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Evan Kleiman, mover and stirrer on the L.A. food scene

The chef, author, radio host and restaurateur, who opened Angeli Caffe 25 years ago, shares her enthusiasm and knowledge of food with a wide audience.

December 09, 2009|By Mary MacVean
  • Evan Kleiman plays a larger-than-life role in Los Angeles' food world.
Evan Kleiman plays a larger-than-life role in Los Angeles' food world. (Stefano Paltera / For The…)

When Jimmy Shaw opened Loteria Grill in the Original Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, customers were scarce. Until one Saturday morning, when his interview with Evan Kleiman aired on her KCRW show "Good Food."

Within minutes, he says, hungry listeners were lining up. "It was as if people were sitting in their cars waiting for her to tell them where to go."

When farmers market mainstay Bill Coleman's Carpinteria house and barn burned down a few years back, he said, Kleiman corralled 14 chefs to cook a benefit dinner, which helped raise enough money to rebuild.

"Don't get in her way" when she's determined to get something done, Coleman said one Wednesday at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. One of the things he sells there is a Tuscan herb called nepitella, which he started growing when Kleiman brought him the seeds from Italy. Not far from the Coleman Family Farm stand, Coastal Farm sells "Evan's tomato," a variety she ate in Italy and persuaded the farmer to grow.

Funny and self-deprecating, brash, busy and a little intimidating, Kleiman is in some ways the gluten of the Los Angeles food world. As restaurant critic Jonathan Gold puts it: "Evan certainly is a connector. She has everyone on her speed dial, and everyone is willing to do what she wants at the drop of the hat, including me."

As a radio personality, as the owner of Angeli Caffe, one of the first authentic trattorias in Los Angeles, and as the author or coauthor of six cookbooks, including the classic "Cucina Fresca," Kleiman plays a larger-than-life role in the city's food world.

Over the summer, Kleiman nudged foodie L.A. into thinking about pies with her "Pie a Day" project. She baked, she interviewed bakers, she blogged and she organized a pie contest last month with 150 entries. She got Mark Peel, the chef-owner of the restaurant Campanile, to be one of the judges.

"When Evan calls, I answer," Peel says.

All of it keeps her incredibly busy. Kleiman, 56, calls herself a "culinary multitasker," or sometimes says she has "culinary ADD." Whichever it is, she's got her hands in every pot being stirred, from food politics to pies.

In a recent eight-day stretch, she ran her restaurant, catered a dinner at UCLA's Fowler Museum for the 100th birthday of the Italian Futurists (an intellectual movement that sought to deconstruct basic notions of art, including a culinary revolution), shopped for and cooked a beer and pie dinner for 45 KCRW donors, conducted half a dozen "Good Food" interviews and catered three weddings.

When the mayor marked the 30th anniversary of farmers markets in L.A. County, Kleiman was emcee. She frequently moderates panel discussions on food and cooking. She helps raise money for schools and judges culinary scholarship competitions. She gives culinary tours of Italy and founded the L.A. chapter of Slow Food.

This is a woman with the world on a string, right? Not quite. Life is more complicated: Kleiman is a frequent public speaker but calls herself "paralyzingly shy"; she's one of the city's best-known restaurateurs but also endured the difficult demise of three restaurants in the '90s.

Her first restaurant, Angeli Caffe, remains a Melrose Avenue institution. Angeli was remarkable when it opened -- an architecturally angular, culinarily rustic cafe amid the punk scene that offered something new for L.A.: simple food that might have been served in a rural Italian trattoria.

She was inspired in part by the food she ate in Italy, and in part by the time she spent in her aunt and uncle's home, designed by Rudolph Schindler and "so simple and so beautiful, it had a lot to do with how I think of food."

When it opened, 25 years ago today, it was just 24 seats in a former screen shop; Kleiman's then-boyfriend was the architect. Angeli eventually expanded to 64 seats, and Italian food has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget Angeli's accomplishment. But in its day it was, Ruth Reichl wrote in The Times, among the restaurants bringing "a whole new character" to the restaurant scene, that of ethnic authenticity "filtered through such sophisticated sensibilities."

Serious about food

A wily mogul she is not, however. Several friends say she does too much for too little reward, at least financial reward. Kleiman is philosophical about that: "My success is not defined by money -- and that's a good thing."

Until recently, her home refrigerator was held closed by a bungee cord. She hasn't had a real oven -- just a countertop model -- since the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

So what did she do for the summer? Baked a pie almost every day.

When NPR's Scott Simon asked her about the caloric ramifications of such a project, she replied: "I'm not a lightweight." But she could as easily have meant her seriousness of purpose and her belief in the power of food.

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