Jeremy Fox’s New American at Birdie G’sMay 24, 2019
This essay was first published in the Life & Thyme.
Editor’s Note: When developing this story, Chef Jeremy Fox was about to embark on a holiday trip to Ohio, where he grew up. Instead of dispatching a photographer of our own, we armed Fox with a Leica CL camera (courtesy of Leica San Francisco/Camera West) so we could see Ohio through his own eyes.
Imagine a restaurant where matzo ball soup coexists with rumaki (a Polynesian-style appetizer popular in post-war America), and Mongolian tri-tip. Legendary California chef Jeremy Fox will soon reveal what these seemingly unrelated dishes have in common on the tables of his upcoming dream restaurant Birdie G’s, which is set to open this summer in Santa Monica’s historic Bergamot Station.
Fox—the executive chef of Rustic Canyon in Los Angeles, and formerly of Manresa in Los Gatos and Ubuntu in Napa Valley—sat with me at Rustic Canyon to talk about the inspiration behind his multi-ethnic, yet wholly Americana menu. Birdie G’s will honor and celebrate food memories, past and present.
Raised on fast food and TV dinners, Fox never learned the basics of home cooking. Nonetheless, he enrolled in culinary school at age twenty and started working in fine dining restaurants. “I learned how to make fancy things, but I never learned how to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving, I never learned how to make macaroni and cheese or scalloped potatoes. I didn’t learn how to make stuffing until a couple of years ago,” he tells me. “I wanted to go back and be able to cook those things. I wanted to be able to cook real food.”
Birdie G’s will be all about real foods in every sense of the term. In it, Fox will redefine himself by looking to his past. Born in the Cleveland suburbs, Fox moved to Atlanta at age twelve and spent childhood summers with his beloved grandparents outside of Philadelphia. All of these places, in one form or another, have shaped the menu at Birdie G’s. Fox was quick to share food stories through pictures he took in his wife’s native Ohio. He was there for the Christmas holidays with his wife, Rachael Sheridan, and their three-year-old daughter Birdie, the restaurant’s namesake.
Pointing to an image of a soda fountain that could have easily been taken in 1950, Fox proclaims, “There’s nothing really sexy about Midwestern food. It just is. It’s earnest and honest. It’s timeless.” In the picture, Fox’s wife and daughter sit at the counter waiting for milkshakes and hot dogs. Although perhaps the soda fountain isn’t sophisticated, it certainly has an air of the romantic. “It has been around for a long time. It’s a knick-knack shop too—a junk store. They sell used children’s games, cookbooks and ninety-nine-cent belts. It’s the kind of place that just happens. The place feels like it was created by necessity.”
Creating by necessity is at the core of the foods of the Midwest. The area’s climate is cold and harsh; its dishes are simple and hearty. The techniques of curing and pickling have a long history in the area, and in the days before refrigeration, were key to survival.
This idea of preservation and survival struck Fox while visiting two places in Ohio City: Ohio City Provisions, which he describes as being “an awesome butcher shop,” and Larder Delicatessen, a modern Jewish deli. Each honors the area’s culinary roots. The butcher shop raises its own meats and makes its own charcuterie, pickles and preserves. Fox exclaims that the cream from Ohio City Provisions’ cows is “the best cream I’ve probably ever had,” evidenced by the full-fat bright yellow butter made from it back at his in-law’s house.
Fox describes Larder Delicatessen as a traditional Jewish deli with non-traditional vegan and vegetarian offerings. According to Fox, it’s also almost like a science lab. They’re “doing some of the craziest foraging and fermentation in the country,” he says, as well as selling soy sauce, vegan Worcestershire sauce, and “miso from everything,” alongside rugelach and babka. Although fermentation may sound like the latest trend in the food world, it isn’t revolutionary in Ohio. “This is how they’ve always done it,” he says, noting the practices once in danger of dying off are the subject of preservation attempts.
While both places are going back to basics in their deep respect for culinary traditions and techniques, they are modern in their effort to build bridges to the future. A long supporter of sustainability and the farm-to-table movement, the link between tradition and the contemporary is at the core of Fox’s philosophy.
Getting personal, Fox shows a picture of the beautiful house in which he lived between the fourth and fifth grades. “My parents never really cooked,” he says. In contrast, he points to a group of photos—a cozy living room interior filled with family pictures and Fox’s own cookbook, On Vegetables, proudly displayed on the coffee table. A bedroom with pink walls and mementos, pages from a Fannie Farmer cookbook, chickens and eggs—all from his wife’s childhood home, where her parents have lived for decades. Fox recounts the power of tasting her food stories—her memories.
As I salivate at an image of buttery sweet potatoes cooking on a cast iron pan and perfectly imperfect biscuits prepared in Sheridan’s childhood home, he describes rumaki, a popular dish at the family holiday table. A mid-century party food inspired by exotic Polynesian flavors, its recipe was once found on Del Monte pineapple cans. Traditionally made with water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and baked in a sweet and sour sauce, rumaki will make an appearance on the Birdie G’s menu. Low brow, perhaps. American, one hundred percent.
Fox feels it is important to elevate foods that have enough character to transcend the country’s holiday or special occasion dining room. He wants to create dishes that feel like classics even though to some they might be new.
Home cooking at his in-laws’ reminds Fox of summers spent outside of Philadelphia with his grandparents. He remembers his grandmother Gladys (the G in Birdie G’s) spending all day cooking with no agenda other than feeding her family. Summers in Pennsylvania are likely where he found his love of the craft. He fondly remembers her matzo ball soup, served to Fox and his cousins with a special spoon for each. “Mine was gold,” he tells me, and matzo ball soup at Birdie G’s will be served with a gold spoon. Its chicken broth recipe is his wife’s.
Gladys’ tongue pot roast, dreaded by the younger cousins, connected him to his grandfather. “I probably started eating it when I was eight because I wanted to feel cool. My grandfather and I were the only ones brave enough to eat it.” Although Gladys’ pot roast will be made from Fox’s recipe card of memory, his nurturing grandmother—and his Jewish roots—will shine bright.
His connections to the South where he moved after the age of twelve are important to the culinary mosaic that is Birdie G’s. Like so many other items on the menu, the South might not come across in its traditional form, but rather as a personal memory. “When I was younger there was a restaurant called Golden Empress near where I lived in Atlanta that my mom would take me to once a week. Mongolian beef was my favorite. The woman who owned it also cut my hair,” he tells me. Fox would see her so regularly he would even share his report cards with her. To honor her, he will have a Mongolian slow cooked tri-tip on the menu. “None of the dishes are carbon copies of what I’ve had; they’re just the spark that inspired whatever that dish became.”
The essence of the down-home places he visited in Ohio and the food memories they sparked have inspired him to tell his own story. Fox hopes Birdie G’s will become a neighborhood place that feels as if it’s been around forever. One that diners will return to again and again for his whimsical, delicious and heartwarming comfort foods.
On the dessert menu there will be cookies, pies and cakes, not unlike what might be offered in that soda fountain in Ohio City. Deanie Hickox, his ex-wife and former pastry chef at Manresa and Ubuntu, will serve as consultant.
Birdie G’s has been brewing for four years and is finally coming to life thanks to Rustic Canyon Group co-owners Colby Goff, Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan and to countless meals, people and shared experiences. “It’s a dream to be able to do this with people I love and trust.”
As I say goodbye, I start waxing nostalgic about a restaurant that has yet to open, a space that’s comfortable and inclusive. Fox reminds me of one of my favorite photographers, William Eggleston, an artist who had the skill of turning the ordinary into the extraordinary.