RUSTIC CHARM: CHEFS ZOE NATHAN + JOSH LOEB

By NOAH BRISCOE
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We’ve heard the praise, the excitement, and the anticipation that surrounds any of the establishments of the culinary power couple Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb. Between one of the most recognized farm-to-table restaurants in Los Angeles, Rustic Canyon and the passion-filled baking that is Huckleberry, to delectable, ice cream perfection at Sweet Rose Creamery and the rustic grains and pizzas at Milo and Olive, busy might sound like an understatement. And all while double-teaming parental duties for two adorable, young children, Milo and Tallulah. *So how does the duo successfully manage to master it all without sacrificing quality, innovation, and most importantly, taste? The simple answer—teamwork. We let Josh and Zoe interview each other about their upcoming projects, inspirations, visions for their futures, and how they continue to transform Los Angeles’ westside by staying true to the culinary needs of their community. *Trust us, they’re cheek-pinching adorable.
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JOSH: WHAT DO YOU THINK IS DIFFERENT ABOUT THE FOOD SCENE IN LA SINCE YOU STARTED COOKING HERE?

ZOE: I think it is getting better all the time. When I started, there was just a handful of chef-owned restaurants, and now I think every week you are hearing of an awesome new chef who is opening his own place. To me that is the real sign of a food community. LA is actually becoming a real food place, with real bakeries actually owned by bakers. It used to feel like there was one voice in LA. Now there are hundreds. Our list of places we want to go to now is so long!

JOSH: YOU WEAR SO MANY HATS IN OUR RESTAURANTS AND IN OUR LIVES.PROFESSIONALLY YOU’RE A CHEF AND PASTRY CHEF, BUT YOU ALWAYS REFER TO YOURSELF AS A BAKER. WHY IS THAT?

ZOE: Because I am a baker. That’s what I like to do. That is what I love. That’s what I feel I can bring to our business. That is where my passion is. When I went to cooking school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a cook, or a baker, or a pastry chef, or go into catering. But every year I grow up more and more. It is a lot of growing with my family and figuring out what my career means now, but the thing that is always constant in my life is that I love to bake. I just love it. My mom always baked. To me it is about love and simplicity. It’s immediate. I love the idea of starting people’s mornings off right, with love and lots of generosity. I never felt like a pastry chef. I never wanted to be at the end of a meal. That’s an amazing place, but for me, I get tired and ready to sleep at the end of a meal. It never felt like a genuine place for me to be. I feel like the morning is where I shine. I will always be a baker. The minute I popped Tallulah out, two months later, I was back in the kitchen with her on my chest.

JOSH: I KNOW A LOT OF YOUNG BAKERS AND CHEFS REACH OUT TO YOU FOR ADVICE. WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF ADVICE YOU GIVE THEM?

ZOE: I think that you have to be willing to work really hard and be willing to make a lot of mistakes. I also think you still have to stay authentic to yourself. If I was talking to someone who was just starting out, I guess I would say don’t show up with makeup on your face, don’t show up with painted nails, put your head down, and learn everything that someone is willing to teach you. You come into a new kitchen and someone asks you, ‘Do you know how to make pastry cream?’ You say, ‘I don’t know how to make your pastry cream, please teach me.’ Don’t try to get there before you’re there. I think people come out of cooking school and think they know what they are talking about. But sucks for them, because they won’t learn. Luckily, I always felt like I didn’t know anything. Frankly, sometimes I show up at work and I think someone’s going to figure out that I have no idea what I am talking about! Try to learn, be nice, and don’t yell.

LA is actually becoming a real food place. It used to feel like there was one voice in LA. Now, there are hundreds. Our list of places we want to go to now is so long!

JOSH: WHAT DO YOU MOST WANT OUR KIDS, MILO AND TALLULAH, TO UNDERSTAND OR FEEL ABOUT FOOD?

ZOE: I want them to understand that food is for both nourishment and celebration. You know what I mean? There are moments and times for both. I feel like there is a lot of guilt around food —especially around the kind of stuff that I make. That bums me out. I want them to get in touch with their bodies and stomachs so that they can enjoy things without the fear, or weird ideas like I am going to eat these cookies in secret or eat a hundred of them at once. Eat a cookie or a piece of cake and sit down and enjoy it. But also eat your vegetables, not because you must eat your vegetables, but because they are beautiful and grown. We have a garden at home and Milo and I are growing so many things, it’s fun. I want them to just have an awareness of food and its nourishment and the celebration associated with it. And, of course, I hope they cook. Shit, I am not always going to always be making Thanksgiving dinner for everyone.

ZOE’S TURN TO GRILL JOSH. . .

ZOE: JONATHAN GOLD, OF THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, JUST NAMED RUSTIC CANYON AS THE NUMBER SIX RESTAURANT IN LOS ANGELES. ANY BIG REACTION TO THAT?

JOSH: Yah, I think it is pretty exciting for us. Because even besides the accolades, which are also fun to hear, It means Rustic is a better restaurant than when it opened. And aside from a few hiccups, it has gotten progressively better every year. That has always been our goal. I think restaurants can easily rest on their laurels, and there are many restaurants that have been around for years and years and just do what they have done forever. One of the reasons that I wanted Rustic to have a changing menu is because, with a lot of love and little pretense, I wanted the chef to evolve. That’s what is so fun about working with
Jeremy [Fox]. He is constantly evolving. He is so creative that he could be here for twenty years and the menu would change, his style would change. He is not married to one particular style. I felt that the Jonathan Gold piece was just affirmation of what our goals are.
Frankly, I want to continue to be better, whether that means moving farther up a list just in our own eyes, or in the eyes of our customers.

ZOE: WHERE DO YOU SEE OUR FAMILY OF RESTAURANTS GOING FIVE TO TEN YEARS FROM NOW?

JOSH: This is always an ongoing discussion with us. Zoe, you always wanted to have one place and have no headaches. And I always want the headaches and do new and interesting things. You wanted your shop and a community related to that. To me, it is like a big puzzle.
One of my goals was to do a bunch of places that complimented each other. For me, it is a creative outlet, and I like bringing a place to fruition. I think a huge chunk of my job is to put the vision and team together and guide it to where it needs to be.

ZOE: Yah, before I met you, I had no idea what a restaurateur did. I thought it was some rich asshole that just funded everything.

JOSH: Wait, let’s be clear, you didn’t think I was an asshole, just restaurateurs.

ZOE: (laughs) I just thought you were cute. But now I understand that the restaurateur is a real puppeteer. You have to be good at finding amazing, talented people and putting them in the right positions. A job one can be very bad at.

JOSH: It is a matter of the right time and place. In five or six years I would like to have six to eight chef-partnered restaurants. I want these things to go on so that if I am pulled away, the restaurants still continue to get better. With all of our places I make an effort
to bring in not just employees, but people who are going to have an ownership stake—not just financially, but emotionally. At the end of the day, it is, of course, about great food. That is why I like to bring in chef partners as opposed to other partners. That is what is going to ensure the place will be great. Selfishly, we were both raised on the westside and we want places we love. We didn’t want to have to drive across town for amazing pizza. We didn’t feel like there was a great bakery. When I opened Rustic, I didn’t feel that there was a great farmer’s market-driven restaurant that wasn’t a formal, fine dining
experience. My intuition is that we will create new places for the next five or six years and then hone it in.

ZOE: WHAT IS THE MOST MEMORABLE OR FAVORITE DISH I HAVE EVER MADE FOR YOU?

JOSH: Probably, the most memorable were the croissants the first week we first started dating. Your parents were out of town and we had to go see someone at their place and you said, ‘Let’s go to the house, and I’ll make you some croissants.’ And you made these ham and cheese croissants. And chocolate ones. Little mini ones. And they were so good. There are a so many memorable dishes you’ve made, but that one really sticks out in my mind.

ZOE: WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST FLOP?

JOSH: In general, the biggest flops haven’t been dishes you’ve made, but ideas we had for dishes. Well, actually, I wasn’t crazy about the chia chocolate pudding last night. We are trying to be healthy, and I appreciated that, but we both have sweet tooths. It was almost good.

ZOE: Except it had the texture of mucus. . .

JOSH: (laughs) Yes, mucus and an aftertaste of something bitter.

text NOAH BRISCOE

photo EMILY HART ROTH + SHANT KIRAZ

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