“Oh excuse me a minute. It just started to rain,” Christine Banta puffed into her cellphone, multi-tasking as she hurriedly stuffed a batch of kitchen utensils and other cooking accoutrements into the trunk of her car.
“I thought it never rained in Southern California,” I teased. I was calling from snowy Philadelphia, half a continent away. To me, rain sounded good.
“Propoganda,” she chuckled. “I just wish it wasn’t raining on my day off.”
I had chatted with Christine a few times before, each time trying to hit a moving target. No matter. Christine is unflappable – a great, though arguably rare, attribute for a chef to have. In terms of a moving target, today’s cell phone exchange was no different than previous conversations. Fact is: her kinetic, gather-no-moss style pays dividends for La Bohème. This rainy LA day happened to be the affable chef’s day “off,” a rare occurrence that bears no resemblance to the notion of that welcome word-pairing we of the non-chef universe have. Christine thinks, works, and dreams La Bohème – non-stop. Well, extend that think-work-dream list to include: La Boheme, food, cuisine, recipes, cooking, kitchen processes, restaurant operations – all those things that beset the toque-topped set night and day, both in the kitchen and out. On Christine’s days off; i.e., the times she’s not toiling officially in the La Bohème kitchen, she’s scouring LA and the environs for new ingredients, new trends, better kitchen equipment, etc. Don’t feel bad for her. Her busman’s holidays are not only a way of life. They're a labor of love.
Christine has always had an affinity for kitchen work. Her mother is Japanese. Food preparation and kitchen work were not optional in their family. No matter: Christine always loved kitchen chores. She and her family spent seven years in Japan when she was a child. She learned first-hand the uncompromising Japanese reverence for fresh ingredients. “I learned the power, actually the indispensability, of the ‘ground-to-table philososphy,” she underscores. “Also, obviously, sea-to-table. In the village where we lived, fisherman used to bring their boats literally right up to our house. My mother would buy fish that was just caught and it would be on our table a short time later. I came to understand early on that a chef’s major task is to bring out natural flavors, to highlight the tastes of ingredients and allow them to speak for themselves – not to come up with dishes that interfere with the main ingredients.”
The influence of her youth in Japan is apparent throughout the La Bohème menu, particularly in entrées like Miso Glazed Salmon and Crispy Skinned Sea Bass. Asian minimalist preparation rules for each. Keep It Simple, in fact, is consistent in both her gastronomy and her philosophy. She reinforced those beliefs when she earned a culinary degree years ago at UCLA.
“I’ve also found that too many chefs and restaurants fail because they don’t comprehend or embrace how essential to success it is to perform the ‘hard-work’ aspects of this business,” Christine offers. “Purchasing food, inventorying it, measuring it out properly, rotating and keeping ingredients fresh, ordering properly – that's the hard work. It also happens to be the driver for everything else that follows.
Christine’s father was in the US military. Her family spent a number of her adolescent years in Dixie – a period that has also influenced her approach to cooking. “My mother was amazing,” she recalls. “When we were in the south all those years – in Virginia and Carolina – none of the ingredients my mother was accustomed to using were available in the local stores. But while she was searching for the bona fide ingredients, she substituted and improvised with local ingredients and created some wonderful tweaks and variations on the classics. I learned a lot from that. That's why I'm out looking for ingredients on my day off! Southern cuisine also taught me the power of simple, rustic presentation. Let me translate that into the kitchen operation at a place like La Bohème. It means I favor dishes and preparations that don’t require that a dish be touched by five different pairs of hands. That approach results in coherent cooking.”
“I try to stay close to what our guests want,” she concludes as the LA rain pelts her pick-up and her windshield wipers get a rare chance to slap time. “I believe we’ve experienced a significant shift in consumer tastes over the last few years. A few years ago, exotic architectural presentations ruled. People demanded complex dishes. Now I think the pendulum has swung again. People are back to craving less complex dishes with simpler presentations. They now look for plates that appear nourishing and healthy. They're the kinds of dishes I try to provide at La Bohème.” Christine is tuned in. For five years at La Bohème, she has thrived. And so has La Bohème. Through good economies and bad, she continues to please a savvy, demanding clientele. At the core of her success is hard work in a métier she loves, along with dedication that never sleeps and never takes a day off.