L2O Chef Matt Kirkley On Losing and Winning Back Michelin Stars

Matt Kirkley with a very fresh crab from L2O's kitchen tank.
Matt Kirkley with a very fresh crab from L2O’s kitchen tank. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

Whatever you think about Michelin— and we’ve thought plenty already— there is one story they’ve gotten right, neatly enough to make a Hollywood comeback story. It’s L2O, which in the first year was the only other three-star besides the inevitable Alinea. Then in the second year, with chef Laurent Gras gone, it plummeted to one star in what seemed nearly a public rebuke to a restaurant which had once had it together and lost it. And then, barely a month ago, it won back one of its two lost stars. Most observers would agree with the judgement of L2O as it stood at each of these moments— and so does Matt Kirkley, who was on staff in some capacity at nearly every step of the way, even as he spent time in between at a different two-star restaurant, the now-gone RIA. Shortly after dining on Kirkley’s current menu, we met him at Pizano’s for pizza and talked Michelin and everything else with him, from why the Elysian Hotel didn’t make it to Charlie Trotter’s auction (which he attended with one of his chefs). We’ve got a frank interview with him below; on Monday we’ll have a slideshow of what’s happening at the newly two-star L2O now.

You came to L2O from Robuchon in Vegas, right?

Yeah, I was there for 16, 17 months. There was a whole group of us who were there at the same time— Ryan LaRoche of NoMI, Anthony Martin of Tru, Tom Lents of Sixteen. Then I helped open L2O under Laurent [Gras]. I was there for five months, and then I went over to the Elysian.

I was a sous chef [at the Elysian’s RIA and Balsan] but really, Jason McLeod was a hotel guy, he was in an office overseeing the whole operation. So Danny Grant and I were in the kitchen and we just did what we wanted. We were ordering all this farm to table produce, and they were great restaurants. Balsan was a great restaurant, and they wanted RIA to be like this Trotter-level experience.

But it didn’t make any sense— our costs were way out of line because you had the fine dining restaurants doing room service, too. We were sending these awesome Nichols strawberries or whatever up on room service trays. That’s not the way the hotel business is supposed to work— you’re supposed to screw them on room service and events so you can have the great restaurant. I mean, RIA and Balsan weren’t supposed to contribute that much to revenue, so if we had high food costs, that didn’t matter. But we weren’t making it where we were supposed to be making it. There was no way to, the way the hotel was set up— it took like five years to open and by the time they did the economy had collapsed and they cut things [like a separate room service/banquet kitchen] and it didn’t work any more. That pharmaceutical event business where you can stick them for $140 dinners— that doesn’t exist any more. That’s why all the hotels are dropping fine dining.

We were both in the same kitchen, two staffs running two completely separate sets of tickets. Balsan makes a hamburger on the grill and then we’re doing a piece of fish with truffles right after, it was a recipe for confusion. That’s why we only had five appetizers and five entrees on the menu at RIA— any more than that and we’d fall apart.

Then you went back to L2O when Laurent left, just as the restaurant got three stars in late 2010.

Francis Brennan brought me back to L2O when Laurent left. Francis kind of got the blame for things at L2O but he was really just filling in, he was still at Petterino’s too at the same time, half at each place. I’ve worked for Francis three times— at NoMI and twice at L2O— and he’s really been kind of a mentor to me.

But after a while Francis was out of the building and I was really running the kitchen. And in November [2011] they named me the chef just as the guide came out. It was a shock when Michelin dropped us down to one star. It hit hard. I can tell how they visited us, because they only talked about things that were on the winter menu. I think they visited us like November [2010], December, January [2011], February— and then they stopped. Like they decided it wasn’t worth bothering to go back. And they were right— the menu [in early 2011] was a mess, some of Laurent’s dishes, some of Francis’, there were some Doug Psaltis dishes in there. It needed to be cleaned up, but I didn’t really start making my food until July, and it wasn’t totally my menu until November.

At the time it really sucked to go down to one star, right when I was starting to get my food out there. But in retrospect I’m glad it happened, because it meant that we knew, everybody knows that we got the second star back ourselves. If we had kept two stars and just stayed there, it wouldn’t have had the same message. It doesn’t mean as much to maintain where you are. That’s why [he pulls up his sleeve] I got this four star tattoo. Because I’m the kind who’s never satisfied. If we get to three stars, I want them to have to invent four for us.

When the inspectors called us to tell us we had two stars, I immediately asked what we could do to get to three. And they said, thank you for asking— you’re the only chef who’s asked that. And what they said was, there was nothing wrong that kept us from three, they just take that kind of jump up slowly. And they confirmed that they started coming more often in the months before the announcement, and that each time was better than the one before. That’s what you want to hear, right?

Did it affect business to fall to one star?

Oh, sure, it cost us business. People wonder about you. And then you cut staff and that makes it even harder to come back.

I decided to make some changes. At the time we had a four-course prix fixe menu, and two seven-course menus. And getting the prix fixe out was making it hard to do the tasting menu, to take it to the level it should be at. So now we just have two tasting menus, one of seven courses, one of sixteen courses. So you can be in and out in an hour and a half, it doesn’t have to be a three-hour dinner, but you still get the best of the menu that we want to offer. It also means that we don’t turn tables, which makes for a more relaxed experience.

Are you busy now?

We’re pretty full. They’re all four tops, if you’re a deuce you get seated at a four top, and we usually have on Thursday, Friday or Saturday at least 60 guests. The most we ever had was 76, which with 19 tables, four per table, that’s… oh. 76. I guess we sold out once.

I’m still not a guy who likes to go out in the room. I never leave my kitchen. Which makes me the perfect guy to take over from Laurent [who was famously resistant to schmoozing] (laughs). You know, I got into this business because I’m kind of an anti-social, obsessive type. I’m not a gladhander. I want to be in the kitchen, thinking way too much about this tiny thing that seems like the most important thing in the world to me.

But I guess what’s different is for me, you’re the guest, you know? And you should have what you want. If you want a steak and frites from Mon Ami Gabi [next door], you should have that. In Laurent’s kitchen, no one was allowed to speak in the kitchen. I guess it’s a French thing. If a guest wanted something special, the server had to talk to Nathan [Huntington, now at Argent], who would talk to Laurent and convey the answer. Which was always no. No, you can’t have this dietary restriction or this left off or whatever. No, you can’t have what you want. That’s not how I look at it.

We went through this all the time at the Elysian. You’re staying in a hotel, you’re tired, you just want chicken wings or something. And I’d run out to Potash Brothers to get chicken wings. Why don’t we just keep that stuff for people?

How often do you change the menu?

Ideally I’d like to change one thing a week. I’m not up to that. I’ve maybe changed it 37 times in the last year, not 52. But I’m not spontaneous like that. Danny Grant could change the menu every night.

For me the important thing is, whatever is new needs to be better than what it replaces. I’m trying to improve our fish connections. I’m adding linemen in Boston and the east coast, trying to get more direct connections to different kinds of fish. We bring in more fish from Europe than anybody. But there are a lot of kinds of fish that you just don’t see in the market for whatever reason, I want more of those. The ones that don’t have a commercial market, but they’re amazing fish. We’ve added periwinkles, we’ve added geoduck— we’re always adding things.

In the end, I’m a cook. I want to be on the line more. I want to get my chef de cuisine to the point where he can run things and I can be on the line, working the food. I mean, really, it’s kind of crazy. We think about eating way more than we need to. It’s just calories taken in, and we make so much out of it. But I’m very lucky to be able to have a job where people pay $200 for dinner and I can do these crazy things and employ all these cooks and we make a viable business out of making food.

L2O Chef Matt Kirkley On Losing and Winning Back Michelin Stars