Welcome to Out of the Kitchen, our ongoing exploration of the relationships that build and sustain the food industry. This year, we’re traveling the country to look at the changing landscape of food markets. Hyper-local markets—filled with myriad grocery, retail, and restaurant options like the ones found in Europe—are on the rise. These markets benefit from their interconnected buying power but operate like small, independent businesses, allowing them to focus on quality ingredients, culinary innovation, and intimate, personal customer service. Through quality, personal touches, and exceptional product, these new food halls are revolutionizing retail one transaction at a time.
Mark Peel’s a talker.
The man behind Campanile has got a face that’s a combination of the late Robin Williams’ irrepressible affability and Chuck Connors’ hale-and-hearty, no-nonsense all-American good looks. And when he brings up a subject that interests him, he doesn’t hold back. If you’re going to bring up the subject of genetically modified organisms, for example, be prepared for a conversation that gets deep fast.
So it quickly starts to make perfect sense that Peel’s newest venture, seafood-themed Bombo in the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles, is going to allow him to get right up in the faces of his customers, and vice versa. Because throughout his storied career—this is one of the guys who opened Spago with Wolfgang Puck, after all—Peel’s been the secret weapon back in the kitchen of L.A.’s white-tablecloth restaurants. And now, customers are finally going to get the full-on personalized Mark Peel experience with every meal.
But the idea for Bombo actually started a couple decades ago, in New York. Peel was visiting Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station when he noticed the institution’s oyster steamer, a hulking stainless-steel contraption with a row of wok-like bowls on top, jet-steam nozzles above each bowl, and a levered handle that lets chefs pour their freshly steamed creations directly onto a customer’s plate in under four minutes.
“I saw them, thought, ‘It’s so cool,’ and it’s just been percolating in the back of my head for all this time,” he says.
That kernel of an idea sprouted into Bombo much more recently, when Peel and the Grand Central Market team began talking about finding him a place in the heart of the place that, for him, represents a more democratic way of dining out than the places he’s hung his toque before.
“I always wanted to do something less expensive, with lots of impact,” he says. “Chez Panisse is really not the model that’s going to affect the general public. People are eating less and less at home, and eating out more and more. I thought, we can offer them something that’s really fast, really good, and already healthy at a price people can afford. Because it’s harder and harder to rationalize spending three hours for a $350 dinner.”
Bombo’s about hot, fresh bowls of broth with a couple simple starch and protein choices, with an emphasis on fresh and simple but palate-pleasing, belly-filling ingredients, especially seafood. (There’s even going to be a fish tank.) He bought a 250-degree kettle steamer like the one at the Oyster Bar (“north of $40,000,” he says), and attached it to a ten-burner furnace with 22 feet of piping. Over the last few weeks and months, he’s tested himself in circumstances similar to the ones he and his staff will be cooking for customers. He’s confident he can get each customized order out in a flash. That’s important, because he’s gearing his menu toward people coming in for lunch during their workday, and when the average downtown worker has to spend ten to 20 minutes of his or her lunch break getting from office to counter, every minute counts. Peel wants his customers to spend their eating enjoying lunch, not waiting in line.
“Everything is about getting from order to bowl in three and a half minutes,” he says.
He’s similarly streamlined the menu, with five “mother” broths, a choice of pappardelle or steamed rice with flax seeds (“I like that crunch”), and a small but reliable selection of proteins. Everything’s going into a single pan to cook.
“At the white-tablecloth places, you had three, four, five pans going at once for one dish. It drove you crazy,” he says. “Here’s we’ve really got to be focused, got to be exact.”
Some dishes have undergone evolutions, with the help of the pop-ups he’s used to refine the Bombo idea. He made his curried shrimp with peanuts and spices juicier. (“People though it was getting absorbed too much by the rice.”) He made more radical changes to the tofu. He originally envisioned a soft tofu, “this unctuous custard.” Taster comments came back, “Bland, bland, bland, and bland.” So he scrapped the soft tofu and went in the opposite direction, crisping up firm tofu that he marinates and sears. “I tried it, and I have to say, all right, they’re probably right.”
And for those who pooh-pooh a highbrow chef like him getting down into the chaos of the lunch rush at a food market, Peel has one word: Spago.
“The real high-end is always going to be there, it’s never going to disappear, and Thomas Keller is not going broke anytime soon,” he says. “But I remember when we opened Spago, which was a revelation for its time, and it pissed off the French chefs to no end. They said, ‘No French-trained chef should be opening a place that serves pizza.’ But from the time Spago opened, no successful high-end French place opened up in this city for something like another 20 years.”
But it’s evident that what Peel’s really looking forward to is the fact that he’s going to be working right up there with the customers, where he can trade ideas on everything from the menu to why pork and seafood work so well together.
“There as always this notion of a barrier between the customers and the chefs and me before,” he says. “But not here.”
So Angelenos should be prepared to bring both their appetites and their opinions. “I do like to talk,” he says. “I’ve got a whole van-full of soapboxes.”
(Grand Central Market)