Interviewing L.A.’s Best Chefs, Will Guidara Reflects on the Future of Fine Dining
The Eleven Madison Park restaurateur opens up about the L.A. food scene and his six-part SiriusXM radio show.
“People loved the [Los Angeles NoMad] food truck so much, they were like, this should be a brick and mortar,” Will Guidara tells Food & Wine. “That was really funny.”
To anyone remotely connected to the food world, the punchline is obvious. NoMad is one of New York’s most known restaurants, helmed by celeb chef Daniel Humm, and its Los Angeles debut this past January—for which the food truck was a teaser—was one of the year’s most anticipated. Guidara, the front of house authority who co-owns both restaurants with Humm under their hospitality group Make it Nice, is probably best known for their flagship jewel of fine dining, Eleven Madison Park. It boasts three Michelin stars and, as of last year, the number one spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, having been a mainstay in the top ten since 2012.
And while Humm’s name is the one most people associate with their restaurants, the fact remains that Guidara was just as instrumental in shaping its identity—and consequently, the standards of fine dining in New York.
Which, by the way, is far from dead. “In fine dining, we have the ability to create these magical escapes,” he says. “And we all need more magic in our lives.”
If nothing else, Eleven Madison Park is known for this illusion of magic, aspiring to playfulness and perfected service. It’s a restaurant where, reportedly, servers take eleven months to learn the mundane act of pouring water. Fine dining is more than just about luxury or escape, however, Guidara asserts—the stylistic impact it has on fast casual dining is also huge.
“Every single casual restaurant, with very few exceptions—all those chefs came from fine dining restaurants,” he says.
In talking about bringing NoMad to Los Angeles, Guidara is conscious not to come off as the New York jerk coming from on high to elevate L.A. dining. The scene, he acknowledges, is already pretty great.
“Los Angeles has been having a special moment for a long time,” Guidara says. “Just watching how Jon and Vinny have grabbed the city, what Dave Beran is doing with Dialogue, and what Dave [Chang] has done with Majordomo is amazing.”
And it’s getting to know these chefs, in part, which motivated Guidara’s six-part SiriusXM radio show, in which he interviews the who’s who of L.A. dining. There’s Roy Choi of Kogi fame, aforementioned restaurant juggernauts Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, 2017 Food and Wine Best New Chef Sarah Hymanson, and 2016 Food and Wine Best New Chef Kris Yenbamroong of Night + Market.
To be clear, the radio show is more than just a marketing ploy for NoMad L.A., which doesn’t necessarily need the press. Actually, Guidara didn’t even want to do the show when it was suggested to him, but he came around. “There’s a certain openness and intimacy that comes from people in the same business interviewing each other,” he says. “It was more about getting to know [these chefs] as human beings so there would be a vulnerability in the process.”
That comes across in his interview with Choi, for example, who opens up about his time at three Michelin-starred New York institution Le Bernardin, a decade before his rise to fame. “I was horrible man, I was so bad,” Choi says. “I was such a bad cook. I was always getting in trouble, I was always fucking up, but I would always deliver at the moment I needed to.”
He ended up leaving fine dining for five years. “It was a little tough for me for the five years after I made that decision, seeing that whole other life that I was a part of, continue on without me,” he says.
It’s moments like these that Guidara is so comfortable at handling—and the show really does feel devoid of pretense, as if you’re sitting in on coffee between two friends. You can listen to Choi’s episode here, and Sarah Hymanson’s episode here. The rest are paywalled at SiriusXM.
Guidara also talks about NoMad L.A., and how he didn’t want it to be a carbon copy of its New York original. For one, the architecture of both buildings are quite different: New York’s NoMad is in the French Beaux Arts style, while L.A.’s downtown counterpart is more Italian influenced, Guidara points out. The food follows suit.
“We wanted it to feel right for the room,” he says. Thus in L.A., there is pappardelle with snap peas and parmesan, along with the famous roast chicken for two, adorned with black truffle. There are also sea urchin tacos, of course, to reflect Santa Barbara’s seafood bounty, and Daniel was “super inspired by Korean barbecue here,” Guidara adds.
Did Guidara always want to be a restaurateur? Most people who dream of pursuing a career in food dream of being behind the stoves, at the creative helm of a restaurant empire. Not so with Guidara. From an early age, he was captivated by hospitality. “I’ve just always liked entertaining,” Guidara says. “I’ve always loved to throw a party.”
“When I was 12, my dad had me put together a to list,” he goes on to say. He wrote down three goals to accomplish as an adult. They were: 1. Go to Cornell Hotel School. (He did.) 2. Open a restaurant in New York City. (Check.) 3. Marry Cindy Crawford.
Two out of three really isn’t bad.
Guidara acknowledges that the focus of hospitality has perhaps lessened in restaurants as the rise of the celeb chef has shifted the focus from the front of the house to the back. “Once upon a time,” he says, “we were in the maitre d’ era, where people went to restaurants to see and be seen.”
He talks about how celeb chefs like Wolfgang Puck, with prominent personalities to back up their culinary prowess, helped shift the limelight to the kitchen. (Guidara actually was a busboy at Puck’s Spago in Los Angeles as a teen.) “Now I think we’ve found a middle ground,” he says. “I was kind of moving away from fine dining until I met Daniel. In him, I found someone who cares as much about hospitality as he does about fine dining.”
Clearly, it’s paid off for the pair, who now how have five restaurants under their successful restaurant group, Make It Nice. Come fall, it will be six with the addition of NoMad Las Vegas. While Guidara acknowledges that the “headwinds are facing against fine dining restaurants” these days, especially given increases in minimum wage, NoMad and Eleven Madison Park show no signs of stopping.