Raiding Harrison Ford’s Liquor Cabinet
And other things Chef Govind Armstrong’s up to now
At 13, Govind Armstrong was peeling carrots as an apprentice at the original Spago. (His mom’s friend was buddies with Wolfgang Puck and pulled strings.) From there, he went on to chef with a who’s who of the LA culinary scene: Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton, Mary Sue Milliken, and Susan Feniger. Today, the 36-year-old’s got Table 8 restaurants in Los Angeles and Miami Beach and one in the works for New York City. And he’s not just recognized for his cooking. (See People’s “50 Most Beautiful,” 2004.)
Following the publication of his entertainment-oriented cookbook Small Bites, Big Nights: Seductive Little Plates for Intimate Occasions & Lavish Parties (Clarkson Potter, 2007), CHOW spoke to Armstrong about his precocious past, the end of the formal dinner party, raiding Harrison Ford’s liquor cabinet, and why small plates aren’t dead yet.
Let’s start from the beginning. It seems impossible to hear about your career without hearing about Spago. Did you meet Wolfgang that first day?
Yes, I was escorted up to his office. I was shocked that he even made time for me. I was sweating, and I’m pretty sure I was going through puberty because my voice was squeaking the entire time.
What did you talk about?
He kept asking me why I wanted to cook so much, and I just kept telling him that I loved it. I told him what I was good at (vegetables) and what I was still learning (meats). After our talk he offered me an apprenticeship, which I wasn’t even expecting—I just wanted to sort of spend the day there. I didn’t even think I was in a position to touch anything in his restaurant, let alone work there. He completely took me under his wing, and I spent the next three summers working there.
What was your first day there like—any big mishaps?
I was splicing and peeling garlic for someone and trying to go about it pretty fast and ended up cutting myself. Whoops.
When did it sink in that you were a part of something big? Or did it—were you even aware then that Spago was “the place to be”?
I was a strange kid who would read the food section and rip stuff out, so I definitely remember seeing Spago written up. It really came home when he asked me to come back in the evening to see where all the food goes [that I had] prepped that morning. It blew my mind, they were doing so many covers. It was unbelievable: the energy of the dining room, the speed of the cooks, the precision. I just stood in the corner trying to stay out of the way. It was an open kitchen, which was something that I had never seen before: the wood-burning oven, the pasta station. So I just watched and began to realize why everything I prepped was gone the next day and told myself, “Man, I am never getting ahead of this game.”
What did you eat at Spago that still stands out in your mind?
Smoked salmon pizza with caviar and crème fraîche, and that just blew me away, man. All I knew prior to that was Shakey’s and Pizza Hut. I mean, every now and then we went to a really nice meal, and when we did, I would steal the menus. But eating there was [on] a completely different level for me.
Your start at Spago and City Restaurant was a very unusual path to take, compared with other chefs your age. The idea of an apprenticeship is a more European notion. How do you think this makes you different from people coming out of culinary school? Did it hinder you?
I think it has helped me that I didn’t get formal training. I was going to go to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] in New York straight out of high school. I had gotten accepted, and I was sort of looking forward to it, except that I had already worked with students there.
Really? What was it about the students that made you hesitant about the CIA?
I had picked their brains and worked right next to them at City and Spago, and I didn’t think they had the knowledge that I did, or the knife skills I did. Not to pat myself on the back; I just had an edge by doing it every day and working with amazing people who taught me what I needed to know. And it furthered at City Restaurant when I started to get the book knowledge. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken [the owners and chefs at City Restaurant] started giving me a book a week to read. They would quiz me and test me and keep me there until the wee hours making sure I studied right.
Do you remember some of the books they gave you?
The first one was On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee. That took me much longer than a week to get through. I had to read it at least two times. They gave me the CIA’s Professional Chef. They also trained me on a computer, my first—a Commodore 64. I learned a lot of early software [designed to help you] manage a restaurant. Man, I am totally dating myself. [Laughs]
Having the opportunity you did, would you do the same if an enthusiastic 13-year-old walked into your kitchen?
I’ve actually met with young kids before, but none of them have asked for an apprenticeship, and I haven’t thrown it out there. There are a lot of liability issues. And honestly, right now I am not in the kitchen every day. I would hate to bring someone in and abandon them.
If you’re not in the kitchen that much, do you think your restaurant suffers as a result? Are you more interested in branding than cooking?
I have always wanted to grow and be in a situation where I can expand. There is only so much you can do in one restaurant. If I can expand, I create more opportunity for everyone involved.
When you’re developing recipes, do you find it differs between LA and Miami? Do you have to make a lot of adjustments?
Well, I am spoiled rotten in Southern California. I can get the best seasonal produce. But in Miami, due to the climate, we can’t get the same quality of products that we can get in LA. I know I can’t get fresh fava beans here [in Miami], so I’ll use dried, and it no longer will become the focus or highlight of the dish. I am trying to focus on bringing the best out of as few ingredients as possible, which I guess they aren’t really as used to. I mean, Miami is all about the glitz and this and that. And some of the food is more complex than what my style is.
I’ve never been to Miami; what do you mean by glitz and so on?
[Laughs] You know, with the mango salsa and papaya coulis, stacked on top of plantains, and it comes out with a sparkler on it.
Your cookbook focuses on small plates. Why?
That’s how I love to eat. I am a pig. If I am given the chance to get a bunch of small things without having to commit, I am in heaven. I cook the same way I like to eat. I end up spending more money, and trying more things, but I leave with more tastes and textures than ever before. I’ve thrown formal dinner parties and go to them, but I am sort of over them.
Everything is so organized, and every dish is paired with a specific wine; you lose a certain freedom. I’d rather have a great time with my guests and get them involved—let them mix the food the way they want to. A party is about having fun, not being stuck in the kitchen. And people love it, it’s more fun and communal.
What’s your go-to party dish?
Fried olives stuffed with spicy lamb sausage. I make a bunch in advance and keep them in my freezer so if someone drops by, I can just drop them in some oil.
The seared tuna from my book is something I make a lot. I am a huge olive freak. And all the ingredients are so good on their own I’ll put them out separately and let people mix it up how they want—a little bowl of tapenade, one of white bean purée, and a basket of crostini.
What’s the best party you’ve been to?
I’ve done some great parties with friends. Ben Ford [chef and proprietor of Ford’s Filling Station] and I had a great, informal dinner party. We went to the farmers’ market and seafood market in the morning and got a lot of stuff. Stopped by the restaurant and got a bunch of meat. Stopped off at his dad’s [actor Harrison Ford] house on the way to Ben’s house.
Was Harrison at the party?
He was out of town. But we totally raided his wine cellar and grabbed cigars and single-malt Scotch. We felt like kids again, it was really funny. We went back to Ben’s house and started cooking, made some calls, and 15 people showed up, and it was just loose and just went on into the night.
What’s the dish from the cookbook that you cook for yourself?
I grill a lot at home, so I definitely love the grilled endive wrapped in Serrano ham. It’s really simple and wickedly delicious.
Small plates were hugely popular about five years ago. Do you feel like you’re pushing a dying trend?
I’ve always loved the idea of small plates—before the trend, during, and now after. I’ve always been a fan of late-night menus, bar menus. Tapas have been around for a few hundred years.
Speaking of trends, what do you think of molecular gastronomy?
Hmm, you know … God bless ’em. I can’t get into it—I’m all about chewing my food and substance, and I like to know what I am eating. I deal with people who are producing some of the best stuff in the country, so I love highlighting what they are growing. I don’t want to turn a squab into dust [laughs] and serve it on something you have to snort off the table.
Speaking of small plates and seasonal food … according to the rumor mill, you’re opening a Table 8 in New York. I read in a recent New York magazine article the opinion that you should be worried, because New York diners need something more ambitious and aggressive than your simple, local menu. What’s your response?
He said I wasn’t worried? Um, man, I don’t even want to talk about this. I mean, of course I am worried—I’m opening an f’ing restaurant in New York; of course I am worried about it. But is it gonna worry me so much that I change what I do? Of course not.