By Krista Simmons, Special to the Los Angeles Times
October 14, 2010
The dimly lighted dining room pulses with gritty hip-hop and clanking silverware as diners eagerly await what's being constructed in a kitchen filled with tattooed chefs, steam and sharp focus. A bartender wearing blinged-out earrings swaggers over to a table to drop off a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English swaddled in a brown paper bag. Another trails closely behind with a carafe of fresh-squeezed orange juice to top off the concoction, an urban mimosa named after the Beastie Boys tune "Brass Monkey."
Welcome to Test Kitchen, where just 24 hours earlier, the same restaurant that is home to Michael Voltaggio's edgy aesthetic and modernist cuisine had been a tapas and international fusion restaurant under the helm of Walter Manzke, most recently noted for his traditional French bistro fare at Church & State. Several weeks later, former "Top Chef" contestants Betty Fraser, Alex Reznik and C.J. Jacobsen would collaborate on an "As seen on TV" -themed dinner, which ended with a warm butternut squash pie topped with bourbon ice cream and a shard of fried chicken skin.
At this temporary restaurant concept on Pico Boulevard south of Beverly Hills, the chef changes every day or two or three. Each meal brings a unique tone set by a new menu, a fresh bar staff and a different playlist. When Nancy Silverton and Amy Pressman took over the space, they created a playful meatball tasting menu set to an eclectic set of songs chosen by Pressman's son Joshua, a music editor for LAist who's been working at Test Kitchen as an expediter — mediating between the front and back of the house — since the restaurant's inception in mid-August.
Test Kitchen could be dubbed the Woodstock of L.A.'s dining scene. It's a chaotic and creative hodgepodge of big-name chefs and mixologists converging for an abbreviated stint in front of the stove or at the bar to test new concepts or simply experiment with different styles of cooking.
The building blocks for a solid restaurant have always been consistency, reliability and predictability. But today, when avid eaters visit the latest road-stove or pop-up restaurants at the drop of a tweet, Test Kitchen's fleeting concept somehow makes sense.
For those running the show, it's a bit of a logistical nightmare.
"It's like living 'Groundhog Day,'" says Brian Saltsburg, curator of Test Kitchen's pop-up program. "You have to be nuts to do this. Opening day is the worst night of any restaurant, and we do it four times a week."
Saltsburg, a virgin to the restaurant business before Test Kitchen, cooked up the concept with fellow native Angeleno and 25-year veteran restaurateur Bill Chait, who serves as the managing partner at the restaurant.
Chait worked on several local restaurant projects before capitalizing on the zeitgeist of pop-up dining. He founded Louise's Trattoria and serves as managing partner of Spark Woodfire Grill and the upcoming Picca in L.A., as well as John Sedlar's Rivera and soon-to-open Playa restaurant on Beverly Boulevard. He also will have an active role in Silverton and Pressman's Short Order, a burger stand that will open at the Original Farmer's Market this year.
The two originally sought to use the pop-up as a way to pay rent while waiting for an incoming tenant at the three-story Pico Boulevard building that also will house chef Ricardo Zarate's Picca when it opens this year. Zarate's restaurant will be located above the basement-level Test Kitchen, and the third level will house a cocktail lounge.
What started as a casual conversation between Chait and Saltsburg about finding a single chef to occupy the space evolved into a multi-month chef-apalooza.
Test Kitchen residencies never last more than a few days, so there's a definite sense of urgency for food fanatics eager to experience the restaurant. To add to the business' less-than-conventional concept, reservations often must be made online without knowing who will be preparing the meal or what will be on the plate. The night's guest chef often gets publicized via hints on Twitter, announcements on the restaurant's website or rumor posts on food blogs.
Some chefs, such as Jordan Kahn of the much-anticipated restaurant Red Medicine in Beverly Hills, look at Test Kitchen as a chance to preview future business concepts, while others see it as a playground to work free from the constraints of the cuisine they prepare on a daily basis at their respective establishments. Saltsburg says that the response from chefs wanting to give up their day off to cook unbridled cuisine at Test Kitchen has been overwhelming.
Saltsburg has organized nights in which sous chefs have been given free reign at the stoves, as well as evenings in which those who've had underground supper clubs of their own, such as Chicks With Knives and Starry Kitchen, work in the kitchen.
It's not uncommon to see a handful of local chefs sitting down for dinner at the themed evenings, sampling the tasting menus their peers have created in the challenging environment.
Most chefs carve out ample time before a restaurant opens to acclimate themselves to their new kitchen and staff. But at Test Kitchen, where a changing of the guard happens several times a week, the incoming kitchen staff will discuss strategy with the current team as it is finishing up its service. For instance, after agonizing in the makeshift kitchen upstairs prepping for Voltaggio's complex tasting menu, sous chefs Adam Cole and Cole Dickenson came down to the kitchen to discuss ways to approach service with Walter Manzke's group.
That element of collaboration extends to the bar, where beverage director Julian Cox aims to work hand in hand with the chefs. Sometimes Cox dresses to the theme of the evening (like going gangsta for Voltaggio's night, or donning a pork pie hat for Shelley Cooper's Southern dinner service). Cox's mixology program has hosted some of the city's — and country's — biggest names behind the bar and has found the experience of working with a constantly changing staff invigorating.
"We've had all these guest bartenders from all over the city, and so we have souvenirs from all over. We have [had] ice from Tar Pit, Chad Solomon's [of New York's Pegu Club and Milk and Honey] whiskey he blended himself, Eric Alperin's egg separators and mole bitters from Daniel Nelson," Cox says. "Everyone is elevating each other's work. One night we had Joel Black from the Doheny, Vincenzo Marianella from Copa d'Oro and myself all behind the bar. We're all learning from each other."
Each night before the doors open, the wait staff has to learn a new menu, and service is slippery at points. If you're looking for seamless service, this is not the place. During Manzke's last night at Test Kitchen, a couple celebrating their anniversary walked out after waiting nearly half an hour for their first course. (Joshua Pressman later explained that the dicey service that night was due to a dry-erase board expediting system gone awry.)
The energy is frenetic, which can sometimes be a challenge for diners. It's a constant evolution: a cocktail of chaos, excitement and experimentation.
"The most amazing part of all of this is to see how different chefs deal with problems," says Zarate, who has also been expediting at Test Kitchen. "All my staff [who will continue working with him upstairs at Picca] will be so powerful because of this.… They'll probably get bored if I don't change the menu all the time. That gives me more creative freedom."
Just like any epic festival, Test Kitchen eventually has to come to an end — and it probably will in late November or early December. There are countless acts to see before the curtain falls, though: On Oct. 21 to 23, Steve Samson and Zach Pollack from Pizzeria Ortica will pay a visit; On Oct. 31, Michelin-starred San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn will pop-up; from Oct. 27 to 30, Bricia Lopez will organize a series of dinners with chefs of Chichen Itza and La Casita Mexicana in honor of the Mexican bicentennial; and in the first two weeks of November, Alain Giraud will preview his new restaurant concept and Gary Menes, usually inclined to cooking with offal, will be doing a vegetarian dinner service.
"It's a very revolutionary idea to have this permanent pop-up restaurant that's sort of a contradiction in itself," Pressman says of Test Kitchen. "Everything is precariously teetering on this very brittle branch, but we are constantly trying to move forward and improve every night. It's a great experience."
Test Kitchen, 9575 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., 90035; (310) 277-0136; testkitchenla.com
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