Interview with Stephen Kalt
“I approach every bit of food, every dish, every process, from a boiled egg to a hamburger, from dicing an onion to grilling a 45 day dry aged porterhouse, with the same desire to attain perfection”- Stephen Kalt
"I'm interviewing Stephen Kalt and we're here at Spartina.LA. and it just so happens I am a huge fan as well as one of the many investors here."
Hi Stephen. I’d like to begin with your childhood.
Really quick, Broad Strokes. Who got you into the kitchen?
So, childhood and food. Which is usually the driver for most chefs. For me, there are four brothers and sisters; a big family: some grandparents were around as well. So at least seven to nine people all the time.
Always, always, always, modest upbringing, but always ate well, and ate together. Always. Every meal, my father came home late from work. We waited. Every day. We always ate together. So, food became this kind of…thing central to our lives.
It is! And even though we had a very modest life, my mother was a great cook, and my father was a great cook. Cooking was my father's hobby He'd cook on the weekends when he wasn't working and going to the city. We lived on the beach in New York; he worked in the city. He would drive in and drive out. He would cook his favorite meals on the weekend. My mother would cook every day and she cooked all the holiday meals. We're European Jews. So, every holiday we would also do special things. So, I have very profound memories of food, childhood, family, conviviality. You know, ritual celebration, all those kinds of things. Now, I was raised from the time I was a young child by my parents to be, 'The Golden Boy.' I was going to be the doctor, I was going to be a doctor...for whatever reason..my parents are children of immigrants and they felt, that's what my children should be doing. And that one, meaning me, in particular… that one's going to be able to do it. So, from the time I was three years old I was introduced to everyone as, this is my son Stephen, he's going to be a doctor.
My entire life, that was always the tagline. So, I end up in physics in high school. I went to school as a chemistry major in college, and it really wasn’t until probably the end of my junior year when I said, "I'm not going to be doctor."
In College? So, let me just quickly-go back a second: when you were little with Mom and Dad, were you ever in the kitchen?
For sure! So, my earliest memory for myself, I was maybe six pulling over like a crate of some kind for the stove with a big pan and making a grilled cheese sandwich. Just like I saw my mother and father do. I had to do this for myself because my parents were out working. I was a latchkey kid; we didn't have staff.
You figured it out!
I had to make something to eat! That's how it started. It was just a thing I did. I also cooked at jobs in college. I was always the kid: there's always one kid in college for some reason that kid could actually cook. He can make the chili; he could make the bacon and eggs.
Yes! Yes, YOU were that kid! I loved that kid! *Kimberly laughs*
So, I could always do it, but it was not on my radar to do it as a career. It wasn't really seen in those days as legitimate. It wasn't how it is now, where if you want to be a chef now, you get them into lessons as soon as possible because being a chef is amazing! Whereas when I grew up, a long time ago? No way...it was not like that.
You know it was some drunken chef guy doing shots of vodka
Totally. And that's not all. It was a hard and underappreciated life. Okay so, you were that guy in college and then?
I knew I wasn't going to go to medical school. I switched to business. I studied business. I got a business degree. I left College. Not having the slightest idea of what I was going to do with my life.
Okay, I bet your parents loved that... where are we in the world?
We are at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Holy Shit, Florida?
I had a girlfriend there, whose uncle lived in East Tennessee. Was a banker. He owned some banks, developed some banks, and he lived in his giant house hanging off the mount in Gatlinburg, which is the entranceway of the Great Smoky Mountain National Forest. So, like 10 million Hillbillies a year go through there.
We visit, my brother, my girlfriend and I: we're walking down the street on a kind of slightly off part of the strip, and we look down in this little shopping center, and there's a sign that says pizza for sale with a phone number. And this is before cell phones.
We had to use the pay phone.
So, you're in you 20's?
Yeah, I'm 21.
So, we're at a pay phone, and we pop a quarter in and call the guy! "Hi. Yes. It's for sale for $6,000."
Shut the fuck up!
Swear to God! We buy the place the next day. Now my brother had worked in some pizzerias. So, he knew how to make pizza. This is my younger brother. So we opened this place called 'The Best Italian Restaurant', and we serve New York style pizza, hero sandwiches, lasagna, manicotti, like four things.
Your early 20's, this is your first restaurant
Now imagine my younger brother and I; studly young New York kids in the middle of East Tennessee.
In the Smoky Mountains
Fuckin’ love this
And we have a lot of t-shirts that say, 'I love the best.' It was an 'I love New York' thing at the time.
Remember it well
We got these t-shirts that had an I, with a heart, the best. We wore those shirts all time. We work. We make pizza. Make people happy. We ended up building four other locations.
All in the same vicinity?
In Tennessee! That's how I started my culinary career. I did it learning how to make New York style pizza and very basic Italian American pasta dishes, and gyro sandwiches. And that's what I did. I knew somehow deep down that wasn't my life. I just knew that this is not really where you're living the rest of your life. It's not what you're going to do, you have other things to do.
I mean, not to be snobby or anything, but you're far more of an intellectual
Yeah, this has been great. But I got to go. So, I sold out to my brother.
Got it. You sold to your brother and your brother stayed! Then where did you go?
He stayed. I mean he ended up selling it, but he stayed there, and I moved back to New York City. I was interested in fashion. I was interested in music. I was interested in certain things. I interviewed with Willie and Giorgio Armani, I interviewed with Barney's.
I did NOT know this about you! That's amazing!
I interviewed with a couple of publishing houses in New York City, the names are escaping me now. And I'm sitting in my apartment one day with my girlfriend. I lived at 77th and 2nd. Around the corner, by coincidence, was a restaurant called Petaluma, which is owned by Elio, who had another swanky restaurant club. I open the New York Times to the classified. People don't do that anymore. Classified section, retail restaurants, restaurants open. That's right around the corner and looking for a cook. I put on my coat, cashmere coat. I had long hair at the time. I go over to Petaluma, I say 'is the chef here?' Okay, this guy Dwayne or Dene…He used to work at Spago in LA.
How old are you, 23?
Roughish...24, 25…somewhere in that range. So, I ask him, 'it says in the paper that you're looking for a cook?' And I obviously don’t look like a Dominican cook which fills the kitchens in New York. He said, well, where have you worked? I said 'listen, I haven't worked anywhere, but If you give me $200 a week, I promise you, you will never regret it'. That was my conversation with the guy. He looks at me and says, 'be here tomorrow 9 o'clock.' I go to work the next morning, within three weeks I said, I’m going to be chef. I started focusing my attention on the work. I met Daniel Boulud through a friend from working at Le Cirque. He hired me at Le Cirque. I became entremetier: I just I became ultimate saucier. I spent two and a half years there. I became a chef de cuisine at Arcadia. I worked with Thomas Keller. I traveled around working with other chefs because I knew that's what I needed to do. When I had daytime off and days off, I did stages.
I did not realize that you worked with all these people. Heavy Hitters. That’s amazing. In my head I had you at Spartina in New York and in Vegas. That's where I came to know you in Nantucket! Holy Shit!
The thing I understood is transilience. People can really see where they want to go. They understand inherently that there are these steps you must take. Out here they kind of like, negate that and poopoo it.
I understand and happen to agree with you. You’ve got to know your basics…be it dance, art, music, food.
I went here, there and there (pointing) and in my time off I would do stages. I would ask, 'Chef can you please send me down to Jenn Louis at Watergate for a weekend so I can go cook.' I'm going to Spain and want to work with this guy... So that's what I did for 10 years. Train, train, train, train, train, and then I finally got here.
And Thank God for That! Would you consider a plethora of Chefs to be your mentors, or do you have one in which you mostly align with?
The single most important Chef in my life is Daniel Boulud. Daniel taught me the core and foundation of French cooking, which is one of the truly codified cuisines in the world and codification. What that does, is it gives you this foundation, to understand and it gives you a kind of a logic and what he would call common sense. And when you understand these techniques and this common sense, your foundation goes out. The second most important thing he did for me, was that he taught me this very, very important thing that I carry to this day. 'Do not let your reach exceed your grasp'. In other words, you know what you know, know it well, stay within what you know, because that's going to be the thing that has the most impact. Do not operate on the fringes and experiment on your guests just to experiment because you think creativity is a great thing.
So how do you then...?
Doesn't mean you don't experiment! I'm just not giving you a plate of something I don't even know what it is.
I understand..know it in it's entirety.
Know what it is, believe in it, and if you believe in it THEN put it in front of somebody.
Because so many young chefs are doing shit just for the sake of doing it.
“If you want to learn how to cook, choose one thing and perfect it, cooking it over and over
again until you understand everything there is to know about it.”- Stephen Kalt
You are not wrong.
So, I would say that was the single most important and profound experience, and it's funny I still have people interview me to this day ask me who influences you the most, where did it happen? Because I know what happened to me. So that process enabled me to then go and to hold my own when I worked for Thomas. Hold my own while traveling, do stages, and knew that I could be a professional in the kitchen and be impressive, and eventually I got the opportunity to take on my own things. I don't think you ever met my friend Cindy, who was my business partner for years at the first Spartina.
Okay wait. So, you had a... I’m going to call it a decade?
Of hard training, which included traveling.
And you would live in different countries
Whenever I traveled, let's say that I went with my girlfriend to Morocco. I would get in touch with the person that runs La Mamounia in Marrakesh and beg him to let me in. I would ask him, 'could I spend three days in your kitchen?' And so, we would travel, and I would also do what is called a Stage, to work and practice with other people. So, I would go and call, even after Spartina, I would go to the Basque country in Spain, and go to a place, knock on doors, and say, 'I'm going to have dinner tonight, could I come tomorrow and spend the day in your kitchen?'
Speaking of Spain, best Paella I've ever had is yours Kalt.
Great! I remember...Thank you.
So that's the kind of stuff I did. And I continued. Once you decide you know, you're dead. You always must keep reaching and stretching and work both your creative muscle and expand your foundation and technique. And if you can keep doing that, you're fresh. You could be 90 and you're still fresh. It's why the greatest artists in the world still do what they do. It's why Bruce Springsteen still sits down and writes a song that people want to hear!
*Kimberly Laughs* Of course you bring up Bruce! Okay wait, I'm going to tell you, that as a long-ago martial artist, the meaning of the word black belt is...most people think is, 'you're fucking amazing.' But the actual meaning of black belt, is 'now you may begin.' Beginning Path… now you're ready to start! Foundation has been achieved.
That's black belt.
It's so critical in the understanding, that I try to get everyone to get in their heads, even the people that work for me. You know, you're still a student. You're still learning.
It's when you finally have your foundation and your feet firmly under you, then you can maybe lift your eyes up and see what else is there. There's a lot there.
That's a critical thing. That's very cool, I like that.
It's the artists way.
And it's creative. Okay, so we've traveled and now it's a decade and you're still will always be both a master and a student.
When do you decide to open up your own restaurant? When do you say, 'okay, I'm ready'?
So, my close and personal friend, Cindy Smith, who I've literally been friends with for 40 years and was a girlfriend of mine years and years ago. I was lucky enough to maintain a friendship with a person who has had my back always my entire life. She was running several good restaurants in New York. She was the operating part of a restaurant called Raoul’s in Soho, which is probably one of the most famous bistros in New York City. She and I decided to open Spartina Tribeca together, and that's what kind of pulled me.
I had started a consulting company. My father died in 1990 and it kind of shook me a little bit in that, I learned to make sure that I was getting everything out of life that I could. And so, I kind of pulled myself out of the kitchen for a little while and only consulted. People hired me to help them open businesses or fix businesses, restaurant businesses. I was written up in New York Magazine as 'Guy with the bullet, here comes Stephen Kalt, hospitality business.' And I got a lot of play and became someone kind of well known. And when Cindy and I talked about opening a restaurant together, I decide to go back into the kitchen. So, I became a chef and opened Spartina in NY. It was one of the first restaurants that really focused on kind of a Pan Mediterranean cooking. I was doing stuff from Spain that people weren't really doing yet. I was doing kind of loud and interesting things. That's the beginning of it. I became somewhat well-known.
Speaking of which when I write this up, I will then add 'our love’ yours and mine, of the book Spartina.
Sure! So where does the name come from, which is what everyone would always ask me. In 1989 I read a book called ‘Spartina’ by John Casey, which won the national book award. I've always been a big book reader; you know always interested in things. It's about a guy who's a fisherman in Rhode Island, who dreams of owning his own boat, and he builds his boat in his backyard. All the machinations of what you're willing to do to fulfill your dreams in life.
And at what expense.
Correct! That's a great story, a great inspiration. It's also the grass that grows in all the marshy areas on the coastline; spartina grass means little soldier in Latin. It holds those important estuaries together. Where all these different types of life thrive. So, those two things together; I said, 'I'm going to call my restaurant SPARTINA one day.' And that's where it came from.
*note...Before I even knew Chef Kalt, I spent a few years developing the very same book, SPARTINA by John Casey into a movie. My Spartina came to life in the form of a restaurant instead of a movie that I got to be a part of instead. How life unfolds is fascinating.
And how did Spartina do in Tribeca?
It did fine. It didn't kill. I mean financially speaking, it didn't kill but it became a restaurant of note. I became an appreciated and respected chef.
And when you, then, now, sit down and you create a menu, what is that process? Are you in a basement? Are you smoking a joint? Are you having a drink? Is there music playing?
Good question. So, these are two very different times in my life. We're talking about 1993. That’s’ almost 30 years ago. I'm now a grown man. Some young people might call me old,
*Kimberly Laughs* Trust me, I understand!
So, my creative process. The truth is it's never ending. There is almost nothing I look at that does not make me think of something else that inspires me to do something. Whether I'm eating in a place, whether I'm looking at a magazine, or hearing a song, whatever I'm doing. I have a body of information and knowledge in my brain, in my storage that is vast. All the dozens of kinds of fish, and meat, and poultry, and vegetables, and preparations, and sauces, and techniques that I've done in 40 years of high-end cooking, and I still own it all. So, for me I can literally process a concept and know what it's going to taste like on the plate. There’s no guessing. Like I told you, don't let your reaching exceed your grasp. I've got it all within my grasp. So, we just went from summer to fall. Summer is heirloom tomatoes, corn, peas are still here, asparagus is still here, you know artichokes. That's all summer. In the matter of a week, it goes to other things. Chanterelle mushrooms are gone. So, I now have swiss chard walnuts, pecorino black pepper instead of asparagus. It just changes. So, when I'm writing a menu, I'm trying to tell a story. I'm trying to create an experience for my guests. So, the things that I include in that menu, are a part of the story and a part of the traveling that I want them to take. Just the reading of the document, I want them to be going, 'ooh, ahh. 'I want that one, but I really want that one!' And it tells a story and reads well. The seasons change. All these things now that are here, I feel like I'm in a different place, a different time, different experience. So, I read the document that helps people start to feel the experience and it also creates, what I call in writing, total dynamics. It's movement. You're moving people through the feeling of lightness, or a little more heavy, but all within the grasp of people that's accessible enough for them to understand. I'm not a chef who's busy creating documents and food that are esoteric. It's just not my thing. It isn't that I don't appreciate or like that, and that I wouldn't travel 500 miles to get some obscure, modernist meal. I would. It's just not what I do.
Understand, I love that. You know your wheelhouse.
So that's how I process. I process the seasons. I'll write down my ideas or with my phone in my notes. There could be 30 ideas coming to me.
And they hit you at any time, day, or night.
They can. I can be anywhere at any time. Sometimes we'll be sitting, we're having dinner, and I go wait a second and get up and go write.
I got it.
And then I'll go boom boom and then I'll go wait a second! And then on the way home I'll go" don't forget!" It just flows. So, then I take my existing document, which is my previous seasonal menu, and I would say out of 35 items there's going to be 20 items that are just not seasonal. They are tortellini filled with braised short rib or ground butter sage, but it's not seasonal!
It's a hit though!
Since day one, it's not seasonal. So, I’m not changing that. There are things I'm not changing. But I have this in every category. In antipasti, in pizza, pasta, secondo, main courses. But there must be some changes, because you have to fill in all those categories with a couple of things that change with the season and the document is completely different from the other document, even though you've only changed 12 things.
That's really this kind of restaurant. If I had another kind of restaurant, fine dining, that I only have 12 items on the menu? I might change every one of them! Or I might have three things that no matter what people would kill me if I change. So, in this process I take enough things that changes the document, changes the experience, and delivers something that I think is special and significant. Some very traditional. Some what I consider my modern interpretation of a food but still always in the context of what I feel is Italian cooking which is, farm-to-table product-driven seasonal cooking.
Good! And what do you see...Wait, wait! We have to hit Vegas.
Okay, let's talk about Las Vegas.
Let's do talk about Las Vegas!
So, I'm in New York, I've sold Spartina. 9/11 had happened.
While you were at Spartina?
No no I'm wrong it happened right after. Cindy and I had been running Spartina for nine years. They had been digging up Greenwich Street in front of my restaurant for a year and a half.
And it had an impact on the restaurant in the last year that it was there.
So, we just said look, whatever let's sell it. We had friends, Danny Abrams, and a couple guys at the Red Cat in Chelsea were friends, and I said listen, this may be an opportunity for you, are you guys interested in buying Spartina? And they were like YES! We settled on a price, Danny and my partner Cindy met at the closing, and they are still together all these years later and have a kid!
Yeah, it’s nice! So, I sold it. And I was consulting and figuring out what I was going to do next when I got a call from Steve Wynn's Lieutenant, who knew about me. His daughter lived down the street. She had eaten at Spartina. The woman who was his number two, knew me also from the world of food. And they asked, 'do you want to come to Las Vegas and open a restaurant at the Wynn, but you have to move here.' And I was like, move there? You know Shelly, (Chef Kalt's wife) was already working in New York City and had a career. So we go to Dave, Steve and his wife and a couple other people Joe Malone, I don't know if you've ever heard of the perfume?
And a few other people that were going to go, and Steve offers my wife a job running production in Las Vegas for like 300K or something like that. And I said, 'Shell what's the worst that could happen?' You get 300 thousand, we go back to New York, your career will be good...So we decided to go for it! So, we moved to Las Vegas, and I opened a restaurant at Wynn Resort.
And that was called?
That was called Corso Cucina. It was Italian.
I got that.
And it was right next to the Ferrari dealership...of course there was a racecourse. I actually blew up when I got there, I said, 'I don't know what you're doing, this doesn't make sense to me.' I am about Mediterranean cooking, like what we did at Spartina. Interestingly enough I didn't design the place. They closed it for five months and rebuilt it. I went to China, 3 months maybe. I traveled around the world. I came back, we opened to a huge success. And then I spent three years running that restaurant and Shelley was miserable working there.
In Vegas and working with Steven. Shelley hated it so we started to plot our exit strategy. We got used to the weather and agreed we were not going back to New York.
*Kimberly Laughs* Like most transplants
So, we say, let’s go to LA. I had made a deal to open a restaurant in Atlantic City. Two restaurants. So, I would travel once a month, back and forth to Atlantic City. That was my life for ten years, consulting and working with casinos.
Until you found this.
I looked, and looked, and looked, and finally found a space that I thought was THE space. Not really understanding Melrose Avenue at the time. Just thinking, 'wow, look at this outdoor patio and not really understanding LA! It rains 40 days in the winter. Not really understanding. Because everyone from outside thinks it's sunny every day, which is not really true.
And then Angelinos: if it is a little grey, or 66 degrees, or it rains, they're staying home under the covers.
Correct…that’s our wintertime to burrow under the covers.
So that's just a learning process. But yes, that's how it all started. I called my friends and said 'friends, I want to open a restaurant!'
Yeah, you did.
Just like that!
And now you've done well here in LA
As it turns out, it's been an extraordinary time. Everything I always dreamed it could be, it is now.
Is this the end?