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Chefs draw inspiration from a variety of places for their plates of food. Some are inspired by their childhood experiences, others by their travels or time spent in the kitchens of their mentors. Still other are inspired by specific ingredients or the freshest produce at the market that day. Often inspiration comes from some sort of a combination or amalgam of all of these things. At b.o.s. in Little Tokyo, Chef David Bartnes' menu is a collection of memories from all the places he has lived, studied and worked in Asia, Europe and most recently here in Los Angeles.
Though born in Oregon, David moved with his Korean mother back to Korea after his Caucasian father, a service man, died in a training accident before David was born. David lived in Korea until he was nine years old. He then moved to Hong with his mom and his German step father who his mom met in Korea. After that year in Hong Kong, David's family moved to Singapore where he attended British curriculum school. At this international school, United World College of South East Asia, he met people from all walks of life. Through his friends, David was influenced a lot by what they were eating. Many days after school he'd be found eating satays, roti's and curries while hanging out with his friends and classmates who were either locals or from places as far away as Canada, Australia, India and South Africa.
While in Asia growing up as an expat, David traveled a lot with his parents throughout Asia, North America and Europe for both family vacations, as well as a part of his stepfather's work. Much of his travel included plenty of eating out and staying in a lot of hotels. At a young age, this left a deep impression. So much so that when he was seven years old David knew he was destined to work in the service industry in some way.
At the age of 16, David’s family received a transfer to move to Chicago. However with his British schooling, a move to the US at the time would have proved to be too much of a change, so David was next off to England to finish high school. A life with a desk job wasn't something David ever aspired to pursue. Not the best in school, he dabbled in music and was on the path to discovering himself when one day David had an epiphany. He wanted to be a chef. He liked cooking for friends. He liked the reaction he got when his friends enjoyed what he prepared. So rather than continue down the path of further education, he enrolled in culinary school where he attended the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in London. Here he learned classical technique.
After school David got an offer to stage at the Hilton Hotel in Shanghai, China where his parents had just moved after their time in Chicago. At this time, China hadn't yet economically boomed. The Hilton Hotel was one of only a few hotels there in Shanghai and thus had a good crowd particularly of ex‐patriots that lived in China. Here, catering to that crowd, David did everything from Italian cuisine to working in the chocolate room to the butchery to the baking room. From the Japanese chef who trained at the Tokyo bay Hilton, David learned how to do Japanese cuisine at a teppan table that was inside the Hilton's Italian restaurant. Volume was intense. In the bakery alone, the hotel's crew made enough bread to serve four thousand people a day. Needless to say, this was a big operation.
After a year, Bartnes finished this stage position. He then got a job offer to run the kitchen at a golf course in Phuket, a small island off of Southeast Thailand, at the Blue Canyon Country Club known in SE Asia for holding PGA tournaments. So he went there and helped out in the "Western kitchen" doing everything from burgers to pasta. Business was slow especially at night since the clientele was golfers. These golfers, noticing his frustrations introduced him to the places they would eat at in the evenings. One restaurant, The Siam Supper club, caught David's attention. It was a style of food that took him back to great city restaurants in the US and UK. He spoke with the chefs and still hungry for work, he helped out at the restaurant a couple nights of the week working the pizza and appetizer stations, and learning the ropes which eventually turned into a job offer which he took. After the two chefs and first real mentors he was working for left to open a restaurant in New York City, David's parents and uncle bought out the restaurant's owners, and had David run the kitchen.
David had a lot of fun living and working in Thailand. All of the ingredients for the restaurant were sourced from Thailand except for the beef. As with many places in Asia, beef is imported from Australia. But he had a good source for duck, and used the freshest tuna. Chickens were pasture raised from the local markets along with most of the vegetables except for salad greens which were grown in the north of Thailand and picked up once a week at the airport. So this was David's first hand at being local and sustainable that used the local ingredients and supported the people who made a business supporting ex‐pats and their tastes. He cooked what the restaurant called "big city American fare."
Outside the restaurant he was into eating all the local Thai food as much and as often as he could. This included spicy southern Thai curries that were heavily influenced by Malaysians and all the traders that have passed through during the years, as well as fried chicken at the markets with fresh papaya salads.Though after three years on Phuket looking at Palm trees and beaches, David experienced his first taste of burn‐out. He hadn't left the island during this entire time. On a trip to Bangkok, he was overwhelmed by all the activity: the smells, sights, sounds, and traffic. It was information overload. He decided then and there that he needed to get off of the island before he went nuts or wouldn't ever be able to integrate back into city life again. He took the bold step and moved back to Shanghai, which by then was starting to boom.
Before returning to Shanghai, David traveled to Europe and New York City. While in Europe, he spent time at a friend’s chalet in the Haute-Savoie in Southern France where he went mushroom picking and trout fishing. In New York City he went on what he describes as an "eating fest". Re‐inspired by his travels, David made his way to Shanghai. In Shanghai, David was involved a number of different projects ranging from a Danish/German Beer House to a running a night club, and a museum restaurant. He was also catering for large scale events like the inaugural PGA Players Championship with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickleson and the whole PGA line‐ up. For that four day event, David's team served food to over six thousand people per day. Plus he consulted on a number of little projects learning the business side of things as well as worked for an investment company.
In China, David explored its vast cuisines. His favorite restaurant served food from Hunan Provence. Considered the bread basket of China, Hunan has a very unique cuisine that uses a wide range of spices. He fell in love. The food is hot and flavorful not dank and oily like Szechuan cuisine sometimes is and minus the mountains of Szechuan peppercorns and dried chilies. He sometimes craved Szechun cuisine but he could eat Hunan food every day. He also got into the sweeter Shanghainese, cuisine which is very sweet with a lot of sweet soy sauce. China was definitely a culinary wonderland for him with so many different ways of preparing ingredients. He dabbled in Chinese cuisine but loves it more for the memories it's served for his palate. As he did in Singapore and Thailand’s outdoor markets and food stalls, he'd sit on the street and watch and absorb the activity of the people in the stalls making food.
During his stay in China, David eventually got married to an American Chinese expat who he knew through the expat community in Shanghai. Her desire after marriage was to move back to the US to be closer to her family and start he own family. So his wife took a job in Los Angeles. David had never thought about living in Los Angeles, nor really even imagined at all moving back to the US. The last time he had been to LA was when he was all but seven years old. He, as with most of the world, thought Los Angeles was all about Disneyland, Hollywood, and gangsta rap as well as being a massive concrete jungle. This wasn't a move he was overly joyed about. However almost immediately after he arrived, he quickly fell in love with LA.
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