When Louisiana native Joshua Kopel moved to L.A., there were only a handful of restaurants in the area devoted to New Orleans food. “We knew that anything we opened would become a representation of the city,” he said. “There are thousands of taquerias in L.A., so not all of them have to be representative of Mexico. But opening a place that reps New Orleans, you’re going to be looked at as a kind of standard bearer.”
In 2010, Kopel opened up his first restaurant, Five0Four (named for NOLA’s area code) in Hollywood, which would eventually transition into the food-driven dive bar concept, Royal. In late 2014, he opened Preux & Proper, the ambitious, multi-leveled restaurant combining elevated Southern food with frozen daiquiris and Big Easy swagger.
Now, Kopel says, there are a handful of restaurants doing New Orleans proud just within a two-mile radius of his restaurant Downtown. Thanks to newcomers like Little Jewel, alongside old stalwarts like Harold and Belle’s, the bar for Southern food in L.A. has been raised higher than ever.
About a year after Preux & Proper opened, chef Michael Ruiz left the restaurant and Kopel went searching for a new Southern-pedigreed cook to take the helm. He asked friends in the industry for recommendations and Samuel Monsour’s name was thrown out by The Church Key barman (and former CIA classmate) Devon Espinosa.
Monsour, a North Carolina native, set up a tasting of about 14 or 15 dishes for Kopel, showcasing the funk-tastic and damn tasty Southern food he became known for in his Chuck Taylor Fried Chicken All-Stars and Antibellum pop-ups in L.A. Just weeks later, the new menu was up and running.
“It’s been a total dream situation; it’s like everything was just waiting to fall into place here,” Monsour said, while Kopel echoed the sentiment over the phone. Monsour was able to bring in his chef de cuisine, Steven Hacker, and sous chef, Paul Trevino—both helped run Antibellum—while keeping almost all the original staff at the restaurant.
The menu at downstairs’ Preux features more bar-centric fare, like the Debris Fries—poutine’s Bible Belt cousin—with smoked turkey neck gravy and sautéed collards, blue crab hushpuppies with poblano butter, and a fried oyster po’ boy made on Leidenheimer’s bread flown in from New Orleans. At Proper upstairs, you’ll find more upscale and composed dishes like trout rillettes with American caviar and hoecakes, fried game hen with fresh honeycomb and lemon thyme, and burrata with house-made Tasso ham and horseradish chimi.
If there’s one dish that sums up the kitchen’s entire ethos, it’s the foie gras torchon with pain perdu, smoked strawberries, Doubletree Farm sorghum molasses, and—wait for it—Fruity Pebbles. It’s creative, it’s brash, it has a distinctly middle-finger-to-the-sky vibe—but it’s also rooted in solid technique and high quality ingredients. The juxtaposition between boxed breakfast cereal and sorghum molasses that comes from a sustainable, draft horse-powered farm in North Carolina is Monsour and crew in a nutshell.
Even though there’s been a recent spike in our Southern food options here in L.A., it still only operates as a small niche. “In general, there are less chefs in America cooking American food than almost any other cuisine, so my job’s actually pretty easy,” Monsour said. “Most cats are cooking Southeast Asian food, or fusion food, or Spanish tapas, or rustic Italian—our goal here is just to keep keep learning about Southern food, keep exploring it, and getting new products in our hands.”
Those new products he mentioned include Mangalitsa country hams from Johnston County in North Carolina. Anyone who’s been to a restaurant in the past half decade has likely seen Benton’s ham and bacon—typically made from Duroc, Berkshire, and Tamworth breeds—name dropped on a menu. But for Monsour, nothing compares to the fatty, bright-red flesh of the Mangalitsa, AKA the Kobe beef of pork. Monsour is also getting his grains from Anson Mills in South Carolina and beans and hominy fro Rancho Gordo in Napa Valley.
“We want to keep the food what it’s supposed to be—make sure it sticks to your ribs and satisfies your soul—but also have fun with it and try to be relevant to 2016 in our flavors, our techniques, and our sourcing,” he said. There’s a Southern food Renaissance brewing in L.A., and our mouths are forever grateful for it.