thought he was crazy when he opened Cafe Pinot downtown 18 years ago, when the area was a comparative wasteland. “Now we have 50 restaurants more than we did 20 years ago downtown,” Splichal says. Of Pasadena, he says, “We will get there as well.”

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‘It is really hot and horrible work’

Le Cordon Bleu’s presence has not been without controversy. Many local chefs and restaurateurs are unimpressed with its graduates and think it promises its students too much.

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“These students come out thinking they will run a kitchen, but instead end up making $9 an hour,” says Claud Beltran, Noir’s executive chef and former owner of the well-reviewed but now defunct Madeleine’s on Green Street. “They don’t understand that it is really hot and horrible work.”

The school’s publicly traded parent, Career Education Corp. of Schaumburg, Ill., was sued for overstating its graduates’ job prospects and has sought to temper its graduates’ professional expectations. After buying rights to the Parisian cooking school name from the

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liqueur-making family of André Cointreau, the American corporate owner has since opened 16 schools nationwide. Pasadena is its flagship school in North America.

Though many students fail to find meaningful work after graduation, much like aspiring actors with theater degrees, some of its most

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talented graduates end up working for the likes of Beltran and Féau. Splichal sent two graduates to work with Daniel Boulud at his Michelin three-star restaurant Daniel in New York. He paid to send two more to San

Sebastian, Spain, Paris and the French Riviera because he believes they must apprentice to European master chefs to complete their educations.

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Even before they graduate, the school’s students start out working at Le Cordon Bleu’s own restaurant, Technique, on the ground floor of the old Star News building on Colorado, which the school renovated at great expense to fill with classrooms and kitchens.

A block away on Green Street, still more students decorate cakes at 24-foot-long stainless steel tables behind sidewalk-to-ceiling plate glass windows. People strolling back to their cars after a performance at the Pasadena Playhouse can critique students chopping onions. It’s like a street rehearsal for a career to be spent before an audience — and maybe a camera.

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“No matter what anybody says,” says the school’s executive chef, Lachlan Sands, “Food TV has had a very good effect on the culinary culture.”

Like Midtown Manhattan

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Nearby, the new Trattoria Neapolis, with belle epoque flourishes, rises over South Lake Avenue. Named one of the best new restaurants in L.A. last year by Zagat, its hand-troweled, tiled walls climb 18 feet to a skylight.

Perry Vidalakis learned to make pizza in Naples and took his Grande Diplome from the Parisian Cordon Bleu before converting a real estate office into his tastefully over-the-top restaurant. Calacatta d’Oro marble covers tables and the bar. A master craftsman from Naples produced the wood-burning oven. The place looks plucked out of Midtown Manhattan or downtown San Francisco, and Vidalakis thinks Pasadena is ready for it.

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Back when downtown Los Angeles was blighted, “it acted as this big barrier between the Westside and the Eastside,” he says, tracing his finger across a map on his computer that shows his analysis of the regional restaurant markets. “As soon as that wall started to fall, that energy started to flow.”

Tapping into it, Vidalakis has imported almost his entire wait staff from Westside restaurants and his chef, Bryant Wigger, from the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Even as they admire what he’s built, local restaurateurs shake their heads at Vidalakis.

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“I’ve told him he needs to slow down,” says Mike Farwell, Noir’s owner and one of Vidalakis’ friends. “Every time I see him, he looks nervous.”

Another short walk east, at Noir, a younger chef is working at a dream.

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“I spent all day watching cooking programs” as a kid, says Jacqueline Huynh, who graduated from Arcadia High School in 2009. At night, she toiled at her mother’s

elbow, helping prepare traditional Vietnamese dishes such as pho and banh xeo. Right after graduation, she set her sights on Le Cordon Bleu and took out $50,000 in student loans for the one-year program.

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She was the first of her classmates to apply at Noir when it opened in 2009.

Zagat named Noir the best new restaurant in Los Angeles for 2011 — the first time this distinction has gone to a San Gabriel Valley restaurant. Huynh, now chef de cuisine, can lay claim to having played a substantial role in this historic first. Not bad for a 21-year-old.

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Providence on Melrose is where Huynh would like to go next, before heading abroad. “I’m in it to win it, and there’s no going back,” she says.

And, unlike Child, she might have reason to come home.

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On Aug. 15, Child’s birthday, the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce sponsored a citywide cocktail party in her honor. Restaurants offered her favorite drink, an upside-down martini — with proportions flipped in favor of vermouth over gin. At 7 p.m. diners around the city raised their glasses to toast her.

Today’s Pasadena, unlike the one where Child grew up, has become less stuffy, more Asian, more French and may one day contend with the Westside as a serious culinary destination. It’s a far cry from the home of Jell-O, Crisco and Heinz canned foods that she knew as a kid.

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Says Alex Prud’homme, her grand-nephew and coauthor of “My Life in France,” “I’m sure she would be thrilled.”

business@latimes.com


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