For some chefs, inviting colleagues from other restaurants is about camaraderie and community building. For others, it’s offering something new to the guests. All agree it’s a great marketing tool to drum up business on slower nights.
— Lesley Balla
When Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo were looking to celebrate 10 years at their groundbreaking Animal restaurant in Los Angeles, they thought about hosting a series of one-off guest chef nights throughout 2018 and 2019. They wanted to make it extra special, and looked to friends, mentors and chefs who’ve inspired them along the way, including idols like Thomas Keller. When they asked Keller, to their surprise, the renowned French Laundry chef said yes.
If it’s like most of the guest chef nights the duo have hosted over the years, reservations for the November 7 event will book within minutes. The evening is sure to be a win-win for all: Animal will get a boost from selling out at least two turns; front-of-house staff gets exposure to The French Laundry menu; the kitchen learns from one of the best chefs in the world; and guests get a chance to eat Keller’s cooking without the hefty TFL price tag.
Keller himself gets to play the mentor role he does so well, and he gets to cook in L.A. again after closing Bouchon Beverly Hills in 2017. This being Animal, chances are, he and his staff will probably have a bit of fun along the way, too.
That’s the balance of benefit when it comes to guest chef nights, which are on the rise across the country. Restaurants now regularly host visiting chefs for a variety of reasons — book tours, testing the waters for upcoming concepts, product launches, exposure to a new market or neighborhood. The hope is that these one-offs boost sales for the restaurant while creating more exposure for all involved.
For Shook and Dotolo, the anniversary events will bring some huge out-of-town names to Animal — Matty Matheson, Christopher Kostow, Michelle Bernstein, Tom Colicchio, Danny Bowien — which will surely increase sales on an otherwise slow night. And with the restaurant covering all the food and staffing costs for the night, that’s important. But it’s not the only goal.
“It’s a way to get news out about the anniversary, but I think these dinners benefit the staff most,” Shook said. “We wanted Keller here because both Vinny and I will learn from that, but so will our cooks. He wants our chef de cuisine to work at the Laundry beforehand so he can see how they operate. That’s huge for him. Our turnover will be less this year because the cooks are all so psyched to work with all of the guest chefs.”
For chef Kevin Meehan, inviting chefs from different Los Angeles restaurants for one night is about changing things up while building community. LA is so large, chefs don’t get out and about after their restaurants close as much as in other cities. And most independent operators have little time to socialize outside of work and family. By inviting chefs from other local restaurants to cook for one night at his restaurant, Kali, Meehan not only gets to see some of his peers, he can offer a special menu for guests. With cross-promotion from all the participants, it’s extra exposure for everyone involved.
“We get both Kali regulars and fans of the visiting chefs,” Meehan added. “And it’s great that we can capture a new audience via other sources other than our own.”
Meehan and co-owner Drew Langley plan Kali’s monthly gatherings every quarter. It’s usually a collection of local stars like Bruce Kalman, Neal Fraser, Timothy Hollingsworth and Nyesha Arrington. One night he cooked with three other alumni from LA’s former grande dame of haute cuisine, L’Orangerie, including Ludo Lefebvre. There’s never a theme per se, just a “vast group of chefs willing to participate,” said Meehan.
Kali’s gatherings often include anywhere from two to four visiting chefs for the monthly events, so it takes some planning for the $95 prix fixe menu. With everyone so busy, Meehan tries to streamline communication and keep it as easy for the guest chefs as possible. “I kind of like the randomness,” he added. “It breaks up the monotony of our daily Kali day. My hope is that each one leaves feeling like they at least had fun.”
Guest chef collabs don’t have to be indulgent prix fixe affairs. At Santa Monica’s Esters Wine Shop & Bar, having local stars like Nancy Silverton create a burger for one night has been incredibly successful from a sales perspective. Capitalizing on an already popular weekly special by adding a well-known name to the roster almost always means a total sell-out, says Kathryn Coker, who along with husband Tug and Rustic Canyon Family’s Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb, co-own the spot.
“For us, it’s not just a restaurant, it’s not a bar,” said Coker. “My husband calls it a clubhouse. A lot of regulars come for drinks, snacks, special events. This seemed like a fun thing to add to the mix.”
That’s how the guest burger night got started. One regular, local chef Michael Fiorelli from Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach, asked if he could make his burger one night. For fun, they all agreed, and it was a hit. After that, Coker and crew started inviting other chefs to do the same: Jessica Largey, who will open her own restaurant in L.A. this year, the NoMad crew before they opened in downtown Los Angeles, and Wolvesmouth’s Craig Thornton. Sometimes, the ideas come to you: running into another chef at the farmers market. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a text to the chef directly. If the guest chef has a huge social media following, it obviously brings in a larger and often new audience.
“They use their social media, we put it on ours, and tons of people come in,” Coker says. “It definitely makes an impact. If the chef publicizes it, it brings in new people who haven’t been to Esters before. From our mailing list, it introduces a new chef to them.”
Doing a burger in Esters’ tiny kitchen, one with a small flat-top grill, presents challenges, but by limiting the hours and amount of burgers offered a night, it’s doable. For the most part, the burgers sell out early, which means a potential rush of customers in the beginning of the night. In the end, it’s again as much about filling the space as having fun.
“We don’t want it to be like work for the visiting chefs,” Coker added. “It’s an intimate space. It’s a burger, not a five-course dinner. From the feedback we’ve gotten, it’s been one of the least stressful guest chef experiences.”
By hosting on a slower night, like a Tuesday, the guest burger nights tend to generate more sales for Esters, both in food and beverage. While some diners show up just for the burger, others order extra items from the regular menu, including beverages.
“So far we haven’t lost money on this, and it’s never backfired,” Coker said. “I mean, bad would have to be really, really bad. Or the person just doesn’t show up. Thankfully, that has not happened.”
While the hope is that a chef cooking in a different restaurant for a pop-up or event, whether in a new city or their own, will go off without a hitch, there can be downsides, like not having your own staff, equipment or usual ingredients. Plus, there’s a cost to travel, and a responsibility to home staff to keep things running in their absence. Like anything, there are pros and cons, said Jon Shook.
“When we’re traveling to do dinners somewhere else, we’re usually doing it for exposure,” he adds. “We don’t make any money off of these things, but sometimes we get press, which can generate new business and give the restaurant a boost.”
Lesley Balla is a food, drink and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in regional, national, and online publications including Angeleno, Zagat.com, The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly, Eater, Tasting Table and many more. When she’s not discovering the best eats around town, you can find her walking and hiking with her husband somewhere in the San Gabriel mountains, eating oysters and picking berries in the Pacific Northwest, and strolling whatever farmers market is nearby. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @LesleyLA.