A Facebook video started playing on my timeline the other day, though I’m pretty sure I never actually clicked on it. You know how that goes. It featured tech entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk at a recent conference fielding a question regarding the “Uber of weed delivery.” He cuts off the audience member mid-sentence and says, “Everybody is calling everything the Uber of everything. I’m the Uber of humans.”
The same phenomenon exists in the food world, just sub out “Uber” for “Chipotle.” There are at least five poke spots in L.A. claiming to be the Chipotle of sesame oil-spiked raw fish, and the same goes for pizza, falafel, and ramen. Restaurateurs are on a permanent quest to open the next multi-million dollar restaurant chain that you can walk into in flip flops and be back in your car in five minutes.
Like many chefs in L.A., Michael Fiorelli of Love & Salt is getting his toes wet in the fast-casual pool. His new restaurant won’t be the Chipotle of anything, and that’s how he wants it.
“I think the term fast casual really falls short of what we’re doing,” he says. “Sure, you can get the food quickly in a casual environment, but it’s not going to be like Chipotle—It’s going to have more soul than that.”
The concept is yet-to-be-named, the menu is yet-to-be-designed, the location is yet-to-be-determined, and there are a few other yet-tos. But here are the details we do know: Fiorelli, along with chef de cuisine Rebecca Merhej and Love & Salt business partner Sylvie Gabriele, will be opening a new concept with the team from now shuttered Farm Stand, where current chef Alex Mosavi (Gabriele’s husband) and Guy Gabriele (her father) will also be in on the new project (there’s a quiz on the names later, so maybe jot down a few notes or something).
Fiorelli is Italian, Merhej is Lebanese, Mosavi is Persian, and Guy Gabriele was born in Tunisia. If you play connect-the-dots with all the countries represented on a map you get a loop around the Mediterranean, making stops in the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe along the way. Fiorelli wants the menu and menu to capture the flavors of those areas because, first, he has the dream team assembled to pull it off, and, second, he connects with them on a personal level. If you couldn’t tell from the name of his restaurant, Love & Salt, Fiorelli looks at food through an emotional lens.
“I mean the first time I had Alex’s food—he’s been doing Persian food for years—I was literally moved by it. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is just unbelievable,'” he says. “And Rebecca’s been cooking for me and I’ve been eating with her family for years. Also, with Guy being born in Tunisia, the recipes he’s coming with are just insane; they’re things I’ve never seen before.”
You can’t put the terms “chef-driven fast casual” and “Middle Eastern flavors” in the same sentence without thinking of every trend that has ever passed through L.A. Images of tahini and sumac-dusted-everything are conjured up alongside easily franchisable hot dog stands that are backed by Michelin-starred chefs (you know the one). In the last year alone L.A. has seen multiple Chipotles-of-Middle-Eastern-food open up in Cava Grill, Yalla Mediterranean, and Halal Guys; but Fiorelli wants people to understand that this isn’t some cash grab pita joint designed to scale up as soon as the restaurant gets on its feet.
“As soon as the news came out that we were doing this, people started approaching us like, ‘Hey, I’m an expert in scalability, bring me on your team I can tell you how to scale up,'” he says. “We’re not even a little bit concerned with that; we’re concerned with opening a great restaurant with great, responsibly sourced food. That’s where it ends.”
Thanks to Panera, ‘Potle, and its cohorts, the Platonic ideal of the fast-casual restaurant might be somewhat tainted in our collective consciousness. For Fiorelli and his team, it’s an opportunity to create a culinary playground of sorts while keeping ticket prices low and letting the guest control the experience. The chefs get to cook what they want to cook and they can serve a higher volume of people in the process.
One of the challenges in pulling off the new concept—though one the crew is more than equipped to take on—is going to be sourcing all non-GMO grains and oils along with locally farmed, organic produce. Luckily, Sylvie has been on the forefront of doing just that for the past ten years with Farm Stand, making Fiorelli’s job easier. “All I have to do right now is, thankfully, write a beautiful menu,” he says. “I’ll be like, ‘I want to use ancient kamut and non-GMO olive oil and goat’s milk and radishes.’ And she’s like, ‘Cool, this is where we’re gonna get it from.’ It’s like a dream come true.”
Fiorelli also credits much of the restaurant’s ethos to twenty-seven-year-old Merhej’s millennial sensibilities. Rather than buying pita from a supplier, she wants to make it all in house, closing the gap even further between farm and table. And, for Fiorelli, that’s a huge next step to take in the world of casual dining. People want food that was responsibly sourced, they want it to be made on-site, they want it to taste good, and they want it on their schedule, whether that means an hour-long leisurely dinner or a 15-minute lunch break.
At the same time, Fiorelli acknowledges that it takes a special team with a specific goal in mind to pull off such a concept. “But it’s really just an issue of supply and demand. If everybody would demand this, supply would go up, and costs would come down,” he says. “A big part of our restaurant coming to fruition is that people will hopefully see—hey, this is doable.”