Josie Le Balch, the chef of Santa Monica’s new restaurant Josie, is in many ways a quintessential California girl. She’s blond and blue-eyed and grew up in the San Fernando Valley. But her upbringing was very French, especially when it came to mealtime.
Gregoire Le Balch, Josie’s father and a celebrated chef from Brittany, started one of Los Angeles’ first cooking schools in the early ‘60s, Le Gourmet French Cooking School in West Los Angeles. Gregoire Le Balch went on to open Chef Gregoire on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, a cozy French restaurant where he continued to teach.
Josie’s mother, Cecile, spent most of her youth in Paris and held master’s degrees in several languages. “She was a total French snob,” says Josie. “She would not drink California wine.” Nor did she spend much time in the kitchen. “My dad was critical of most of her cooking.”
Having a chef for a father gained Josie a certain amount of notoriety in the neighborhood. “I remember standing in the frontyard with a friend,” she says. “My dad was picking roses and saying they were edible. Then he started eating these rose petals. My girlfriend looked at us like my dad had lost his mind.
“A lot of people were afraid to eat at my house,” she continues. “I remember my mom yelling down the street, ‘Come home for dinner.’ Kids would say, ‘What are you having?”’ They knew the answer would be suitably gross: snails, dandelion salad, duck. For Josie, these ingredients were standard Sunday night fare. (Sundays were the night Dad cooked for a “sit-down, dress-up, family meal.”)
Josie, who looks younger than her 44 years, admits she was “daddy’s little girl.” She loved going to the cooking school with him. “I used to chop with a big knife.” Many of the paying students were horrified by this sight. “But in Europe it’s very common for a kid to tool a knife around,” she says.
When her father opened his restaurant, Josie started spending time there. At first, it wasn’t by choice. She would be grounded for some youthful transgression, and since both her parents were at the restaurant--at the time, her mom was running the dining room, until she realized she “wasn’t a people person"--she’d have to serve out her punishment there, generally holed up in the wine room.
“One Friday night, the dishwasher didn’t show up,” Josie remembers, and she was called to duty. “It was kind of fun,” she says, “because a couple of cute guys from Notre Dame High School washed dishes on the weekends. It made it a little more enticing.”
Then one day the saute guy didn’t show. Josie, then about 14, filled in. She was hooked. “I wasn’t really good in school,” she says. “I fell into cooking pretty naturally.”
Josie started cooking a couple of nights a week alongside her father. It wasn’t always easy. She describes him fondly as “very European-trained. I remember quitting or him firing me every other weekend.”
“He was tough,” says Daniel Forge, the owner of Beau Rivage Restaurant in Malibu. “I think he didn’t like people who weren’t too professional. He was always very friendly with me, but not with everybody.” Forge and Gregoire Le Balch both worked at L’Escoffier, the upscale restaurant at the Beverly Hilton, though not at the same time. And Forge dined at Chef Gregoire several times, both to “check the competition” and enjoy “straight French fare.”
“It was a very fine restaurant,” he says. “Small but very good. No question about it.”
Chef Gregoire’s female patrons and students are especially complimentary, remembering him as a “gentleman,” “a delightful person ... with a sweet personality,” even as the “the kissing chef.” Apparently after classes, women would rush him with grateful hugs and kisses.
Still, Gregoire was a traditionalist. His daughter well remembers the time he told her, “Women don’t belong in the [restaurant] kitchen.” This might have driven someone less determined away from the kitchen forever, but she insists it was inspiring: “I had to prove to Daddy that I was good at it [cooking]. Like the please your parents thing.”
In this, Josie mostly succeeded. She even noticed her father getting “a bit competitive.” The two had a longstanding debate over a shrimp scampi dish on the menu. Gregoire thought the oven yielded the best results. Josie preferred to cook the shrimp in the oven and finish them under the salamander. The shells didn’t stick to the flesh that way. Eventually, they decided to test their methods out, with some regular customers serving as judges. Josie won.
Then, when she was 17, she had a falling out with her father. “I don’t remember why,” she says. “My brother said, ‘He’s not going to take you back (at the restaurant) unless you apologize.’ And I wasn’t going to.”
Josie landed a job at Ma Maison on Melrose Avenue, probably the hottest restaurant in town at the time. “I was, like, the token chick,” she says. Her colleagues included Mark Peel, now chef and co-owner of Campanile, and Wolfgang Puck.
“She was one of the guys,” recalls Peel. “She was one of the good strong line cooks, ready to give as much as she took. She had
a mouth like one of the guys. She had a good understanding at that age of food and cooking, taste and balance.
“I remember a story she told me about working on the line at her father’s place. We were comparing war stories about the worst thing that had ever happened. Just before service, she reached up to grab an empty plastic container on a shelf. It turned out not to be empty. She dumped a couple pounds of granulated sugar on top of her head. But she couldn’t go home to shower. She had to stay (and keep working). Within minutes, she turned into a big sugar-syrup dipped mess.
“I’ve never seen her break into tears,” he adds. “But I think she’s probably made other people break into tears. She can be tough. But she was great.”
Puck was the first person to refer to Josie as a “chef.” Josie recalls that moment vividly: “He [Puck] was at the bar. He said, ‘Come here.’ Ed McMahon was sitting there. He said to Ed, ‘I want you to meet my new chef.’ I was in shock. I was a cook working for $2.54 an hour. It was an inspiration.”
There was plenty more inspiration to come. From Puck, Josie learned a more creative, improvisational approach to cooking, she says. “It’s like a light went off,” she says. “Wolf was coming from such a creative element. It made it fun.”
Shortly after Josie started at Ma Maison, she and her father reconciled. After shifts, she would often head back over the hill to Chef Gregoire. There she would fill her father in on the latest Westside restaurant gossip. Josie could tell her father needed help. “He asked me to come back,” she says.
In 1983, Gregoire died from colon cancer. “It was an abrupt thing,” Josie says.
She kept his restaurant open for two more years and would have liked to continue, but when the building was sold, she was pushed out, she says. Josie took a job as sous chef at Saddle Peak Lodge, the game specialty restaurant in the hills behind Malibu. Six months later she became executive chef. She stayed in this position for about four years. Then, eager for a change, she worked at Remi, the Venetian restaurant in Santa Monica that recently closed its doors. At Saddle Peak Lodge and Remi, Josie learned a “rustic” way of cooking. She also learned about wild boar and kangaroo, cuttlefish and razor clams--ingredients they “couldn’t give away” back then. (At her new restaurant, she says, boar is the biggest seller.)
After five years at Remi, Josie went to Park City, Utah, to open her own place. She couldn’t work out a deal, so she returned to Los Angeles to try opening a restaurant. This was easier said than done, especially for someone who had definite notions of what she did and didn’t want. A savvy investor discouraged her from signing a lease with a percentage rent--a common practice in the restaurant business--which is basically a success tax imposed by the landlord.
While Josie continued to look for a place locally, she returned to Saddle Peak Lodge as executive chef. After three years, she moved on to the Beach House, an American restaurant near the beach in Santa Monica. “For me, the Beach House was a real mind break,” she says. “The owner wanted to do some fun stuff. And I was frustrated in trying to find a location.”
About five years after beginning the search, Josie--along with her husband Frank Delzio--finally found the spot. Josie opened in January, with Josie as the chef and her husband as co-owner and manager.
At her restaurant, Josie integrates all of her lessons and offers a nod to all of her teachers--her father especially--and their respective cuisines. Yet she stays true to her own vision. She describes the food as “progressive American with French and Italian influences,” and buckles at the dreaded six-letter word: fusion. “Please don’t put ‘fusion’ in there,” she insists. “I’m not necessarily fusing them [the various cuisines].”
One of the most satisfying aspects about having her own place, says Josie, is welcoming customers who either studied with her father or dined in his restaurant, or both. “I am amazed right now,” she says, “to see that 20 years later, my dad touched so many people.”
Recently, while making rounds in the dining room, Josie stopped by the table of three middle-aged women. Before them, they each had a slice of the obscenely good quiche Josie sends out as an amuse-gueule to all of the customers, just as her father did. It is, in fact, her father’s recipe, albeit slightly modified. (While her father generally used Canadian bacon or salt pork in the quiche, Josie uses mushrooms.)
The women, it turns out, took cooking classes with Gregoire Le Balch. “They pointed to the quiche and said, ‘We have this recipe, don’t we?”’ Josie smiles as she recalls the exchange. “It’s like full circle.”