Aaron Clayton, the owner of Origin Cafe took time out of his busy schedule, to sit down with us, and answer some of the questions that comes up when you walk into his kosher culinary heaven here on Pico Blvd. Enjoy.
Aaron, tell us a little bit about yourself, where were you born? And how old are you?
I’m 29 I was born in 1986 right here in Los Angeles, actually at Cedar Sinai down the street.
Growing up, were you religious at all?
No. I actually comes from a mixed background, my Dad is not Jewish and my Mom is Jewish, and the option was always given to my sister and I, to believe and pray how we like. It was very open and free childhood in that regard. As a child I decided to have a Bar Mitzva which was a very influential process. Meeting with the cantor on a weekly basis and getting to understand and to know the philosophy behind Judaism.
That’s very interesting, so you went to a Public School?
When did you realize that you have a passion for food?
Honestly, I always loved food. I was a little fat kid growing up, so food was always on my mind. What’s the next meal? What am I going to eat for dinner? What am I going to have for breakfast? My mom and dad were always busy working, so it was always a simple lunch like cheese sandwich to take to school. Finally, one day I said to my mom, “Mom this isn’t lunch, this is barley food, it’s the horrible cheese and single slices from Kraft, and I said “Mom I need something different. So she responded “Listen I’m too busy working, if you want something else to eat you are going to have to make it yourself”. I said “Okay fine”, and that’s when I started cooking. I was probably six or seven years old. I always wanted to have a restaurant irrespective to what I did before I retired. The idea was, work, work, work, retire and have a restaurant. So I was going to school, working in finance, always cooking when I was with my friends and they suggested, why don’t you go to culinary school? You always cooking you love food and restaurants. I thought about it and said, “you know I can expedite my retirement, why not?”, and I went to my parents and understanding my background, we were always allowed to make our own path. Mt parents said “If that’s what you want, do it” and I went 110% into it.
Before you went to culinary school, what was the one cuisine that really got your attention?
For me, before I become a chef, and even till this day, the one cuisine that still fascinates me and I love the flavors and the philosophy behind the food, is from south east Asia. Thai cuisine is one of my favorites. It’s very bold but always balanced. You have your salt, your sweets, your sour, and they always manage to come with the right balance.
When did you go to culinary school? When was this decision made? And how long was that for?
Culinary school was about a year long. I was about two years into collage at the time, and collage just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t something that I particularly enjoyed. I thought that collage is what we supposed to do, and it just wasn’t for me. Going to culinary school, opened me up to a lot of different outlets creatively and mentally. It really opened me up to think in a different way, and look at food in a different way.
Which school was that by the way?
Aaron: It was a private school in Hollywood, and the school was later bought out by Le Cordon Bleu. I really learned my craft interning with a chef in Thousand Oaks. He was doing the molecular gastronomy, very technical chemical related kind of cooking. It was interesting seeing the precision and how that works itself into the cuisine. I always thought it was unusual to add chemicals to food to alter its physical structure. The technical aspect was fantastic and it’s something that I carry with me everyday.
Molecular gastronomy? Sounds like magic cooking?
Exactly. You turn Mango juice into caviar balls, you create these spears in different texture. I was always curious to know if I can do that with natural ingredients verse the chemically altered way, and that’s been my focus moving forward. Everywhere I went to cook elevated that philosophy. So my general state of mind when I’m cooking is asking myself, could I have found that 500 years ago? Was the technology available? Was it physically possible to create that 500 years ago? and doing the molecular gastronomy Absolutely not. There was no way to synthesize sodium alcanede or calcium carbonate. That just did not happen. But if you line up a bunch of guys and had them chopping as fast as they could, you could replicate a blender or food processor.
When I was in college I was a History major, when I became a chef, understanding the history of food is vitally important for me and understanding the philosophy behind different cuisines was also vitally important. When I travel ,it’s for work. It’s for understanding the food. It is one thing to go to a Thai restaurant down the street, it’s fantastic, but it’s another thing to go to the country Thailand, and be totally immersed in the culture and the experience, and the philosophy and the ingredients. That is really what’s elevates my cooking, having been to these places and understanding how they look at food. Some places it’s an art form, other places it’s a necessity. It’s something that’s scarce and the only way that they can really stay alive.
I noticed that in your restaurant you have a lot of organic stuff, is that part of the idea of going back to the roots?
It’s really about having that connection to the ingredients, and to the earth, and the way things are produced. It’s very important to me because there is a change that is happening right now in the way that Americans in particular eat food. Chemically altered seeds that are infused with the systemic pesticides growth hormones, and genetically altered to produce bigger fruits, and higher yields to make the fruits last longer. Tomato isn’t supposed to be grown in Florida or Mexico, and then shipped to California. Tomato is supposed to be grown in California. Let it hang on the vine until it’s ripe and then it’s time to eat it. There’s a reason why fresh eggs, fruits or vegetables taste better than some in the supermarket. The food in the supermarkets was picked two weeks ago, and the chemicals and the genetic engineering that went into that piece of produce is what’s making it last this long.
You seem like a well-traveled guy. What was the most influential country or place on your cooking style?
I think I’d been out of the country seventeen times by now. As far as my growth as a person, and as a chef, my time in Israel was the most important. I was fortunate enough to work with Yonathan Roshfeld, and Yuval Ben Arya, and Eli Stein. While I was in Israel’s, Herberts Samual, restaurant row. Seeing how Israelis innovate their growing techniques, like the drip water system, to conserve water. Or the cherry heirloom tomatoes that they use to produce higher yields with smaller fruits, instead of genetically altering their produce. In Israel there’s not a ton of land, there’s not a ton of water, so for them in Israel, it’s very important to get the most out of the ingredients that they can. Eliminating waste. Food waste is something that we’re very cognizant of here.
You’ve worked with all these big names chefs in their restaurants as their chef?
Yes, correct. I’ve maintained contact with them through the phone throughout my time here, since being back from Israel.
It must have been a really amazing learning experience for you.
It was a new lesson every day, and I couldn’t have had more fun. It couldn’t have been more useful to my career.
How long were you in Israel?
I was in Israel for a year. I actually didn’t book my return flight until three days before my visa expired. There is something very special about that place.
When you come back from Israel you decided to open your own place?
Opening my own place has always been the goal, from day one, when I decided to become a chef. That was always the goal. It wasn’t just to become some cook who had a job here and there. The idea was to create a career for myself and change the way that food is done here in the United States. When I came back from Israel I also worked as a private chef, cooking for various celebrities and wealthy individuals.
What got you into going Kosher, and saying “I’m going to start my first restaurant, and it’s going to be Kosher?
I’m a very opportunity oriented guy when it came to finding the location for my restaurant. I was looking at central California wine country, looking downtown, I was looking in various parts of Los Angeles, New Orleans, Thailand. I was looking everywhere. Things kind of fell together at this location. Pico Robertson Area. Understanding the clientele, and the lack of quality kosher food, it just made sense to me to do it here. Everything kind of fell together. I’m not going to say it was divine intervention but it sounds like there was something pushing, pushing, pushing, and this is what came up. The idea behind origin cafe was to have a restaurant that happened to be kosher, versus a kosher restaurant that we’re all so familiar with, where you might have some folding chairs, and food that is edible, but not particularly exciting, or flavorful. The idea was to create a restaurant that had everything, the atmosphere, the service, and the art in the food.
So why did you call the place Origin Café?
It happened after about a month of coming up with horrible, horrible names. The silliest ideas and concepts for a name. It finally came about when I was speaking with my mom and she said “you know son. this is the beginning of something new, and you have a connection to those ingredients. This is all original. It’s something that hasn’t been done before”. Frankly, this is the first of what I hope, of many restaurants down the line. It just seemed appropriate to call it Origin. This is the beginning of our origin.
When you decided to go kosher, were you aware of all the different restrictions that you’ll face?
No. Actually I wasn’t. With my mixed background and growing up in the secular sort of home, that I grew up in, I had a basic understanding of kosher laws. Getting into this is something that I did a massive amount of research on. Completely understanding what it meant to be kosher. I just dove into books and research really getting to understand everything about kosher food.
When you start a kosher restaurant you can either do fish and dairy or meat. How did you overcome that challenge?
Well first of all by eliminating meat altogether. It simplified the process for my staff and myself. Also living in California, being a local, and a native Los Angelino. Generally growing up, I only eat fish. Understanding our proximity to the ocean, and the abundance of fresh fish that is available, it just made a lot of sense to go fish and dairy, and be able to create our own ice cream, and world cheeses and more. These are all things that we’re able to do here. So going fish and dairy is kind of a natural decision that just fell into place.
What would you recommend from your menu to somebody that comes here for the first time?
The Menu is really a reflection of my upbringing, my travels abroad, and the various places that I’ve cooked. Instead of focusing on any one specific cuisine, or the other, we focus on the ingredients, the quality of the food, and the art of making it. The ‘Moroccan Salmon Tacos’ are a mix of the Moroccan Harissa, and the Thai Southeast Asian flavors of the tamarind sauce, with the Mint and Cilantro. We really work it together with the cucumber and the mango, that really makes it a complete kind of Tacos. The Shakshoka, was something we had for breakfast almost daily. And the chefs would sit around a giant table with a giant dish of Shakshoka, that everyone would come and take, with some fresh bread. And. You know it almost seemed a crime to no have Shakshoka. It’s something that is very nostalgic for us.
Looking ahead, where do you see Origin Cafe in a year or two?
I only have hopes that it continues to grow. I’d really like to change the way people see kosher food. Instead of something that might be a burden to some people, maybe difficult to find, or it’s not particularly gratifying to eat. We’re trying to change the way that kosher food is seen in the culinary world. They wanted to be seen as something that it’s better for you and it’s something that’s also artistic and delicious. Something that can be interesting and innovative at the same time, throughout history, it just hasn’t been. From someone who never kept kosher before recent, it is a bit confusing to me, why isn’t this food more exciting? Why can’t it be more exciting? And being in Israel, it really opened up so many different ideas and philosophies when it came to Kosher food specifically. The idea is to create a kosher revolution.
Kosher Revolution? that sounds really good. Something that we all need. We noticed that they are not much real professional chefs in the kosher food business here in LA.
Most chefs don’t want to be limited in the ingredients and techniques that they can use when it comes to cooking. Because for most chefs It’s truly an art form. And there’s something I really appreciate about the added challenges, about working within these kosher guidelines to create something kosher, beautiful, delicious and healthy.
I just don’t see any reason why kosher food can’t be an elevated cuisine just like Indian food, or French fine dining? There are so many possibilities within the kosher community as far as food is concerned. They just haven’t been tapped into fully yet.
What would you say to someone who is Lactose Intolerant and wants to eat by you?
Very large portion of our menu is dairy free and vegan. Understanding that we might have some Cholov Yisroel customers coming in, and we ran out the Cholov Yisroel milk some times, so we make our own almond milk in house. I made it a point to have on the menu, non dairy, vegan and vegetarian items as well, because it is a very popular way of eating. It makes a lot of sense to me. Maybe I want to avoid dairy today? I don’t want to eat fish today. Maybe it’s something that I do not agree with morally. Personally, I love fish and dairy. Sometimes it’s just not sustainable to eat it on a daily basis. You know five hundred years ago that certainly wasn’t the case. People ate a lot more vegetables and fresher food. Today it’s all processed and broken down. When buying fish today, you know it come from halfway around the world. It isn’t very difficult to get anything from anywhere in the grocery stores today. You can find Dragon fruit or any of these rare produce, and getting that locally sourced, and eating within our proximity it’s something that makes a lot of sense for me.
What is your massage to the kosher community?
Well, first of all the restaurant is a personal expression of mine. This isn’t just a job or a business for me, this is something that I’ve been working on for twenty years. Since I was a little kid, going to restaurants and watching how the servers operated, watching how they put the orders in, and looking at the plates of food chefs put in front of me. This is something that I’ve been working on in my head for twenty years. It’s a very personal expression, and all the art on the walls are either from my parents, or my sister, and my grandmothers. It’s a very personal thing for me. It’s like inviting the community in to my home. Inviting them to come and experience a piece of my philosophy and my understanding of what food is. I want the community to really experience something different that is new and exciting. That’s the hope of Origin cafes, to change the way people think about kosher food specifically.
How was your experience with Kosher LA, the organization that certified you kosher?
It was fantastic. My mom is actually a treasurer at a temple, and Rabbi Benzaken the certifying Rabbi, is related to the president of that temple. It was one of those things that just fell into place. My experience with them has been fantastic. Rabbi Benzaken completely understands my background, and my understanding of kosher guidelines and laws, and he has been very patient working with me, guiding me along this way. Rabbi Benzaken really gave me a great amount of knowledge and care. You can tell that it is something personal for him. It’s something that’s important for him and it’s not just a business. Those are the kind of people that I like to work with.