A Side of Salt: Macklin Casnoff. A Culinary Young Gun.
For this third entry in the “A Side of Salt” series, I’m very proud and excited to introduce you to 17-year old, Macklin Casnoff of Hancock Park. Angelenos, and possibly people outside of Los Angeles, were recently exposed to his amazing story and talent when Los Angeles Magazine featured an article this month on Macklin and his culinary troupe known as “Samacon” (Sam Yehros, Macklin Casnoff, Jon Sewitz; also Henry Kwapis, Brendan Garrett). But prior to the article being written, I’ve already known Macklin for over a year, and Jeni and I have watched him in the kitchen and tasted his food. In that time frame, I’ve seen a “kid” mature into both a young chef and a young man through passion, determination and sheer curiosity. This is the story of Chef Macklin Casnoff who “packed his bags and hit the road” at the early age of 13. Without even leaving Los Angeles.
I was at McCall’s Meat and Fish one day hanging around and talking to Nathan McCall about dinner possibilities. I should actually rephrase, I was “loitering” around Nathan’s shop when a tall, Asian guy with long hair and thick-framed glasses came in. He greeted Nathan and made a bee-line to the meat section. He planted two hands on the glass and got close, like a kid at Sea World. For a minute or two, he didn’t say anything and Nathan and I exchanged a few of those “WTF” glances at each other – I felt like I was a security guard working at McCall’s. Nathan eventually broke the silence and asked what the quiet guy was looking for. He introduced himself as Kevin Van (whom I will feature as well), a cook at Providence and was interested in buying meat for a dinner party. He was in fact a very nice and talkative gentleman. I happened to have my camera with me that day and he asked what I enjoyed shooting – I told him that I write/photograph food. Within a few minutes, we got to know Kevin and he invited me to attend one of his private dinner parties. He would give us food, I would give him photos for his site. Before he left, he said to me, “You gotta come to our dinners for sure, it’s a good time. We’ve even got a 16-year old chef cooking in the kitchen.” A 16-year old chef? An American Jacques Pepin? This we had to see.
A few weeks later, we find ourselves at a quaint house in Echo Park at around 5:30 pm. Jeni and I didn’t know what to expect. I know I had heard Kevin Van say that he worked at Providence, so it wasn’t like he was going to serve chicken strips and tater tots. We walked past the gate towards the house, and right then I knew that Chef Van was serious about what he did. On the tables were full settings with napkins folded into a triangle on the plate. There were dozens of candles lit. To the left was a massive tray of freshly-shucked Kumamoto oysters gleaming at us. An ex-bar back from Seven Grand whisking up some tasty cocktail with Rittenhouse 100. And about twenty nicely-dressed guests wielding wine glasses, standing in a room filled with mellow indie rock music. This was no mansion, but rather someone’s 2-bedroom rental house. The living and dining room had been completely gutted to accommodate the 25-30 diners. And all of this was odd because we didn’t know a single soul and I desperately looked for Kevin before we hit the point of embarrassment of being labeled as complete strangers or dinner party-crashers. Then in the very corner of my eye, I saw a tall, skinny Asian guy in the kitchen running back and forth holding large pots – long hair waving around. “Kevin.” We headed back to the kitchen and I introduced Jeni to him. I looked around at the people helping and they were all in their mid-20s, except for one person who was clearly the “16-year old chef”. He was wearing a slightly worn-out chef coat with Water Grill embroidered on it and shucking oysters like they were bottle caps. Expecting pure arrogance and irreverence, I introduced myself to the young gun.
Me: “Hey man. You must be the young chef Kevin Van told me about?”
Macklin: “Yeah, I’m Macklin.”
Me: “You work at Water Grill?”
Macklin: “Yeah, with Michael Cimarusti. And now I’m at Providence.”
Me: “Well it’s nice meeting you, looking forward to trying your food.”
Aside from most dinner parties which highlight one particular chef’s food, Chef Kevin Van brings in other young cooks from restaurants all over Los Angeles. There’s not one all-star, but more so a collective of young, unadulterated all-star cooks. And almost all of them are years from becoming anywhere near a sous chef. When you work under a chef, you’re making his menu, not yours. Kevin Van’s approach allows the young cooks to exhibit their talent fresh out of culinary school sans the demon chef breathing down their neck. It’s a collaborative dinner party that I’ve grown to love each time I attend. I stood in the back of the kitchen and just watched all the cooks hustle and bustle in one of the tiniest kitchens ever. It was most amusing watching Macklin because I was simply impressed. When most kids his age were probably raiding dad’s alcohol cabinet and playing video games, this kid was studying the methods of creating foam for plating and how to make something delicious with liquid nitrogen. And yes, his food was very good.
Macklin had his culinary epiphany when he was only 13 years old. It just so happened that his best friend is Mark Peel (Campanile, Tarpit) and Nancy Silverton’s son (La Brea Bakery, Mozza). It was at Campanile he had an eye-opening meal and he decided he wanted to take the plunge into the kitchen life. And it was anything but pleasant for him. Some burns and cuts later, he had thrown in the towel after only the third day – completely repulsed by the kitchen life. But he told me, he never stopped thinking about it because he in fact loved it. A year later, he did the next best thing to attending culinary school – cold-calling and knocking on the door of Los Angeles’ best restaurants. He called everywhere and disappointingly got very few return calls. But because Chef Peel had given him a chance at his place, the other chefs decided to let Macklin follow his aspirations. After working and stage’ing at Sona, Campanile, Melisse, he found his “home” under the wings of the Animal Restaurant chefs and Michael Cimarusti of Providence.
Fast forwarding to present time, Macklin is now 17 with over three years of culinary training in some of Los Angeles’ best restaurants. For his senior project at Oakwood School in North Hollywood, he decided to prepare a five-course meal for his mentors: Chef Michael Cimarusti and two of his high school educators, David Kerber and Teddy Varno. Macklin and Cimarusti had been researching a style of Japanese cuisine known as kaiseki. To laymen like you and me, it basically means “small dishes” and can be as simple as three dishes with rice and miso soup, or as extensive as your standard tasting menu at an haute restaurant. But as you’ll see, a notable difference betweeen Japanese and French cuisine, at least for me as a diner, is the usage of butter and mother sauces. Japanese food is way more delicate and reliant on fresh and raw ingredients. Both educators served as counselors for Macklin and oversaw his senior project. And I was the fortunate fourth guest to experience this private tasting. I’ve gotten to know Macklin after a good eight dinner parties and I was honored to document his special project.
On Tuesday evening, I walked into Providence and sadly, was directed to the bar, where I was forced to have a delicious Negroni made by the very talented Zahra Bates. Macklin’s former teachers showed up right after and we broke the ice. I saw Macklin walking back and forth from the kitchen and decided to follow him for a few action shots. I was very impressed with the Providence kitchen. It was huge and ran like a Navy ship, with over fourteen line cooks. To my right, I saw a 99 Ranch Market-like fish tank filled with some very unlucky Santa Barbara spot prawns. The last time I was at Providence, I sank my teeth into perfectly cooked Spot Prawns buried in 550 degree kosher salt – so amazing.
It was now 7:30 pm and Chef Cimarusti came out in his chef coat and apron to greet us and we proceeded to the dining room. Some wine was poured, and everyone shared his relation and experience working with Macklin and it was given that he is incredibly talented for his age. Chef said it was strange for him to be dining at his own restaurant – and to be served by one of his apprentices. Macklin had been at Providence for nearly twelve hours now, and it was time for the final test: his take on California-style kaiseki cuisine.
Macklin came out with our dishes along with another server and briefly described each course. When we got our first dish, we all remained silent and just stared at the sheer beauty and simplicity of it. It was almost like the Wizard of Oz, where you didn’t see what was going on behind the curtain. And when the wizard did show his face, he was younger than you thought – a lot younger. While we grabbed our utensils and napkins, I looked over at Chef to see that that he was still staring at the dish – even turning his head to look at the dish at different angles. It was obvious he was analyzing the detail of everything, but at the time, I think he was taken back by how much his apprentice had learned and experienced in the last 2-3 years. And that his time and patience devoted to Macklin was anything but wasteful. Chef then looked at us and said:
“There are young chefs out there, but not many that pay attention to as much detail as Macklin does or are as creative as he is. Not everyone can do this. I have cooks in that kitchen that can re-create everything I do perfectly. But when I ask them to create their own dishes, some can’t do it.”
Santa Barbara Spot Prawn with Cherry, Wasabi & Lemon Thyme
If you have access to Chef Cimarusti’s Santa Barbara Spot Prawn tank, you’d better grab as much of it as you can – it’s a treasure chest. Macklin served the Spot Prawn sashimi style in Kyoto-style bowls with a light, wasami soy sauce. The sashimi, soy sauce and wasabi took us to Japan but the cherries, lemon and thyme grounded us in California as we bit into the toothsome texture of raw shrimp. I wanted about twenty-one more pieces.
California-Delta Asparagus with Yogurt, Honey & Lemon
This dish was one of the most beautifully plated vegetable dishes I’ve ever eaten. The asparagus was lightly blanched and kissed the grill just long enough. The honey, lemon and yogurt balanced out the charred asparagus taste. Fantastic.
Humboldt Squid with White Beans & Laurel Canyon Nasturtium
This was the most beautiful dish of the night and my favorite as I’m a sucker for seafood. We all stopped to stare at the colors – it was very Californian. I want you to pay attention to the meticulous scoring done on the Humboldt squid – it almost looks like velcro! This dish was served on top of some white beans, brown butter and a pesto made by a flower found right in Los Angeles. Chef noted that this dish had multiple personality to it, depending on which angle you looked at it. Very well said.
Braised Pork Shoulder with Milk Curds, Turnips, Enoki and Purslane
This was the most Japanese-influenced dish as you’ve probably eaten the braised pork belly version known as buta kakuni. The pork is braised in your standard soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar and sesame oil broth but the trick to this dish is the final texture Macklin added to it. Versus being a completely mushy and braised pork, he finished it off in a non-stick pan versus a cast-iron skillet. The reason being that the non-stick pans are able to create a very thin, crispy sear versus a rough sear from a cast-iron. And this was the exact detail Cimarusti was pointing out in Macklin’s approach to cooking. I love enoki mushrooms but I never thought to deep-fry it, which brings out even more of an earthy, crispy texture that made a lot of sense with the pork and broth. Cimarusti loved this entree the most.
Juniper Berry with Market Berries, Lime Curd & Mochi Cake
To be honest, I was near depression when the dessert came out because (a) I don’t care for dessert (b) the kaiseiki style cuisine was beautiful and healthy but so small and (c) the end of Macklin’s road. For a young chef to produce a dessert as good as his main courses is something to be said. A lot of chefs will hire pastry chefs to do the “dirty” work because most enjoy the hot sizzling action from the stoves. The cake you see on the bottom is not your ordinary poundcake, but rather something made with mochi rice flour. The result was a slightly gummy texture that was delectable.
Dave Kerber. Teddy Varno.
Chef Michael Cimarusti
Many times during this meal, I was so into the food and discussion with the other diners that I had forgotten who had cooked the meal. Not because I was being irreverent, but because the food almost seemed in line with Cimarusti’s culinary approach. And the curve ball was thrown by a 17-year old pitcher who has never stepped into the Culinary Institute of America. I believe that if you really want to achieve a goal, you can make it happen. When I heard that Art Center would cost me $120,000 for a degree as an advertising art director, I gave them the finger and just knocked on agency doors. And its exactly what Macklin did – so I commend him on achieving more than what most fresh culinary school kids will achieve in a decade. When Jeni and I first met Macklin that night in Echo Park, he was probably the most polite 17-year old I’ve ever met. Given his knowledge and experiences, he gets points for his humble attitude. Macklin has decided to take a hiatus from cooking and attend Bard University in New York and explore other creative outlets. He promises though, that he will become a chef. It is frightening how much better he will be when he is in his prime. But I do hope that you and I get to experience his food again and again.
Congratulations to Macklin Casnoff on a successful senior project. Thank you to Chef Cimarusti for hosting the dinner and a pleasure dining with both Dave and Teddy.