Any Angeleno will tell you that fall doesn’t start until, at the earliest, Halloween. That’s when the worst of the heat starts to let up and you at least have to consider the crazy idea of wearing sleeves on a semi-regular basis. The last few years, however, have been some of the hottest on record, throwing all expectations—and cravings for hot chocolate—out the window. With record high temperatures and and a (relatively) year-round growing season, does fall even exist in Southern California? Are pumpkin spice lattés summer’s only death knell?
Chefs in L.A. have started to contend with that question as well. Part of the buzz for any new high-profile restaurant these days is almost guaranteed to center on seasonal cooking, and most chefs speak with great pride about their market-to-table fare. Heck, even my local frutería is making its jugos with organic fruit.
But, as seasonal cooking becomes the expectation and the norm, it also faces challenges. In October, so far, almost every day has been above 80 degrees with two reaching a sweltering 100 degrees—not exactly what you’d call soup and pumpkin pie weather. “The true complication right now is that it’s super hot and humid. How do you make something that’s light and refreshing with ingredients from the fall?” says chef Alex Ageneau of Aestus, who admits its been challenging but also great for innovation. To blend elements of summer and fall, Ageneau is currently serving a grilled persimmon salad with arugula and cheese. “It’s still very refreshing and clean, but it has that really fall feel to it,” he says, adding that he’s holding off on butternut squash soup for now.
Vartan Abgaryan of Cliff’s Edge says that the fact that he’s never favored really rich foods has helped him shape his menu in the midst of persistent heat. “I’m not a fan of heavy cooking, but it doesn’t matter because there are flavors that are so associated with fall that it gives you this warm feeling while you’re eating,” he says. “Unfortunately, you’re also sitting in 90-degree weather.” Like Ageneau, Abgaryan has chosen to lighten up traditional dishes, like his take on a waldorf salad. Instead of finishing it with mayonnaise-based dressing, he’s using an emulsion with walnut oil and egg whites. Using less butter, he says, is also key in this weather.
The opportunity to change things up was repeated by every chef we spoke to, but Laurent Quenioux of Vertical Wine Bistro says that along with the excitement of creating new dishes, there’s still a downside. For one thing, the weather has made some ingredients that he’s relied on for years less accessible. Spiny lobsters, for example, have been harder to come by this year. “There are a few out there, but it’s been so hot, that those lobsters go in deeper and deeper, and it’s harder to catch them,” he says. One nice consolation, he says, is that sea urchins have been more plentiful in the warmer waters.
The latest menu for Quenioux’s LQ @MaMaison Supper Club series, meant to showcase the best of fall, was different this year. “Produce is just so ahead of time now,” he says. “We were able to get quince already, blood oranges already—it’s just not quite the way it should be, but we do our job,” he says with a laugh.
The chefs we spoke to echoed Quenioux. They say that they’ve noticed that some fruit and vegetables are available for shorter periods of time, or much sooner than what they’ve grown accustomed to. One mentioned that tomatoes were only prime for about a month this year, when usually they’re good for two or three. Another said sunchokes were more illusive than ever before. Many apple varieties, too, have been lackluster, we heard. Abgaryan told us he couldn’t make any use of this year’s kabocha squash because the texture was too crumbly. “It’s almost as if it had been cold-stored for a year or something,” he says, adding that at least the passion fruit crop was randomly fantastic this year.
Of course, it’s not all gloom and culinary doom. L.A. chefs are adapting and still managing to turn out top-notch dishes all over town. Even Rachel Carr, whose plant-based Peruvian-inspired dishes at Chavela predominantly rely on the availability of seasonal produce, has taken the changes in stride. “Frankly, I love it,” Carr says. “For a smaller restaurant that’s chef-driven, I actually think it stimulates a lot of creativity, and it gives you the opportunity to offer something different to your customers.” On that note, she’s doing pumpkin tamale right now with nasazi beans and roasted red pepper-tomato sauce that she says works well even in this so-called fall weather.