An Interview with Chef Reagan Moore of Lola’s in West Hollywood

August 7, 2012

Martinis at Lola's

As an avid Instagramer, I meet some of the coolest people around the world. Since about 90 percent of my posts feature food that I cook or eat at restaurants, I connect with hundreds of foodies, chefs and culinary students. But, sometimes, I see something extra special in the food.

[Editor’s Note: Interview was taken in June 2012.]


Perhaps it’s a spark of magic or a passion that is translated into his creations, Chef Reagan Moore undoubtedly exudes a love of creating some of the most eye-drooling culinary creations that any food enthusiast could hope to see. I had the opportunity to get a private tour of the restaurant, and subsequently, experience a tasting menu that was out of this world.  You must try the truffle Mac & Cheese!  Here is my interview with the Executive Chef of Lola’s (he wanted the title of “Food Tzar in Aggregate,” but that was nixed), a great restaurant-lounge in hip West Hollywood.

Do you remember the first time you fell in love?

Immediately I thought of Karen, no Kristen… wait, Penny… but then I remembered, Beethoven, Sonatina in G. My piano teacher made me learn the piece for a youth competition at San Diego State and my Mom made me play it for my Grandmother. I stomped up to the piano and am sure I gave a big sigh when I started to play. At the end of the first movement I glanced at Grandma to give her one of those “are you happy now” looks and I saw that she had tears in her eyes. The epiphany was immediate and powerful and I actually listened to what I was playing, I heard the emotion come out, the sweet joy and excitement dancing across the room and lifting Grandma, bringing out a tenderness in her I wasn’t used to seeing. I still play that piece today, it’s my warm up and it always brings a smile to my face.

When you’re having a bad day, do you think that translates into your dishes?

I want to say yes. I really want to say yes because that appeals to me, being that passionate and fiery; but, no, I don’t.  Cooking is a both a refuge and my profession and I understand that you are coming into my restaurant to escape, to enjoy, to fall in or even out of love and that my job is to provide the background for your experience. We used to have this very popular dish on the menu that I truly hated, Parmesan Crusted Halibut. Intellectually, it was a total mess; sharp flavored cheese topping a mild flavored fish served with wilted spinach and mashed potatoes and on a bed of citrus cream sauce. Everything except the bruléed cheese was soft so in my mind the customer was eating parmesan flavored baby food and paying top dollar for it! But I made this dish perfectly, cooked the halibut properly so it wasn’t dry, sautéed the spinach in roasted garlic oil to give it a little definition, made a simple basic but delicious mashed potato to act as the blank canvas for the subtle flavors to color over it. Why, because someone was paying for it and even though I personally never would order it, it doesn’t warrant me ruining someone else’s experience, someone else’s joy and delight at being out and about.

When did you first fall in love with the culinary arts, and did you always know you’d become a chef?

High school was easy. I didn’t try very hard and had a solid ‘B’ average. As a result I didn’t apply to many colleges–one in fact–and I didn’t get in. So I panicked and answered the Air Force recruiters phone call. When I showed up at the center he wasn’t there but the Marine Corps recruiter was. I joined. In the interview process I mentioned that my Grandfather was a cook in the Air Force and so they signed me up as a cook in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. The following summer after Boot Camp, Marine Combat Training, and USMC Cooking School, I ended up at 29 Palms, Camp Wilson (I think) cooking for the first Gulf War drawdown. There were 30,000 Marines and Sailors passing through the base and we were cooking day on/day off (24 hour shifts). I didn’t know to hide so on my first day the Chief Cook assigned me to the flat-top, or grill in Marine Speak. I had to do grilled cheese sandwiches for 5,000. My tools: a flat-top the size of a desk, a pallet of white bread, a tower of American cheese, a bucket of margarine, and an off-set spatula. It was hot, I burned myself more times than I could count, it was non-stop grilled cheese for three-and-a-half hours and I loved every minute of it. The smells of crisping bread and melting cheese, the yelling across the kitchen, the laughter of the more seasoned cooks, literal Veterans laughing and making fun of the ‘boot’. Amazing–and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

I was hooked but still a bit lazy, cooking for the Reserves and pursuing music at the same time. It took my Grandmother kicking me in the butt to apply for and get into the California Culinary Academy where upon graduation I received the Founder’s Award, the Danielle Carlisle Walker Award for Culinary Excellence and here I am today.

What types of dishes are your favorite to make?

Not a particularly fair question, and I have a wishy-washy answer. I like to cook; simple or complex, I enjoy the act of cooking. Something as simple as making polenta; you get to decide how firm or creamy you want it to be and then adjust ratios of water to cream. The basic recipe is simple, 1-part polenta to 4-parts liquid. If you want firm, grillable polenta you don’t add any cream or butter as these make it (go figure) creamy when hot. Then there is additional flavorings you can add besides just salt and pepper: sun dried tomatoes, thyme, rosemary, maple syrup, cinnamon, all spice, clove, lavender, chives, jalapenos, dried chilies, parmesan, cheddar, etc. Now this simple polenta dish takes on different notes which can compliment or contrast with what you are pairing it. With my kids even making Mac ‘n’ Cheese out of the box can be fun, playing with different additions: duck confit, cherry tomatoes, spinach, peas & corn, Polish sausage, sharp cheddar, truffle oil, squash blossoms and prosciutto. Food is playtime and the best part is you get to eat what you create.

 

Your followers know that you like to cook at home. What’s your most requested thing to cook?

Last summer it was BBQ Pork Buns. We make the dough by hand and glaze and grill the pork chops. Then portion and roll the dough and stuff them with the BBQ pork. Put them in the steamer and 10 minutes later, Char Siu Bao! When my step-daughter came down for a visit we did our old favorite: Crab. So now the boys are asking for crab. Other than that, I just try to expose them to lots of different flavors and require at least one bite. Sometimes I just get the bare minimum, sometimes they eat all of it.

What’s your dream kitchen?

I think this question goes hand in hand with what is my dream restaurant because each kitchen needs to be optimized for each restaurant. My dream kitchen would be small, a two-person hot line and a one-person pantry; and a small dish/prep area. We would have a six-burner stove/oven combo and a grill/refrigerator drawer combo and a couple of reach-ins and counter space. The pantry would have a wide tabletop and reach-in combo where the ice cream machine would sit and a freezer would be within easy reach. This would back-up a small 45-seat café, wood tables and chairs, and bright colors on the wall. Food wise, we would have spur of the moment menus to take advantage of what’s seasonal and flavorful, and what ever else is tickling my fancy.

Who would you love to cook for right now?

My Grandfather. He was a cook in the Army-Air Corps during World War 2 and retired from the Air Force after a 22-year culinary career. He passed away when I was in cooking school. When I told him I was going to Culinary School, he asked “Why? It’s such a hard life…” And at times it has been, but the world makes sense in the kitchen and I’d like to show that I’ve done him proud, and maybe challenge him to a pumpkin pie contest.

Do you have a cooking tip you’d like to share with us?

Taste! Taste everything, try everything. How can you truly experience sweet without knowing sour? Rich without bitter? Play with your food. Try different spices and herbs just for fun. Do carrots and caraway really go together? Do tarragon and fennel taste similar and can you substitute one for the other? Try, play, eat!

Special thanks to Chef Moore for his generosity of food and spirit and to Lola’s.  And, go eat at his restaurant already!

Lola’s
945 N Fairfax Ave
West Hollywood, CA  90046
323.654.5652

Additional photos via @reagsla.


~Kathy

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Stephanie Clayton August 15, 2012 at 8:20 PM

Great post. “How can you truly experience sweet without knowing sour? Rich without bitter?” You know…that is really key. It could also be a metaphor for life.

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