DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES — On a recent Tuesday morning, David Nayfeld stood in the middle of the bright, open kitchen at Fifty Seven, the Arts District’s newest restaurant. As he quickly but carefully peeled a quartet of chubby carrots for the evening’s dinner, he expounded on the right and wrong way to perform specific culinary tasks.
“Yeah, there’s a right way to peel carrots, too,” Nayfeld said.
It may sound like a stretch — who hasn’t cleaned a carrot? — but to the 30-year-old chef, it’s all part of achieving the highest culinary standard possible.
The cooks milling around him, he pointed out, have worked at some of the country’s most prestigious restaurants, places like The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Chicago’s Alinea and Eleven Madison Park in New York City. The latter is the three-Michelin starred establishment where Nayfeld most recently served as senior sous-chef.
Yet while he is now running a kitchen himself, Nayfeld doesn’t plan to build his own legacy at Fifty Seven. In fact, he won’t even be in the kitchen in as little as three months. The team he is currently training will remain, as will his organizational standards, but a brand-new leader will bring his or her own menu and take Nayfeld’s place.
In other words, just when diners get comfortable, the rug, or more precisely the plate, will be pulled out from under them.
That is the big conceit of Fifty Seven, which opened in late March under the ownership of hospitality group Cardiff Giant. Company head Beau Laughlin hopes to attract diners by rotating the best and brightest young chefs in and out of the restaurant, and he’s relying on his team to scout the right people for the job.
“We wanted to make a concept that would become a destination for people around L.A. and the country,” Laughlin said.
He adds that Fifty Seven isn’t meant to be an “occasional” restaurant. In that vein, there are two sides of the menu: a prix-fixe three-course meal for $48, and a more casual shared plates menu with 10 items that will more or less remain after Nayfeld departs. The menu will see other a la carte additions in the future, Laughlin said.
The restaurant sports a versatile dining area, fashioned out of a former loading dock of the Heinz ketchup company — hence the moniker. The rustic room eschews white tablecloths for swaths of cracked concrete, brick, honey-blond wood and glimmering copper. Down a flight of stairs is a dark, moody lounge with a full bar; on weekends, live music swells from the intimate room.
“I love the buildings, the community, the architecture,” Laughlin said. “On the Westside I often have to re-create charm to give a sense of history where there isn’t [any]. But in the Arts District, you can feel it everywhere.”
On the Plate
Laughlin had been pondering the rotating-chefs concept for some time, though development on Fifty Seven didn’t begin until late 2012. Around the time construction was starting, Laughlin met Nayfeld. The chef, an Oakland native, had moved to Los Angeles after traveling and cooking through Europe and reached out looking for a project. They met for several informal meetings (“We got hammered a couple times,” Nayfeld admits) before delving into the specifics of Fifty Seven.
Nayfeld acknowledges feeling some trepidation with the concept of having a new chef and menu several times a year. But he and Laughlin shared similar visions for the restaurant and its service. Though Nayfeld had hoped (and still aims) to open his own restaurant, he felt inspired by the freedom given to him to design the kitchen, mold front-of-house service and collaborate on the bar program.
“It’s easy to open a restaurant on other people’s terms,” Nayfeld said. “But this was a chance to leave my mark on what could be an institution.”
The food at Fifty Seven is fittingly refined and gorgeous on the plate, which is not surprising considering that Nayfield worked under Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park and Joel Robuchon at his eponymous restaurant in Las Vegas. Still, the chef proudly refers to the menu as “farm cooking,” with flavors that harken to traditional tastes rather than experimental ones. Or, as Nayfeld puts it, “a beautiful pork chop with spaetzle and beets is not rocket science.”
Perhaps, but that doesn’t preclude the kitchen’s habit of giving classic ingredients a playful edge.
A take on liver and onions transforms veal liver into a silky-smooth mousse, enlivened with touches of a Nebbiolo wine gel, a rustic onion jam and nuggets of picked pearl onions. Octopus, seared with a pistachio crust, arrives over a wash of frothy bouillabaisse sauce and gem-like smoked potatoes. Even a simple snack of cheese and crudité takes on a new flair: Nayfeld aerates La Tur cheese so that it’s lighter than whipped cream, then serves it with slivers of crisp apple and radicchio to anchor the young cheese’s heady funk.
Laughlin won’t reveal who the next chef might be, though he says the cooking at Fifty Seven will continue to fall under the umbrella of “New American” dining. In any case, the temporary approach flies in the face of conventional restaurant wisdom, with most establishments taking pride in giving diners consistency in vision and cooking. Maintaining stability is considered a key to financial success.
L.A. Weekly food critic Besha Rodell says that Fifty Seven could become a pioneering restaurant, but that it’s taking on a risk by staying unpredictable.
“A new chef every few months has the potential to keep people engaged and wanting to come back. I think it will hinge more on infrastructure and the type of talent they’re able to attract,” she wrote in an email. “I’m just not sure the logistics of the thing are sustainable with a new leader every few months.”
Despite the challenges, Laughlin and Nayfeld hope that the restaurant will become a place for talented chefs to grow their philosophies and have a chance to shine before tackling their own projects.
“I hope some great chefs will one day ask each other, ‘Hey, were you at Fifty Seven in 2014?’ or whatever,” Nayfeld said. “This place could be an amazing launching point for so many careers.”
It may be a situation of that old adage, “Time will tell.” Then, once the next chef comes in, time will tell again.
Fifty Seven is at 712 S. Santa Fe Ave., (213) 816-8157 or fiftysevenla.com.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014