Jeremy Fox is not what I expect. Granted, this is more my fault than his. What I expect is based on hearsay: that Fox is brilliant, egomaniacal, difficult—that after he mysteriously left his post at Ubuntu, the lauded and influential Napa, California, restaurant where he was chef from 2007 to 2010, he couldn’t manage to hold a job, and burned every bridge that was lowered for him. Which is to say, I’m expecting a swaggering rock star who tells me to fuck off.
But Fox isn’t that. The first thing you notice is his eyes, doleful save for the occasional twinkle, and set into bags so defined he might have been born with them. His hand dwarfs mine when we greet each other; I picture him holding the sort of tiny sprout that might’ve grown in the Ubuntu garden, and the sprout just vanishing. He has the slight hunch that some tall people have—as though he’d like to close the distance between us.
We’re in Santa Monica, California. It’s 2014—six years since Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times, declared Ubuntu the second-best restaurant outside of New York, and Food & Wine named Fox one of its Best New Chefs of 2008. We’re some distance removed from the Michelin star and all the accolades. And though what I’m curious about is that interim—those years during which much remains unaccounted for—I ask if we can start at the beginning. And so he does.
My grandparents on my mother’s side had a pizza restaurant in Chattanooga when I was a kid—hardcore Jews who had an Italian restaurant in the Deep South. It seemed to always be in my blood. Ever since I was ten years old, I had an idea of the kind of restaurant I wanted. It always just seemed like that’s what I wanted to do. I associated restaurants with good times. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money. I lived with my single mother, and most of what I ate was fast food or frozen food. The times we did go out to a restaurant, it was such a treat. I wanted to recreate that for people.
When Fox was nineteen, he saw Big Night, the 1996 film starring Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci, and thought, That’s what I want. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be a chef or not, but that feeling, where people were so touched by what was going on and affected by it, it was like, Yeah.”
He’d been studying English at Georgia State for about a year when he left to enroll at Johnson & Wales in Charleston. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he says, about the first cooking jobs he took while in school, including one at Anson Restaurant, where Mike Lata was chef. “I had been a cook at Chick-fil-A at the mall. I hadn’t actually cooked anything; I didn’t know anything about food. After I started, that’s all I wanted to do.” But Fox never got his degree; he fell two courses shy of finishing.
It was advanced baking and pastry. They were nine-day classes, and on the ninth day you had your project due and a practical exam. I always waited until the last minute; I was up late the night before doing my project, and I went to print it at about four in the morning and I ran out of ink, so I had to run out to the Kinko’s in North Charleston.
I had a Jeep Wrangler with soft doors that didn’t have locks. All of a sudden, two guys jumped in, one in the front, one in the back, put a gun to me, made me drive to an ATM. I didn’t have any money, so they brought me back to my apartment. They were undoing TV and stereo equipment, and I noticed they weren’t really paying attention, so I was able to take off out the door, and they started chasing me through this swampy area.
He emerged in a neighborhood, “all cut up,” and started knocking on doors until somebody opened one and called the police. “They found the car a couple days later,” Fox says, “but I got dropped from the class.” Rather than pay to take the class over again, he decided to finish his education in the kitchen. He stayed a little longer at Anson, then moved to Atlanta, where he worked for two and a half years until, in 2001, he felt the call of the West.
I’d kind of been obsessed with California ever since there was a Saveur issue that year on California. So that was my next obsession: California. I just up and left. I got to California two days before 9/11.
When he got to San Francisco, he took a job at Rubicon. He didn’t settle in immediately.
I was always kind of nervous. I’m a very nervous person. People couldn’t necessarily tell, but I was always basically freaking out inside. I would show up four or five hours before I was able to clock in, because I would rather be able to not stress so much—be able to make sure I could do everything rather than having to rush. Which isn’t a good thing. It’s not healthy. I don’t want my cooks coming in so early. But that was just how it was.
Everything changed when I staged at Manresa at the very beginning of 2002. I’d never seen food like that. I’d never seen people cook like that. I’d never seen a kitchen work that way. It wasn’t loud, it wasn’t hectic, it wasn’t crazy. It was very controlled. You were able to focus. It was that job where it wasn’t about how much I could produce. It wasn’t about volume; it was about how well I could do this. And that was just everything for me. I didn’t have to rush.
Luckily, after my stage, I showed up another day when another cook was a no-show, and that was his last chance. I helped out. It was a good thing I was there. David Kinch just gave me this look and a smile.[1. David Kinch: “Innate talent. He’s one of those very rare people who knows how to make things taste good, regardless of what it is. People are born with that. He had it.”]
I had actually made an impact. I ended up with a part-time job and eventually full time. I stayed there for almost five years. When I left I was chef de cuisine.
David allowed me to learn. As long as I got all the other things I had to do done, I could order what I wanted.[2. “I watched him grow in many aspects of his life,” Kinch says. “And he’s a major part of the success of the restaurant.”] It would just make me work harder. I was able to learn through trial and error—sausages and pâtés and cured meats. Then the garden started with Cynthia [Sandberg] at Love Apple Farms, and the focus really changed, where we were getting this beautiful produce and things I’d never heard of—that none of us had ever heard of. The composition of the plates started changing. It was kind of our inside joke, like, we would set the plate before the meat went on and we would look at it and say, “Well, that’s a finished dish at L’Arpège.” It stopped being about the meat. Whenever vegetarians came in, we would do special dishes. I would do these vegetable dishes, and I started getting so much enjoyment out of that. I was able to just riff on what we had.
Fox had been at Manresa for almost five years when Olivia Wu, a San Francisco Chronicle restaurant reviewer, visited. “She was doing a story on the garden and the symbiosis with the kitchen, and she was spending a few days in the kitchen observing, then going to the garden,” he says. “And she mentioned to me that another part of the story was going to be about this restaurant opening in Napa that had their own garden.” Wu connected Fox with the owner, Sandy Lawrence, who was planning to open a vegetarian restaurant and yoga studio and was looking for a chef.
I loved my job, but I felt like I was in a position where I could at least see what was going on—see if it was time to do something on my own. I didn’t feel like I had to rush into anything. I loved where I was. Unless something came along that I thought was just a home run, I was fine where I was. It wasn’t that kind of thing where I was itching to go.
But having grown to love cooking with garden vegetables at Manresa, the idea of helming a vegetables-only restaurant appealed to him.
It obviously seemed really crazy as a concept, but I thought I could do something with it. I didn’t know how to cook vegetarian food,” he says. “I’ve never done that, it’s not what I do. But I thought because there was a garden and I met the gardener, Jeff Dawson—who is just a god—that it could be something really special if everybody just came together.[3. “The garden site was a semi-rugged hillside and the development of the garden itself was really challenging,” says Dawson, Ubuntu’s gardner. “It was a terraced hillside going down. We double dug everything, which meant we dug the soil down two feet, took it out—tons of rocks, pull all the rocks out—and put the soil back with compost and organic fertilizers. We built a little greenhouse. I was just there yesterday, walking through it. There are two rows that have little peppers and tomatoes, but otherwise it’s vacant. To look at it and go, Wow, at one time this was just pumping out produce and thriving and really productive—and now it’s not.“]
There’s a consensus among those who ate at Ubuntu while Jeremy Fox was cooking: there was nothing quite like it, in Napa or anywhere else.[4. Evan Rich, chef of Rich Table in San Francisco: “The first time I ate Jeremy’s food, I had just moved to California. Alex Grunert, a pastry chef I used to work with, was in town visiting from New York. Ubuntu had been recommended to him by Chef Dan Barber. We both wanted to see Napa, so we decided to drive up for the day. We sat at the bar and ate lunch. I was blown away by the first dish presented to us. I can remember the cauliflower gratin, even though it’s been over seven years. Eating such an ingredient-focused dish, I realized I knew nothing about vegetables. This dish and restaurant were my introduction to Californian vegetable-focused cooking. The focus and respect Jeremy had for vegetables was evident in every dish served. I felt he understood how to coax flavors from vegetables that I didn’t even know existed. Jeremy was able to prepare dishes in a unique way, that had such balance, refinement, and beauty, that to this day the experiences that I had at Ubuntu still resonate strongly with me. He would utilize every part of a vegetable as though he were cooking head to tail with a pig. Vegetable charcoal to cook vegetables, using roots of things you didn’t know were good—his creativity was unreal. But it wasn’t creativity for the sake of being different; it was done to make the dishes better. People are still trying to do what he did, and none can match.”]
It was the scariest thing in my life up to that point: I’m opening up a vegetarian restaurant in Napa with a yoga studio. Am I going to embarrass David Kinch? Is he going to disown me, is everyone going to laugh at me? All the things running through my head. I wanted to make David Kinch proud, and I wanted to represent him well. I didn’t want to just regurgitate his ideas out of respect for him.
The name Ubuntu, Dawson tells me, comes from an ancient word and philosophy that means, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” It’s an apt way to describe any restaurant, but especially this one.
I had an amazing, amazing team. A lot of people who had worked with me before at Manresa, probably half my team.
The garden was the heart of the restaurant; we couldn’t have done what we did without it. The food we did there couldn’t have happened without Jeff’s produce,” he says.[5. Dawson has put together biodynamic programs and developed culinary gardens for vineyards throughout Napa, including Fetzer and Kendall-Jackson. Prior to Ubuntu, he had long supplied produce to Bay Area chefs. “Jeremy, I feel, is one of the most talented chefs out there,” Dawson says. “We had an amazing time working together at Ubuntu, taking what we both do to a whole new level. I think it was because he had a garden to work with, and he had developed a relationship with the gardeners and the farmers. It inspired him, and his creativity took off into this other realm. To see him go through that process of coming up to the garden and seeing the plants and saying, ‘Why aren’t we using this arugula that’s gone to flower? Look at these flowers.’ He’d be tasting stuff, saying, ‘I want this. Let half of your arugula go to flower so I can use that.’ He was constantly looking at the growth cycles of the vegetables, and then looking at how he could utilize the different developmental growth of the vegetable that was beyond what was normally used, and so he kind of developed this seed-to-stem approach. He really got into stems and flowers and seedpods. He just had a different way of looking at things, and then the creative ability to utilize them in the kitchen and create something people hadn’t had before. His salads were amazing because there would be so many interesting things. We would harvest the salad mix but then he would throw fava leaves in there and then arugula flowers and mustard flowers, these complex and intense flavors. You’d sit down and you would have to ponder the dish as you ate it. I think that he was able to create an experience on the plate, on the table, a succession of these dishes that had these layers of flavor, that evoked a response that maybe you’d never had before. And to me that’s the most exciting form of dining: when you can go and taste something you’ve never tasted before, and the depth and complexity is unique. He was a master of that. He’s still a master of that.”] It had to be picked that morning and on the plate that day. Handled in small volume and picked early in the morning before the sun came out, so it didn’t wilt. Kept super crisp and pristine. It made us work really hard. Rose [Robertson] did the day-to-day; we knew there was someone up at five or six in the morning picking our stuff and making sure it was beautiful. We weren’t going to disrespect her and the work she was doing.
It was such amazing produce I was getting. And it was just kind of tunnel vision, where meat and fish weren’t an option, and my entire brain was just constantly, constantly aflutter with vegetable ideas. I would later find out that the entire time was a manic episode—which had to end at some point, and it did. But it was probably the most focused I’ve ever been in my life.
That intensity and focus yielded dishes that were singular, and still reverberate in the food community, among both diners and chefs.[6. David Chang: “Jeremy’s food helped shape the past decade of dining. It’s something that isn’t recognized. Maybe I’m wrong about its importance, but I don’t think so. It’s damn near impossible to create your own style with food, and it’s something that Fox did better than anyone. He was the first guy through the wall.”] There was the cauliflower prepared three ways—raw, roasted, and puréed—spiced with vadouvan and served in a tiny cast-iron pot. The spring peas with white chocolate[7. Aaron Arizpe, now at work on a book for Phaidon about important dishes in the history of gastronomy, was a mechanical-engineering graduate student and blogger when he ate Fox’s food at both Manresa and Ubuntu. “When I think back to some of the most delicious things I’ve eaten, always, always in the conversation is that green pea, white chocolate, macadamia dish. Always,” he says. “That dish is so perfect that it’s unreal. I’ve eaten that probably a dozen times. It’s something that you’ll think about forever, you know? His is one career I’ll always watch.”] remains memorable to others.[8. Anthony Myint, founder of Mission Chinese Food and Commonwealth, says of the meal he ate in the spring of 2008: “The most incredible and memorable dish for me was a pea consommé in a shallow bowl, like a pasta bowl. There were freshly shucked peas in it and a brunoise of white chocolate and macadamia nuts. There were also a bunch of shaved and baby radishes of various kinds. Also micro mints and such. The flavor and ingredient combination was new to me, and the use of sweet notes was a real revelation. It was all familiar stuff and in straightforward preparations—nothing molecular, but really technical and ingredient-driven.”] The desserts were part and parcel of the restaurant’s success, garden-driven and balanced. They were made by Jeremy’s wife, Deanie Hickox, who’d worked at Rubicon and Manresa with him.
In the beginning it was very simple. My vision for the restaurant, from the beginning, was a vegetarian A16 [chef Nate Appleman’s celebrated San Francisco restaurant]. I didn’t want it to be precious; I didn’t want it to be froufrou. I wanted to be just like this kind of fun, loud, bustling kind of place. I didn’t want it necessarily to scream that it was vegetarian. My wife at the time was the pastry chef. Our bases were covered. We opened strong.
Not long after the opening, Michael Bauer reviewed the restaurant in the San Francisco Chronicle, declaring, “Everything Fox produces has perfect pitch. What Fox is creating at Ubuntu is truly extraordinary. He’s taking vegetable-based cuisine to a new level.”
When I first read the review from Michael Bauer I thought, Seriously? I didn’t think the food was as good as he said it was. I’m always very self-deprecating. I think it was a great story. Something people could latch onto. It wasn’t like anything that happened before. It was the right place at the right time.
“It was this moment in time where all these different factors came together and created this brilliant flash,” says Jeff Dawson. “Unfortunately, it didn’t last, but for that period of time it was something really incredible, and really unique, and really special.”
It was never very busy, especially in the beginning. We got reviewed by the Chronicle pretty quickly—we got an amazing review. We got a great San Francisco Magazine review, and we got these little pops, but it was Napa, it was the winter, locals wanted fried chicken and rib-sticking things, not what we were doing, so we were dead. We were dead. It didn’t look good. Then all of a sudden, after lunch service one day, my manager brought over a little note that said FRANK BRUNI and a phone number. I was like, “Frank Bruni called, and you didn’t tell me?” He said, “You don’t like to be bothered during service!”
“Frank Bruni! You can bother me anytime.” He had written this five-week series on the top ten restaurants outside of New York, and we were number two. All of a sudden, overnight, boom, we were too busy, we were busier than we could handle. It blindsided us.[9. Frank Bruni: “I think some chefs get very ambitious, and they’re looking out across the globe, and they’re looking out across the country, and they forget to take utterly full advantage of where they are. I was struck by how fully Jeremy utilizes the fact that he’s in California and has access to really superior products, you know, especially when it comes to greens and vegetables, and that sort of thing. A lot of cooks forget to do that just because their mind is in so many other places so they get overly ambitious and they kind of view that less as an opportunity than a restraint. And he sees it correctly as an opportunity.”]
We had major growing pains. The kitchen wasn’t designed for what we were doing, especially the volume. There was very little refrigeration. We were getting killed by the health department. After less than a year of being open, we had to close down for a little while, and we spent $150,000 on a new kitchen to handle it. But two weeks later, I was a Chronicle Rising Star Chef, and then a week later, Food & Wine Best New Chef, then boom boom boom, things just changed, super quickly, way too fast. I didn’t know what was going on—things were pulling me out of the kitchen, doing events. It seemed like there were photo shoots every day, always having to supply recipes. I didn’t really work with recipes, so when I had to do one—it seemed like such a simple task, give a recipe to the PR company—it was like pulling teeth. Things got really, really convoluted.
On the internet, you can still see the results of the photo shoots he’s talking about: a picture of him holding a bunch of carrots, another of him in the garden looking stern with a bunch of radishes. He looks tired.
I was very proud of what we were doing. I basically derived all my self-worth from what was going on there. Our cauliflower dish in a cast-iron pot, different preparations—people loved that. It’s just a simple, humble vegetable. I was definitely proud of simple dishes. Eventually I had flowers all over everything and shaved vegetables and everything looked like it was alive and growing and it did nothing for the flavor. But I was proud of the simple flavor combinations.
I think eventually it moved away from that. It kind of got away from me a little bit. It did become very precious. I didn’t know whose expectations I should be serving: whether it was the gourmands and the people who were flying in from all over the world. I didn’t know who my audience was. It definitely wasn’t the locals. I think things got a little mashed up. I lost sight of who I was cooking for, what I was doing it for, and we kept pushing, pushing, pushing, trying to push the boundaries. And eventually, yeah, it just kind of collapsed a little bit.
We opened in August. I had maybe one or two days off the first eight months, working fifteen-, twenty-hour days. I spent many nights sleeping on table twenty, in the booth, catching a couple hours. There was a lot of that; not a lot of free time. But it wasn’t because anybody was telling me that I needed to work—to me there wasn’t even a question: that’s just what I did. I woke up, I went to work, maybe I would sleep a couple hours, and I would do it again. There was nothing else.
The pressure was all from me. It felt great that people were taking such notice—everybody wants to be recognized for what they do. But that pressure did me in. I was trying to please. I don’t know who I was trying to please. I had to work harder, I had to be more creative. In my mind, that’s what everybody else was thinking and needed from me. But I don’t think that that was the case.
There’s a pause, and Fox exhales. It’s nearing dinner time, and the staff of his restaurant, Rustic Canyon, are gathering for family meal a few tables away. “I’ll just put it all on the table,” he concedes, lowering his voice a little. “The pressure was a lot for me.”
I ended up going to a psychiatrist. I had never had any sort of therapy, but I ended up on a really weird combination of medications, and really didn’t understand what they were doing to me. It was like an Elvis cocktail—it was really, really, really bad. I definitely changed; I didn’t even really know what I was doing or what was going on. Things were going south everywhere. The restaurant never made money; it was constantly losing money. My wife and I split up. It was a perfect storm of everything.
Every magazine thing and photo got the frame treatment; the owner of the restaurant lined the whole hallway with them. I hated looking at them. I was so bitter. I thought, if I got Food & Wine Best New Chef, and I got a James Beard nomination, Michelin stars, life would be great. And it was quite the opposite. I just saw all these things on the wall, and I’m still running a slow restaurant, and my life is falling apart. And I just hated it. I hated being there.
I just let things move so far negative. The morale of the place, my relationship with people. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating. I had lost about forty pounds, literally going days without sleeping, and working on a cookbook that never happened. I probably would have died if I had kept going much longer. Drugs were never a thing for me, but all of a sudden I was like, I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know: what happened, what happened, what happened? How did it get so bad? I did other projects after that that fell apart really quickly, I burned a lot of bridges, I was just screwing up left and right.[10. Dawson remembers, “I’d come in and he’d have big bags under his eyes. ‘Dude, when was the last time you slept?’ And he’d go, ‘Oh, it’s been a couple days.’ And it was just because he was driven by what was going on around him. That was his downfall. He got sucked up in the vortex and wasn’t able to ground himself in what he was really good at. It was clear that he just lost control of the situation. He lost control of the restaurant, his staff, what was going on there. He lost control of the expenses, what he was spending. And I think he lost control of his own well being. It was too much. It was too much.”]
“I don’t really talk this much,” Fox says. “This is a story I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for a long time—people are very curious as to why I left Ubuntu, what the story was. I was never ready to talk about it.”
In the absence of an explanation, people speculated. Eater SF ran the press release (“Ubuntu restaurant owner Sandy Lawrence and chef/partner Jeremy Fox announce amicable separation; Aaron London assumes position of chef de cuisine”), and the comments that ensued range from skeptical (“Yeah, me and my ex-boyfriend separated amicably as well, and I got the knife marks in my kitchen wall to prove it.”) to spiteful (“Yeh, I wonder if Jeremy will be able to get away with working out of whites and in a fedora at his next gig. Man, what a rockstar!”). The online hating continued as online hating does, until the bullies moved on to other targets, or forgot what the point was in the first place.
I didn’t want sympathy. And I didn’t want to use the fact that I was messed up on medication to be an excuse to be given a second shot. I would rather talk about it after I had worked through it all. I wanted to earn people’s respect again. Be a good role model. Things can get really bad, but you gotta push through and look at yourself, and be okay swallowing your pride and saying, Yeah, I screwed up. Maybe it’s not everybody else. Maybe it is me.
After Fox left Ubuntu—his marriage officially over, too—there were a series of failed projects. First at Daniel Patterson’s Plum, where he was supposed to be chef; then with the Tyler Florence group, where he was hired as creative director and left after just four months. Things had hit rock bottom, and he knew he couldn’t continue working in the Bay Area. He moved to LA and started a few other projects that went nowhere. But he started seeing a doctor that specialized in medication adjustment, and began the long process of weaning himself off the drugs he’d been taking. In December 2013, Fox heard that the restaurateurs Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan were looking for a chef for their restaurant Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, and approached them about the job. This was, in his mind, his last shot.
We talked for a while. I told them everything I’m telling you. I came clean on everything. In my mind, this was my last chance. If I screwed this up, I would not be cooking ever again. I was scared shitless. I didn’t want to screw it up. They were just very cool, and they weren’t pushing me to do press. They let everyone know I was here and what I was doing. I’m just thankful they gave me the chance. It’s all I know how to do. I think that’s what I loved about cooking: I didn’t have to think about anything else.
I started here almost two years ago, kept my head down, worked harder than I’ve worked in my life. The expectation, people I work with, people I work for—it just feels safe. It feels like this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. It’s not about Michelin stars and getting attention. Everyone wants to be recognized for their hard work, but it’s not what I’m after.
He is, essentially, trying to be okay.
I take pretty much most fault in all the breakdowns at Ubuntu and with Daniel Patterson and Tyler Florence—these things where I flamed out really quick. I take the blame for those things. I was afraid. When the pressure hit and when it was down and I was in it, is that where I would go again? Back to how I was? I was afraid that I would self-destruct; I was afraid that I would be my own demise. But I have such a better support system now. I’m getting married in November to an amazing woman. I’d gotten all these things out of my system. I was ready to focus and get back to work.
Fox’s priorities and perspective have changed since leaving the Bay Area. Being chef of Rustic Canyon has been an exercise in finding balance.
It’s hard training people and managing people and not necessarily wanting to push them the way I was pushed, with intimidation and violence. I also don’t want to be too soft and not push enough. I don’t want to be too light on people. I want them to have an experience where they have to reach inside and push through. I’m always trying to be a better person, a better chef. The cooking, at this point, is not my priority. Not having balance and killing myself for work is not something I’m able to do anymore.
I want to go home and be with my wife and have time to enjoy life. I don’t want my cooks to be miserable. If it means that the food has to be a little less complicated to do that, then I’m totally cool with that. It’s food. When it comes down to it, I just want people to come here and eat the food and enjoy it. I’m not trying to change their lives. I don’t expect that somebody’s going to come eat my food now and necessarily be moved the way they were at Ubuntu.
I ask if he feels like he’s holding back—if he’s less ambitious with his menu at Rustic Canyon.
Sometimes, sometimes. But I’m holding back less than I was a year and a half ago, less than a year ago, less than six months ago, less than three months ago. I think the food is constantly getting stronger. Also my team is constantly getting stronger. I can’t do it all myself. I came into this job with the long game in mind. I wasn’t looking to catch lightning in a bottle. I was looking long-term at how I can make my life better, and that’s what this has been for me.
“I mean, at the end of the day, really, we get one crack at this, and then we’re all going to die,” says Ari Taymor, the twenty-nine-year-old chef of Alma in Los Angeles, who staged for Fox at Ubuntu. His respect for Fox is obvious. “If you’re killing it but you’re miserable, it’s nothing. It’s meaningless. What I’m seeing from Jeremy now is that he’s been able to compartmentalize the pressure and the expectations on him, use them in a positive manner, but also focus on all the other parts of his life that influence what’s going on. And so his food is really delicious. It might not be, you know, the Michelin-starred style of food that he was putting out before, but that doesn’t mean anything. He’s making people happy. He’s training a great staff and he’s living a life. His food, as it’s continued to progress, it’s getting more intricate, more creative, more layered, and his confidence in what he’s doing is really pretty inspiring to see.”
Chefs have always had to deal with plenty of bullshit that comes with working in the hospitality industry—running a kitchen, sourcing ingredients, interpersonal relationships in the kitchen and dining room, difficult customers. But I can’t help but wonder if—with the Internet, Yelp, food blogs, the vast array of venues in which smack-talking can and does occur—there’s more bullshit to contend with than there’s ever been before.
“Ubuntu or Meadowood, being in Napa, out of the city, we have to invariably rely a little more on the media,” says chef Christopher Kostow, who remembers eating lunch at Ubuntu when he was first applying for his job at the Restaurant at Meadowood. “We have to. We’re not in huge populations. People need to be drawn here. We’re blessed—speaking of Meadowood—we’ve done really hard work to spread the message and do it in an authentic way, and now we’re an incredibly busy restaurant, and everything’s great. But it took years and years and years here. And I know what that’s like. And then you have to be careful what you wish for, because all of a sudden you’re doing a million interviews and everyone wants to talk to you and everyone thinks they know you, and all that sort of stuff. You just wonder where the sweet spot is. I don’t really know.”
“Without the press we received, we would’ve closed,” Taymor adds. Bon Appétit named Alma the Best New Restaurant in America in 2013. “If we weren’t number one on that Bon Appétit list—not two through ten, but if we weren’t number one—I don’t think we would have made it. It’s what we need to do because of the nature of where food is in LA and what the dining public wants. We need to constantly have that level of media attention just to stay relevant, and just to stay in the conversation at all times.”
“I’m almost schizophrenic about the whole thing,” Kostow says, “because sometimes I’m like, Wow, we need more attention! And then I’ll be like, I don’t want to talk to media for the rest of my life.”
Kostow and Fox knew each other in the South Bay, when Fox was chef de cuisine at Manresa and Kostow was chef of Chez TJ. And though Kostow was in Napa at the same time as Ubuntu, and witnessed a lot of what went down, he hesitates to speculate too much.
“As chefs, we have to find this balance between putting pressure on ourselves to keep ourselves sharp, and putting pressure on ourselves in a way that doesn’t service us, it doesn’t service the food, it doesn’t help at all,” he says. “I think that there are times we swing to varying degrees in both directions. At that time, the pressure Jeremy was putting on himself and the pressure that was being exerted upon him in his personal life was such that it wasn’t helping him and it wasn’t helping his food and it certainly wasn’t helping the culture and the place. It wasn’t a huge departure from what all of us deal with. It was just—it was a lot. It was a lot at one time, I guess.
“There’s more of a spotlight,” he adds, about the modern restaurant landscape. “If anything, the rise of all this content has actually lowered the bar a lot. You can be not that good and have your name in the paper. There’s so much content being created. We always want to celebrate who’s new. The media’s job is often to present things that haven’t been presented before. It’s not about what’s good. It’s about what’s clever, what’s ironic, what’s hip. No one celebrates the guy who kicks ass every day and strives for perfection. That’s not interesting.
“I want the people who are really working hard and doing good food to be the people who are celebrated,” he says. “Jeremy Fox is a great chef, period. Irrespective of any personal challenges or whatever, he is as good as they get. I still think Jeremy’s as good of a chef in this generation as there is.”[11. David Chang: “I want people to know that Jeremy Fox was one of the great chefs America’s ever produced,” Chang told me. “That’s what I want people to know. His contributions to the culinary canon are really priceless.”]
After Fox and I finish talking, I stick around for dinner. I order the lavender-sugared marcona almonds—the same almonds that Frank Bruni ate at Ubuntu[12. Frank Bruni in the New York Times: “The nuts set the tone for the rest of the meal, establishing Ubuntu’s talent for presenting the familiar, be it almonds or avocado, in a form more rarefied, and with seasonings more nuanced, than you expect.]—I wonder what it would have been like to eat them in Napa in 2008, instead of in Santa Monica in 2014, and I wonder if they would have tasted different, or more perfect somehow. And it occurs to me that maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe food is supposed to disappear, and a meal shouldn’t be around forever—shouldn’t live on in thousands of Yelp reviews and eGullet and Eater posts and photographs—analyzed and praised and hyped ad infinitum. Maybe a night should be allowed to be over, and a meal should be allowed to end.
It’s generally unhealthy for people engaged in creative endeavors—whether musicians or painters or writers—to think that they’re founts of genius. But it strikes me as especially harmful for chefs to think this way. Because no matter your talent, it’s not just about you—it’s about ubuntu: I am what I am, because of who we all are. Success, as a restaurant, hinges on innumerable factors: it’s about the moods of the staff and of diners. It depends on the weather. It’s about flashes of insight as much as it is about consistency and hard work, day in and day out. Chefs can’t rightly claim or receive all the credit, and neither should they take all the blame.
In his review of Ubuntu, Bruni called Fox’s egg and brioche “out of this world.” However apt that may have been, that’s the sort of unwittingly harmful terminology that gets used when discussing food—especially on the Internet. It puts unrealistic pressure on chefs to make something otherworldly when, at best, perfection happens as a result of hard work and pure luck. That kind of perfection is possible, if rare—when everything is working together flawlessly, the second before it all turns to shit.
Big Night ends, actually, the morning after the eponymous big night. Everyone looks a little worse for wear—some irrevocable shit has gone down, the brothers have fist-fought on the beach, and Louis Prima never does show up. The restaurant is doomed. In silence, Stanley Tucci makes an omelet for Tony Shalhoub: only eggs and olive oil and some salt and pepper—nothing brilliant, just sustenance—and when Shalhoub eats it, without saying anything, it’s like an accepted apology. Because that’s the thing with restaurants: you come together, and if you’re lucky, something magical happens. The food is good—even perfect, let’s say—and you’re “close to God,” as Tony Shalhoub puts it. But afterward, when you’re mortal again, with your hangover and a sink full of dirty dishes, you eat the omelet. It’s food, and it’s how you stay alive.