If you flatten the list of restaurants that have shaped modern Los Angeles food culture – the places where today’s stereotypes of California cuisine were once new revelations, influences continue to spread even if the younger generations do nothing about theirs Know your origin – Campanileile would be in the top 5, maybe even in the top 3.
Mark Peel, who died on Sunday, and his then-wife Nancy Silverton opened the restaurant in 1989 on S. La Brea Ave. 624 in a curved, ornamental set piece of the Spanish colonial style of a building built by Charlie Chaplin in 1929. By the time they split in 2005, they were considered by the world to be the first couple in the nation’s burgeoning Californian-Mediterranean dining ethos.
Both cooks had worked for Wolfgang Puck during his ascent at Spago. They helped him tease out his wild New West vision of food as a bag of fusion flavors and the kitchen as a playground for ideas. For their own restaurant, however, they moved in the opposite direction of smoked salmon pizza and lobster spring rolls. Peel had cooked at Chez Panisse and he drove the farm connection in Campanile in the truest sense of the word, first of all getting products from Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe, two hours south of the restaurant. With his mastery of the grill and Silverton’s wondrous bread-making and pastry programs, the two codified the idea of American “urban rustic” cuisine.
I had my first meal in Los Angeles at the Campanile. It was the spring of 1997. I was 24 and worked in a Seattle restaurant making desserts and brunch on the weekend. My best friend, Kazzie, was trying to make it in LA as an actor. I flew over to see her, and our dinner plans – straight from the airport – were a long-awaited final conclusion. Kazzie had been to the restaurant’s famous La Brea Bakery, but never the Campanile – an experience we both had been saving up for.
The memories of that night will now sound like clichés: the amazing, direct earthiness of fava puree, enriched with good olive oil and brightened with lemon, the smoke that stuck to swordfish that was seared with ink-colored grill marks. I had ordered it in the hopes of trying swordfish that hadn’t been overcooked, as was practically every restaurant back then, and my risk was rewarded. Kazzie’s starter was crispy, flattened chicken with a garlic and parsley salad, a staple. The dish wasn’t as strict as it sounded: Peel gave him a sauce he called “beurre fondue”.
We asked about every dessert. I remember best a galette with fresh and dried cherries. Vanilla pod and balsamic vinegar spiced up the filling, and the way their stark contrast complemented the fruit kept my brain tense as a young cook.
As basic and even old-fashioned as the food sounds, few chefs then or now really manage to cook the simple but profound style of cooking with persistence and pathetic delicacy. Campanile did. Los Angeles food review legends – Ruth Reichl, Jonathan Gold, S. Irene Virbila – all pointed to the restaurant as a place they loved so much that they were as many regulars as professional reviewers can be.
After Silverton and Peel got divorced, Silverton left the third act of her blockbuster career with Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza. Peel continued to run Campanile until it closed in 2012 (Silverton’s father was the landlord) and was renamed République by Walter and Margarita Manzke.
Peel’s influence lives on in the chefs who have gone through his cuisine, many of whom are well known in Los Angeles: including Suzanne Goin from AOC, Matt Molina from Hippo (formerly head chef at Mozza), Bryant Ng from Cassia, and Suzanne Tracht from Jar to.
He never opened another restaurant with the seismic impact of Campanile, but he found a way to stay at the center of Los Angeles’ evolving culinary identity: for the rest of his life, he ran Prawn Coastal Casual, a booth focused on fried foods Specialized seafood baskets and shrimp salads in the Grand Central Market, among the vendors selling pupusas, galbi, bentos, tacos, adobo bowls and strictly seasonal fruitcakes.
His legacy continues in more subtle ways. In 1998, four years before I became a restaurant critic, a book called Dining Out was published by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. It describes the history of American restaurant criticism and contains dozens of interviews with writers, chefs, and other personalities that the authors call the “Food Intelligencia”. As someone who works in restaurants and wanted to write about them, I read the book over and over again.
An interview with Peel on pages 112 and 113 has been with me for almost 25 years. It is framed in a box with the title “Is the customer always right?”. Peel tells the story of a pulled chicken sandwich on the Campanile’s lunch menu, tossed with aioli and served with bacon. LA is LA, customers immediately asked for the sandwich with no aioli and bacon – and then complained that it was awful. Peel urged waiters to gently steer customers towards other options if they didn’t want these items in their lunch, leading one restaurant to shout profanity at staff, outraged at the notion that a cook’s aesthetics take precedence the wishes of a chef could have customer.
Peel describes his reasoned answer: “We’re not trying to force you to eat something you don’t want; We’re trying to offer you something that makes you happy and the best we can do. ”He concludes with this sentiment,“ You have to make your customers happy or you won’t stay in business. But on the other hand, I think that at some point you have an obligation to support your employees if a customer is clearly wrong. “
That can still be a tricky subject, the sometimes unpleasant symbiosis between cook, waitress and diner. But at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of the restaurant industry and many operators are struggling to recruit staff and think about how to support their employees, Peel’s honesty (his admissions were by 1998 standards nervous) a relevance that transcends generations and platitudes.