There aren’t many chefs who count creating a caviar dish requiring an Instagram video tutorial as typical takeout food. However, Chef Josiah Citrin defies convention. Meeting Citrin at his newest venture Dear Jane’s, a pescatarian take on the classic steakhouse with partners Hans and Patti Röckenwagner located on the Marina, he pulls up in a vintage Porsche Targa exuding easy, elegant comfort. The car is representative of the Santa Monica/Venice Beach native who still surfs and has that SoCal perfectly sun-kissed skin. “There are different types of fine dining,” says Citrin walking through the dining room. “It’s a really hard thing to define because for each person it’s different, it keeps evolving.” For Citrin’s seven spots located throughout Los Angeles, the pursuit of excellence, his and his company’s ethos, permeates throughout the spaces and kitchens. It's innate due to the culture and approach Citrin has fostered, but also something that enters his off-duty hours too through his hobbies and pursuits. “Food is one of the only things in the world that everyone else also has to have,” explains Citrin. “It’s a form of art and it’s also a craft, but everyone has to eat. The correlation between watches, cars, and cooking is between craftsmanship and using the finest ingredients and materials.” We sat down with Citrin to discuss the art of the plate, what cars represent his restaurants, and why striving for perfection is a motivator even in a pandemic.
“After 20 years of Mélisse, I wanted to create a new way of fine dining,” explains Citrin. “I wanted a small, intimate room with five tables where the kitchen and the chef are one. From the sound to the taste to the vibe, I wanted to create something intimate, something different, something new, and evolving,” says the chef with an almost melodic tone. Citrin’s plans to open Mélisse’s sibling were derailed by the pandemic prompting him to think differently. “I had so many loyal customers in that building…and then the pandemic happened so we did takeout. Every takeout menu was a four-course menu.” Hence the aforementioned Egg Caviar dish, which takes its cues from gastronomy icon Alain Passard’s chaud-froid oeuf, or “hot-cold egg” because of the contrast in textures. “We took six weeks practicing everything and what worked.” While the opening might have been delayed, the concept was ready and Citrin took the plunge.
“It’s the way your brain operates,” says Citrin, adding, “the whole design aspect. The more art, the more beautiful things you look at, and the more you think about how it weaves in. It kind of just happens.” He likens his approach to crafting a menu to designers and engineers working on cars—dedicating themselves for years to achieve a singular, yet a continually evolving product. “There’s so much craftsmanship, passion, development, and thought,” says Citrin. “That’s how you look at food and how we evolve a dish over time. Every three or four years a dish changes a little bit.” Changing less frequently are the cars and watches in Citrin’s current rotation favoring a thick IWC in the kitchen and a Porsche on the road. But for Citrin, each of his spots embodies a different type of car for a different type of diner. “Mèlisse is a Bentley or Rolls-Royce, something refined. Citrin can be a Porsche because it's fast, it's well made, and they’re understated. Dear John’s would have to be a Cadillac. Dear Jane’s would be a Thunderbird. It's that vibe you get in here. And Openaire, it’s an all-day restaurant so it’d be a Volkswagen convertible. Augie’s on Main would be a scooter or Vespa,” says Citrin with a laugh.
All kidding aside, Citrin is serious about holding himself and his team accountable to the highest standards which is why he treasures the Two Stars he regained at Mélisse. “I want it for the team and it’s important for me with my background of cooking in France,” says Citrin. “It’s easy for the staff to relate when we’re pushing for the Michelin Stars. It’s easy for us to have that goal, to be pushing for something. That way even if you don’t get it, you’re always pushing forward.” And with Citrin’s newly nabbed One Star for his eponymous spot, the sky’s the limit on where he takes gastronomy next, but no doubt it’ll be delicious.
© Edward Barsamian