It isn’t often that you hear chefs talking about a sense of place — those special characteristics that make a place unique. But Curtis Stone is not your average chef. He is a man of the world, in many ways, taking inspiration both on and off the table from the places he has called home at one time or another: Melbourne, Australia, Italy, France, Spain, London, the coastal cool of California. For his restaurants — the ever-elegant Maude in Beverly Hills and Gwen, a new concept he’s opening in West Hollywood with his brother Luke this month — he pays special attention to the connection between physical atmosphere and what his guests experience on the plate. Who knew real estate could be so central to the modern-day dining experience? The “Top Chef Masters” star dishes on the transformative power of food, his idea of a perfect kitchen and creating menus inspired by his surroundings.
You’re opening your second restaurant in West Hollywood this month. Why is this restaurant significant for you, in terms of your trajectory in the food world and your personal evolution as a chef?
Curtis Stone I’ve always wanted to work on a big project with my brother Luke, whom I’m very close to and have a lot of respect for, not only as a stand-up human being and brother, but as a successful businessman. We’ve been talking loosely about opening a restaurant together for years; now, our pipedream is a brick-and-mortar reality, following Luke and his family’s recent relocation to Los Angeles from Australia.
The guests at Gwen will enjoy a super-refined, fine dining experience set in a relaxed, elegant space. Gwen comprises three main areas, including a bar, dining space and butcher shop.
How important was it to choose the right location for the restaurant? What were some of the qualities you were looking for, in terms of the real estate?
Curtis Stone When you’re deciding on a space for a restaurant, you have to be sensitive to the neighborhood. What is it lacking? What does it need? Hollywood is a good space for Gwen, and I think Gwen will be good for the Hollywood food scene, which is on an uphill trajectory. I think Hollywood and Gwen are reflective of each other in some ways. Gwen is both primal and elegant in its food offering, which is reminiscent of the Hollywood streets and their history. It’s a grungy neighborhood, but it also exudes elegance and Old Hollywood glamor.
People always talk about how music has the power to immediately bring people back to a distant memory. Do you think the power of taste can do this, too? How so?
Curtis Stone Absolutely, taste and smell can instantly transport me back to a wonderful memory or meal. A roast leg of lamb with crispy potatoes is a signature dish within our family, and if I’m ever unable to spend a special occasion with my family, say a birthday or Christmas day, I ensure that a roast leg of lamb is the centerpiece of the table. The full circle experience, from sourcing the lamb, roasting and serving it, transports me back to days growing up in Melbourne, enjoying a roast as a family.
Looking back on your childhood in Australia, what is one of your favorite moments spent in the kitchen or around the table with family and friends?
Curtis Stone I’ve got to hand it to Mum; she is a better baker than I – the best in the world, in my opinion. I have fond memories of always hanging around her apron strings, desperate to lick the spoon and watch her cakes rise proudly out of their baking tins as they baked in the oven. The aroma in the kitchen was to die for.
Pulling a little “Top Chef” out of my hat…if you could make one dish that sums up who you are as a chef, what would it be and why?
Curtis Stone I think I’d have to say homemade pasta. In my 20s, I spent some time at the family home of one of my best mates, Tommy, in Calabria, Italy, and that’s where I first got a taste of the beauty of homemade pasta. Tommy’s parents emigrated from this beautiful place a few decades before, but his entire extended family — on both sides — still lived in Francavilla. Very soon into our stay, I knew what we were there to do: eat. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with the three generations of women cooking in there, spanning ages 20 to 80. At first, the cooks would give me small jobs, dicing onions or slicing eggplant, and eventually I graduated to making fresh pasta. There were never any recipes to read or measuring cups to gauge the proper amounts, and I still didn’t speak a lick of Italian. I just had to watch and follow their lead. I went on to perfect the art of making homemade pasta in my early restaurant life in London by rolling it every day, and my restaurants in Los Angeles today wouldn’t be complete without a pasta course.
Thinking about your own home and what makes your house a home…is the kitchen really the heart of the home?
Curtis Stone The kitchen is the heartbeat of a home — well, for those who actually use it and love to cook. I love the modern design of kitchens now; they are often open plan, which means I can be cooking and my family can be sitting on the other side of the counter lingering, or helping me cook, or just hanging out. Kitchens used to be such an isolated part of the house, but I’m glad they are the focal point for many people now. A house becomes a home when there is something delicious baking or roasting in the oven.
What are your kitchen essentials?
Curtis Stone I always have a collection of dried pulses. I love soaking my own and enjoy working out during the day what to do with them. I’m a total chocoholic, so there’s Valrhona or Lindt chocolate for eating and cooking. I collect olive oil, and I have it from all over the place – Spain, Italy, Australia, of course, and California. I’ve got a crazy amount of spices, so I put magnets on the back of jars and stick them on a big stainless steel board. I love curries, but lately I’ve been playing a lot more with spicy Mexican dishes. In my fridge, there’s always a range of good cheeses. I’ve never met a decent cheese I haven’t liked. It’s a key to being a good entertainer; you can always throw a platter together. I feel the same way about charcuterie. We’re lucky in California; we can buy raw milk, which I use to make butter. And we have eggs we get from friends’ chickens.
What’s on your kitchen wish list?
Curtis Stone Bringing it back to pasta again, I’d love to continue to grow my collection of specialized, vintage pasta tools, because we’re constantly looking for new ways to change up our pasta offering at my restaurants. An example of a pasta tool is a “chittara” (Italian for guitar) for making beautiful strands of homemade spaghetti.
You must travel so much. How often are you able to eat at home with your family? What’s mealtime typically like?
Curtis Stone My work requires extensive travel, but I always ensure there is time for my family. My boys are little, and everybody tells me how quickly they grow up, so I’m trying to hang onto their young years as best as I can! A typical mealtime for me consists of my four-year-old Hudson propped up on the kitchen countertop, helping me cook. Our favorite meal to cook together is pancakes. Yes, there is flour everywhere by the end of it, but I can think of nothing I’d rather do on a Sunday morning…except maybe sleep in. Ha!
How do you typically like to entertain at home?
Curtis Stone We keep it simple and seasonal. I have a burgeoning veggie patch and fruit trees and passionate vines at home, so I’ll look to my garden first for inspiration. Considering we have 360 days of sunshine here in L.A., we often entertain at outside. I have an outdoor wood fire oven, a Green Egg, a standard barbecue, a kettle barbie, a hotplate and a prep table outside, so I’ll cook out there and ask my family and friends to pitch in and help with the cooking. My trick is simple – pick beautiful, fresh and seasonal produce and treat it simply, and you can’t go wrong!
What’s your secret for keeping your guests entertained while you cook?
Curtis Stone Get them involved! Get them chopping, mashing, pulling something out of the oven if your hands are full. In saying that, I like to ensure most of the heavy lifting is done before my guests arrive, so I can sort of be a guest at my own party. Think chicken pot pies, slow-braised briskets or lasagna that you can assemble a day ahead and bake before guests arrive.
You’re hosting a summer barbecue…what’s on your menu?
Curtis Stone There are endless options when it comes to throwing something on the grill in the summertime – for me, it all starts with fresh summer corn brushed with some kind of compound butter. Other favorites include beef burgers, grilled veggies such as broccoli and zucchini, and even avocado! Giving the avocado a little heat and those desirable grill marks just takes this summer fruit (yes, it’s technically a fruit) to another level. I’ll grill up some fish and throw together simple fish tacos with a homemade pico de gallo. And I don’t let a summer slip by without making my outdoor grill sandwich with nectarine chutney. It’s such a treat and amazing summer comfort food.