Meet the Women Chefs Leading L.A.'s Innovative Restaurant Scene

Brandon Harmon

A look at the personalities behind some of the city's most creative restaurants.

From the strip mall fermentation lab Baroo to the futuristic fine dining experience of Destroyer, Los Angeles’s restaurant scene is having a moment, one defined at every level by fearless experimentation. The cuisine—from California kaiseki to a rethinking of classic Jewish—is diverse, the neighborhoods varied, and if any common denominator stands out, it is the creative women helming so many of the new restaurants. Whether they grew up in L.A. or were lured West by superior produce and favorable rents, these chefs are putting their stamp on California cuisine.

In contrast to the restaurant scene in New York, this path was cleared decades ago. Nancy Silverton rose from pastry chef at Spago in the 1980s to create Campanile and La Brea Bakery before establishing her beloved Mozza empire in 2007. Suzanne Goin was mentored at Chez Panisse, Arpège, and Campanile before launching popular spots Lucques and AOC in West Hollywood and Tavern in Brentwood. And of course there’s the duo of Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger of Border Grill and Ciudad, who are coming up on 38 years of culinary collaboration.

“Those are the queens,” acknowledges Jessica Koslow, who is undoubtedly reigning over this latest wave. A television producer turned chef, the native Angeleno opened the wildly popular Sqirl in 2012 as a pop-up in East Hollywood showcasing her line of jams. It was the farmers’-market-enhanced dishes that she created with them—a slice of brioche toast slathered with house-made ricotta and her Seascape strawberry and rose-geranium jam or a bowl of brown rice with sorrel pesto, preserved lemon, watermelon radish, and feta—that made her a star, creating daily lines around the block for her daytime restaurant.

Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Anticipating Koslow’s next move has become a food-media pastime. In January, she finally broke ground on Tel, a much buzzed-about, 11,000-square-foot project in a former Office Depot that will combine an all-day café and evening restaurant, an event space, and a drought-tolerant farming initiative. Her food at Tel, which is scheduled to open this summer, will weave together two inspirations: “This is a restaurant that feels indicative of California,” explains Koslow, noting the farm component. “Sqirl itself is a California restaurant. It’s in tune with the seasons, the flavors, and the ingredients. That’s where Tel starts. Where it continues is it is more of a look into my own heritage. It has flavors and ingredients and techniques from Jewish food.”

Those Cali seasons, flavors, and ingredients are what has lured big-name New York chefs like April Bloomfield and David Chang to open high-profile projects. Bloomfield’s Hearth & Hound opened in December, while Chang’s Majordomo, in Chinatown, will be open by spring. There’s another element of seduction at work too, one Koslow sums up by quoting that line from Pretty Woman: “Welcome to Hollywood. What’s your dream?” Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, who made their reputations cooking at the popular Brooklyn restaurant Glasserie, followed their dreams when they moved to L.A. four years ago. “Before I visited, I had never even considered L.A.,” Hymanson admits. “As soon as we landed, I saw that it was so much more: so diverse, so urban—so much more exciting.” Adds Kramer, “It still feels like there’s room to do stuff here that felt hard in New York. So we just decided to move and figure it out from there.”

Almost immediately they signed a deal to open Madcapra, a vegetable-forward falafel stand in Downtown’s vibrant revamped Grand Central Market. Last summer, with backing from the chefs who own cult restaurants Animal and Son of a Gun, they opened Kismet, a sunny, all-day restaurant in Los Feliz serving market-driven Middle Eastern fare. During the day, you might see tables of film folks meeting over broccoli toast with labneh, while at dinner, groups share bottles of natural wine and plates of spiced carrots with chickpeas or lamb belly with roasted cabbage.

Sweet potato with tahini, shishito peppers, mustard greens, and harissa vinaigrette at Simone. Aliza Sokolow

Given their backgrounds, Kramer and Hymanson could have opened a capital-R restaurant. Instead they chose to create a place where the community could come together at any time of day and feel comfortable, not like they’re strapped in for a night of one chef’s genius vision. They’re also striving to ensure their staff’s comfort, adopting an open door management style. “We try to be as supportive and vocal as we can,” says Kramer.

In opening Simone, chef Jessica Largey has also focused on creating a supportive work environment. Burned out after almost a decade in fine dining, including the Fat Duck outside London and Manresa in Los Gatos, she returned home to L.A. when her new business partners offered to create the restaurant of her dreams in the downtown Arts District. Largey took more than six months off in order to “get herself back” and think about what kind of kitchen she wanted to run. “I’m transitioning to being a mentor who can impact the staff’s life in a positive way,” she explains.

Her cooking, too, has evolved away from rigorous, Michelin-star-worthy plates. When Simone opens this spring, there will be a six-seat chef’s counter where Largey will cook and converse. But even there, she says, her goal is to “strip away pretentiousness: I want people to feel the effort that went into their food.” There will also be 100 seats in the restaurant and bar where, she says, the food will be more approachable and health conscious than what she’s made in the past, with a focus on “finding ways for the ingredients to shine. There’s amazing produce here, which honestly makes it a lot easier!”

Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Niki Nakayama may be the quietest voice among the city’s chefs, but her food has spoken volumes to critics. As a result, n/naka, her tiny kaiseki restaurant in Palms, is booked three months in advance. The native Angeleno has forged a new path in fine dining, becoming one of the only female kaiseki chefs in not only the U.S., but also the world.

The ritualized 13-course Japanese meal has its roots in Buddhist tea ceremonies. But Nakayama—who got her start at a sushi restaurant—has expanded the formal sequence. She works alongside her wife, sous-chef Carole Iida-Nakayama, who grew up in her parents’ Japanese restaurants in southern California and came to cooking after working as a corporate project manager, to craft masterful dishes that let the season and ingredients speak, such as spaghettini with abalone, Burgundy truffles, and pickled cod roe.

N/naka could feel like a sterile temple. Instead, says Nakayama, it always feels like a small dinner party, with strangers talking at the snug tables in the spalike rooms. In the kitchen, she hopes to nurture the next generation of female kaiseki chefs. “We know what it feels like to want to learn,” she says. “We hope we can do more.”