So, this happened: An Evening At the Hotel Bel-Air with Wolfgang Puck, David Chang and Roy Choi
“Let’s shock people.”
That, says Wolfgang Puck, is what he thought when he decided to invite Roy Choi to do a dinner with him at the Hotel Bel-Air. “I think it’s good not to give people the obvious.”
One-night pop-ups and chef collaborations are nothing novel these days, but this was just a little different: arguably the world’s most famous chef looking to cook with a renegade who barely four years ago was confined to a food truck—and in one of Los Angeles’ most prestigious locations. The only way to make it even more interesting, says Choi, was to invite New York’s notorious David Chang to cook in LA for the first time publicly.
“I figured if anyone could get David over here [to LA] it would be him,”Choi says. “If [Chef Puck] says come over, it’s ‘Oui, Chef.’ Simple as that,” says Chang, with a humility that belies his reputation.
So, this past Tuesday (June 18), the three collaborated on a six-course dinner for a collection of customers as varied as the chefs themselves, from elder Bel-Air habitués whom Puck knew by name, to jeans-wearing hipsters who probably couldn’t have found the tony enclave without a GPS.
“To come to the Bel-Air and have Korean-Chinese, or Austrian-Chinese, or whatever it might be, we’re going to have an interesting challenge to the guests,” Puck told me a few hours before the dinner. “We want to take people off guard. I’m excited because it’s not obvious.”
The resulting menu was captivating not just for its robust combinations of disparate traditions, but also for how the chef’s personal styles ultimately complemented each other. Puck began the service with an artistic piece of blue fin toro (on an imported Japanese river rock) arranged with black plum, shaved root vegetables, seaweed and wasabi granitee; Later he presented a piece of Maine lobster tail in an addictive Thai chili broth with curried fruit, curry leaves, citrus and cilantro.
Choi—using the occasion to tease his next restaurant, a more formal Korean experience called Pot--first offered a myriad-flavored Ggaejjang style Korean bowl of Santa Barbara spot prawn, with the head, combined with sea urchin, salmon roe, fried garlic, shaved radish and micro shiso, then a reinterpretation of his “beer can chicken” with fried game hen over rich flat chive kimchi and fish sauce-tossed salad. [The spot prawn enjoyed the best of several fine wine pairings, Faury "La Berne" Condrieu Viognier '11, with a banana/tapioca nose and mouth of tropicals and apple. Gorgeous.] Chang contributed a deceptively casual dish of Chinese rice cakes, broccoli, scallions and spicy sausage, then finished the savory courses with an almost entirely market-driven plating of rare shortrib with burnt eggplant, peach and garlic scape (and an herb-vegetable salad), a restrained bookend to Puck’s opening palette.
“We never get vegetables like you guys have here,” Chang told the assembled staff pre-service. “Lavender all over the place, the best garlic scapes I’ve ever seen…”
The dessert by pastry chef Cassie Ballard, took inspiration from Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (via Puck), combining seasonal cherries and green tea ice cream in a pleasant palate cleanser.
Just as not-obvious is how the collaboration originated: on the school playground. As it turns out, Puck’s children attend the same school as Choi’s. “He was curious about Korean food, he had a lot of Korean clientele here,” says Choi. But Puck was also fascinated by Choi’s ability to promote via social media, which proved itself when the dinner sold out almost instantly. Puck cracks: “He said he had a following. I said, ‘What are you, Jesus Christ?!’”
More seriously, Puck adds, “I really believe I will learn more from young people than from old people like me. If you stay in your age group, sooner or later, you go down[hill]. If you keep up with the young people, you stay relevant.”
[Chefs photo courtesy Hotel Bel-Air]