By Riki Shore
Chef Jason Kim created Forage, an upscale eatery in a sleek whitewashed space in Silver Lake. On this strip of Sunset Boulevard, where ultra-hip clothing and home furnishing stores are nestled in with dingy taco stands and fast food restaurants, Forage is undoubtedly your best option for a healthy and delicious meal.
The stainless steel counter offers up an array of deceptively simple items. Choose from organic homemade rotisserie chicken; persimmons and pomegranates tossed with arugula and black kale; quinoa studded with roasted grapes, shaved radishes and lemon.
Dishes like these have more in common with a home cooked meal than a multi-course dinner at a fancy French restaurant. Chef Jason manages to take to the best of the French techniques and meld them with LA flavors to create food that will leave you wanting more. He agreed to talk to us about how and why he cooks the way he does.
TS: How has your style of cooking evolved? Who and what have been primary influences for you in the kitchen?
JK: My cooking has definitely gotten more simple. Instead of manipulating ingredients or depending on crazy techniques, I find myself appreciating the way a solid minimal approach can bring out the maximum flavor possible. It definitely helps having access to quality ingredients and being exposed to tons of inspiration.
We have an abundance of great produce here in Southern California, and I find myself trying to preserve the flavors as much as possible. As I grow older as a cook, I find myself figuring out that less is more when it comes to cooking with great produce.
Los Angeles enjoys a great local farming culture, and as far as eating out goes, the diversity of ethnic foods is awesome. In that way, Los Angeles is a big inspiration to me. I love going out to eat and trying out the way someone does something. I visit the farmers’ market every week and pick out the produce we’ll be cooking with at the restaurant. I know farmers as friends and that means when I’m in the kitchen cooking, my work needs to respect their work.
I probably wouldn’t have my cooking values if not for a few important women in my life. My mother and grandmother of course are huge influences. I would watch my mother when I was young working away in the kitchen; she cooked so caringly for us. I always appreciated how important it was for her to feed us great food. My grandmother was the “queen” in our family when it came to food, and my father would always talk about how great her cooking was. Whenever we would have a family gathering, all of our family members would bring food and everybody would talk about each dish and no one ever held back in their comments. They would criticize everything and say what they liked best and usually my grandmother’s food was the best.
TS: How do you choose your menu items? Do the deliveries from your community of “home growers” influence what you make each day?
JK: My menu is a reflection of what’s good at the market. It’s pretty much about quality. Quality is expressed in taste, it informs value, it supports creativity, and it inspires. I’m all about whatever inspires me on a given day or at a given moment. That’s why I like being the person at the restaurant who goes to the farmers’ market.
Going to the market is about way more than bringing back ingredients. It’s about discovering what’s inspiring and knowing why it’s inspiring. I love finding what tastes the best, and buying as much of it as I can. Sometimes I find myself buying totally unexpected things. I tell myself I’ll figure out what to do with it all once I’m back at the restaurant.
LA’s home growers are a big influence on what we do at Forage. The quality and productivity of what people are growing in LA backyards is amazing. When a home grower shows up with great produce that they grew with their own hands, it makes me want to create something special to highlight their produce. It’s exciting to make dishes that show our customers how wonderful food can be that’s being grown at home.
TS: Given that you’re working with deliveries from a wide variety of home growers, how do you create a balance of foods each day?
JK: I try to not think too much about how to balance everything. For example, this year many of our home growers were bringing me figs. We had figs coming in from Mid-City, Pasadena, Santa Monica. So we put figs on everything! We had figs in several kinds of desserts. We put figs in salads. We made a fig crostini.
I don’t see this as a problem. I think that’s what it should be about. When the figs are good and plentiful, we should be celebrating the fact that we have an abundance of them for the brief time of the year that we do. Anyway, the full character of an ingredient gets better revealed as you discover and create satisfying ways to serve it.
TS: What is the overriding flavor profile at Forage and how could someone create that at home?
JK: The flavor profile at Forage is hard to pin down. We change the menu and create specials pretty often, so it’s hard to say. One thing we try to do is keep things simple. Simple means portable, and I’m into showing guests how they can create Forage dishes at home.
I believe a person who enjoys a meal at Forage can go to the same farmers’ market that we go to, buy the same ingredients, cook the same dish, and get the same results. Obviously, it’s important to work with fresh ingredients. Whenever a customer asks me for a recipe or wonders where I get my produce, I tell them. Go to the farmers’ market, or grow it in your back yard. We’ll tell them the name of the farmer, where to find his or her stand at the market. We’ll give them our recipe. It’s an honor when a customer asks for a recipe. I notice customers who get into a conversation with me about how to cook one of our dishes at home, they seem to have a better sense of how important it is to know where your food comes from. I want more people to have that sense. It means more respect for the produce, and that’s a good thing.
TS: If there were only 1 or 2 techniques for a new home cook to learn, what would they be?
JK: Definitely cutting against the grain when working with beef, especially skirt of flank steak. It will make or break the texture of the steak. Also, blanching vegetables properly in hot, boiling, salty water. The vegetables need to have that crunch without any mushiness. Make sure to cool the vegetables in an ice bath so they don’t overcook.
TS: Where do you find ongoing inspiration in the kitchen?
JK: I find inspiration everywhere. From eating out, to watching TV, to enjoying my wife’s cooking at home. I really get a lot from other people’s passion for food.
The other day someone made me a really authentic chili relleño. It was so good, I got this idea to figure out how I’d make my own version of a chili relleño. I’m into working with seasonal produce and my training is in French technique, so I found myself making my version of a chili relleño as a gratin with Japanese squash from the farmer’s market. Poblano chili and queso fresco connects it to its inspiration and spiced pepitas give it its kick. The dish is on our dinner menu and people love it. I like to think part of the popularity comes from the fact that the dish was inspired by the flavors and the cultures that are part of everyday Los Angeles.
TS: What’s your definition of “comfort food”? Is it by definition healthful?
JK: For me, comfort food is a home-cooked meal made by my mother or wife. It might also be food that reminds me of my childhood. It is healthful in the sense that it doesn’t make me feel horrible after eating it. The idea of comfort food is about accepting love. Everyone has a comfort food and it points to an experience where you are being nourished, taken care of.
Food is such an amazing thing because the way people choose what they want to eat is a sign of the kind of memories they are interested in re-living. At Forage we want to offer dishes that give people a chance to eat well within their comfort zone, but also take chances with new experiences that may have something familiar about them, but something different as well. Discovering good food is a great way to expand your comfort zone, and I think that’s a healthy way to create new memories.
TS: If someone was going to prepare a home-cooked meal for you, what would you want it to be?
JK: Definitely my mother’s spicy pork ribs. They’re the best in the world.