Interview: Evan Kleiman on Food

The host of the public radio show Good Food, founder of Slow Food in Los Angeles, and owner of the heavenly L.A. institution Angeli Caffe, Evan Kleiman joins forces with Dwell to co-curate Square Meal Sunday at Dwell on Design.

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A Tuscan chef once called Evan Kleiman's food "Italian, from the provincia of California." The simple, seasonal fare of Angeli Caffe, its minimalist walls punctuated by eggplant-colored recesses featuring abstracted artichokes or photos of pasta drying like laundry, has brought together the Los Angeles food community since 1984 for the ultimate convergence of culture and company. Like a kitchen table for the city's creatives, this is a place where architects and artists hunker down over fresh pasta and exchange ideas as freely as they pass a bottle of red wine. It's here, seated on wooden chairs weathered by thousands of sated diners, where Kleiman prepared me a cappuccino the same hue as her restaurant's walls, and we chewed the fat about the craft in cooking, reconnecting with our rural roots, and why an important conversation about meat will be center stage at Dwell on Design.

Why do you think there's so much overlap between the food and design worlds?

I think a lot of it has to do with craft. I'm a very big believer in hand work and the importance of work that's done with the hands and the intellect together, being given a higher position of value in this society. I think what happened post-war and into the '50s is that everybody's parents wanted them to grow up to be a professional—they didn't want their kids to have to touch anything. So you have this society where primary and secondary education really undervalues that which is done with the hands. And food is one of those things that I think a lot of people gravitate to who love tinkering and who love that synergy that happens when your mind and hands are working at the same time.

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So how does the concept of Slow Food relate to that craft aspect?

Slow Food goes beyond that. Obviously the genesis of Slow Food is coming out of Italy, a society which values its culinary history. There, every person, no matter what they do in their urban life, is still attached to the countryside. Everybody has a grandma who puts up tomatoes and everybody still goes out to the countryside on weekends and on holidays. So even though European food systems have industrialized, following our horrible model, people relate to food and incorporate it onto their lives. It still carries a lot of philosophical and cultural weight that we've never had. I think that's because no matter where we come from, no matter who emigrated in our families here, there's this puritanical stamp on our culture saying that pleasure is bad. Constant toil and industriousness is good, and lust for anything sensual is bad. So the Slow Food movement has been very different in America compared to countries that have a very strong, old food culture. I think it's about allowing people to discover this sensuality and this connection to food, and to the producers of good food. You can sit around the table and celebrate what's on your plate. Or you can invite people over and make bread together, and that's a useful occupation, that's not something you have to hide because it's reminiscent of the Dust Bowl years.

You mentioned that the Slow Food movement originated in Italy, which is interesting because that's where a lot of people think design also came from.

Well, they're incredible marketers! All you have to do is go to the Slow Food website and look at the images. The t-shirts and the covers of their books, and all their marketing materials. It's always easier to swallow something that's been put in a more visually palatable form. To marry the incredible graphical style of Italian design with the taste of the mouth, was, I think, part of the original success of Slow Food. When I first went to the Salone di Gusto which they have every two years in Turin, I was blown away. I'd never been in a convention hall where every single thing was so beautiful and tasty.

So it's almost like in both food and design, Italians have become experts at marketing their lifestyle.

I think they create an image of a lifestyle that people want to participate in. France and Italy, at least for the Boomer generation, were certainly gateways to pleasure. Like myself, I was 16 when I first went to Europe and came from Los Angeles of the '50s and '60s where it was hard to find garlic in the markets. There was no such thing as fresh basil. There was no such thing as flat-leaf parsley. The only pasta was the long pasta that came in the blue wrapper that you thought was Italian but it wasn't really. And then to go and be in a culture where everyone was talking about food: while people were eating, they'd be talking about the next meal! I think for a lot of us, it opened us up to the fact that it was a valid subject for study, not only culinarily but gastronomically. I was always obsessed with reading about food and reading food fiction and then more academic treatises on food and history. And back then, people thought I was a whack-job!

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And in Italy, is that where you also found an appreciation for design that you used when you wanted to create your own space for serving food?

That's a different narrative for me. I grew up in L.A., in Silver Lake, and my aunt and uncle owned a Schindler house, the Walker House, and their house was the least touched of any Schindler house. Now it has been completely changed in the years since they sold it. But during the years they had it—and they owned it for 30 years—my uncle was an artist, and they kept it like a museum piece. Schindler had the designer of the carpets and weavers of the built-in upholstery pieces make enough for three changes, so that when anything needed to change it was still the same. I remember every time you'd see the garage open you'd see the excess carpet and fabric stored in the ceiling of the garage. I grew up in an environment where, as a child, I was aware of these names: Schindler, Neutra, Eames. So my personal taste of what I appreciated and thought was worthy always leaned towards this Modernist sensibility. So architecture was always something I was interested in. When it was time for me to open my own place, it was just a coincidence that my roommate in college met Thom Mayne and they were courting. So I would just get to hang out with this brilliant mind that was still in the process of forming itself, having incredible conversations about art and design and food and life. He was the only architect I knew personally, so I could tell him, "Hey, I have no money, I'm doing this 1000-square-foot space, I have this generalized idea, and I'd like all the reference points to Italy to be like a little church." I still have the original maquette they did. It was this whole journey going to the studio and working with these amazing artisans. Everything was custom. There are these little light packs that look like candles, the niches, the pizza oven is the altar.

So you opened in 1984, this tiny place on Melrose. Did people notice the design?

Oh my gosh! Well, then it was the combination of the graphics, too. I hired Ph.D which was Michael Hodgson [also a Dwell on Design speaker] and Clive Piercy to do the graphics because I knew them socially. So it was just a bunch of young friends, hanging out together, giving each other work. The name was because I was an Angeleno, and it was Italian, and I remember thinking, what do I do for a logo? And Michele Saee, who was the project architect, said, well, Angeli means 'angel' so why not do wings, and you can put them on the back of a t-shirt? So Ann Field—who is Clive's wife and this wonderful illustrator—did all the illustration, and later my books. We opened the space, 24 seats, and we were so afraid to open with a full menu we didn't even have pasta, we only had antipasti, pizza and sandwiches. And people would wait in line for two hours. I think it was because it was a combination of a new generation of design, so people perceived the craft, and the fact that it was custom, and this simple food that was all handmade.

And those things were not prevalent back then?

I don't think so. I think there was this desire in the '80s for slickness. And my food is just totally not slick. People would read the reviews and come in and we'd hand them a plate of spaghetti aglio e olio and they'd look at it and say, that's all it is? I think I was the first of the Tuscan-influenced Italian cafes before it was red booth, heavy sauces. And then what happened in the '80s was all this filling in at the top end, this very high-end, highly considered food. So I was the first to fill in that middle section as more of a bistro.

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What about your relationship to the farmers markets, which you are now so famous for?

There probably were farmers markets back then—some farmers markets in L.A. are 26 years old—but I wasn't aware of them. When I opened the restaurant you were just beginning to get fresh basil grown in a greenhouse, and we still use the same purveyor. We use a woman who had some land in Encino and Tarzana and she started to plant mixed baby lettuces and herbs. I think first what happened is that we could get true Italian product, good canned tomatoes, really good olive oil, pasta, imported cheeses. That was the first revelation, the first level of real ingredients that tasted good, made in their country of origin. And then what happened to me was after this awakening of Slow Food in Italy, I came back and searched out farmers markets—this was 10 years into my journey. In this business you go through cycles of burnout and engagement, and the thing that the markets consistently do is that no matter how burnt out you are, you go to the market and say, "Oh my god! I'm just the luckiest person in the world!"

And now we've gone even a step further in our relationship with agriculture, to people talking about bringing back victory gardens.

I don't think they ever should have gone away. What kind of crazy people were we? It's amazing, actually. One of the things I love is through my job as host of Good Food, I meet all these incredible people, like I met this woman Hynden Walch and she came on the show to talk about the Hillside Produce Cooperative in Glassell Park. Every lot there has a fruit tree, so they said why don't we just share it? She was on the show and now the number of the people at the last exchange has doubled, and it's been written up in the New York Times. But look at the way we've revalued this bounty. Truly in Southern California, we have no excuse. Take a seed, put it in a pot. It's not the commitment of a gardener in Maine. At the farmers markets you'll see the people who sell plants and people are coming to them just hungry for information. I think this economic downturn is spurring people on. When you think of the economics of a tomato plant, it's practically free. You take a seed that's the size of a period in a document, and you'll get a hundred fruits from that. What would you rather do, go to Costco or plant a couple trees? That's what I made the decision to do: I planted 15 fruit trees.

One of the topics of Square Meal at Dwell on Design are these new urban-to-rural connections, and for most people living in cities, their sole connection is the farmers market. What are you seeing happening there with increased demand for local food?

Some of the farmers actually acquire additional acreage because of the demand. So take Sherry Yard, who is the pastry chef at Spago and overseeing pastry chefs at a gazillion restaurants, and her relationship with Pudwell Farms, who have those amazing berries. Pudwell Farms acquired a lot more acreage and planted for her. She pledged that she would buy and use whatever he was able to give her. The farmers know that it's the chefs who allow them to create a life because chefs buy in such large quantities. And because of their relationships with the chefs a lot of them are eating in these restaurants, and a lot of the chefs are visiting the farms. Chefs also bring seeds to farmers and say, can you grow this for me? There's a tomato that a couple of farmers have at the markets they just call Evan's Tomato. It was something I had in Italy and I couldn't find it anywhere else, so I brought seeds back with me. It's just this incredible cooking tomato. And then they started Tomatomania, where you can buy the seedlings of it. So there's really this wonderful circle of connections.

And we're also going to have a panel you put together on the topic of meat.

I'm very excited to do this panel. I've wanted to do something like this for a long time. Whenever I interview somebody about meat, no matter what side it is, whether it's a total carnivore talking about how much they love meat, or a chef who talks about how they shave the leg of a pig, we get so much mail.

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Do you think it's the most polarizing food issue of our time?

I do, I think it's the most polarizing issue. And that's why I think it's really important to talk about it from all these different places. And I think to have this group of people we're going to have together at one time is amazing. Sasha Wizansky, the publisher of Meatpaper—they look at it from every angle. Charlie Grosso, who is a photographer who has had this continuing series she calls Wok the Dog. Despite her name she's an Asian woman who grew up in China and was in those markets and her pictures straddle this line of horror and unbelievably beauty and reality of life. From where we sit, it's really easy to divorce ourselves from different cultures and different needs. And then Neal Fraser, a chef in L.A. who butchers his own meat. One of most frustrating things to me about meat is that there were 1700 slaughterhouses across the United States and now there are only 13 because the beef industry is so vertically integrated. That is the primary impediment for consumers to be able to easily get grass-fed meat. The USDA requires that all animals be slaughtered in a USDA facility but there aren't any who are willing to slaughter and dress 10 cattle instead of 250,000 cattle. So that's why we're excited to hear that there's a mobile slaughterhouse up in the San Luis Obispo area, and we're looking forward to working with her.

So that's a perfect example of how design can solve a really big food—in this case, meat—issue.

Exactly! That's the perfect example of that.

It really goes back to what you were saying about the importance of making food connections, and that relies on so many components of design—architecture, graphic design, information design...

I think the biggest influence of design in food is websites. Blogging, but also websites where you can purchase food made far away. People in L.A. who want grass-fed beef or heritage pork can go online and, through this medium of design, get what they want and support these people who are in the middle of nowhere. And what we're seeing now are these new millennial generations who are just food-crazy, which you can see in the blogging community. And these people are obsessed! They're not just obsessed with food, but with their personal relationships with food, and their narratives about food. And I think it's just wonderful.

See Evan and all of the Square Meal Sunday events—including demonstrations by the Little Flower Candy Company and Michael Cirino's tutorial on exactly how to cook an egg—by purchasing a Dwell Conference Plus ticket or Dwell Exhibition Plus ticket. Register at dwellondesign.com

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