Every chef dreams of having a fairy godmother, someone who can wave a magic wand and magically supply everything needed to make a dream restaurant come true.
Alain Giraud got one.
His Bastide, one of the most talked about restaurants in Southern California, should open early next month, barring yet another a last-minute delay. But before all you chefs start turning back flips of envy over Giraud’s good fortune, there is a lot more to this story than one person simply wishing and finding someone to make it so.
First of all, Giraud’s little restaurant has taken almost three years to open--more than a year and a half longer than planned. “If someone told me two years ago that I would still be waiting to open right now, I never would have believed them,” says Giraud.
But then, the restaurant he is getting bears little resemblance to anything he’d dreamed about. Back then, Giraud had little more than a name, Bastide, the word for a farmhouse in the south of France where he was raised. It would be a restaurant of simple, rustic comfort, a place where crowds of happy people could eat the kind of food he grew up with.
Then Giraud met his fairy godmother, albeit one who stands 6 feet 4 and swears like a Marine Corps drill instructor.
“I expected to have a lot of investors to please,” Giraud says. “I ended up with just one.”
But what a one. Joe Pytka is a director of television commercials, legendary in that world both for his abilities and his uncompromising personal style. More to the point, he is wealthy enough to take Giraud’s rough ideas and turn them into reality--at least, a version of it.
Today Giraud’s humble dream is a gorgeous $3.5 million high-fashion jewel box seating no more than 80 diners (and in the wrong weather, with the patios closed, less than half that). It was decorated by Andree Putman, one of the most respected designers in France. The food will be refined, the bright easy-to-love flavors of Provencal cuisine raised to an artistic plane. Prices will be high as well, $80 per person for dinner, though lunch will be a more reasonable $30 to $35.
“My vision of the restaurant has changed a lot, for sure,” he says. “I’ve had to adjust it to fit with [Pytka’s] vision. That’s been a little hard, not to change the spirit but to take it into another dimension. I really have had to extend myself to make this work.”
It’s hard to imagine an odder couple than Giraud and Pytka. Giraud is dark and handsome and, at 43, trending a little toward burly. He’s cooked in Los Angeles for almost 15 years, most of that time as the No. 2 at the late Citrus, working in the sizable shadow of Michel Richard.
Despite a couple of years heading the kitchen at Lavande in the Lowes Santa Monica Beach Hotel, he has never quite achieved star chef status. What he has earned is the affection of almost everyone on the restaurant scene.
In a world too often dominated by screamers and petty tyrants, Giraud is regarded as a genuinely sweet soul.
Pytka, 64, is tall and lean with hard blue eyes and shoulder-length pewter gray hair that he wears swept straight back. He has the hawk-like visage of Geronimo, and the demeanor to match.
Among the more than 25,000 commercials he’s directed are the “Hare Jordan” spots for Nike that featured Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny and were spun off into the 1996 movie “Space Jam,” which Pytka also directed. His company, simply called Pytka, is reported to earn $30 to $35 million a year.
Over the last decade or so a fair chunk of that has been spent in restaurants, where he has become a client both adored and feared. On the one hand, an impromptu dinner for a few friends with some great wines might mean a $10,000 windfall for some lucky restaurant. At the same time, a misstep--however slight--might mean a tongue-lashing that could strip paint.
One morning when Bastide sommelier Christophe Rolland shows up for work nattily dressed in a suit and matching taupe shirt, Pytka, who is wearing his customary T-shirt and jeans, lays into him with a machine-gun barrage without so much as saying “Hello.”
“What are you wearing that shirt for? ... I never want to see a shirt like that in this place ....That color is totally inappropriate.”
Rolland, who has worked for the three-star Auberge de l’Ill in France, is small and tightly wound. At first he seems to think Pytka is joking and smiles, then he blanches when he comes to the conclusion that he’s not.
Just when you think Rolland might break into tears, Pytka smiles, claps him on the shoulder and changes the subject, talking about how a restaurant he’d been to the night before had had the same problems they’d had in getting a certain vintage of the cult Bordeaux Le Pin.
So well known is Pytka’s temper that at one point there was an informal betting pool among Southern California chefs as to how long his and Giraud’s partnership would last. Of course, they would only say so in whispers--a $10,000 dinner is not to be gambled on.
“There were a lot of people warning me about being involved with him, and sometimes it has been difficult,” Giraud concedes. “But what Joe does is push you to be your best. He doesn’t accept mediocrity and he doesn’t accept any compromises.”
Giraud and Pytka met because their daughters attend the same French private school (Pytka’s wife is French). At first, Pytka was thinking about buying the Venice hot spot 72 Market Street, which is near his office. He asked Giraud for advice.
“He took a look at it and took a look at the numbers and advised against it,” Pytka says. “But we had talked some by then and realized we shared a lot of the same ideas.”
The First False Alarm
This was back in the fall of 1999. In the beginning, Bastide was supposed to be open and serving dinner by early 2001. In fact, restaurant critic John Mariani announced the restaurant’s opening in Wine Spectator magazine that April--more than a year ago.
A lot of the delay was due to the endless process of permitting and construction. But a lot of it was also due to Pytka’s quest for perfection. If something wasn’t done just right, the only thing to do was start over--just spend the time and money to get it right.
“It’s like you’ve got a house of cards and every time you’ve got them stacked, someone pulls one out and the whole thing comes down,” says Pytka.
While he fends off the notion that he is anything more than a passive investor--and while that may have been his original intention--there is no question that he is now fully committed. Few silent partners insist on having final say in the hiring of the wait staff.
“Me getting involved was not a conscious act,” he says. “It was like quicksand. I’m not interested in running a restaurant in any way shape or form. I’m only interested in it so far as having a nice place to eat and wanting to control my environment as much as possible without being a pest.”
While Pytka speaks admiringly of Los Angeles’ restaurant scene in general, he says there was something missing.
“We’ve got a lot of great restaurants here, but one thing I thought Los Angeles needed was a grown-up restaurant that wasn’t stuffy. Some place that was a little adventurous but was warm. I use the restaurant Arpege in Paris as my example of a place like that. They serve a more modern concept of French food, but it’s not a cold place at all.”
Giraud’s first clue as to how Pytka worked came when he drew up the initial proposal for Bastide. Giraud scoured West Los Angeles for available restaurant sites and drew up a dossier listing each with its advantages and disadvantages.
Then he took it to Pytka, who tossed it aside, looked him in the eye and asked, “Which one is the best?” When Giraud made his choice, Pytka went out and got it, no questions asked.
It turned out to be a place that both of them knew. The building had originally been Le Restaurant and later the Manhattan Won Ton Company.
When Giraud first came to Los Angeles, his wife had gone to a salon in the neighborhood and he says he remembers waiting for her one day, looking at the building and dreaming that one day he would have a restaurant of his own that nice.
Pytka had eaten there often when it was Le Restaurant. He remembers walking past it in its Won Ton incarnation and telling a friend: “You wouldn’t believe it, but at one time that was the coolest, most romantic, sexiest restaurant in Los Angeles. Even with that stupid name it is still beautiful.”
Bastide is even more gorgeous today, so perfect it practically shimmers. That is thanks mainly to the work of Putman, who not only created the general look of the place but designed much of the furniture as well.
A thin, elegant older woman, Putman is well known in France for her clean style, which is modern yet natural, as well as for her definite opinions.
“The reason so many restaurants are so ugly is that so many chefs are so bourgeois,” she says. “All they think about is impressing you with how important they are. I hate design that tries to intimidate or to impress. When someone does that, what it means is they want the power for themselves, not for the people they are serving.”
She and Pytka go back 20 years, to when he walked into her Paris atelier and began telling her about a piece of Eileen Gray furniture he’d bought.
“I asked him where he had it and he told me against the wall,” she remembers. “I told him he needed to move it away from the wall. That piece needed to float with space around it so it could breathe. He laughed and told me I needed to come to Los Angeles and organize his house. So I did.”
Putman, Pytka says simply, “is one of those people who can take you to the next level.”
Bastide is her version of a Provencal country house, filtered through a very particular design sensibility, with the sometimes garish colors made chromatic and all of the accidental details perfectly in place.
You can say the same about Giraud’s menu. As he puts it, he’s looking for “simple ingredients done in a very elegant way.” Take for example, the traditional appetizer of melons served with sweet Beaumes de Venise wine.
“Usually, you just cut the melon in half and marinate the inside in the wine,” he says. “But I wanted to make it a little different.” After playing with making a terrine of melon and wine, he turned in another direction.
“I had the idea of putting a very light gelee on the bottom of the plate, and a thin slice of melon cut in a rectangle on top. I still needed something to make it a little special. So I thought about rolling the melon into something like a cannelloni. Why not add some crab?
“So I made a light crab salad with just a little bit of mayonnaise and rolled that in the thin slice of melon and set it on a light gelee of Beaumes de Venise and tart melon juice. I put a little microgreens on top, something for crispness.
“There, that is a dish for summer.”
Indeed, though the restaurant at this point has yet to serve anything beyond small private parties, if the early samples of the food Giraud and his team are producing are any indication of what is to come, Bastide should lift him into the star chef category.
The food is bright and colorful but polished. Dishes on the summer menu are bursting with the sun-drenched flavor of Provence, yet they have a refinement that no one would mistake for rustic.
A dish of monkfish roasted and served on a bed of vegetables comes with a reduced vinegar sauce that might seem at first too acidic, but is in perfect balance when eaten with the fish and the diced pancetta it’s served with.
The same delicate balancing act takes place in a dessert that pairs a sorbet of orange and basil with fresh berries in a sauce of orange juice and Beaumes de Venise. Handled less carefully, the sauce could taste alcoholic; here it sets off the berries and sorbet stunningly.
The Wine War
While Pytka let Giraud pretty much have his way with the menu, wine was another matter. Pytka is an avid collector with definite tastes. The list at Bastide will be entirely French, much to Giraud’s consternation.
“We discussed the list a lot, then we argued about it, then we fought about it,” says Pytka. The problem was that the restaurant had limited storage and after Pytka had stocked the wines he wanted most, there was no room left.
“The only option was to have some token wines from California and Italy for political reasons, and I thought that was disrespectful to them,” he says. “Plus, you can go to every other restaurant in town and get those wines.”
In the end, Giraud conceded that battle and now says simply “That is something I would never have had the courage to do.”
This, in a nutshell, is the story of the two personalities. On the one hand you have Giraud, raised in a careful French restaurant family where, he says, “You start modest, then when you make some money you slowly improve. I come from a world where you make one dollar and you put away 50 cents.”
And on the other there’s Pytka, who has succeeded by swinging for every fence he’s ever seen. “My philosophy is, if we do the right thing, it will be a success. If we’re not, there’s something wrong.”
In part this kind of talk inspires Giraud. On the other hand, you get the feeling that when he hears Pytka say things like “If we’re going to fail, let’s fail for the right reasons,” it also scares him. Though Pytka certainly acknowledges how much Giraud has on the line, he also has his millions to fall back on if the deal craters.
“What I’m feeling is a combination of excitement and apprehension,” Giraud says. “It’s not like I’m 18 and opening some bistro for $1,000 with a couple of friends and we’re going to serve roast chicken.”
All he can do now is get the place open and see what happens. But first he’s got to convince his partner to make that giant step. At this point, Pytka is still restricting the staff to what seems like an endless series of rehearsals--private dinner parties for himself and a dozen or so friends.
“Everything is going well,” says Giraud, “but it’s like going out and singing one song when you’re ready to do a full concert.”
By now, Giraud has learned to be philosophical. He knows Bastide will open eventually, even though he can’t say exactly when. At the beginning of the month, it was supposed to be this week. As recently as Friday, it was supposed to be by Sept. 11. On Tuesday, Giraud was “confident” the restaurant would be open on Sept. 16."Joe always wants to fix one more thing, to make it exactly right before he lets anybody in,” he says.
“I was talking to him the other day and I told him this is just like raising our little girls. They’re growing up and at one point, you know they’re going to have to go on a date alone. You don’t want them to--you’re afraid for what might happen--but you know they will. You just have to hope you’ve done your best and let them go.”