In modern craft culture from fashion to drinks to food (shit, even in politics), self-respecting creative types have made the notion of “authenticity” the North Star that guides them in their pursuits. Calling something authentic has a moral weight. Authenticity, in the eyes of many, makes something better. But what do we mean? To be authentic, must food ape traditions? Does it need to be local and farm-to-table? Must the food be made by someone born into a certain culture? As the term gets co-opted and spread throughout the economy—and Anthony Bourdain trots the globe in search of it—it’s hard to even know anymore.
Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis, the husband and wife team behind the acclaimed restaurant Bestia in Downtown Los Angeles, aren’t especially concerned about adhering to rigid notions of what is or is not authentic. Their Italian-inspired spot doesn’t have a fealty to way things are done in the old country. But even as they knowingly flout long-held conventions of Italian cuisine, they still come back to describing their food as authentic.
We sat down with the duo to discuss how they create their dishes, their plans for their upcoming Middle Eastern restaurant and what they think about the notion of authenticity. But we began with what they had to do to get Bestia off the ground in the first place.
The restaurant is a hit now, but what were your expectations going in?
GENEVIEVE: Mom and pop for me.
ORI: For me it was just like a restaurant that will be busier on the weekends and then weekdays will be normal where we’re busy but not insane. And eventually we’d open for lunch. But we couldn’t open for lunch because we have so much preparation for dinner because our weekdays are exactly what our weekends are. It’s as busy on Monday as it is on Friday. I thought I would be able to work a little bit less but it’s non-stop. If I would show you our business plan and projections, it was a joke.
GENEVIEVE: We actually quadrupled our projections.
Was it hard to get the staff you needed early?
ORI: Right now we have 120 employees. I thought this restaurant would run with like maybe 45 or 50 employees. Who wanted to work here when we first opened? No one. It’s an area no one wants to drive to from the Westside and half of my employees live there and make the drive every morning. After our first review people wanted to work here because they knew who we were and the reviews were great. Then we started getting phone calls. But when we opened this place we had barely any staff. It was us two plus another seven in the kitchen. Now we have fifty in the kitchen. So I was making the pizza dough every day, the pasta dough every day, I was shaping the bread every day and baking it in the morning, cooking it at night. I would walk into work at 8:00 AM and leave at 4:00 AM every day for the first seven months. I didn’t have any days off for seven months.
GENEVIEVE: We were closed on Monday. We would work half days on Mondays.
ORI: I was here every Monday still making the pizza dough, the bread and the pasta dough. Then butchering meat. I probably worked until 5:00 at night and sleep from 5:00 until 8:00 in the morning. That was power sleep right there.
GENEVIEVE: We were too tired to go out, we would eat cheese at home.
ORI: Yeah, second restaurant won’t be done that way. We already know what to expect.
GENEVIEVE: It’ll be better thought out.
This is going to be a Middle Eastern restaurant, right?
GENEVIEVE: We are working on it. There was a delay. We had a location, we had the design, but we pulled out of the deal because we didn’t want to have the partner we started the project with. There were things we didn’t agree on so we’re doing it just me and him, without that partner. We’re opening it. We’re in negotiations right now. We found a spot, they want us in, we just have to come to an agreement on a lease which will happen in the next month. We’ll start construction hopefully in a few months. We’ll start getting all the permits and everything in the next couple of months.
You’re expecting a smoother ride for that place out of the gate?
ORI: All my recipes are written down and they’re ready to go for our new place. I have tested them here so many times. When we opened here, me and her changed the menu every day. Five items on the menu. I had the octopus dish on the menu here six or seven different ways over the first few months.
GENEVIEVE: [Halting the interview for a moment and turning to her husband] Do we have octopus still? I haven’t seen it.
GENEVIEVE: Why, what happened?
ORI: I got bored with it.
GENEVIEVE: Oh, I want it to come back, that’s my favorite! That’s so dumb. I just realized what’s missing from my life: your famous octopus. You screwed up big time taking it off the menu.
ORI: I’m going to have tripe on the menu tomorrow.
GENEVIEVE: That’s disgusting. Will you put octopus back?
ORI: When we get back from Israel.
GENEVIEVE: Pinky swear. I want you to order it so that when we come back you’ll make it.
GENEVIEVE: Promise? How long’s it been off the menu? Two months, three months?
ORI: Probably like four months.
GENEVIEVE: That’s terrible. Don’t people come in and get disappointed?
ORI: No, I have a new calamari dish.
GENEVIEVE: Yeah but I don’t like calamari. Octopus is the best. His octopus is the best. No one cooks octopus like my husband.
ORI: You get this sushi-grade calamari from Japan—
Who does that? Here’s my menu, I’m putting ice cream on it. I just started making ice cream a week ago.
GENEVIEVE: Wait. No one cooks octopus like my husband. It’s tender, but it gets crispy on the edges, it’s delicious. It’s like a steak. Most people make it chewy or slimy. No one cooks it like him. That’s my life. It’s so depressing. How could you do this to me? Okay, I want my octopus back. Go on.
ORI: It’s good. It’s calamari from Japan that’s sushi grade and it’s a large calamari. Almost like has the texture of the way we cook the octopus. It’s very good.
GENEVIEVE: It’s not octopus. You have those tiny tentacles on the end that get crispy on the grill.
[editor’s note: Octopus is back on the menu at Bestia (with calamari).]
Was it hard to let go when you started scaling up? To let someone else execute?
GENEVIEVE: He hasn’t let go! Are you crazy?
He isn’t like, making the dough…
GENEVIEVE: Yes, he is.
ORI: I’m not making the dough but I’m on top of everything all the time. I taste everything that’s done in this kitchen. I tweak things, I change things all the time. I do I need to let go. I micromanage a lot.
GENEVIEVE: He does.
ORI: That’s why I’m here all the time.
GENEVIEVE: [Looks at Ori] How did you let go? [Turns to look at me] What do you mean let go?
It sounds like he went from forming the dough with his hands to staring at the guy doing it instead. You know, progress.
ORI: It’s easier. I have better control right now. Knowing the person making my dough is the same person since six months in. He’s been here making that pizza and pasta dough for three years. And he’s training someone else to make the pizza dough and pasta dough. That person has been here for two years. It’s so much more controlled. I pass by the pasta room and taste all the different doughs and make sure everything is good. I’ll taste the first pasta the guy gets cooked every night. I taste everything in this restaurant. Every vinaigrette, every noodle, every first piece of meat that gets sliced, every cured meat that gets sliced.
We already started construction for a space that we designed a year and a half ago and me and her stepped out of the deal because we weren’t happy with some things. So we waited on the second baby. We’re now like, we have to plan things ahead of time. Just because if not it’s impossible. I think if we would open this restaurant and have our kid at the same time it wouldn’t be the same restaurant. There’s no way. It’s too much.
GENEVIEVE: That would’ve been impossible.
ORI: But now it’s like my team’s been here for such a long time, it’s easy to tell someone, “Hey, this is what I want, I want it to be done this way, and I want to taste it.” If I taste it and I like it, it’s good. If not I’ll fix it, tweak it, adjust the recipe. And then we put it on the menu. Before, it was always all on me or all on her. Now we have people that we trust doing things the way we like them.
Genevieve, how did you transition from being a musician into being a pastry chef?
GENEVIEVE: There was no transition really. I didn’t really have a career path that makes any sense. I was a classical musician playing French horn. And then I met him because I quit playing the French horn. I didn’t have any career experience. What job can you do in L.A. with zero career experience but work in a restaurant? I started as a hostess. Even if I had number skills, I graduated from USC, but no one would believe you have those skills to hire you in a marketing job or anything because why would they trust that, just because you have a college degree? But I went on to do other things. Furniture design, fashion design, I moved on to establish more career-type jobs. But there was no career path that led to this. “Hey, I’m going to be the pastry chef! Ta-da!”
ORI: It was pretty crazy. She designed this restaurant. That we knew she was going to do because of her background. Then we said when we open the restaurant you will focus on the front of the house.
GENEVIEVE: Then I was going to leave and do my own career, maybe back in design or something.
ORI: Then she decided that she wanted to do pastries. Well, she didn’t really decide it.
GENEVIEVE: I did a little bit. I said I want to do the pastries. You were like, “Are you crazy? I’ve been working in kitchens for ten years and it’s still really hard. You can’t do that.” He told me, “How about you be the consultant. You tell them what you like, you help them.” I was like, what pastry chef are we going to hire that will be willing to listen to me? To just take my recipes and execute them? No one will want to do that. No person who has already forged a path and become an executive pastry chef will want to be an executive pastry chef under the home-baker owner. Who would do that? That’s insulting.
ORI: So then a friend of ours that is a really well known chef in L.A. tasted one of her cookies and then she was like, blown away. She told her she thinks she should start doing pastries. So she sent her to Chez Panisse for a couple of weeks and she came back here and we still thought she will have someone working under her that will execute everything she wants her to execute. Then she ended up being so good at it she just stayed as the pastry chef and stayed in the back of the house. It was crazy because when we just opened customers would always tell me how good the food is and always compliment the desserts, how amazing they are. She didn’t even believe.
GENEVIEVE: I was like, this isn’t possible. There is no way these people really like my desserts. I have zero experience. I mean zero. It wasn’t like I was a hobbyist, someone who baked every weekend. You know you see people with their Instagram, I mean I bake like three or four times a year. I wasn’t even a hobby baker.
ORI: No, but she always loved baking. That was something she always did. She wouldn’t do it enough.
GENEVIEVE: It’s so weird, I was like, I don’t know what I’m doing.
ORI: It’s not like she sits at home and looks at cook books. She doesn’t. That’s the weird part. People that don’t have experience need to look at cook books and understand ratios and she doesn’t do that.
GENEVIEVE: I don’t do that. I just made up a new dessert, I didn’t consult one cookbook. I was like, I want to make something that’s like a frozen Snickers bar but Bananas Fosterish. That was it! Then I just went off. That’s it, no cookbook, no internet. What a weirdo. I need to stop doing shit like that. Am I crazy?
ORI: That’s why it’s really good and very original. Everything is very original that she makes even her panna cotta, it’s very different than any panna cotta you’ll have because it’s not something she learned from someone else. So it’s very different. A lot of cooks that come here and have a job interview, I ask, “Did you go to culinary school?” If they say no, that to me isn’t a sign of weakness. It might even make you better because you are supposed to think more. You’re not built, your head doesn’t think like what someone else forced you to think.
GENEVIEVE: Think about how crazy this is.
ORI: My cooking is the same way. Some of the stuff I do, cooks that have been cooking for a long time are like what the fuck are you doing? It’s like in their head. They will never say that to me. Then they’re like, wow, this is amazing. I have never seen someone make a sauce that way. I have never seen meat dried that way. It’s like, common sense in my head and it tastes good later.
GENEVIEVE: But think about how stupid this is. I would never do this again. We’re about to open, right? We’re like, about to do our first test kitchen and I’ve never made ice cream before. I’m going start making ice cream now! What was I thinking?
ORI: What was I thinking?
GENEVIEVE: Yeah. Can you believe that? Who the fuck does that? Here’s my menu, I’m putting ice cream on it. I just started making ice cream a week ago.
ORI: You do everything well.
GENEVIEVE: No, but ice creams people always love. I don’t know how to do it with all the—most people don’t do it this way anymore. In fact, almost no one does. They use a lot of fillers and stabilizers to get that really no icy, super smooth. I do it the old fashioned way. I think when people taste it they’re like, this is what old fashioned… I do it with just yolks, sugar, cream, and milk.
ORI: Her ice cream actually melts. Where other people’s ice cream just stays on the plate and you can have a conversation for ten minutes and it’s still there.
GENEVIEVE: Because it’s so stabilized. Where mine hits the plate and you have to run because it’s real homemade four ingredient ice cream. The kind you would churn in a bucket.
Where do your ideas come from? You don’t seem obsessed with “authenticity” in that you say “this is the pasta you get when you’re in this part of Italy.”
GENEVIEVE: What is authenticity? That’s the big question. If you go to that region you’ll have innovative young chefs that are authentic Italians from that authentic area that take a technique their grandma taught them and do it their own way. Does that make it unauthentic? What is authenticity?
I think authenticity is when you do something that is real that comes from the heart with real product and real forethought.
I know one chef in particular, who heads to one part of Asia, learns exactly what they do, then returns to America to slavishly recreate the food—to give customers an ‘authentic’ experience.
ORI: I think that makes things a little bit boring. You can’t be yourself.
ORI: You can’t be creative because you’re restricted with all these things that might not make it Italian anymore or might not make it from this area in Italy. You can’t cook that way.
I think that was an obsession for a generation of chefs.
GENEVIEVE: Think of how stupid it would be if you think you have to cook that way. This dish you need fresh this type of basil. What if it’s out of season or crappy and you have this other thing that will brighten the dish just as well that’s native to California and a local farmer grew it? Is it not authentic anymore? So you are going use a shit product to be “authentic”? You’re putting yourself in a box.
There’s a restaurant, I won’t name it. There’s a little pizzeria near where we live. They have a little flat billboard that says “We get 95% of our ingredients from Italy!” That doesn’t make it good. Good for you! Why don’t you get 95% of your ingredients from local? That doesn’t make your food good. Authentic doesn’t equal good. Does it?
ORI: I don’t think so.
GENEVIEVE: You’re restricting yourself to using what maybe isn’t the best product. Because you’re like, “Well, this is authentic.”
ORI: You can make it feel authentic.
GENEVIEVE: Twinkies are authentic. These are authentic Twinkies.
ORI: We have a lot of customers that come in and they are Italian and they eat here and they feel like it’s authentic.
GENEVIEVE: Because it is authentic.
ORI: It is. But is it not different too, Genevieve?
GENEVIEVE: We have people from Italy that come here that won’t say it’s like any Italian restaurant in Italy, but it’s like a nostalgic feeling of home and hominess that they feel hits the heart. Isn’t that what true authenticity is? If you say to them what restaurant in Italy is like this, they will say none. Why does it feel authentic to you? It feels like my grandma could’ve made this. Even if it’s not anything grandma would’ve made. Because we make everything. If you look at the basis of everything we do it’s made not with fillers, everything is really high-quality ingredients made slowly, the right way. The braises might take two days. All your stocks are super slow, two-or three-day stocks. Those bases are authentic traditional cooking in any cuisine for hundreds of years.
We’re getting philosophical, but what guides you then as you make dishes for an Italian restaurant without a sense of fealty to Italy?
GENEVIEVE: He wants it to taste good. It’s very non-philosophical.
ORI: My thought process is always how to reach the maximum flavor that the product can reach. That’s what drives my ideas. How can you get sea urchin to taste even more like sea urchin. How can you get a veal loin to taste like katsuobushi? Katsuobushi is made out of tuna. So it’s like, fermented tuna that gets smoked for months then it’s held in rice for another year.
We do the same thing to veal. It’s kind of the same thing. It’s very mild meat and that’s a very mild fish. It’s done the exact same way and it almost tastes the same. One has a fishy funk to it and one almost tastes like a ham funk to it. Veal doesn’t taste anything like the veal katsuobushi. Veal is mild, lean, and flavorless. You have to add flavor to it. But this veal katsuobushi tastes like a super enhanced veal.
So, it’s my Italian. Like her desserts, they’re not Italian.
GENEVIEVE: Italian desserts are gross.
ORI: Hers are more like French-American.
GENEVIEVE: We were in Italy and we went to a million restaurants and all the desserts, you know they don’t really eat desserts in Italy after dinner? They’ll get fruit or they’ll have a little ice cream.
ORI: Or a salad.
GENEVIEVE: They usually do cheeses. Or they’ll do—
ORI: A sorbet.
GENEVIEVE: At the end of the meal you will see six dessert options and they’ll be like, half a pineapple— I’m not kidding—half a pineapple, or pineapple sorbet.
ORI: And a biscotti.
We’re not trying to duplicate anything that’s been done before.
GENEVIEVE: It will be fruits and sorbets and sometimes a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream. Their desserts are like pastry shops and they’re always really sweet without enough salt. I was talking to [acclaimed chef] Nancy Silverton a couple of years ago and she was like, “Italian desserts suck.” That’s why all the desserts at Mozza are Italianish. So that’s why I don’t do Italian desserts. The French do great desserts.
ORI: You just give them Italian names.
GENEVIEVE: I have a creamsicle torte on the menu. I call it torte so it sounds European. And it says Italian merengue on the top. It’s an American creamsicle ice cream cake.
Even the budino, because it has olive oil and salt, which they always put on all their puddings, but it’s really an American pudding with delicious American shortbread with American caramel. It’s basically a pudding cup. With a cookie.
ORI: Her desserts are not Italian.
GENEVIEVE: The panna cotta is.
ORI: Your zabaglione [an Italian custard made with sweet wine].
GENEVIEVE: So I do have some Italian desserts.
ORI: She’ll have like one Italian ingredient in everything.
GENEVIEVE: There’ll be an Italian component.
Mario Batali’s business partner came in and said “the zabaglione is pretty authentic but then you serve it with sorbet and meringue, which I’ve never seen before and I’m Italian.” Because it’s not. They wouldn’t do that. They would either have the zabaglione on its own or with berries. They don’t usually compose dessert around it.
ORI: Yes. Zabaglione with fruit, always.
GENEVIEVE: Or just zabaglione. How weird. Who wants to just eat a bowl of zabaglione?
So you just made it in a way that tastes best to you?
GENEVIEVE: I mean, yeah. Who wants to eat just a bowl of zabaglione? That’s not dessert to me, but that’s Italians. Who wants to eat fruit for dessert? No one wants to eat a half a pineapple for dessert.
ORI: We’re not looking to duplicate what’s been done before. That’s why we don’t have carbonara on the menu or any of those classics. Because then it’s going to be just like any other place. Now I would be able to do a carbonara but it would be from like lamb bacon and not pork. Maybe. But it would have to be slightly different. An original. That’s what you said, something familiar to people but something with our uniqueness on it.
For example, our salsa verde right now is a salsa verde. It gets anchovies. We smoke our anchovies for 48 hours and they’re salty and smoky and we make a salsa verde from those smoked anchovies. No one does that. When you taste it you’re like, “Oh, I’ve had this flavor before but it’s smoky and somehow different.” So we do a lot of those things with our food.
GENEVIEVE: That’s true. It’s authentic Ori.