LOS ANGELES—Back in the day, Venice Beach was quite a scene—especially after nightfall on the first Friday of each month, when galleries handed out free cups of booze like so many business cards. There wasn’t a sober person within miles.
Life was lawless back then—like international waters but with better live music.
These days the scene has morphed into a monthly food truck frenzy. So it’s a good thing chef Jacques Gautier showed up hungry.
Gautier, who owns pan-Latin Palo Santo and Fort Reno BBQ in Park Slope, was in California to scout wineries. He’d already hit San Francisco and Santa Barbara and was concluding a Cali swing with his family in L.A.
Thanks to a super-talented Trinidadian sous-chef who literally helped build Palo Santo in 2004, the easygoing, flip-flop-sporting Gautier has the freedom to travel to California a few times a year and spend time with his partner, their baby and her Westwood-based family. This was his inaugural First Friday, and he was eager to explore—but not to crib ideas.
“The kind of traveling I do for inspiration, for cooking, is more going to markets,” says Gautier. “I don’t like to look for inspiration just from what other chefs are doing and cannibalize. I want to know dishes at their most essential place.” On a night like this, “instead of analyzing everything, I just like to fucking enjoy myself.”
Which is exactly what everyone else is here to do, too. After nightfall on First Fridays in Venice, fashionable Venetians storm Abbot Kinney Boulevard to mob restaurants, bars, boutiques and food trucks as the breeze blows in off the ocean.
First stop: Local 1205, where Gautier orders a Mason jar of cold-pressed juice from a to-go window. The “Lush Meadow” contains fresh turmeric root, which stains the drink yellow and reminds Gautier of Indian spice shops on Manhattan’s Curry Hill, like Kalustyan’s.
Gjelina is known for a two-hour wait, but at Gjelina Take Away, Gautier’s pizza, adorned with bacon and bitter greens, comes out quickly. As we tear into it perched on crates in an adjacent alley, Gautier, who was sous-chef at Williamsburg’s Brick Oven Gallery before opening Palo Santo, declares this pie one of the best he’s had in L.A. The alley ambience also makes an impression on him: “The chef’s table is over near the garbage can,” he jokes.
Gautier cooks Latin food for a living, so it can take a week before he wants that cuisine on the road. Eventually, he’s happy to enjoy a tamale or taco—which he’s craving right now.
The line at the Kogi truck is too long, so he opts for Border Grill Truck. The women behind it have been making Latin food in L.A. for about three decades, and he honors the matriarchs by ordering a mahimahi ceviche cone and quinoa-crusted deep-fried avocado taco, which he declares “pretty wild.” He likes the ceviche, but prefers the classic Peruvian version with sweet potato, choclo and fresh summer cilantro, “so it’s almost like a salad.”
At Coolhaus, a silver-and-pink truck offering architecturally inspired ice cream sandwiches, Gautier considers the “Skyscraper,” a $20 tower that can feed four and could very well house its own observation deck. Instead he opts for “Chicken & Waffle” ice cream—which contains actual chicken skin—sandwiched between two snickerdoodles.
We wash it all down with cocktails at Joe’s, where Gautier orders a “What Happened in Oaxaca.” Of course there’s mezcal in there, along with Chartreuse, lime and a chile salt rim—a combination that makes Gautier feel right at home, 3,000 miles from Brooklyn.
Taking the long view of the fleet of trucks flanking both sides of the street, Gautier marvels at their resourcefulness and fortitude.
“I don’t know if I could ever do it,” says the chef, who prefers cooking on stoves that you don’t have to drive around. “Look at these tiny little kitchens. You’ve got to admire these guys, what they’re banging out. They’ve got to worry if their generator’s running and if their water tank is full.”
But tonight, this chef doesn’t have to worry about any of that. After all, he’s on vacation.
Photo credit: Drew Clayton