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Pasadena heats up as a culinary hub

Julia Child grew up in Pasadena, only to flee its then-parochial culture, including its bland cuisine. Now the city is attracting up-and-coming chefs and emerging as a top dining destination.

December 16, 2012|By Ann Marsh
  • Students learn baking skills at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, which has more restaurants per capita than New York City.
Students learn baking skills at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, which has more… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Julia Child, who would have turned 100 this year, found her life's calling only by leaving her hometown of Pasadena for China and France.

Had the pioneering celebrity chef stayed in her "parochial" Pasadena, she once confided to a biographer, she might have "become an alcoholic."

Today, she would have been able to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu, the American version, without going all the way to Paris — or even leaving her hometown. In recent years, the famed culinary school has colonized more than 100,000 square feet near downtown Pasadena. It's just one sign of the frenzy of culinary activity in a city that has grown and changed drastically since Child's upbringing.

Today, with 550 eateries, Pasadena has more restaurants per capita than New York City. And it has attracted name-brand Westside chefs who once would not have considered setting up shop this far east.

The city's emergence as a culinary hub owes to a larger revitalization of Old Pasadena, along with that of downtown Los Angeles, encouraging an eastward migration of culinary culture. The rise of Asian food meccas still farther east has made substantial drives inland more appealing to foodies. Pasadena also draws sophisticated diners from San Marino, one of the country's wealthiest communities, but one with comparatively few dining options.

More broadly speaking, Child's lifelong campaign to elevate Americans' dining standards has affected her hometown as much as anywhere else. Many of Le Cordon Bleu's students enroll after years spent watching the Food Network. Many local chefs grew up using Child's cookbooks.

The local palate has also grown more adventuresome with an influx of immigrants from Asia and Europe, often drawn by Caltech.

"After living so long in Hollywood and on the Westside, here it's a total paradise," says Laurent Quenioux, who came to Pasadena in 2006 after 22 years in West Hollywood.

He is the French-born executive chef at Vertical Wine Bistro, situated atop a quaint 100-year-old courtyard on Raymond Street in Old Pasadena and owned by Hollywood producer Gale Anne Hurd (of "Terminator" fame, and also a local). "For a restaurateur, for a chef, this is where you want to be."

West comes east

Like Vertical, a number of other inspired eateries run by established or up-and-coming chefs have come to Pasadena. That includes the Basque tapas restaurant Ración on Green Street — the favorite local spot of legendary restaurateur Joachim Splichal, of Patina Group — along with the French bistro Noir Food & Wine on Mentor Avenue and the new Trattoria Neapolis on South Lake Avenue.

Newcomers from the Westside include the highly rated sushi chef Hiroshi Ikeda, who opened Sushi Kimagure near the Del Mar Metro stop last year after selling his location of 25 years at Hollywood Boulevard and Gower Street. Vegan mecca Real Food Daily, of Santa Monica and West Hollywood, opened a new location this year in the South Lake shopping district, following Lemonade and Tender Greens. Urth Caffe, which packs in patrons in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and downtown, is building its "most beautiful location yet" on Colorado Boulevard, to open in 2014, says owner Shallom Berkman.

Urth's new California-Spanish style structure, with lots of balconies and curving wrought iron, will sit a few paces from Le Cordon Bleu. "I hope we can hold events together," Berkman says.

The presence of the cooking school means that chefs in tall white toques blanches and students in white skullcaps regularly stream down the sidewalks of Colorado Boulevard like some new migratory species: the wannabe celebrity chef. All wear white jackets with the blue logo of the 117-year-old institution stitched on the left shoulder. You'll find graduates or externs sweating in the kitchens of most of the city's restaurants.

"I get students from there all the time," says Chef David Féau, executive chef at the Royce restaurant, the highest-end establishment in town at the Langham Huntington Hotel, formerly the historic Huntington Hotel. Féau, who also owns a bistro in the St. Germain des Prés neighborhood of Paris, has stocked his kitchen with seven Cordon Bleu Pasadena alumni.

When the day comes for him to leave the hotel, Féau says he won't return to Paris or New York. Instead, he hopes to open a bistro in Pasadena, or maybe neighboring South Pasadena near Mission Street, where he can translate the high standards of the Royce's French cooking for diners with smaller pocketbooks.

"I really believe there will be more and better restaurants here than there will be in downtown Los Angeles," Féau says.

Splichal, who lives in San Marino, says everyone thought he was crazy when he opened Cafe Pinot downtown 18 years ago, when the area was a comparative wasteland. "Now we have 50 restaurants more than we did 20 years ago downtown," Splichal says. Of Pasadena, he says, "We will get there as well."

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