The Culinary Scene: New York vs. Los Angeles

Beth Kaiserman


Los Angeles and New York are like two rivaling cousins. There’s always going to be something to argue about.


One has captured the gritty, dog-eat-dog charisma of the family traits, while the other exudes a smooth, mellow, earthy nature. One can never seem to catch up with itself, while time moves fluidly in the other. One suffers the wrath of the seasons, while the other enjoys sunshine and breezy temperatures.


There are endless ways to compare the two cities. Breaking down the dining scene in L.A. versus the notorious New York City scene is one way to start.




We often think of L.A. as the land of healthy eating, juicing and yoga. New York is historically associated with burgeoning dining trends, pizza and late-night eating.

Los Angeles is made up of 48.2 percent Hispanic/Latino residents, according to the latest census. New York City’s latest census shows only 18.2 percent Hispanic/Latino residents.


Regardless of the latest specifics, which are for the year 2012, people often comment that L.A.’s Mexican food scene is more authentic due to its closer proximity to Mexico, and thus the larger amount of people moving across the border to L.A.


After a tweet to Andrew Zimmern and Adam Richman on the topic, all signs pointed to New York City. Both were also born in New York, which usually has a moderate influence on the decision. New Yorkers are proud of where they come from.

But with some further digging, chefs who have worked in both cities discussed the differences, and what makes each its own food haven, with distinct characteristics that deserve recognition.


Fresh Goods, Fresh Food


While the calzone recently got resurrected in New York City dining, many L.A. restaurants are focusing on providing whole foods, along with the natural benefit of great produce year-round. This could appear a little depressing to New Yorkers, if they really let that sink in for a second.


Lighter fare, mainly produce and whole grains, has been an integral part of the L.A. dining scene for a long time. It’s easier to eat healthier in L.A., said Chef Matthew Kenney, whose raw restaurant M.A.K.E. is right near his raw and living foods education center in Santa Monica.


As people strive to eat healthier, “fresh” and “local” have become beyond crucial for New York diners as well. Kale, brussels sprouts and quinoa seem to be on most New American menus.

“Local” has become a huge buzzword, and is printed on restaurant menus across the country, especially in New York City. People want to know where their food comes from.


“It’s part of what drives progressive restaurants these days, versus in L.A. it is understood,” Chef Lee Gross said.


Gross lives in Westchester, NY, 30 minutes north of New York City. Before that, he lived in L.A., where he helped establish macrobiotic mecca M Cafe. He was also Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal chef. He now develops natural food-focused menus for clients, in which the priorities are flavor and taste, he said.


For fresh produce, “there is no comparison,” Gross said, with L.A. winning hands down.


“When I land in L.A. and hit the market, it brings tears to my eyes,” he said. “So much of the food that we use here originates in Los Angeles.”As far as winter on the East Coast goes, “you gotta really like root vegetables,” he said.


Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo are the creators of L.A.’s meat-centric Animal, seafood spot Son of a Gun, and collaborated with pop-up kingpin Ludo Lefebvre on the 26-seat, 7 month-old sensation Trois Mec. (You need advance tickets to get in, and it’s #2 on Eater’s most recent Heatmap.)


“Our goal with all the projects we do is to provide more opportunity for people around us to continue to help the L.A. food scene grow,” Shook said. “He is such a talented chef and to be able to help him provide himself a home and a place where he can go to every day to do his art couldn’t be any better for us.”


What are chefs in L.A. seeking to do?


“There’s a lot of different worlds you can kind of live in here. There’s a lot of diversity and a lot of freedom,” Dotolo said.


“A lot of people are just trying to have their own voice.”


He points to standouts like Michael Voltaggio’s Ink and Jordan Kahn’s Vietnamese-inspired Red Medicine. For Chinese food and inspiration, he turns to the San Gabriel Valley for authentic wonderment.


“I usually draw more inspiration from like a hole-in-the-wall Thai food restaurant or authentic Sichuan or ramen place,” he said.


What about New York City? Fuhgeddaboudit.

“L.A. has things that will dance on New York’s food scene,” Shook said. “Our Chinese kills you guys -- Korean, Thai, sushi...If you knock out all the ethnicity stuff, L.A.’s got you beat by far.”


He also talked about the difference in living in the two cities.

“Part of the reason New York is such a food mecca [is] most people in New York don’t cook in their homes because their homes are so small,” he said. “120 people is a good night. In New York we would do 400 on the same night.”


The media scene drives the food scene, too, he said, with main players Bon Appetit and Food and Wine being based in New York City. The James Beard House is there too, he added.


“L.A. didn’t even get one award at all because the voters don’t come here,” he said about last year’s race.


L.A.’s traffic has always been a topic of discussion, but soon a new subway system will provide easier access to Downtown, where Shook says the dining scene has taken off.


“Downtown is like Brooklyn,” he said.


So what stands out in NYC for Shook and Dotolo?

East Coast seafood, where L.A. chefs get most of their product, Shook said. L.A. sushi is great because of proximity to Japan, he added.


“[There’s] unbelievable East Coast seafood, from lobster to fluke. Pierless Fish now ships to L.A. and they don’t charge for shipping anymore because enough people are buying from L.A.”


Dotolo nods to the Halal carts found all over the streets of New York as something that’s missing in L.A.


“We have Middle Eastern food but there’s a little bit of a stronger scene there with that,” he said.


Also, there aren’t really bodegas in L.A. for grabbing sandwiches, he added.


Coffee Crossing, Things Get Weird


Sometimes when the two food scenes blend for a delicious iced beverage, the immersion isn’t flawless.


Take, for example, the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a Southern California-based chain. In L.A., vibrant employees greet you when you walk in, eager to help you get the best brew to start your day. They are helpful and happy. The customers are friendly and happy, too. People stake out and do work or linger all day having a nice chat. The ever-popular Ice Blended (think a way better Frappuccino) is a hit with folks of all ages.


Sometime last year, the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf appeared on crowded NYC streets. Seeing that delightful single bean and lone tea leaf amidst the chaos of New York City provides a short peaceful moment. However, inside is another story. The walls are decorated with New York City-themed wallpaper. Pictures of skyscrapers surround you as you enjoy your morning Joe. The midtown Manhattan location has a few long tables in the front, giving off a library-type appeal. Something about it is lacking in serenity. So not L.A.


Trends are Trends

These days, it can be hard to distinguish which trend started where as novel food ideas seem to appear every day in major cities around the country. Night markets, food trucks and waffle corn dogs. Am I describing NYC or L.A.?


Just follow a few major food blogs and you’ll see that it isn’t rare for something like beer candy to emerge as the latest hot item in Santa Monica, while cronuts have foodies in line at 6 a.m. in New York. Good thing you can pre-order them now.


Trends come and go; the cronut was the standout of summer in NYC until the ramen burger attempted to knock it out. Cronut copycats appeared in L.A., and ramen burgers arrived in September. The world was at peace for approximately five minutes, until a new trend emerged in the blogosphere.

But the real dining trends that stick are what define both L.A. and New York City as having an long-lasting impact on the world of food.The pop-up trend has embroidered itself into part of the dining fabric, giving restaurateurs a chance to feed fans before their brick-and-mortar restaurants are ready, or serving as a vehicle to test-drive something new.


In Brooklyn, Blanca and the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare offer unique eating opportunities. They feature small counters that are hard to get into, requiring reservations way in advance, and a multi-course menu that changes daily. You go in essentially blindfolded, leaving your worry at the door and succumbing to whatever the chef has in store for you that day, often with transcendent results. There’s also Luksus, with a beer pairing tasting menu in the back of Torst, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Momofuku Ko is in its sixth year with two Michelin stars.


This trend has not hit L.A. yet, Dotolo said.


“No one has a counter that they change the menu nightly or sometimes weekly. No one’s taken the chance,” he said. “No one’s done that style of a restaurant in Los Angeles yet.”


Trois Mec, however, does have a ticket system and one nightly five-course menu that changes on a rolling basis.

Things We Should Leave Alone


When it comes to food, each city reigns over certain territory. Deli in L.A. is just not comparable to a crowded, mean N.Y.C. experience. Even the pickles don’t taste as good.

If you want to talk authentic Mexican food though, the streets of SoCal will be your pleasure zone.


Of course, there are exceptions. Langer’s Deli in the Westlake neighborhood in L.A. makes its own fresh rye bread daily, and Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos in Bushwick packs a punch -- if you can remember the name and how to navigate the bleak streets that lead to it. (It’s the storefront of a tortilla factory, so you know it’s good.)

Sushi wins in L.A. too.


“Sushi [in L.A.] is a whole different level,” Gross said. He feels the same about Mexican food there.


“There is just a lightness about the food there. It’s inherently more healthful,” he said.


Battle On

“It’s like the Wild West,” Gross said.


Gross is referring to the emergence of hyper-regional and hyperfocused restaurants, with unique hybrids, like Shalom Japan, a Jewish and Japanese mashup that opened recently in Williamsburg in Brooklyn.


“When I came up I came up in a classical system, [where] rules were still intact. The rules have been busted open,” he said.


Making it as a chef in New York City probably isn’t the ultimate dream for all chefs these days, he said, adding that there’s great work being done all over the country.


“L.A. doesn’t get the hype that it should get because it is not our #1 industry out here,” Shook said. “We’re always gonna be fighting.”


While some trends stay and others go, we should all be able to lighten up on what we’re “fighting” about. Good food is good food no matter where you are. And if L.A. food master Ludo Lefebvre can make fun of it, then so should you.


“It’s like picking one of my daughters,” Gross said. “They’re different, but they’re both wonderful in their own way, and they’re products of their place. You wouldn’t have New York without L.A. and you wouldn’t have L.A. without New York.”


Author Bio:

Beth Kaiserman is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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