Gwen is indeed staggeringly ambitious. Pink marble tables, personalized stemware, and a trove of cutlery that would make Jim Bowie feel inadequate are all stacking up in the heart of Hollywood. Meanwhile the adjacent full-scale butcher shop prepares for an onslaught of whole beasts. The specifics of Stone’s operation seem to defy sensible operating cost benchmarks. To a casual observer, there are too many employees, way too many square feet of rent, and it's all hinged on a level of fine dining that doesn't have a proven track record for success in Los Angeles.
The most impressive thing, though — or alarming, depending on how you look at it — is that there are no investors. This is coming together with more than three million dollars in private money. The restaurant’s only other owner is Stone’s brother, Luke.
Stone would like you to know that no, actually, Oprah did not make his career
But Curtis Stone is not a normal fine dining chef. Parts of his bio fit the bill, to be sure. He trained in elite kitchens and runs a tiny, celebrated, ambitious restaurant called Maude in Beverly Hills. He has also been featured on Oprah. The dreamy, genial Australian is a lifestyle brand, and that brand is big business. He has a recipe partnership with the Australian supermarket chain Coles, which does $33 billion in annual revenue. Then there’s his line of cookware with the Home Shopping Network, a half-dozen cookbooks, and deals with Target stores in Australia and Princess cruise ships. His fame, and his money, give him the unusual luxury of making Gwen an actual passion project. So yes, chef, some might say you’re crazy: you have one successful restaurant, a lucrative career as a television personality, a wife and two young kids, and you’re putting a massive chunk of change on the line to open one of the most ambitious and expensive new restaurants Hollywood has seen in years. Why, as the saying goes, is this man smiling?
Because it’s Curtis Stone, that’s why. You know, the chef who used to casually run into modelesque women in the local Safeway and offers to cook them dinner. And he’s got a very specific plan to change fine dining in Los Angeles.
For starters, Stone would like you to know that no, actually, Oprah did not make his career. That while he’s been lucky, he didn’t simply "get lucky," thank you very much. And most importantly: Maybe, just maybe, Gwen can serve as the right lure to bring Michelin inspectors back. You see, a Michelin nod is universally considered the benchmark in fine dining. And the famous French institution notably forsook Los Angeles in 2009, pulling its hallowed burgundy guides entirely from the city. Stone wants the Michelin guide to return to Los Angeles, and he might just be the man to do it.
Now that his first Los Angeles restaurant Maude has already begun to turn critical heads on a national scale, Stone feels that he is primed for the next step. Enter Gwen’s spacious, elegant new digs, enveloping a more classic style of restaurant than the ephemeral Maude — with its constantly pivoting menu — ever aspired to be. The Take Home Chef is making an appeal — if not an outright demand — to bring Michelin back.
"I want it here," Stone says. "I think we deserve it. I mean, how can you not rate the city? In some ways it’s liberating, but we’re as dialed in as any other restaurant and I think it’s worth a look."
Therein lies a rather interesting conflict: being free of Michelin has given Los Angeles chefs the freedom to experiment without worrying about the stringent critical eye of the Guide’s notably old-guard anonymous inspectors. Chefs like Suzanne Goin (Lucques), Nancy Silverton (Mozza) and Michael Cimarusti (Providence) were putting Los Angeles on the national food map long before Michelin's arrival, and have continued to do so after it left.
Talking heads in the food world have opinions on the dubious need for Michelin too. In a 2012 piece for Vanity Fair, UK critic A.A. Gill likened chef's hunger for the accolade to the dispensable "love and the approbation of a stern parent." In response to Gill’s article, LA Weekly critic Besha Rodell asked of Michelin "Is there any benefit to the public?" Then concluded, "perhaps this is one mark of approval we simply don't need."
"As a young cook in Europe...you didn't really care about anything other than the Michelin guide"
Some chefs, though, have a different take: Michael Voltaggio of Ink, another forward-thinking restaurant in Los Angeles, certainly seems to think Michelin belongs here. And though some chefs have thrived in the absence of Michelin, many like Stone — who cut his teeth in the Michelin-starred The Grill Room at Café Royal under Marco Pierre White — feel slightly unmoored by its absence. "It's bizarre, because it exists — just not here. As a young cook in Europe, you're either working at a one-star, a two-star, or a three-star, or you might as well not cook. It was the only thing we were judged by. You didn't really care about anything other than the Michelin guide."
Los Angeles, though, has never had the fine dining restaurants of New York or Paris, cities that Michelin has favored in the past — nor will it ever, probably. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the car culture, or even our lack of tech billionaires, but destination dining doesn’t play as strongly in the City of Angels. Your average three-Michelin-star New York City tasting menu just wouldn't fly here. The collective attitude seems to be: why drop $300 on dinner when you can eat the best Chinese, Korean, Thai, or Mexican meal of your life twenty times over in the comfort of your board shorts?
So why is Stone, an affable and incredibly successful television personality and business man, jumping into this Michelin mess? To understand the answer, it's helpful to know more about just who Curtis Stone is. Early on, he worked for the mercurial chef Marco Pierre White in London, eventually becoming head chef of London mainstay Quo Vadis. But when his looks and affable manner made him the target of television producers, fame came, and quickly.
"Do I want to go down in history as the Take Home Chef? Probably not, if I'm being honest"
By 2003, he had quit his job under White after he was approached by an Australian production company to do a righteously dude-errific local show called Surfing the Menu. After a birthday party in Las Vegas in 2006, he took a side-trip to Los Angeles to shoot a pilot of a TLC show called Take Home Chef. He ended up doing more than 80 episodes, and has been in America ever since. Dozens of shows and guest appearances later — including Top Chef Masters, The Chew, The Talk, and Rachael Ray — Stone is a comfortable, wealthy guy who could be operating on automatic pilot for many more years.
Then why open a restaurant? Stone cites his kids in a way that’s so earnest it’s tough to call him out for being trite (he has a way of doing this). "When you have kids you hit a little bit of a different place. How do I want to be remembered? Do I want to go down in history as the Take Home Chef? Probably not, if I’m being honest."
Stone is a careful speaker, a product of years in the media, and doesn’t divulge too much. He’s measured when he talks about what drives him. But when I push, he acknowledges the lack of respect he’s faced as a "celebrity" chef. "I think…there’s always a part of you that has a chip on your shoulder; some insecurity in all of us. When I first started in the media, a lot of the guys weren’t trained chefs; they were TV guys. I’d have people ask me, ‘So you’re the Take Home Chef and you’re actually a chef?’ And I found it funny."
That surprised reaction exists even among peers, and as recently as when Stone opened his first restaurant. "It happened when I opened Maude. You’re not taken seriously." And he adds, "To be fair, no one knew who I was or where I had worked."
If it’s legacy he’s after, Stone is beginning to build himself quite an empire. He’s showing me around his Beverly Hills house and introducing me to his staff — the house’s proximity to Maude made it a natural base of operations. The rooms are all tasteful and muted, like a Pottery Barn sample sale: wood accents, quilted throw pillows, little mugs with flowers on them, circular wall mirrors. In the test kitchen, Thanksgiving recipes are being prepped for the months ahead for his supermarket partnership.
His chefs at Gwen, meanwhile, are in their whites, hard at work in the backyard roasting a pig in an ersatz outdoor prep kitchen. There are at least a dozen people in the house. It’s an impressive operation. I think, He has a single 24-seat restaurant: why does he need this many people working for him, as well as a test kitchen?
"It can just be a burger; something you bite into and you're just like, fuck, that's so good. Can you always do that on a little plate with a swoosh?"
Stone cites another driving force for him: the inherent challenge of putting the customer first while maintaining a highly curated experience. "Whether it’s how a menu is put together or how the service is executed," Stone wants to break the mold — blow the dust off of the fine china and bone-handled steak knives to make an elegant eating experience more egalitarian. "Look at Alinea," he says. "They break all the rules in some ways." Alinea though, which charges $385 for their "kitchen table" menu, isn’t exactly affordable to all. "I think it has to be accessible."
Gwen is not just "guys standing around with their tweezers," as Stone puts it. The goal is to add that final component, that missing x-factor that will finally give Los Angeles a fine dining culture to call its own. What is that, exactly? "To me, it’s deliciousness," Stone says. Such a chef-y answer, I think. But to hear him explain further, it’s clear that Stone’s idea of deliciousness is more about bucking expected fine dining mores on his plates: "If you’re doing a 20-course tasting menu, how do you serve roast suckling pig? Or fantastic ribs? Or it can just be a burger; something you bite into and you’re just like, fuck, that’s so good. Can you always do that on a little plate with a swoosh and a this and a that?"
This is where Gwen’s adjacent butcher shop comes in. Starting with high quality ingredients and treating them simply has always been a hallmark of California cooking. But according to Stone, that’s an honor extended primarily to produce in these parts — not always to meat. "I’ve never found great protein here," he said. "You can get great beef, you can get good pork. But that’s it. You can’t get good game, you can’t get good veal. The lamb is all right. You can get chicken but there’s no other poultry, like guinea hen." He cites McCall’s and the defunct Lindy & Grundy’s as exceptions, but says other than that, "There’s never been a world-class butcher in L.A." So Stone seems hell-bent on changing that too.
Now back to the Beverly Hills compound and all those cooks in the kitchen. There’s a pig that’s been roasting in the yard: a couple of the guys lift it off the fire. Stone butchers it and everyone digs in, crunching on the skin and licking pig fat off of their fingers. I listen as the team starts discussing how to work a pig, roasted whole over a fire, into the tasting menu. Timing it with the different seatings is what seems to be the trickiest part. Everyone has an opinion. "The way we’ve done our menus has always been a collaboration," Stone tells me. "What’s important to me is put together an incredible team and make them your family. And once you’ve established a culture, do something different." And perhaps, maybe, garner some accolades in the process?
"My guys are losing four or five pounds a week working on that grill. My wife is like, ‘What is wrong with you? Why would you do this to yourself or anyone else?"
Stone asserts that with Gwen’s service team — led by his brother Luke, Director of Operations Ben Aviram (Alinea), and Assistant General Manager David Mikula (Lincoln Ristorante) — "We’ve put two-star Michelin service into a new building." In the kitchen, there is Juan Rendon (Victoria & Albert’s) and Gareth Evans (Per Se) "who’s worked in starred restaurants his whole life. Well, except Maude, because we couldn’t get reviewed," he laughs. Shifting back to the kitchen, the overall tone among the chefs has an evenness to it — all occasionally tempered with "yes, chef" bluntness.
When I ask Stone why he’s adapting such a collaborative nature — and I simultaneously realize that repeatedly asking "Why are you doing this?" to a man who’s just opened a restaurant and is working 16-hour days is probably not the smartest thing — Stone says firmly, "Look, I think you’re either born with it, or you’re not. And I don’t mean the talent of being a chef. I mean the love and desire to work this way or not. My guys are losing four or five pounds a week working on that grill. My wife is like, ‘What is wrong with you? Why would you do this to yourself or anyone else?’ But when you don’t do it, you start to miss it. The other night I’m out with Richie [one of Stone’s cooks] and it’s 1 a.m. and we’ve been going non-stop since 10 a.m. and he’s like, 'God, there’s just so fucking much to do. But it’s so fucking fun.'"
Fast forward one month to week one of Gwen's existence. I wanted to go in for dinner unannounced, so I forked up the full $190 for a party of two by purchasing tickets through their Tock system. With a restaurant that's so young, I wasn't preparing for a full-on critical analysis of the food. But curiosity was burning: I wanted to see what all of my talks with Stone had amounted to.
On the night I dined, the enormous wood-burning fire pit that serves as the centerpiece of the restaurant’s open kitchen hadn’t quite found its purpose yet: Stone said the industrial hoods are so powerful that they cause fire to burn much hotter than he had expected. The whole pigs, thus, did not make an appearance. The wines were excellent and the cocktail program, run by Mitchel Bushell, was spot-on. Some of the small bites, like a vinegary eggplant caponata, could have been better. Others, like a sardine seared directly on a glowing log, were incredibly good.
Stone’s beloved team hummed along nicely. But where was this "deliciousness" factor that he’d referred to with such fervor — that missing egalitarian dimension of the fine dining experience Stone hopes to capture and put on a plate?
I got a glimpse of it in a slice of Blackmore Wagyu beef filet. Cooked perfectly medium-rare, it practically fell apart in my mouth as the beef fat spread across my tongue. The broiler-imparted char gave an initial pleasing salty, carbonized bite; it soon gave way to the earthy, slightly bloody tang of properly aged beef. It was very good, and the accompanying pickled artichokes were a fine contrast to the rich meat.
That fuck-that’s-so-good deliciousness Stone described? I can’t speak for the long-term spoils from Stone’s avant garde butcher program, or whether the collaborative nature of his kitchen will continue to thrive. But if Michelin is after something really fucking delicious? Gwen is tapping into it.
Edited by Carolyn Alburger and Matthew Kang
Special thanks to Meghan McCarron
Photos by Liz Barclay