On a recent afternoon, in the pristine kitchen of Mélisse restaurant in Santa Monica, chef and owner Josiah Citrin demonstrates how to make a tuna tartar tower he created years ago when the restaurant first opened. He looks slightly disheveled, with his hair standing straight up on his head -- a look he's become known for over the years, but in his chef's whites, he moves with the grace of a trained dancer and the purpose and ease of someone who has been cooking in this kitchen all his life.
"Look how '90s the plating is," he says with a laugh as he draws lines of bright green fennel puree around the tuna tower. A final swipe with a white towel to wipe away a little runaway sauce and the dish is finished.
With his Dover sole, a dish that's been on the menu since the beginning, he now takes a more modern approach to plating. In the early 2000s, the deboned fish would be put back together on the plate so that it resembled a whole fish, with a small sliver left down the middle for vegetables. Now the fish is left in pieces, arranged in flat rows with its accompanying sauce.
Citrin has spent a good portion of his life in the Mélisse kitchen. On Monday, Bastille Day, Citrin celebrates the restaurant's 15th anniversary. In a city rife with restaurant openings, turnovers and closures, that's quite a feat. But Citrin insists he isn't sentimental about it, unless you're talking about his family, or his two Michelin stars.
"Sometimes, when I see my son working here -- and he's a back waiter now -- and I think about when he was 2 years old, kicking the stuff around in the parking lot when we were tearing the place apart," said Citrin. "Wow, 15 years, he is a child who grew up, and now he's working here. That's how I think about it."
Citrin, a California native, opened JiRaffe in 1996, then opened Mélisse when he was just 31 years old. He's been a fixture at the Santa Monica Farmers Market since he was 17 and started doing farm-to-table cooking before it became a trend.
Since Mélisse's opening, he's turned the restaurant into one of the city's premier fine-dining destinations, and it remains so today, landing a spot on Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold's 101 best restaurant list for multiple years.
We followed Citrin into the kitchen to discuss the progression of the restaurant and to watch him prepare two of his original dishes, one of which is still on the menu and one new dish meant to represent the current direction of Mélisse.
In a city like L.A., what does it mean to have a successful, lasting restaurant for all these years?
It didn't start how it is now. I didn't know how to lead all these people, and most of them were older than me. Now the systems are all here, but it took a lot of work. From 1999 to 2005, it was a lot of pushing everybody to get to the next level. I have a great staff, it's not just me. I think back at all the great people I've worked with all these years. In terms of accomplishments, I don’t really look back like that. I’m just moving forward, always. Especially now, things move faster than they used to. It used to be you’d have a good 10 years. I'm just always trying to better myself and my staff.
What do you think has happened to the L.A. restaurant scene since you opened back in 1999?
With the restaurant scene becoming increasingly casual, how do you feel about being a fine-dining restaurant?
There are two really fine-dining restaurants in L.A. What happens when Providence and Mélisse are done? We’re classic fine dining, but not in a sense of snobbishness. People sometimes don't realize that, and I think it’s important to hold on to that. Luckily we have a kitchen full of people who want to do this. But who's going to do it after? Because if there's no one training for this, you can't just do it. There are so many little details, and it's so challenging. The silver, the copper pots, it's a luxurious type of dining. We create a moment in time people will remember for the rest of their lives, and that is what fine dining is all about. In France, people would save for their whole lives to have dinner in a two- or three-Michelin-star restaurant. We're busy and Providence is busy. We both do pretty well business-wise, so I think there is a demand for fine dining, but it doesn't seem like there is a desire to do it.
What has been your most meaningful accomplishment at the restaurant?
How has your food progressed during the past 15 years?
Give us an example of a dish from the beginning, that you still make today, and a new dish on the menu.
What's next for you and for Mélisse?