PlateOnline.com interviews Chef Kalman after he landed a place on their 1 of 30 chefs to watch. Enjoy their full feature at this link or read the article in its entirety below. Make a reservation to dine with us tonight by clicking here.
Bruce Kalman is having the time of his life, and you can feel it in the food he creates at Union, his restaurant in downtown Pasadena that is attracting people back to this once-forgotten community. He’s cooking his heart out, with each plate of albacore crudo with housemade spicy pickled lemon cucumbers; each pork meatball bright with capers and chilies; each bowl of housemade squid ink garganelli tossed with lobster, truffle butter and Meyer lemon; each tray of donut peaches gilded with lardo and honey. He’s offering up his soul and presenting it to guests on every plate. And like the omnivores they are, diners at this packed restaurant are devouring not just the food but the whole package.
“I’m 44 years old, and for the first time in my life, I’m cooking my food,” Kalman says about the transformation in his cooking since opening Union with business partner Marie Petulla. My chef friends are like, “This is unadulterated you.”
Maybe that’s what it is, that Kalman is doing his own thing instead of following someone else’s vision. His enthusiasm was certainly there when he cooked at Chicago’s Okno, and at The Churchill in West Hollywood. His creativity exploded when he founded his own “vine to jar” pickle company. But something is different now.
“Being a chef/owner, and having that opportunity and freedom to cook what I want, has made all the difference to me,” Kalman says. “I’m a very straight-up, honest person; I believe you should stand up for what you believe in, and stick with it. If you’re passionate about it, other people will be, too. Without the distractions, your creative ability changes, and you become this much more inspiring leader, and much less frustrated. I care what people think—my partners, my managers, my staff, the guests. I’m much better at taking constructive criticism than I was in the past. Because of those factors, I’m cooking better than I ever have.”
And so, he’s inspiring his cooks (all 20 of whom are name-checked at the bottom of each menu) to cook thoughtfully, and reduce waste as much as possible. Under his guidance, the team at Union is figuring out how to use seeds, stems, roots, leaves and cores in their cooking, from dehydrated toasted seeds to fennel-top sorbet.
“Respecting the ingredients plays a really big part in what I’m doing,” Kalman says. “A head of fennel deserves the same respect as a pig. Someone put in the time to plant the seed, take care of it, to harvest it. We’re constantly challenging ourselves with what we can do, looking at everything we get in and how can we use every part of it. It’s cool and fun to play with it. The whole thing is edible; it’s just how you treat it.”
That success has followed all this positive juju is not surprising. Kalman and Petulla are opening a fresh pasta stand in the Grand Central Market in downtown L.A. and have an eye out for other projects.
“I’m cooking things that I never cooked before and having fun,” Kalman says. “If you’re happier, you cook better food. I’m my own chef. It’s all-around great. It’s just fucking great.”
— Chandra Ram Q&A
What was the first dish you ever made?
I think it was chopped liver with my grandmother; I remember grinding hard-boiled eggs, liver and onions. I still have that meat grinder.
What is your pet peeve in the kitchen?
I have a few. When people don’t care—when they go through the motions, and it’s a job, instead of them being passionate and excited about things and getting involved. I tell my cooks to do everything with a purpose. And I don’t like fussy food, or people who communicate poorly. And I can’t stand dirty cooks—they make me crazy.
What career would you have if you weren’t a chef?
I would be a rock star. Or trying to be a rock star – I play guitar.
Who is your dream dinner guest, and what would you cook?
Probably the Foo Fighters. I would serve them three pasta courses, and then the braised pork neck. [Ed note: I am so going to this dinner.]
What restaurant is your dream stage location and why?
I’d go to Vetri, because I respect Marc Vetri so much for his food and what he’s about. His food is insanely delicious. I want to go there and get inside his head.
What is the next cooking challenge or technique you want to try?
All I can think about right now is the new pasta machine, for Knead & Co., the pasta stand we are opening in Grand Central Market. We’re honing on past on a regional level and diving into how dishes came to be, historically. How all the old classics came about – mostly out of necessity because they didn’t have refrigeration. Now, we put ingredients together because they work, but going back and understanding how it happened is important. Being back to basics what I’ve always done, but I think it is the next molecular gastronomy. I continue to simplify and hone what I do.
What meal changed how you feel about food?
It was eating at Lincoln, Jenn Louis’ place in Portland, Ore. Her corned lamb neck dish is ridiculous. She cooks like I do. The first time I ate there, it solidified for me how powerful that is, to really view a similar situation and chef from a guest perspective, without the nit-picking I do when I’m in my own restaurant. I feel her passion for the food. It inspires me.
Also, Girl and the Goat. Stephanie Izard deserves every award and honor she’s gotten. The food blew me away, and for it to be that crowded five years after she opened says a lot about what she’s doing.
Who would play you in the movie about your life?
What three words describe you best?
Dedicated. Thoughtful. Passionate. Trustworthy.