When the Spanish chef José Andrés opened his first Los Angeles restaurant, the Bazaar, in 2008, it was kind of like we had a haute cuisine Willy Wonka unlocking his factory doors. It was a funhouse of a restaurant — actually many restaurants, jigsawed into the luxury hotel SLS Beverly Hills. The food was elaborate yet so playful and experimental that it felt almost goofy. Cotton candy foie gras, liquid nitrogen caipirinhas and enormous legs of jamón ibérico in nested dining rooms that looked like El Bulli redecorated by P.T. Barnum.
In the last decade, as Andrés has opened more restaurants and widened the scope of his efforts to include disaster relief in Haiti, Puerto Rico and here in California, the Bazaar too has evolved, its restaurants-within-restaurants — there are five kitchens in the complex — morphing as the menus and chefs changed. Saam closed last year, and in its place a 10-seat restaurant called Somni opens Friday night.
Somni, which means “dream” in Catalan, is a pale gem of a tasting-menu restaurant, a white counter in the center of an all-white room, the only decoration a riot of color — three animal heads constructed in rainbow colors, as if a hunter’s lodge had been redesigned in pastels.
Behind the stoves is Aitor Zabala, a Spanish chef who was the head chef at Saam, and who has been with Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup team since 2010. (Zabala has also helped Andrés with his ‘Science & Cooking’ course at Harvard.) Before joining Andrés, Zabala cooked with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, at the Spanish restaurants Alkimia, Abac and Akelarre and, before that, at his mother’s Basque restaurant.
We recently caught up with Zabala at Somni to ask the chef about his counter, his kitchen and cooking in his adopted city of Los Angeles. And just to prove that the guy can make food that the rest of us can make — on the menu at Somni will be dishes such as pigtail curry buns and uni and Parmesan “papyrus” — we got his recipe for a pretty easy avocado salad.
A tall, slender man with a buoyant energy, Zabala’s arms are a tapestry of tattoos accentuated by his chef’s whites. The walls behind him looked oddly similar, as if the chef could blend into his restaurant, chameleon-like — planes of unadorned white, except for panels on one wall that were covered with photographs and drawings of dishes, tacked up and layered over one another like the accumulating evidence on a BBC cop show incident room. The rainbow animals on the wall were silent. The chef was not.
What’s your goal for this particular restaurant?
Our goal is to sell out by midnight, every day. [Laughs.] We can be experimental, with the food, with the experience, with what we offer to the guests.
And the food itself?
The food will be the same — it’s the same people in the back. This will be more updated, more precise. The food will have the same DNA.
Your cooking has been described as Modernist. Are we still there — or is this Postmodern cooking, or something else?
It’s funny, people try to put names on everything — this is modern cuisine, this is Nordic cuisine, this is New American cuisine, this is California cuisine. OK, come on. It’s fine, so we try and put a name on things. It’s molecular gastronomy, avant garde cuisine. I don’t want to waltz. You make a caprese and it’s New American because there are a lot of Italians in America? So I don’t think that modern cuisine is past — everything is modern. You make it today, it’s modern. We talk about molecular gastronomy, it’s past maybe, because it’s not ‘in’ anymore. But it’s still there; the techniques are still there. When I worked in El Bulli — you can ask Ferran, what is molecular gastronomy? I’ve never understood about it, the names, names, names. We make it modern, we make it traditional — what is the line? It’s complicated. It’s artificial.
You’ve been cooking in Los Angeles for eight years now. What do you think of the dining scene here?
I moved here in 2010 and I’ve seen changes in the restaurant industry, but they don’t make me change my cooking. I lived in Washington, D.C., I come from Spain, my family is from the Basque country — but when I moved here, we have more cultures. The city is multicultural; people can choose. This is a big city with amazing products, I see always the potential.
You have a remarkable Instagram feed; it’s like an art gallery. How important are visuals to you?
It takes too much time. Pretty is important but it’s subjective.
What’s it like having a restaurant within a restaurant?
Everything is sharing, so you need to be really open. In the end, the genome is the same.
How many courses are we talking about?
We’ll start with 25, then see what we have, maybe we cut it to 18. The worst sensation is that people leave hungry.
First we had open kitchens, then restaurant counters — it’s like there’s no wall any more.
It’s what happened to fine dining, sometimes we are too much in the back. People go to fine dining restaurants and pay $400 — it’s not only to eat. Eating is not just the physical process. You can feed your stomach; you can feed your soul. It’s more than that. We’ve broken this wall, we’ve made it closer and closer. You make a dish and you can explain the process. It’s good to have a table only and be face to face. It’s a little brave, because you are in front of the guests — you have nothing to hide.
So how do you cook at home?
At home I cook vegetables. Vegetables, vegetables and more vegetables. Or I make Paris-Brest. [Laughs.]
(This interview was edited and condensed.)