L.A. chef Jesse Barber has a passion for rustic Italian fare and a certain taco truck in L.A. (Photos: Ian Rowan and Wayne Price courtesy of Summit Series, LLC)
Italian cooking is Jesse Barber’s thing. He’s a classically trained chef in French cuisine that has championed rustic farm-to-table dining in Venice Beach, Calif., while dabbling in ramen and Japanese fare. But Italian is his thing. At the helm of acclaimed restaurants like Barnyard and Dudley Market, he has wowed foodies with his culinary odes to Italy.
So, it makes sense that when Barber got the chance to take over a restaurant aboard a cruise ship, he’d turn to his love of Italian cuisine, specifically the local food found in bacari, or the tapas bars in Venice, Italy.
“It’s rustic and it’s playful,” Barber says of Italian food. “I love pasta so much. The bread, the ciabatta — all the stuff that they make — it’s just so nice.”
Marriott Rewards members had the pleasure of sampling Barber’s six-course bacari-inspired menu at a private dining experience aboard the Norwegian Escape during Summit at Sea, a three-day voyage in the Caribbean bringing together the brightest minds in business and the arts to talk entrepreneurship and global issues.
After Barber served up succulent plates of eight-hour smoked short ribs, cavatelli and eggplant three ways, Marriott TRAVELER sat down with him to talk about his culinary journey and his favorite bites in his hometown, L.A.
[Note this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]
What is your biggest food memory from your travels in Italy?
I think my biggest memory of Italy is coming back to the United States and being more culture-shocked returning home than I was when I was in Italy. It was easy for me to be there. There was great food everywhere. We were in Bologna and Venice and Emilia-Romagna; all of these weird places and a lot of places people think of like Tuscany and Chianti, and we visited the rural towns. Just everything. It was so good.
You’re embarking upon a new restaurant venture, Imperfetta, inspired by your Italy travels in L.A.’s West Adams neighborhood. Why that neighborhood?
West Adams is beautiful, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The architecture is gorgeous. There’s a bunch of museums. There’s a new train called the Expo Line, and we’re on the Expo Line. There’s not a lot there right now. We want to be the first restaurant in the neighborhood. There’s a pizza place. There’s Mexican restaurants, like Mariscos, but there’s no fine dining — or I don’t know what the word might be — casual fine dining? Rustic dining? There’s definitely no Italian food, so we’re really excited about that.
Tell me about the food scene in L.A. What have you eaten there that has just been phenomenal? Who do you think is doing really great things there that we should know about?
Both of my favorite restaurants are little hole-in-the-walls. There’s a place in Sawtelle called Yakitoriya – Yakitoriya is all grilled chicken. It’s every piece, every part of the chicken, and he gets the best chicken in L.A. There is a dumpling place in The Valley called Luscious Dumpling. Everything they do is amazing. Who else do I like right now? Hiko. It’s a warm rice-style sushi and it’s in a strip mall, underneath the freeway. It’s the best. It’s very uniquely L.A.
What’s your earliest food memory in L.A? Is there an old-school spot that people should hit that few know?
Mariscos Jalisco. It’s a seafood taco truck. They have a lot of things, but I always get a deep-fried taco with shrimp and ceviche on top. I think it might be one of my favorite things to this day.
If you are visiting L.A., what are some things that you should do that are uniquely local?
The Grove. The Getty. LACMA. Petersen Automotive Museum. There are great restaurants right around there. The Huntington is probably the most unique. I think it’s an 80-acre estate. There’s a Gutenberg Bible. There’s an original Audubon book. There are Chinese, Japanese, English, French, succulent and desert gardens – ponds, ducks, geese. You walk around and it’s just wonderful. The original collection of Darwin’s writings is there. There’s different art that goes through and libraries and museums. It’s wonderful.
As for the future of food, do you see trends developing that are really exciting to you?
The idea of cooking naturally is now kind of going further. People are drinking organic, biodynamic wines. They’re a lot more conscious about how much they’re eating. We’re doing a lot more plant-based cooking, which is awesome. We’re in Los Angeles and one of the reasons I’m in L.A. is because of the seafood. People are starting to eat it, which is really great because L.A.’s been so steak and potatoes or tacos for 20 years. I can put octopus on my menu and it can sell out. It’s great. I’m waiting to get a chance to try plant-based meat. I’m kind of repulsed and kind of intrigued. I think it’s kind of awesome.