Travis Lett, chef and co-founder of the Gjelina Restaurant group, had us over to discuss innovation, curiosity, surfing and yoga and how they influence the food he creates…
How would you describe your style of cooking?
Less is more all the way. Place the emphasis on the quality of the ingredients and the integrity of the fundamental technique, and not try to impose too much clutter onto it. Cluttered, muddy favors are no bueno in my book.
And how did you develop your style?
My mother was really into wellness by virtue of food and was very diligent in seeking out organic foods from farmers markets and health shops. Prioritizing ingredients and the broader discussion surrounding food production was always a given for me. As I moved forward as a chef that simple idea really started to differential my work from some of my peers and is something I’m constantly doubling down on as the years pass.
What first interested you in in food?
It was something that just came naturally to me and was a way I could contribute to situations where nobody knew how to cook or didn’t interest them to try. In my college years, I was always riffing on making killer sandwiches, pizza, ramen noodles etc.. all super low brow style but those are still central components of my food identity. I never really got pulled too deep into what would be considered “fine
dining”. Making the more pedestrian foods but doing so in interesting ways was always more in line with my food interests.
What excites you when developing a dish, a menu or conceiving a new restaurant concept?
It’s all just creative output and ways to continue expressing ideas and bringing people into the conversation. Whatever I do, I need an audience for it to work, so trying to get a beat on what people are craving and try and speak to those impulses.
Who and/or what are your greatest influences on your career?
Oh man so much... as far as chefs go, Alice Watters is a huge influence, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, Fergus Henderson, Paul Kahan, Nancy Silverton and Suzanne Goin to name a few. These are the God Mothers and Fathers of the style that I work in.
And just personally?
Personally music has shaped me immensely. Early stuff like Thelonious Monk, Lightning Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf & Yusef Lateef were huge... in the '90s the early hip hop music like Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, Wu Tang Clan, etc were artists I obsessed over. Even today’s music drives me in a major way.
All of the above.
How important is curiosity to you?
It’s the essence of what I do and the place that I draw from to continue doing this year over year. Without it, the journey ends.
What have been some of your greatest lessons learned?
Don’t believe the hype… especially your own. Try and listen more than you talk... powerful people tend to speak sparingly. Two things that seem to contradict
one another can both be true.
How do you apply them?
Not sure... I’m just fumbling around winging it really.
Being a chef and restaurant owner can be all consuming, ie morning through night, what do you do to blow off steam?
Surf, Snowboard, Yoga, Jiu Jitsu... anything I can do to move my body. Get outside when ever possible... eat psilocybin and get weird at least once a year.
How did you settle in California / LA?
I was living in Colorado and was tired of being land locked... wanted to surf and just randomly ended up in LA. The lifestyle was super attractive and the raw ingredients were mind-blowing. A year round growing season that never goes flat. It’s insane. Feels like cheating at times.
You hear the term California style thrown around a lot – what do you think California style is?
This is risky because California is so vast and has so many different aspects. There is the obvious laid back vibes to California compared to the east coast... the culture is less bound by tradition and therefor has a healthy spirit of adventure but all that is pretty general. I don’t know about the whole California style thing... feels a little cliché at the moment, I try to avoid saying it.
What are you most comfortable in?
Jeans, a white tee and sneakers.. sorry that’s boring but it’s true.