To veteran restaurateur and chef Josiah Citrin, the pandemic was just another wrench thrown in his 30-plus-year career. Having weathered recessions, the ebb and flow of fine dining, fickle palates, and Los Angeles’ ever-changing culinary scene, he took in stride a year of maneuvering through government mandates, shutdowns, and openings.
Just a few months before L.A.’s COVID crackdowns, Citrin (the chef) reopened Mélisse in Santa Monica, after a 10-month renovation. The restaurant was split in two: Mélisse became an intimate 14-seat tasting menu experience with its own kitchen and staff; the newly created Citrin (the restaurant) offered a more relaxed à la carte menu in a refreshed dining room.
Mélisse was a triumph — as always, having been a cornerstone for fine dining in L.A. since opening in 1999. Over the years it garnered countless accolades and stars, including two from Michelin. The newer concept, however, barely had time to get its feet wet before temporarily closing; Citrin (the chef) was already retooling things at Citrin (the restaurant) before COVID upended everything.
Now it’s collectively known as Mélisse x Citrin with an elaborate outdoor patio set up in the parking lot — which isn’t going anywhere, at least through the summer, the chef says — and different menus based on whatever experience the diner is feeling that night.
Citrin’s other projects have similarly witnessed a scramble of patio buildouts, takeout menus, and drive-thrus: Charcoal in Venice; Dear John’s in Culver City, the old-school steakhouse he partnered on with fellow chef Hans Rockenwagner; and Openaire, the rooftop restaurant at the Line Hotel in Koreatown. A year of keeping all those places simultaneously afloat, staff on payroll, and everyone safe, was a constant battle. But the other side of the tunnel approaches, they’re all still there. The biggest challenge now? Finding staff, along with just about every other restaurant.
But Citrin has learned over time that this is an industry where you quickly learn to sink or swim. Having mentored many chefs before they moved on to solo projects, never waning on what California cuisine could be, believing in the ceremony of fine dining — it’s safe to say Citrin has made his mark in L.A., and beyond.
Here the chef talked with us about the ups and downs of the last year, what it’s going to take to keep moving forward, and how he’s looking forward to the upcoming dining boom after yet another bust.
Resy: Looking back at last year, you had only reopened for a couple months before the shutdown happened. What was going through your mind then?
Citrin: Well after construction delays, budget, everything like that, we were kind of rushed to get Mélisse back open with Citrin. Citrin was more à la carte, family-style, with some of the signature dishes like the lobster Bolognese and the egg caviar. And Mélisse was the more traditional tasting menu. We were open for two months before we had to shut down. For about six weeks we just cooked for the staff, and waited to see what was going to happen. I felt confident that the government would help us. I was sure. So I didn’t panic, I just stopped paying my rent. I thought, what am I going to do? But it was a really awful feeling.
It’s been amazing to see places like Mélisse doing takeout. How did that work for you?
At first we brought everyone to the Mélisse location — from Dear John’s, Charcoal, and Mélisse — and did the different takeout menus out of that Santa Monica kitchen. All the restaurants were getting a lot of business in the beginning, everyone wanted to show their support. It was so busy those first few days.
At one point we did around 1000 meals out of the restaurant. At least 500 cars through that parking lot. We set it up so they’d drive in and we’d give them the food. It was Charcoal on one side and Dear John’s on the other, and they’d drive right out of the back. It worked pretty well. That’s also when we decided to rename it Mélisse x Citrin. Citrin didn’t have the name recognition yet for takeout, weren’t open that long, but I didn’t want to lose the name entirely.
And then you opened that beautiful new patio.
It looks like you’re in Provence. We have olive trees everywhere. It’s great. When we reopened with the patio, I combined like a four-course menu plus a la carte options, and our customers responded well to it. They like having this smaller four-course option, you know. It’s more every day. And then all of the other spaces opened with their patios. Charcoal struggled a bit at first. We had some sidewalk seating, but didn’t open the outdoor patio until right before the second shutdown in November. It was a little frustrating. Having spent all that money to get the patio going there, only to have to close again. But now we’re using it again.
What were some other ways you tried to adapt?
Everything was a struggle, you know. Everything was definitely harder. You couldn’t get the same food from purveyors. The produce companies weren’t delivering every day. So the menus weren’t as easy to plan. Then we realized that with our takeout, which we needed in order to survive, we’d do these themed dinners. Like tributes to other chefs. And then we started doing it at the restaurant, too. It kind of became kind of fun. You know, like themes around Alice Waters or Daniel Boulud. He actually gave me some of the recipes, and we talked about it.
That must have been uplifting for the team.
It kind of kept everyone engaged, yeah. I think when everybody was suffering and struggling mentally, this gave them something to look forward to every week. I mean, it was hard too in a way, because it meant having to work an extra day to get things organized. But I think it was good for the cooks and the guests.
The pandemic definitely gave room to try a lot of different things, like let’s throw this at the wall and see if it sticks.
I did some Zoom classes, we did these menus. In a way you could do whatever you want. You could reinvent yourself, because who’s going to remember, and who’s going to care? There were no rules. Just survive.
Indoor dining is allowed again in Los Angeles County. Are you rushing into indoor service?
I’m taking it easy. First, there’s staff. Everyone’s looking for staff. People left. They left the city, they left the industry. So I’m not rushing into it. I hopefully will open Mélisse restaurant again soon, but I need to find a chef. That’s the Michelin restaurant, you know? It’s important to me. Melisse, It’s contained in its own room, it has its own staff, the kitchen is right there. Getting that open, even if we don’t know what’s going to happen with it. Then again, we don’t have any tourism right now, and that’s what fuels that type of restaurant, so we’ll see.
What about the other restaurants?
We’ll probably open Charcoal for limited indoor dining. It makes sense there, the layout. Dear John’s, when it makes sense for us. But at Citrin, we have a beautiful patio. I’m not sure it makes sense to try and operate both inside and outside at the same time.
Dear John’s has been a huge success. The idea that you and Hans Röckenwagner took over this classic old-school place, redid the menu, and opened what was supposed to be temporary. And it was supposed to close this month, but now you’ve extended?
Hans and I have known each other for years, we’ve been riding together for years, almost every morning. He always finds these deals, you know? Like, he found the Charcoal space. So he calls me one day and has me meet him at the Dear John’s space. We went to his house right after, talked about it, and basically wrote a menu in 30 minutes. It’s 90% the same today. Immediately, you couldn’t get in there. It was packed every night. You walk in, and you feel like you left 2020. The vibe, the feeling, the martinis, shrimp cocktail, the Sinatra, the Caesar salads. We didn’t think much of it; let’s do this for fun. And then the pandemic happened. Now we’re on a month-to-month lease, so we’re not done yet.
In a way, maybe that impermanence prepared you for what was to come. Some days over this past year, I imagine it probably felt like everything could end at any moment.
I think so. I pretty much operate that way anyway. Boom, let’s move on. We’re just going to have to do it. I don’t fixate on things. I just move on and find solutions and keep going. That’s my personality. Hans is the same way.
Back to staffing. That’s a huge issue around most cities right now. Most of my Instagram feed is restaurants looking for staff at all levels, all positions.
I had a chef de cuisine running Citrin, and chef Ken [Takayama] and I were in Mélisse. But there’s a lot of change happening. I have my R&D chef leaving, and I want Ken to move into more of a corporate role. Some of my other chefs are ready to move on, and I’m happy about that. You always want your chefs to do well and move up, go out into the world. So there’s a lot of transition right now, a lot of openings. But a lot of other people are looking for quality cooks, too.
It’s not just in the kitchen, right?
Yeah, we furloughed a lot of staff, and a lot of people didn’t want to come back. Some people worked through it all, and they wanted to work harder, both in the kitchen and dining room. But we lost some captains and waiters, you know, like career industry people. They all said the hell with this and left the business. Moved away. Took time to go back to school. They didn’t like the insecurity of working in this industry anymore.
But we’ll start building back up. There are plenty of people here who want to work.
You’ve had a lot of luck with great chefs de cuisine, some amazing talent has come out of your kitchen. How important is it to give space to new and diverse voices, to add to their training, and have them add to the menus?
It’s super important. At Mélisse, I’ve been privileged to work with people like Brendan Collins, Danny Elmaleh, Nyesha Arrington, Joe Johnson, who has been overseeing Charcoal, and Roger Taylor, who’s now in Boston, among many others. I want people who bring something into the concept, who help add to everything, and make it feel special and different. I like to bring people in from outside the group, to bring something new to the company, new techniques. Everyone knows what they know, but it’s important to have new voices. I’m getting much older, I’m happy, that’s fine. But you want to mentor others, you want to keep the juices going.
You’ve weathered a lot over the years. But I’m sure nothing could compare to what the pandemic threw at you.
Nothing compares to this. But my experience helped me so much. All the years of this, the confidence, the deals and negotiations, and all those things. Restaurateurs are very resilient.
How do you see the food community getting back on track?
We’re going to have the best few years coming to us.
I love that positivity. Every dip needs a rise.
It will be roaring back. I think high-end places will get busy when tourism comes back. We’ll have times like we haven’t had in years, like everything everything will be a write-off again, big expense-account dining. Like how it was in the ’80s. That will help the business, the industry. Plus people’s pent-up energy to just get out.
There are fewer places now, and things have changed. But it always comes back. Maybe not the same restaurants, but they’ll be back. You just have to buckle up. Tighten the ship. You have to be looking out for this stuff all the time. It’s hard to turn the ship around when it’s too late.
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