Melissa Saka

At Jame Enoteca, 27-year-old Jackson Kalb uses his noodle like a seasoned pro.

Andy Wang
October 23, 2018

Jame Enoteca is one of the best new places to eat pasta in all of Los Angeles.

The South Bay restaurant, which opened at an El Segundo strip mall in June, serves fresh housemade pasta like capellini with a soul-stirring, 36-hour Roma/San Marzano tomato sauce, and scarpinocc, a slipper-shaped pasta filled with braised beef cheek. Jame celebrates the Italian ethos of using flour and water as the basis of peasant food you can serve to royalty. It's a place that, like so many restaurants and homes in Italy, makes meals based on whatever ingredients are available locally.

But this is L.A., so what chef Jackson Kalb cooks is Cal-Italian food.

“I wouldn’t consider it traditional Italian by any stretch of the imagination,” Kalb says. “The squid ink bavette has stracciatella cheese on top.”

The creaminess of that stracciatella adds balance to a delightfully spicy rock-shrimp ragu with serrano chiles, and Kalb laughs as we discuss how the supposed rule of not mixing seafood with cheese is silly. (The no-cheese-on-seafood tenet, which L.A. writer Jordan Okun’s Air Jordan podcast gleefully railed against this month, is something that great Angeleno chefs are clearly ignoring: The stellar shrimp bolognese at new Studio City restaurant Mister O’s is topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano.)

“If it tastes good, why not?” Kalb says. “We don’t follow the rigidity of Italian cuisine. It’s kind of just using the pasta as the blank canvas.”

There are many other ways he transcends Italian cooking orthodoxy. For one, there's avocado in the salads. Kalb puts it in an excellent kale salad he tosses in a sweet-and-spicy almond vinaigrette with serrano chiles, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and fresh herbs.

“There’s avocado in our sauce,” says Kalb’s business partner, general manager Melissa Saka. “Our Bolognese.”

Wait, what?

It turns out that the “Hollywood-style” tagliatelle al ragu, one of the most comforting things you can eat at Jame, gets a nice hit of creaminess from puréed avocado that’s cooked down for more than two hours in the sauce. For an even bigger dose of freshness and greenness, Jame has arugula pappardelle with braised pork. Kalb came up with that dish because he had a surplus of both parsley and pork one day. So he juiced the parsley and made a green pasta with the liquid. He also made a pasta sauce with arugula. He added the pork. Then he topped the dish with more arugula. When you hear stories like this, and learn how Kalb started serving shrimp pasta with cheese after Saka brought in some burrata and asked him to cook her something, you realize that this restaurant is unreservedly making things up as it goes along. That's a good thing. Jame is where Kalb tops ricotta gnocchi with lardons he made out of pastrami that he originally planned to use in sandwiches.

When you see the fresh-faced, 27-year-old Kalb walk into his restaurant in gym clothes or board shorts every day, you appreciate how this restaurant is driven by young talent. When you see Kalb and Saka carrying tables and chairs from an adjacent courtyard to the front of their restaurant on busy nights, you understand that this is a place where the jovial, hard-working proprietors do everything themselves.

On the morning I visit for an early lunch, there are already eight people eating by 11:15 a.m. Kalb walks in and tells me he was at a nearby bank because there was a business-related mixup involving a limited partnership that he’s switching over to a limited-liability company, and he needed to ensure that money was in the right account. “We have payroll tomorrow,” he says.

This is a small independent business, through and through. Saka points out that she and Kalb were on a tight budget and lucky to find a space (formerly home to the Johnny Memphis barbecue joint) that came with kitchen appliances. Jame, which is short for Jackson and Melissa, was originally named Workshop Enoteca but changed its name to avoid confusion with Palm Springs’ Workshop Kitchen + Bar.

While Jame is Kalb’s first restaurant of his own, he’s a cooking prodigy who’s worked in kitchens most of his life. When he was 11 and bedridden for weeks with what he remembers as mononucleosis or a similar illness, he watched a lot of Food Network shows hosted by chefs like Sara Moulton.

“That was back when the Food Network was people cooking food,” he says.

Kalb started playing around in his home kitchen and quickly became confident enough to cook a six-course dinner for his family and some friends.

“The only thing I remember from that was salmon stuffed with herbed cream cheese wrapped in phyllo dough,” Kalb says. “That was the one where everyone was like, whoa, I was not expecting that.”

At 12, Kalb started a catering business out of his Pacific Palisades home, serving hors d’oeuvres at parties for the cost of food, plus maybe $20 or $30.

“Honestly, it was people who were nice enough to let me cook for them knowing that I was a kid with almost no experience,” he says. “I would be very ambitious, and my mom would end up having to stress out and go to the store five or six times because I would forget things. I obviously couldn’t drive at the time.”

At one party he catered, a guest mentioned a Santa Monica restaurant called Melisse and told Kalb she could introduce him to the chef, Josiah Citrin.

“I didn’t know anything about that restaurant,” Kalb says. “It was just a stroke of luck. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I loved it and was there until I went to college.”

Melissa Saka

Melisse, of course, is a fine-dining institution that went on to earn two Michelin stars when the guidebook came to L.A. Kalb started helping out at the restaurant on weekends and holidays when he was 13. At first, he was limited to simple tasks like bruléeing bananas and shelling peas. But one night, after a year, a cook needed some help with the fish station. Kalb jumped in, and that’s how he started increasing his responsibilities around the kitchen.

Melisse was the beginning of Kalb's education in cooking and hospitality from some of the most esteemed chefs and operators in the country. At 17, he was looking for a place to stage and asked Citrin to recommend a three-Michelin-starred restaurant. Citrin suggested Joël Robuchon’s eponymous fine-dining destination at MGM Grand in Las Vegas. As it turns out, Kalb had a friend who was cooking there. Kalb went to Joël Robuchon and started working on cold items and then moved on to preparing fish.

Instead of going to culinary school, Kalb went to Cornell and studied hospitality to learn about the business side of restaurants. But between his sophomore and junior years, he staged in Grant Achatz’s kitchen at Alinea.

“Alinea was the craziest experience I’ve had in any job,” Kalb says. “It was a very sterile environment. Their definition of professionalism was to really, really hustle every second of every day. I learned more about discipline there than anything else.”

The following summer, Kalb was a front-of-the-house intern at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café. After graduating from Cornell, Kalb returned to L.A. and worked in Manhattan Beach as a culinary manager for Houston’s, part of the Hillstone Restaurant Group that is widely respected for its consistency and efficiency. Houston’s is where Kalb met Saka, who was a longtime server there.

Kalb’s resume is insane. Getting to cook inside the kitchens of Citrin, Robuchon, and Achatz, in three different cities, is life-changing. Getting to learn hospitality from standard-bearers like Meyer and Hillstone (whom Kalb also worked for in New York and Florida) is no less significant.

“That’s kind of a theme I fell into, kind of accidentally, learning from the best of any type of restaurant,” Kalb says humbly.

These restaurants taught him so much about what he wanted to do and also what he didn’t want to do. When he was at Alinea, Achatz was launching Next with a Paris 1906 menu.

“They had an ode to Escoffier with lamb,” Kalb says. “So I was on the station that did that and their fall morel dish. I think it was the only station that used, like, the stoves to cook with, which sounds weird in a restaurant.”

Kalb laughs and then talks about the realization that he didn’t want to spend his career in this kind of avant-garde restaurant.

“Alinea was kind of the final straw for me,”  he says. “I was like, I respect this style so much. This is amazing. But I don’t think I want to do this for the rest of my life.”

Later, Kalb learned that an intensely high-volume restaurant like Houston’s also wasn’t the best fit for him. “I was a little bit smothered creativity-wise, which makes sense,” he says. “They’re a very big company, and there are systems to produce the food they do at that level.”

He knew he wanted to take things down a notch. He loved pasta, so he decided to travel around Italy for a few months in 2015. He had already been hand-rolling a little pasta here and there, but this trip made it clear that there was so much he didn’t know about the process. He bounced around northern Italy, went down the western coast, and learned about regional specialties.

“Pasta is very simple at the end of the day,” he says. “I mean, it’s a peasant food. It comes from paste. That’s my cooking style, I think. I don’t like to hide behind a lot of garnishes and ingredients.”

Melissa Saka

After his trip to Italy, Kalb started cooking under respected Italian chef Angelo Auriana at The Factory Kitchen in downtown L.A.’s Arts District. Kalb started as a sous chef there and was quickly promoted to chef de cuisine.

Now at Jame, he has a buzzing restaurant where his 24-seat dining room and his outdoor tables were full at 5:41 p.m., 11 minutes into dinner service, last Friday. He has a hot spot where he can accommodate about 40 guests after he and Saka move around tables and chairs outside, which is something they do often. On busy nights, Jame does more than three turns at dinner.

Jame got a lot busier after food website The Infatuation raved about it in the summer. Kalb and Saka won’t ever forget the day Infatuation visited. Saka realized something was going on when two people came in and ordered two salads and four pastas.

“We were not expecting them to come in,” Kalb says. “I knew their faces because I’ve been following them for a long time.”

He looked over and recognized The Infatuation’s Brant Cox.

“I was like, oh shit,” he says. “I cooked everything for them that day. That was huge for us.”

Then in October, Infatuation doubled down and reiterated that Jame “is the best pasta we’ve discovered since we ate at Felix.” Kalb and Saka are still gobsmacked about getting this kind of love.

“We’re not trying to compete with Evan [Funke],” says Kalb, referring to Felix’s chef, who many believe to be the pinnacle of handmade pasta in L.A. “But it feels nice to hear it. Every day is new and exciting."

So Saka talks about how “awesome” it was when Rossoblu chef Steve Samson and his wife/business partner, Dina, recently ate at Jame. She beams as she thinks about how Jame is thriving “in an era where carbs are not the cool thing to do.”

“It’s almost surreal,” Saka says. “We call it, like, The Walking Dead. About 15 minutes before we open, people start coming in droves.”

Kalb is just getting started at Jame, so there will likely be lots more praise and many more big crowds as his food evolves. He just bought a La Monferrina pasta machine from Italy.

“It’s a beast,” he says. “We can do pasta for the day in about six or seven hours.” Up until last week, they'd done everything on a KitchenAid attachment.  Now it’s time to see what L.A.’s pasta prodigy can do with substantially better equipment.

I ask Kalb if he knew at a young age that he would make a career out of cooking. “There was never one day where I woke up and said, 'This is it,'” he says. “But I never really thought anything else.”

Jame Enoteca, 241 Main St., El Segundo, 310-648-8554

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