There’s nothing fishy about Michael Cimarusti’s credentials — except for what he likes to serve at his two L.A. restaurants and sell at his new seafood shop. Be it elegantly plated Santa Barbara soft-shell prawns at Providence, a hearty lobster roll at Connie and Ted’s or whole fish at the March-opened Cape Seafood and Provisions, seafood is chef Cimarusti’s specialty.
And, obviously, it’s working for him.
In a town known for its fast-casual dining, Providence is an outlier as an award-winning fine-dining restaurant with numerous James Beard nominations (including a “Best Chef: West” nom this year). In 2015, the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star rated restaurant celebrated its 10th anniversary. And that’s no small feat in a city where only a handful of serious fine-dining restaurants remain.
Cimarusti’s casual joint, Connie and Ted’s, is no slouch either: the three-year-old eatery, which features New England comfort foods like clam chowder, oysters and fish stew, is so popular that it still requires reservations. That’s another miracle, seeing as how foodies in the City of Angels are sweet on new openings and often dismiss old stalwarts.
However, sustainability is the New Jersey native’s thing. It’s his guiding principle. Cimarusti is a member of Dock to Dish, an organization that connects small-scale fishermen with businesses, and he follows Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Card to avoid selling endangered species.
Yet, with all his accomplishments, Cimarusti remains down to earth. He eschews the jet-setting life, preferring to go fishing or exploring San Gabriel Valley’s food scene with his family instead. And when it comes to the source of his success, he gives much of the credit to his talented crew of chefs. We recently caught up with the champion of the sea to find out his favorite new restaurant in L.A., what to order at Providence, his most memorable fine-dining experience and more.
All of your dishes are extremely imaginative. Over the years, what’s been your favorite or most memorable dish you’ve created at Providence?
I think one of the most memorable dishes is the salt-roasted Santa Barbara spot prawns. It is simple and delicious, technique-based, and it makes use of one of the most delicious prawns in the world.
How about at Connie and Ted’s best creation?
At Connie and Ted’s, I would say it is our Rhode Island-style clear chowder. It is nothing but clams, potatoes, salt pork and clam broth; it is simple and delicious.
What new ingredient are you currently obsessed with at Providence?
Currently, it would be black cod from Santa Barbara. We get this fish through our connection with Dock to Dish. It is a fish that is often served fully cooked or smoked. I’ve found that if you cook it at a high temperature on the skin only, it’s among the most luxurious and flavorful fish available.
What or who inspires your creativity in the kitchen?
The team at Providence constantly inspires me. Specifically, I’m inspired by chef de cuisine Tristan Aitchison and sous chefs Amy Wolf and Leo Dalbert. All of the dishes that we serve here are created through a process of collaboration, testing [and] tasting and informed by availability and seasonality.
What’s your secret to maintaining one of the few fine-dining restaurants in L.A.?
I think consistency is the key to our success. Excellent service and quality food is what we are known for, and we have always tried to deliver on those fronts. Providence has remained strong through the “casualization” of L.A.’s restaurant scene because we offer a level of experience that is harder and harder to find in L.A.
What’s your favorite new restaurant you’ve been to in L.A.?
Cafe Birdie in Highland Park. This is a quaint restaurant with a small, focused menu that just opened in a neighborhood better known for tacos. The food is delicious, affordable and prepared with quality ingredients. The setting is chic and warm, and the patio out back is an exposed-brick-lined oasis, carved out of a parking lot in an area in the midst of a reawakening.
And a favorite fine-dining experience that blew your mind?
I would say a lengthy lunch that I enjoyed with my wife and kids at Arpège in Paris. My son, who is as fond of vegetables as he is of homework, powered through course after course of Alain Passard’s vegetable-focused cooking. Arpège is so elegant, the hospitality and generosity so genuine; we laughed, marveled at the food and walked away with memories that will endure.
[Chef Cimarusti worked at Arpège during his early years.]
With three seafood-centric businesses, one has to pause and wonder: What do you love so much about seafood that you specialize in it?
My love of seafood stems out of my love for fishing. I have been fishing ever since I was a kid and I still do today. Working with wild fish is so much more of a joy than working with meat. Wild fish are as seasonal as the farmer’s market and just as diverse. I think part of what still intrigues me about fish is the hunt. It is a challenge to field the menu every day; it is ever-changing and it requires lots of effort to find the level of ingredients that we need.
You’re a big advocate of responsible fishing. What are some fish you won’t carry on your menu or in your retail shop out of ethics?
We don’t serve bluefin tuna, and we don’t serve species of fish listed in the red by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you refer to the Seafood Watch Card, you will see a long list of red-listed species. We avoid those species and those fisheries, but I don’t think that it limits the diversity of what we have on offer at Cape, Connie and Ted’s or Providence. Chefs and consumers alike bear the responsibility to purchase sustainable fish. I believe that my generation and my children’s generation have the ability to set our oceans on a path to sustainability. If we shirk that responsibility, we may find that we have missed the window to do something meaningful to preserve our oceans and the life within it.
Any plans for seafood-centric cookbook in the works?
Yes, I’ll get back to you on that one.
Advice for someone dining at Providence for the first time?
I think the best advice is to sit back, relax and let us take care of you.