Originally published in Amadeus Magazine issue 03.
Private chef and lamb-hacking pro Alia Zaine prepares food with the same finite consideration she hand picks it with, pairing passion with the local taste and focused approach of those harvesting her fresh ingredients. Nothing should go in the garbage is her unwritten law bouncing between the kitchen, the field and surveying farmers markets. With the perfect ingredients and a love for the craft there’s nothing left to do but create a great meal.
Alia Zaine is a quiet success story that came out of nowhere. Once a Food Network addict with no restaurant experience and only a running Tumblr account of previously prepared dishes serving as her resume, Zaine was a highly unlikely contender for culinary competence in Los Angeles’ eclectic restaurant scene.
But after walking into Chef David LeFevre’s distinct beachside restaurant, MB Post, with a few printed-out pages from her Tumblr, Zaine persuaded LeFevre and his sous chef with her fervent passion and earned herself a trial period in the restaurant’s always active open kitchen.
“I knew they thought I was just some pretty face who was caught up in the glamor of being a chef that you see on TV and in the movies,” says Zaine. “It was obvious they were trying to flush me out quickly when they told me to come in for a Friday-Saturday shift. But knowing that pushed me to work my ass off and learn as fast as I could. I would be one, even two, steps ahead of the chef I was shadowing, handing him plates before he knew he needed one, partially plating dishes. After my second trial weekend Chef LeFevre came up to me and said, “As soon as you feel like you can run this station yourself, the job is yours.”
MB Post was the culinary space that helped Zaine realize she could make a career out of cooking food, but it was her time at Bestia—one of the Los Angeles’ most aggressive and meat-obsessed restaurants serving rustic Italian food—that taught her how to think and work like a chef.
Zaine has not only vigorously mastered every aspect of the line, but she now doubles as the restaurant’s in-house butcher, developing a familial working relationship with Chef Ori Menashe that has helped her cultivate an unmistakably localvore cooking aesthetic.
“’Bestia’ means ‘beast’ in Italian, and that place is a beast of restaurant,” says Zaine. “It takes the utmost mental and physical strength, but is by and large my family. Being there not only helped me grow substantially as a chef, but has also been a gateway to a number of experiences and culinary opportunities.”
While many chefs today are zooming into the future with modernist techniques and show-stopping theatrics, Zaine returns to the traditional, where her flavors are honest and unpretentious. She uses the best ingredients she can find, seeking out products that are in season, and resisting the temptation to manipulate them too much. She builds relationships with the ingredients themselves, and in turn gets much more out of them.
With Zaine’s cooking it’s not just the ingredients and their provenance, but the stories behind them that give the dishes soul. She uses recipes as guidelines and inspiration rather than law. Her fundamental mindset is to be open, exploratory, and unencumbered by rules. For Zaine, the act of cooking is freeform and open-ended—a journey as much as a destination. It’s simple, humble food, that gives each ingredient the care and precision that it deserves.
“You can make something amazing out of very few ingredients, and not even fancy ingredients,” says Zaine. “In an ideal world everyone would go to the farmers market and buy what’s available, in season, locally grown and make dishes accordingly. When you work with good, fresh foods you begin to understand flavors, realizing what each ingredient brings to a dish and put things together like a puzzle.”
Above all Zaine has a working philosophy of cooking sustainably and closely regards the premise that trimmings from every cut of meat, fruit, or vegetable can be used as the base for soups and stocks, and in turn, no matter how simple the dish, allow her flavors to soar. Zaine combines her adoration for food with an exceedingly gracious approach to the art of gathering around the table, inspiring each of her dishes and providing food with unmatched soul and sustenance.
Photo credit: James Sowka