When a one-year build-out turns into two or even three, chefs and restaurateurs have plenty to do to stay busy, but they also need to keep the momentum and buzz going before its debut. Here’s how chef Jessica Largey stayed focused on getting Simone opened in L.A.
— Lesley Balla
There was a huge media push in 2016 for Jessica Largey’s first solo restaurant, Simone. The former and award-winning Manresa chef de cuisine was coming to the red-hot Arts District in downtown Los Angeles, huge news as more and more out-of-town chefs announced their desire to be in what was becoming one of the buzziest food cities in the country.
Only it didn’t open that year, nor the year after. Simone finally debuted in fall 2018 with a celebrity-studded opening party and sturdy footing.
Delays are common for restaurant openings, especially in L.A. where bureaucratic red tape is thicker than most cities. Depending on the space, there’s demolition and permitting, design hurdles, inspections that stretch for weeks and months, all the while rent, architects, construction crews and opening teams are being paid.
Before Largey left Manresa, she was a young chef on the rise. During her six years at David Kinch’s Los Gatos restaurant, accolades were in abundance from Zagat to Eater to the San Francisco Chronicle, and she won a James Beard Award in 2015. Soon after, she decided to take a beat to gather her thoughts and figure out her next steps as a chef.
That’s when film producer and director Joe Russo came along. He and a few partners wanted to open a restaurant, they wanted Largey to lead the kitchen, and they convinced the chef to come back to L.A. where she got her start at Providence and Bastide before embarking on a career in the Bay Area. If all went according to plan, Simone would debut in late 2016 or early 2017.
“When I was last in L.A., I didn’t understand why people would want to go all the way down to the Arts District,” Largey recalled. “But the neighborhood had changed so much in seven years. It was exciting to get to know it and the city as a whole again.”
The new partners were fine with the chef taking her pre-planned time off to travel, eat and cook. When she was ready to get back to work, Largey did a five-month residency in Chicago to see where she stood from a creative and business standpoint. By the middle of 2016, she was back in L.A. to help plan Simone’s overall vision, from design and concept, to team building and menu ideas.
“To have that much time to learn how I like to eat, what kind of food I want to cook, and what kind of voice I’d have in the industry was a blessing,” she said. “I got to test myself and see where I was creatively, how my leadership had changed. But there were times when it was frustrating because all I wanted was to have this creative space in the kitchen, and we just had to watch it being built but couldn’t cook there.”
That didn’t mean she wasn’t busy experimenting and building her menu. Largey brought on her core kitchen management staff in late 2016 for a 2017 opening, which was helpful since two of her chefs came from New York, and she wanted them to get acquainted with California produce and ingredients, to meet the farmers and purveyors, and to see how and what L.A. eats.
As a unit, they collaborated on creative direction of the kitchen, from the menu to what smallwares and plates they planned to use. Construction delays once again moved the opening date to early 2018, and then the to summer, and then the fall.
“We didn’t intentionally bring on people two years before we opened. But it does make a difference,” Largey said. “The partners were super committed letting us create the operation that we wanted to have. For my team, we did tasting events together, cooked together. It really helped us bond, to get to know each other in a different way, to create the culture of the kitchen that we all wanted. Everyone has been so committed, we didn’t lose anyone along the way, which is pretty awesome.”
In addition to collaboration dinners with high-profile chefs, and making sure Simone was represented at large culinary events, Largey and her team cooked test dinners for Russo, other investors and friends. There were wine pairings and menu creation for Duello, the restaurant’s 25-seat bar, with the beverage team led by Iain McPherson. With her ultra-seasonal approach, the chef said she created at least a dozen opening menus over those two years.
“That was the fun part,” she adds. “I knew all of those ideas could be cycled back into the coming seasons. It was not wasted time and effort. We had a bunch of stuff written for winter, but now we’re approaching winter again, none of it gets scrapped. We just catalog and reuse them.”
As things ramped up but still with no restaurant to speak of, Largey was already working full time, which included everything from weekly operations meetings about to giving input on design. Because she wanted to be highly involved as an owner, and not just the chef, she was on site almost every day.
Looking back, she says the biggest hurdle was making sure the building itself was structurally sound and that everything was being built to exacting standards. She kept herself involved with the process, even though construction was out of her hands. Staying positive and upbeat helped.
“I’m not skilled about pouring concrete, but I can talk to those people in those roles to figure out what they needed to get things done. Manage and problem solve, just like in a kitchen. It’s a good way to set the tone, to focus on solutions and not the problems at hand.”
As the actual opening date neared, she became more of a face for the restaurant, building press and doing community outreach. After all the construction, she was excited to have the neighbors be the first to come in for drinks and dinner at Simone. T
he space is gorgeously designed with Art Deco elements, a buzzing bar in the front, an open kitchen with a small chef’s counter, and spacious, high-ceilinged dining room in the back. Like its namesake Nina Simone, it’s jazzy and eclectic, soulful and stylish. No detail was spared.
Now that it’s all open, there’s a sigh of relief but Largey also knows the actual work to keep a restaurant buzzing and relevant is at hand.
“We didn’t want to compromise on a lot of things. We took over an old building and had to do a lot of structural reinforcement. It was a huge endeavor, especially in L.A.,” the chef said. “At the same time, we wanted to do it right, and we want Simone to be here a long time. We weren’t scrambling to open, but we wanted to do everything we could to make it a staple in the L.A. dining scene.”
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