In a city with such ethnic diversity as Los Angeles, Angelenos are somewhat spoiled with their access to a melting pot of cultures, traditions and cuisines. Yet for chefs who relocate from their home countries to work in LA, they often face a number of obstacles in their attempts to preserve tradition, such as contending with diners unfamiliar with their culinary styles or finding it difficult to access certain ingredients crucial to their dishes. As such, for many chefs, maintaining authenticity when cooking the cuisines of their homelands is not an easy task.
Here, three expat LA chefs discuss the challenges they have overcome in bringing their authentic, ethnic cuisine straight to diners’ plates.
At Downtown Los Angeles’ Chichen Itza, owner Gilberto Cetina had always dreamt of owning a restaurant ever since helping his mother at her own restaurant in Mexico. Opening his Yucatan eatery along with his son, Gilberto Cetina Jr, the father and son team quickly became local favorites in the LA culinary scene, earning a continuous place on Jonathan Gold’s Top 101 Restaurants for their authentic, regional cuisine.
“I am very proud of my Yucatan roots,” said Cetina Sr. “That’s why I opened the restaurant. I wanted to show everyone the wonderful things Yucatan has to offer.”
“Our menu is classic dishes of Yucateca cuisine,” furthered Cetina Jr. “[We] wanted to keep the dishes as close to original as possible.”
Yet despite the desire for complete authenticity, “LA is very different from the Yucatan,” said Cetina Sr.
As such, Chichen Itza faced a lack of ingredients early on, but “over the years, we’ve gotten farmers to grow [ingredients] for us and now we have an abundance,” explained Cetina Sr.
The father and son team recounted one story in which they managed to acquire ingredients straight from their homeland. Finding no local chaya available, the Cetinas began bringing in sticks of the plant straight from the Yucatan. The duo then gave out the cuttings to their customers, who all began to grow them, and now, all of the chaya used in Chichen Itza come from these originally smuggled cuttings.
Having adapted to their new home, the father and son team still prize authenticity above all else in their restaurant.
“We make everything the same way, but we help ourselves with the technology we found here” says Cetina Sr.
Owned by Angie Corrente and Stan Mayzalis, local South Bay favorite Doma Kitchen has been delighting locals since 2013. Closing their café style eatery in September of 2014, Doma Kitchen made its triumphant return this summer, opening the doors to their new location in an entirely remodeled space, offering tableside service, dinner hours, a revamped menu and an international inspired wine and beer program.
Doma Kitchen’s chef Kristina Miksyte came to the United States originally from Lithuania in 2005. Coming from a long line of cooks and bakers, Miksyte began working in kitchens as a small child, working alongside her grandmother. Deciding to pursue cooking as a career, Miksyte achieved her Bachelor’s Degree from the Lithuanian Culinary of Arts Institute before relocating to Los Angeles.
“When I just started working in America, I noticed that many restaurants do not cook from scratch and use canned and/or pre-made ingredients. It was very strange and not acceptable for me,” she explained.
Partnering up with Corrente and Mayzalis, the trio opened Doma Kitchen to serve fresh, soulful cuisine inspired by the team’s international travels. Featuring a wide array of international, European and Asian inspired dishes that both shocked and delighted diners’ palates, Doma has found a home in the small town, South Bay community of Manhattan Beach. Yet despite the restaurant’s culinary success, serving up such a variety of authentic, internationally inspired dishes was not always an easy journey.
“I cook from scratch using the freshest, local ingredients I can find.” Says Miksyte. Yet “some ingredients are not available in the States, like many fresh herbs and vegetables that I was used [to] in my country.”
In addition, the ingredients she could find were not always identical. “Salt is less salty and sugar less sweet. I have [had to] adjust many of my recipes. Same goes for the flour I use for baking.”
Once Miksyte was able to track down the ingredients she needed, the next step was convincing local diners to step outside of their comfort zone and try dishes they are not accustomed to. “I was a bit surprised that American consumers are a bit cautious to try [unfamiliar] dishes,” she explained.
“However, once they do try them, they are hooked.”
At fellow South Bay restaurant A Basq Kitchen, Chef Bernard Ibarra got his culinary start working at Les Pyrenees restaurant in the French side of Basque Country while still in cooking school. He moved to the United States in 1985 when he accepted a position as Executive Sous Chef at a hotel opening in Key West, Florida. Ibarra opened his Redondo Beach eatery A Basq Kitchen on the Redondo Beach Pier earlier this year, where he serves up traditional Basque cuisine.
“Pintxos/tapas is a Basque bar food concept,” explains Ibarra. “It is different from Basque food usually served family style in restaurants found in Bakersfield, Chino, etc…where the Basque culture has been part of the history of these towns.”
Yet despite the added burden of introducing his unique concept to unacquainted locals, visitors have been incredibly receptive to the concept.
“People have been welcoming us as a positive addition to South Bay’s restaurant landscape,” says Ibarra. “Guests are very receptive, even willing to try dishes not often found on menus [such as] tripe, beef tongue, oxtail, squid in its own ink. I believe more people are excited about trying new flavors, textures, exposing themselves to new smells…because of that, I have not had to modify any recipes.”
So how does the transplant chef maintain his dishes’ sense of authenticity while so far removed from his home country?
“By not only cooking [and] following recipes, but by making sure each Basque dish we serve is telling a story that [is] deep-rooted in the Motherland.”