Chef Lee Gross of M Café de Chaya - Los Angeles Rising Star on

Photo Credit: Jon Deshler

Lee Gross
M Café de Chaya
7119 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 525-0588

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Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Lee Gross: My mother couldn’t cook. I was an artist and hungry, so I taught myself how to cook to feed myself.

AB: Did you attend culinary school? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs today? Do you only hire chefs with culinary school backgrounds?
LG: I have a 4-year degree from Johnson and Wales. I also studied macrobiotics at the Kushi Institute in Becket, MA. Yes, I would recommend culinary school. Most people who work for me have been trained within the Chaya family restaurants.

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Lee Gross
M CAFÉ DE CHAYA | Los Angeles

Lee Gross has been studying Macrobiotics, traditional cuisines and alternative health since 1999. After receiving classical culinary training and undergraduate degrees from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, he pursued careers in the restaurant and retail foodservice industries. Lee gained experience under celebrated chefs from around the country, including such notables as Daniel Bruce at the Boston Harbor Hotel and Philippe Jeanty at Domaine Chandon in California’s Napa Valley. Lee also worked at Providence’s famed Al Forno Restaurant, under the tutelage of George Germon and Johanne Killeen.

In the fall of 1999, with the intention of meshing his skills and talents with his social ideals and personal ethics, Gross began an intensive two year study program in Macrobiotics at the Kushi Institute in Becket, Massachusetts. With a heightened understanding of the relationship between food, health and the environment, he committed himself to developing a new style of cuisine grounded in a strong nutritional and ecological imperative. As his cooking evolved, he built upon a platform of sound culinary technique, enriching it with a Macrobiotic sensibility, and a progressive creative vision.

In the summer of 2000, Gross was recruited to open a small restaurant in the East Village of New York City committed to serving organic, natural foods. He seized the opportunity to put his evolving vision into action, and developed a cutting-edge menu that fused Macrobiotic principles with classical cooking technique to create food with bold, international flavors, and a vital, healing energy. The Organic Grill opened to rave reviews, and continues to offer innovative vegan, vegetarian and Macrobiotic foods.

A chance meeting with Mina Dobic, the Macrobiotic counselor to Oscar-award winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow in 2001, led to Gross being recruited as Gwyneth’s personal chef. Mina singled him out because of his unique mix of professional kitchen experience, intensive Macrobiotic training, and dedication to a vital, healing cuisine. Gwyneth was hooked on Gross’s modern interpretations of classical macrobiotic dishes. Traveling the globe with Gwyneth has enabled Gross to enrich his cooking with traditional culinary techniques from countries such as Japan, Spain and England.

Gross spent time in Japan and had gone to see a friend from New York who was the executive chef at a new Macrobiotic restaurant in Japan. He thought it was a coincidence that the restaurant name was Chaya Macrobiotic as he had gone to another restaurant in Los Angeles with Gwyneth called Chaya. He was surprised to learn that it was the same family of restaurants. When he returned to the US he contacted Chaya to see if they had plans of opening anything like this in the States. Gross’s timing was perfect, as the Chaya family in the US was already working on this new concept.

Executive chef and owner Shigefumi Tachibe of Chaya US met with Gross not long after this. Executive chef Tachibe felt that Gross was the perfect person to come and work with him as the chef de cuisine on this new project which was set to open in Los Angeles in May 2005.

“I’m passionate about food,” Gross says. I am very excited to be working with executive chef Tachibe and the Chaya family on this exciting new concept. Macrobiotics allows me to feel good about the food that I cook and serve. It brings integrity and wholesomeness to my cuisine. I hope this new concept can serve as a model for a sustainable future. Cuisine today should celebrate seasonal, locally procured produce and be crafted with less reliance on animal products and processed foods. I am very excited for this new opportunity. This is a recipe for a better tomorrow.”

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Interview Cont'd
AB: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
LG: Julie Jordan, a chef in Ithaca, NY, turned me on to macrobiotic cooking. Phillipe Jeanty at Domaine Chandon – he taught me to employ the French technique that I learned in school and actually use it! He also taught me love. George and Johanne from Al Forno in Providence, RI, taught me passion, as opposed to love, and how to run a restaurant.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
LG: There is a lot of baggage surrounding the macrobiotics practice and its food – I don’t think too hard about it. I live and eat in the moment while listening to my body.

AB: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like? Why?
LG: Miso – fermented food that has a depth of flavor. Umeboshi extract and paste from the pickled plums. It’s magic, a tonic for the body, and its flavor is off the charts. Shiso – its aroma and flavor is a cross between basil and mint. Agar – this sea vegetable is very healthy and can be used everywhere that regular gelatin can be used. Kudzu root – for its thickening power and positive effect in the small intestine.

AB: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
LG: The Suribachi-surikogi, a Japanese mortar and pestle that brings me back to primal cooking. It fills you with the aroma of what you are grinding. The act of using it is balancing.

AB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
LG: I make cheese from tofu. I culture tofu with miso, pickling it to make a parmesan-like cheese. I also make chevre.

AB: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
LG: I ask them if they like to eat. Indifference makes me skeptical.

AB: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
LG: Go to school if you can afford it. Study culture – that is the best way to study cuisine. Watch cooking shows but not on The Food Network. Read everything.

AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
LG: The Book of Tempeh – it is an encyclopedia detailing its traditional use and how it is used culturally. Bill Shrutleff – his whole series and The Cabbage Town Café Cookbook.

AB: What cities do you like for culinary travel?
LG: Northern California – everything I ate tasted like manna. New York – there’s nothing like it for taste and flavors.

AB: What are your favorite restaurants – off the beaten path – in Los Angeles?
LG: Hungry Cat and Inaka, which is straight-up macrobiotic in the Japanese style.

AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
LG: Much more use of whole food and whole grains. Sustainability is growing. Plant-based food interest is growing and traditional food is coming back.

AB: Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
LG: Teaching on some level. I want to be at the forefront of this movement. I want to help change the industry for the better.


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   Published: May 2006