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A Conversation with Chefs Karen and Quinn Hatfield of Hatfield’s, Los Angeles

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This young couple met while working at Wolfgang Pucks’ Spago restaurant in Los Angeles. Karen had graduated from Los Angeles Culinary School before joining Spago while North Carolina native Quinn has taken a more direct path into the restaurant industry. A few years later they both headed to New York where Karen held positions at Gramercy Tavern, Cafe Boulud, and Jean-Georges. During this time Quinn honed his skills in the kitchens of Union Pacific, Bouley, Rocco DiSpirito, and Jean Georges. In 2002 the couple set their sights on San Francisco for the next stage in their careers.

I first experienced Quinn's cuisine at Cortez restaurant at the Adagio hotel in San Francisco where they were both working together for the first time, with Karen in the front of the house and Quinn in the kitchen. After three years the couple was ready to head back to Los Angeles in 2006 and fulfill their dream of opening their own restaurant. The original iteration of Hatfield's was on Beverley Boulevard, but in 2010 the restaurant (with a Michelin star awarded in 2008) was relocated to its much larger location on Melrose. The stylish establishment has received many awards and accolades and is one of the premier dining destinations for well-heeled Angelinos. The couple also own and operate Sycamore Kitchen, a trendy brunch and lunch spot where they hang out with their two young kids for family meals together in the afternoon.

Questions:

What do you enjoy the most about working together?
Karen: Quinn and I are similar people, with similar goals and conclusions about what's right, what's not, what works and what doesn't. Working with your spouse and owning a business together is a big challenge and at times it's tough.

Quinn: That is the thing, when you are partners you succeed together and fail together and you never stop working as you take it home with you. You don't get the opportunity to go home and get away from work.

This is a stressful business. You have two young kids. Would you want them to enter this profession?
Karen: I would not. Though it's been very good to us but as you get older you realize that there may be other ways to be successful and happy as well. You can achieve a greater balance in life outside the restaurant industry. I don't have any regrets as we were both probably meant to do this and it's worked out very well for us.

Quinn: Now that we have a family we realize our first family vacation was after seven years and only for three days. As we want to spend more time with our kids we look back and see how time consuming our work is. We would want our kids to be happy and do what they love but this is a tough career.

When you hire people do you prefer them to have undergone formal training?
Quinn: For me culinary school from a technical and experience aspect is not an important part of an application. It does give you an insight into how serious they are in their career and it’s an indicator of what track they are on. I did not go to culinary school and obviously I did fine and so it's not mandatory. We look for people who have kitchen experience and are familiar with this environment. We are not looking for people with too much experience as we prefer to bring them in at an entry level and bring them up through our system.

What is most important in your kitchen? Is it cleanliness or organization?
Quinn: It's all of that but the most important thing for a cook is to be consistent.

Karen: That is Quinn's biggest thing. He believes that if he teaches you once, then he does not want to teach you again.

Quinn: I don't think my style of food is flashy and we are not using obscure ingredients so much. One reason that we have done so well in the market is that we have consistently put out a high quality of food. So I look for people who can replicate things the same way every time.

You have worked in so many different cities like NYC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles but what is different about LA as it’s not given so much attention for its food scene?
Karen: It's the culture of our area as we are more laid back and as a result so is our dining scene. Actually in the past ten years our dining scene has really improved almost more than any other city in the world as compared to fifteen years ago when I first started out here.

Quinn: I think one aspect is that business is different here as compared to NY and San Francisco because we don't really have late diners or early diners. A lot of chefs who have come from other cities and opened restaurants here have struggled with this. The whole dynamic and business model is so different here. I think that we have some really great chefs in LA, as good as anywhere else.

Karen: Los Angelinos do not really want true fine dining restaurants.

So is that why we have more casual restaurants here?
Karen: That is true, but there will always be a market for fine dining though it is shrinking and will continue to shrink. Depending on what city you are in you might have one or fifteen in Manhattan but Los Angeles was never meant to be that city.

What are your views on the trend of serving cheaper cuts and offal?
Karen: I think it's because costs in restaurants are sky rocketing and with the economy the way it is you cannot double your menu prices so chefs have to be smart in their choices.

Quinn: I don't think it's a new trend as when I was cooking at Union Pacific years ago there was talk about us serving hangar steak as it was perceived as a cheaper cut. So I guess it’s been happening forever. One thing is true that diners really don't want offal. It's just that some chefs are being self-centered with their food. It creates some buzz and it's interesting but at the end of the day it's not what diners want.

In LA’s multi-cultural food scene, which culture is the most significant according to you?
Karen: I think LA has more of a mix of cultures than anywhere else in the world so it hard to define which. I feel Korean is a lot more noticeable recently.

Quinn: In my time in LA I feel that it is most influenced by Latin and Japanese food. It's always been known to have great sushi and our proximity to Mexico has influenced chefs here.

Where do you head out to eat after finishing work late?
Quinn: There are not that many places open late, we might go for ramen. With the kids it's hard to do that so it could be Umami burgers.

Let's talk about food shows on TV and what their influence is.
Quinn: Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen have introduced people to this industry but as contestant and judge. So now when people come in they feel they need to be judging chefs as opposed to earlier when it was more about supporting chefs.

Karen: Earlier people appreciated their evolution and their highs and lows.

Quinn: Now when people make a reservation they mention that they do a lot of reviews on Yelp putting you on notice like you better make sure that I get a good table and good food or else. It's kind of sad.

Do you think these shows have raised diner’s expectations, making a chef’s job more challenging?
Quinn: These shows have a much younger audience with less money and requiring a more casual dining and that is where food trucks came from. They try to put out these plates at low prices.

You both worked with Jean Georges, so what was the different about working on the West Coast?
Karen: I didn’t really work for anyone else on the West Coast other than Wolfgang. In some ways there were similarities since they are very successful European trained chefs and there are not that many here in The States. I travelled with Jean George when I was in my twenties and though he was older he could totally outdo me in endurance. He was up earlier, out later, and worked in between without getting exhausted and always saying “Go Go Go!”

Quinn: Those guys are such hard workers and that is one thing we learnt from both. Their
work ethic is amazing. I worked for Jean-Georges for a couple of years and if he was in town he was always there working.

Karen: Working conditions are better now though the pay has not gone up. The way chefs treat their kitchen staff is much better now than when we started out. It's changed in Europe too and kitchens are run differently but at the end if I feel that food is not as good.

Quinn: In those days people who worked in kitchens were different. When I worked in Union Pacific people who worked there aspired to be chefs but these days people choose it as a career not looking to be chefs. They don’t necessarily have that passion. I was very lucky as I was raised by parents who took me to great restaurants when I was a kid like Bouley in NYC and then I worked with David many years later.

Karen: Or they want to be a chef in 18 months. I also had the opportunity while growing up to dine at many great restaurants and that instilled a passion in me.

How important is the wine program in your restaurant?
Karen: It's very important and customers expect a good selection to go with the food and we try to provide it. We don't push the boundaries as being exposed to new things is great but within limits. With a seven course meal they don't want five esoteric white wines and it does not matter to them how good the pairings are.

You have high end restaurant, so has the economy impacted you?
Karen: Hard to say because the economy has been down for so long. In the restaurant industry anyway it's hard to make money. I don't think customers ever understand that our profit margins are slim and it's very challenging.

Quinn: I don't think our goal was to have the best way to make money otherwise we would not have opened up fine dining. This is what we trained to do and what we love. It reminds us of places we ate growing up and it's our way of presenting what we believe.

Karen: We opened our first restaurant over eight years ago and the economy has been this way since we became restaurateurs.

Quinn: The economy tanked in LA a year after we opened the original Hatfield's.

Do you get satisfaction at the end of a day at work?
Karen: Yesterday I knew everyone at every table in the dining room and most of them have been coming since we were in our old location even though we're a very small and congested restaurant.

Quinn: I think a lot of people liked that space a lot and felt it was a more personal experience.

What is the inspiration behind your food?
Quinn: It's all product-driven, and my food at the end of the day ends up with complicated techniques but yet is simple and simply motivated. We see what's in the market and what is in season. We try to create textures based on those ingredients. This is not a concept restaurant and we are not trying to hit new boundaries. Everything that I cook has a very simple profile.

Is there a limit to ingredients you use in one dish?
Quinn: I don't have rules but it needs to make sense and have balance on the plate. I think there is a difference in a lot of ingredients on a plate and it seeming like there are too many. The overwhelming feeling I want is of simplicity.

Is technique important in your kitchen?
Quinn: I don't do any tricky techniques and what is important to me is accurate technique for basic cooking. It's not how much agar agar or whatever chemical additives you put and sometimes people come to work from such kitchens and I have to teach them to hold a spoon the right way. We are focused on the basics like how to sear piece of meat properly or make a proper jus.

What about techniques like sous vide?
Quinn: I think you get into trouble as a chef when you put your need to use techniques ahead of what makes it to the plate for the guest. We do use sous-vide only if it cooks something better with that technique like pork belly is better seared and roasted in the oven. As a chef you have to be able to decide that.

Karen: People are more into learning all the weird specialized techniques and skipping the basics.
There are chefs who cannot filet a fish but can do some flashy stuff to make it appear that they are very advanced chefs.

I have to ask about disagreements in the kitchen.
Karen: To keep our marriage and life together I have to let him be the chef, and we have learned to divide our responsibilities? I have learned from experience to be more diplomatic and I think that Quinn is an excellent cook and 90% of the time his dishes are great.

Quinn: That the difference between us as I think her dishes are great 100% of the time.

Karen: It's just because with desserts I have an easier job than his, which involves a lot more.

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