Taking a World View
Energetic. Passionate. Full of radiant energy. This is how Richie De Mane, executive chef and partner of the Pearl District in Westlake Village, describes himself. Over the course of our interview on a quiet afternoon before the restaurant opens for the day, he’s all that.
Our conversation takes us to New York, where as a teen he apprenticed after school at Diane’s Desserts in Roslyn making from-scratch pastries. It travels to Michael’s Restaurant in Santa Monica and Hollywood, where he worked as a food stylist for movies and television with camera-ready food. “If something was scripted that, say, Julia Roberts eats a cheeseburger and it drips on her blouse, that was my take,” says De Mane, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park in 1989.
Then it’s on to the Conejo Valley, where he’s spent about 20 years helming high-end restaurant kitchens.
De Mane was the chef de cuisine at 2087 An American Bistro (now home to Mastro’s Steakhouse) in Thousand Oaks. What started as a fill-in executive chef position at the now-shuttered Leila’s in Oak Park lasted 16 years. Leila’s was the springboard for Pearl District, which opened at the end of 2014.
“I explain my food as contemporary American eclectic,” says De Mane, whose family is “100% Italian.” While his mom cooked Italian food, she also incorporated eclectic dishes that weren’t the norm, he says. “I learned the art of cooking and the love of food from my mother and from my family.”
De Mane looks to different regions around the world for ideas when creating dishes. “My inspiration comes from a territory, from the thought process of what’s going on in Spain—different areas, different regions.” From there, he puts his spin on the dish. “I always want to be new and exciting, but at the same time, I want to be sort of on the cusp of what’s happening.”
This comes together on the plate as California cuisine with a world view. Diners might find ahi tuna prepared as an Asian-North African mashup, with yuzu honey vinaigrette and harissa. At Pearl District, some menu items change weekly.
De Mane says he sources local, organic or sustainable produce, seafood and meat as much as possible. He designs the restaurant’s menus according to his “culinary biological clock,” meaning sticking to seasonal ingredients and cooking styles. So it’s braises for winter and lighter fare for summer, like De Mane’s signature Heirloom Tomato Stack with corn, double-smoked bacon, blue cheese and fresh basil.
De Mane is a self-proclaimed fan of big flavors, so spices, chilies and something acidic (from fresh citrus or vinegar reductions) figure prominently in his dishes. At his Moorpark home, he grows five to six varieties of chilies and citrus that are used at the restaurant.
“I’m pretty much of a spice bomb kind of guy, but at the same time you have to be smart about using it because you don’t want to completely overwhelm someone’s palate,” he says.
“I don’t want boring food,” he says. “Life’s too short.”
What he finds still interesting is kale. It’s a “really great vegetable,” he says, and will tell people so when they ask about kale’s trendy replacement. The key to kale and vegetables (like beets) that people don’t think they like is to use them in new ways. Present them in a different light and point out their healthful properties, and people are willing to give them another try, he says.
He credits Leila’s menu for exposing diners to new flavor combinations and an expanded roster of flavor profiles from around the globe. “I love the fact that I’m seeing more Indian restaurants these days. I love the fact that I’m seeing really good Thai restaurants that are true Thai restaurants, more street, more Bangkok,” he says, adding Vietnamese, regional Mexican cuisine and Peruvian to the list.
“Diners [in Ventura County] now eat with an open mind and an open mouth.”