It took a trip abroad to study architecture, of all things, for Zach Pollack to discover his true passion was in the kitchen. Now this rising star on the culinary scene, who previously helped open critically acclaimed Sotto, is calling the shots and tinkering with Italian traditions with an innovative dining experience at Alimento. We spoke to Pollack about the pressures of wearing dual hats as chef and owner, elevating East Side cuisine and what L.A. restaurant he could dine at every day.
What has the experience of branching out on your own with Alimento been like, balancing the act of owner and chef?
There are only so many things you can prepare for, but at the end of the day you just have to relay on all of your experiences up until this point. And use them to your advantage as the unexpected inevitably happens. But it’s been great. It’s been a constant sprint, with very little time to catch ones breath. This is what I’ve always been moving toward. Opening Soto was a huge jump from anything I had done prior. But at Sotto I still had Steve [Samson] in the kitchen, we could relay on each other. The breadth of my responsibilities was a lot less where as here at Alimento, not only do I not have a partner in the kitchen, I don’t have a partner in the front. But it’s been the learning experience that I hoped it would be.
Since you are balancing your time between the different areas of the restaurant, does it make your time in the kitchen any more special?
I think I put in all the love I had to give when we were opening Sotto, and I’m putting all the love I have to give into Alimento now. Perhaps it forces me to be a little more efficient in the kitchen. [Laughs]
Well you are obviously doing something right, as evident by the recent James Beard Rising Star of the Year honor. Congratulations on that! How did it feel to get that news?
That was great and totally unexpected! I was very happy to see that.
For those who may not be too familiar with Alimento yet, what region is your culinary style modeled after?
It’s definitely not modeled after any one in particular. Alimento is pretty unique, and it’s really an expression of one side of my cooking. The food at Sotto is pretty strict Southern Italian, whereas at Alimento there’s a lot of imagination. There’s a lot of fun being had with traditions, though that’s not to say that we’re turning our back on tradition. We’re tinkering with them here at Alimento quite a bit. A dish may resemble a traditional dish but upon eating it you discover fun little factors that were entirely unexpected.
Is there any one dish on the menu that best demonstrates that tinkering with tradition?
There are a number of dishes I love. The obviously analogy would be asking a parent to name their favorite child. The tortellini is probably the most emblematic of the style of cooking here. It’s a riff on an uber-traditional dish and it doesn’t inject different flavors or global ingredients, but it takes the existing ingredients and appropriating them in different tastes and textures. In the case of our tortellini, the brodo is inside the tortellini, sort of paying homage to the local multi-ethnic makeup. There’s a lot of input that L.A. has on this restaurant. The lens itself is Italian and I have a lot of passion and knowledge and commitment to Italian traditions, but the light that’s coming through the lens is L.A.
Being an L.A. native, what has been your impression of the local food scene over the years?
I think the food scene here in L.A., and countrywide in a lot of places, is booming right now. A lot of chefs are going out to bigger cities, accumulating knowledge and then going back to their hometowns. L.A. is part of a major trend of an improving food scene. When I started out there were a handful of restaurants where a young cook could go and garner experience at an esteemed place that was also putting out great food. Now, there are so many more opportunities for young cooks out there to get their hands dirty with good mentors.
Why decide to open Alimento on the East Side?
I’ve wanted to open a restaurant on this side of town for some time, even before Steven and I opened Soto. There are so many reasons why, aside from the fact that I live here now and love Silverlake, that I opened Alimento here. The culture here is very creative and open minded, and for the kind of food I like to cook an audience that is open-minded is the best kind of audience. Though when we opened we had more people who were skeptical of this “strange Italian,” but now we find people are so into it. Also, as of a year or so ago, there was very little in the way of restaurants in the vein of Alimento. I thought this was an area that was underserved.
And soon Alimento will be serving up East Side brunch, correct?
We’re going to roll that out in the spring. It was always my plan to open for brunch, but we just had to figure out some logistics first.
When you manage to find a little time to step away from Alimento, what are some of your favorite L.A. spots?
I’m some-what partial to my area, but I frequent Night Market a lot. I love Proof, over in Atwater, for pastries. I just went to Odys & Penelope and thought it was wonderful! There’s never been any question as to the awesome talents of Karen and Quinn Hatfield, and Odys & Penelope is no exception. It was a great meal; I love the space. It’s a place I could eat at day after day.