"If you care about the world around us and you're in the food business and you're profiting from it as I am you've really got to take a good look at where things are coming from."- Travis Lett
Travis outside of Gjusta in Venice.
ORIGIN & FOUNDATION
Highly successful, work-around-the-clock chefs often carry an extra 30 lbs. and knock back a bottle or three of wine per night. Not Travis Lett. His salt-matted blond locks and rich suntan and broad shoulders speak more of the surf than the kitchen. Yet he is at it everyday, working ridiculously long hours at his restaurants, Gjelina and Gjusta, in Venice, California. “I don’t take days off and sit on the beach,” he told me. “Learning how to be a chef, a businessman, and a company owner has been a gnarly grind.”
On the morning I caught up with him he was slicing bread in the busy kitchen of Gjusta, opened in 2014. Fashionably-dressed Angelenos picked at baklava croissants at the bar. Heirloom tomato madames and multi-grain porridge waffles cluttered the marble countertop. There was a buzz of health and vigor, despite the porchetta melt that gleamed and dripped on a small plate.
“Food is huge,” said Lett. “When you look at what’s tied to it in terms of food production, the use of chemical fertilizers, GMOs, the way the fossil fuel industry ties into that, the way that migrant workers are dealt with—there’s so much there that’s juicy. And if you care about the world around us and you’re in the food business and you’re profiting from it as I am you’ve really got to take a look at where things are coming from and the broader impact.”
Lett spoke with quiet conviction. We were sitting in the upstairs office adjacent to Gjusta. He wore a trim-fitting green T-shirt, black chinos rolled at the ankles, and kitchen-worn white Vans high-tops. His incisive blue eyes and scruffy beard evoked the farmers’ markets he frequents. He was surprisingly calm and present, given that he oversees 300 employees and has two new restaurants in the works. He took a sip of sparkling ginger lemonade and continued.
“I cooked for quite a while before I opened Gjelina. It was really about bringing everything I learned about cooking—cooking beautiful food, simple as that—but also bringing that platform of social consciousness, and attaching our customer base to that conversation. That’s what I believe to be the backbone of what our company is.”
38 years old, born and raised in New Jersey, Lett grew up on a macrobiotic vegan diet—“My mother happened to be very interested in environmentalism and nutrition and food. I was brought up in a household where that was a conversation point.” He studied art history at University of Colorado, Boulder, moved to Southern California in 2001, worked as a kitchen manager in a sushi joint. One year later, at age 24, he was thrust into the executive chef position at 930, the restaurant at the new W hotel in Westwood. It was not a happy experience and didn’t last long—“a fucking nightmare” recalled Lett. He drifted for a while, surfed, hung out in coffee shops. Gjelina came about when he met Fran Camaj, a Detroit native who wanted to convert a piece of property he owned on Abbot Kinney Boulevard into a restaurant. Opened in 2008, Gjelina started small—a few wood-fired pizzas, one meat and one fish, and vegetable dishes sourced from the Santa Monica farmers’ market. But the menu expanded, and Abbot Kinney exploded, and the rest is best described by food critic Jonathan Gold: “Gjelina is everything that might persuade a snowbound New Yorker to change coasts.”
"It was really about bringing everything I learned about cooking—cooking beautiful food, simple as that—but also bringing that platform of social consciousness, and attaching our customer base to that conversation."-Travis Lett
Pulling fresh bread out of the oven.
“I never really had an aha moment where I decided I wanted to be a chef,” Lett told me. “I never studied it, never pursued it academically. But I’ve always just sort of cooked, and to this day I’m doing it from that place of loving the craft and the hospitality of feeding people—it’s something I get pure, simple joy from. Then bringing to it that conversation of nutrition, environmentalism, and social activism—that’s what gets me out of bed, that’s what’s kept me interested for all these years.”
Lett described the great pleasure he took in coming up with the menu for Gjusta. He stayed up late at night baking, sampling, playing—and remembering why he loves what has become something of a gastronomical juggernaut. His excellent cookbook, “Gjelina: Cooking From Venice, California” adorns the shelves of kitchens from the Hollywood Hills to the Hamptons. His handsome face appeared in a recent issue of Vogue. But Lett stays true to his core beliefs.
“Living in West LA in 2016, the conversation about environmentalism and nutrition is ubiquitous. The problem with that conversation is that it’s wrought with elitism; in other words, you have to have enough money to concern yourself with that. But one of the things I love about food is I can cook for someone without introducing that conversation at all, and they can have this moment from a visceral, guttural place, like, Whoa, this is really epic! This piece of fish or salad…what’s happening here? And then they’ll come to me and I’ll explain that I bought that produce from this guy who does an amazing job, and this is what his farming practices are like. To be able to get at that intellectual topic through someone’s stomach is a really impactful place to land that. Versus soap boxing someone about your liberal politics, which I have, but it’s tough to land them when you’re just spewing them out of your mouth, and food gives you this really cool opportunity to introduce it from another place.”
We got to talking about the difference between comfort foods and foods that are hyper-healthy, but healthy in a way that can diminish, possibly kill, the pleasure of eating. Lett had lots to say about this.
“I know a lot of people that diet, in a severe way. And I think when we become burdened with this anxious, overly-thought-out dogma of what we should and shouldn’t be eating we become oversensitive to it. And this is a tough subject—food is like religion for some people—but I personally think there’s a simpler place, a more intuitive place, that health comes from. For me, healthy food is about comfort and tradition. But I’m talking about real food. I don’t like processed food. I don’t like food that has lots of ingredients in it that I don’t have in my pantry at home. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with indulging in a hearty beef stew in the middle of winter if that’s something you’re craving. I think animal fats are perfectly fine to be eating, in a balanced way, in a measured way. I think when you’re eating from an intuitive place, your body will tell you that you don’t want to be eating bacon all day. I don’t feel like I have to create calorie-counting systems. But we do have to be living a balanced lifestyle, and when I’m doing that I naturally gravitate to real foods, to whole foods, to eating within the season. The underlying principle is whole foods.”
I asked him what he cooks when he’s at home. He told me he doesn’t do much of that, given his long hours at the restaurants. He confessed that he’ll sometimes end up at a taco truck late at night, and that much of his work involves sampling dishes and experimenting with new recipes. So what does he eat when left to his own devices?
“I like a plant-based diet. I eat a lot of brown rice with simple vegetables, sometimes I’ll add a piece of fish to that. I eat pretty clean and simply when I cook at home. I find that eating a plant-based diet just suits how I want to feel. I also find that it fits well with this California climate and lifestyle.”