Mark McDermott

Food, family, fate

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Adam Aro and Sara Gabriele at Gabi James. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Adam Aro, Sara Gabriele and the making of Gabi James restaurant

 

by Mark McDermott

 

When Adam Aro steered his houseboat into the slip right next to Sara Gabriele’s houseboat one July day on Lake Shasta in 2008, he had little idea what would ensue, much less than ten years later he and this beautiful stranger would open up a restaurant together.

Aro certainly had no inkling they would one day marry —  he was against the concept, and it wasn’t exactly high on her list, either — and that he would join a culinary family seemingly concocted out of his wildest dreams.

They’d never met before. Each was at the lake for the wedding of mutual friends. He flashed her a grin, from one boat to another, and they started talking. Suddenly there was so much to talk about —  wine, beer, college football, their separate travels, their mutual friends, and the native stomping grounds they shared, in Palos Verdes and the South Bay. And food — glorious, neverending, almost-granular-in-their-specificity conversations about dishes they’d eaten and meals they’d had or hoped to have. (Friends would later learn to kindly ignore these long spins into culinary detail — but also to let Adam and Sara do the ordering.)

So it says something that the couple doesn’t recall their first shared meal.

“Maybe a hotdog or some chili cheese Fritos, and some Jim Beam, probably,” Gabriele recalled. “It wasn’t very elegant.”

They were distracted. It was one of those strange, dizzying feelings in life where a story feels like it’s just beginning. They didn’t know it, of course, but this is where Gabi James began.

 

Food

Aro was five years old when he first started puzzling waiters with his food preferences. His parents, Joe and Eileen, were adventurous and knowledgeable eaters, and they’d take Adam along on their culinary forays all over the South Bay and to such regional landmarks as Philippe’s and Canter’s Deli in LA.

“My parents cooked a lot, but also they would take me out to eat and not restrict me and dumb food down,” he said. “They’d let me order anything off the menu, see if I liked it. I ate a lot of strange proteins and a lot of sushi, even at 5, 6, 7 years old. My palette got cultivated pretty early, food-wise.”

“Linguine and clam sauce was one of my favorite Italian dishes growing up and every waiter thought it would be weird for a kid in single-digit age to be ordering that. I love white wine and garlic sauce.”

Gabriele had a parallel experience with clams. She is the daughter of one of the great restauranteurs in local history, Guy Gabriele, who opened Cafe Pierre 40  years ago in downtown Manhattan Beach, three decades before the notion of “farm-to-table” dining took hold and the area became a culinary mecca.

“People ask, ‘Are you a foodie?’ I mean, I guess technically, but I grew up sitting in the back table of Cafe Pierre coloring with my little sister,” she said.

Her father grew up in France (by way of Tunisia and Italy; more on that later) and the family would visit there yearly, beginning and ending their travels in Paris. When Sara was six and her sister Melissa three, they accompanied their parents to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris.

“All the Parisians were looking at us like who are these assholes who brought their kids into a Michelin starred restaurant? You know, like terrified that we were going to ruin their evening,” she recalled. “And we got our table and the chef came out and he made food for my sister and I —  he made us dover sole —

and then started bringing out food for my parents. It was clams in a white wine butter garlic sauce, and we went nuts on them, and the Parisians were looking at us, like shocked. Then the chef came out and made us a bed and put us to bed.”

Gabriele, who like Aro grew up in Rancho Palos Verdes (attending the same elementary and high schools at different times), remembers going to a Marie Callender’s one Saturday morning with a grade school friend whose family owned the restaurant. “I had my first piece of pie —  I was 10 years old and had never eaten pie,” Gabriele said. “She was like flabbergasted. I was like, ‘Well, I’ve eaten a lot of other desserts, I’ve just never had pie.’ I’ve had more than my fair share of tiramisu.”

In their early childhood, Sara and her sister were both known as “the garlic kids”; they’d come to school with a packed lunch containing a bowl of pasta and garlic.

“That was kind of a treat for us, to eat truly American things, like if we went to Ruby’s on the hill and just got a burger and fries,” she said. “That wasn’t our normal food.”

Aro went to college at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, where the cloistered world of Palos Verdes gave way to a broader range of everything —  people and foods from all over the globe. Oregon also offered two other tastes that were new to him: Oregon was the birthplace of the craft beer movement, twenty years before it reached California, and home to some of the great Pinot Noir wines in the world.

Sara and her father, Guy Gabriele, with Adam at Gabi James. Photo by Mark McDermott

“We were very spoiled for our adult beverages in college,” Aro said. “I was just immersed in it.”

Gabriele went to school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she was shocked at what passed for a meal at the dorms. So she researched the local food scene and started organizing dinners out with her classmates.

“I think that was the beginning of when I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve got a really different perspective on things than most people do,” she said. “That was solidified later in college when I had a roommate who used to put ranch dressing on a tortilla with lettuce and turkey and microwave it and I was like, ‘No. That is not acceptable.’”

Adam and Sara each ended up back in the South Bay after college. Aro had majored in psychology and minored in French, but discovered his real passion in working in restaurants in Eugene. He was part of the original staff when Rock n’ Fish opened in downtown Manhattan Beach, where he not only learned about bayou-tinged cuisine but was allowed to give input on the wine list. Gabriele majored in communications with a minor in business administration but worked as a hostess at Cafe Pierre during summers in college and felt a gravitational pull to the family business. After college, she worked both there and at her father’s newer restaurant, Zazou, in Redondo’s Riviera Village. She did a few other things —  bartending and catering at the Bel Air, then teaching preschool — before returning for good to become general manager at Zazou.

A few miles up the beach, in Hermosa, Aro’s trajectory mirrored his future wife’s. He started as a server at Mediterraneo, on Pier Avenue, in 2006, and quickly moved up, eventually becoming general manager.

The two were on course.

 

Family

One of Guy Gabriele’s most enduring memories, and one that would later have a profound influence on the rest of his life were the Sunday afternoon dinners he experienced as a child. He spent the first 15 years of his life in Tunisia.

“My grandfather on my father’s side was a horse trader all over North Africa, and on my mother’s side they were from Tuscany and had broom factories and a pasta factory,” he recalled. “So I grew up with these two families, and the food — you did not miss your Sunday meal. You had to sit with the family. It was always at lunchtime, from 1 o’clock ‘til 3 or 4 o’clock and it was at least 15 or 20 people and there were four or five of my aunts all competing to see who was the best in the family. We all benefited from that.”

When Tunisia gained independence the Europeans were all kicked out of the country. Gabriele and his family spent three years in a refugee camp in Italy.

“Obviously, Tuscany has some of the great food in the world, which we were exposed to,” he said. “Food was always around us, whether we went to this aunt or that grandmother, it was always about food. In Tuscany, my family had a farm, and they had this big fireplace, and all the kids on the same floor — a big room, and all the kids slept in it. Then we’d come down in the morning and have a bowl, a cafe latte, and big pieces of Tuscan bread with homemade butter, homemade jam. You know, we went to sleep thinking, do we have to wait all the way to morning?”

His immediate family relocated to France when Gabriele was 18, first to Nice and finally Toulon. Food remained at the center of family life; his father opened his own butcher’s shop and made charcuterie and prepared meals, no trivial matter for daily life in France, where each day revolves around the meticulous curation of its meals.

Guy emigrated to the United States to study comparative literature at UCLA, where he would obtain his master’s degree —  possibly as the only student working his way through school as a part time butcher. But he inexorably gravitated toward restaurant work, working as a waiter at several restaurants and eventually opened up Cafe Pierre in Manhattan Beach.

It was 1977 and fine dining in America hadn’t evolved much beyond steak and potatoes.

“I love American food, but at the time American food was basically either a steakhouse or coffee shops,” he said. “You could go to an occasional Chinese restaurant. But it wasn’t very sophisticated, like it is now. It was very basic. That was kind of a shock for me. In France, cities are designed so you have a center, and that’s where all the restaurants are… Here, all of a sudden, I thought, ‘Oh Jesus. I have to go all the way to Westwood for an espresso.'”

Gabriele and chef John Sedlar, who’d opened up the pioneering restaurant Saint Estèphe in the Manhattan Village Shopping Center, were lonely outposts of culinary adventurism in downtown Manhattan Beach. Cafe Pierre would last 37 years — becoming Love & Salt, a restaurant launched by Guy and his eldest daughter, Sylvie, in 2014 — and become a beloved local institution.

Food critic Richard Foss, a Manhattan Beach native who has written about South Bay restaurants for four decades, said what was remarkable about Cafe Pierre is it didn’t simply pioneer in one area —  say, farm-to-table or authentic Italian pasta — but across several concepts.

“They have a lot of firsts, because at various times they have been many different things,” Foss said. “They opened as the area’s first casual crêperie, a place to get simple traditional French food at a moderate price. After that they evolved and brought in fusions that no one had experienced, like French and Latin American, French and north African, and French-Italian… They later evolved into a more upscale restaurant doing more experimental things but always with a basis of French technique.”

But perhaps more than anything Cafe Pierre became known for the warmth, charm, and understated brilliance of its owner. Gabriele, who early on would often work 20 hour days, sleeping in his car out behind the restaurant before rising to help with prep work, has a gift that cannot be taught. In the restaurant industry, it’s called “running the floor”; in life, it’s called omnipresence.

From the time she was a child until now, his daughter Sara has marveled while watching her father’s graceful movement through a restaurant.

“He’s got a way with him, in which he is personable and excellent at communicating with everyone and having those peripheral relationships but also being able to control the floor and make sure that it’s organized. I always thought it was really cool.”

This gift flows from a simple source. Like his aunts six decades ago in Tunisia and Italy, Gabriele feels a sense of responsibility for the well-being of anyone who sits at one of his tables — not just that they are well-fed, but happy.

“We are in the business of making people happy, this business maybe more than any other business,” he said. “Because they come here to get away from it all and be happy. They don’t just come here for a plate of pasta, but for a certain plate of pasta, and the atmosphere, with people with whom they can relate.”

“Every meal has a narrative; every day has its own history in a restaurant,” Gabriele said. “You open thinking that you have seen it all. People say, ‘You’ve been doing this for a long time, so it’s just another day.’ But it’s never been just another day.”

Fate

A great idea is often marked by a certain sense of inevitability. A hit song, for example, somehow sounds like you’ve already heard it, even though it may have just been written. Great restaurants are much the same. Circumstances must somehow align. A particular chef arrives at just the right time and place, where a certain clientele is waiting for something they didn’t even know they were missing, and suddenly a kitchen and a dining room spring to life like some kind of culinary symphony. Gabi James is such a congruence.

Named for Sara’s family surname and Aro’s middle name, Gabi James is the joint creation of the couple and replaces Zazou, in Redondo Beach’s Riviera Village. It’s a casual Spanish restaurant at which they’ve managed to nab a rising star chef, Chris Feldmeier (who started at the famed Mozza restaurant) and obtained the services of beverage director Vincenzo Marianella of Copa d’Oro and Providence repute.

Aro has a gift akin to Guy Gabriele’s. Customers at Mediterraneo came to expect his appearance at their tableside, regardless of who was actually serving them. If you’d been there before a few times, he already knew your palate, particularly regarding beer (Aro is a cicerone). Some customers ceased even specifying their beer ordering — they’d just give him a general idea of what taste they were feeling like and he’d arrive in a few minutes with an uncannily perfect brew.

“It’s annoying sometimes,” Sara said. “He’s so good at it —  like, you have to miss sometimes, but he never does.”

Sara herself has a gift, her wine palette, that mystifies even her father, who was the first local restaurateurs to host wine dinners and has been friends with some of most revered winemakers in California, such as Mike Grgich, since the 1970s.

“I am amazed by my daughter’s palette for good wine,” Guy said of Sara, who is a level two sommelier. “I don’t know where she got it.”

After the couple’s houseboats converged and they returned to the South Bay a couple, they naturally began collaborating with food ideas. After he began running the show at Mediterraneo, he started pushing the envelope. Sara still swoons when she thinks of Adam’s take on bacon wrapped dates.

“Everybody loves bacon wrapped dates,” he recalled. “I wanted to have those kind of flavors, reconceptualized. So you’d have pork protein, cheese, and the sweetness of dates; we had roasted pork belly with a date chutney and then some gorgonzola on top. There was just three individual cubes and this really pretty plating.”

Feldmeier grew up in Torrance before leaving at age 18 to become a chef, something that occurred in part because he’d grown up having his mind blown, and his palette developed, at Cafe Pierre.

“Growing up in Torrance with Applebee’s and everything else — I think they sent every chain there, every restaurant they wanted to test the market for,” Feldmeier said. “So to come to Cafe Pierre at a young age was just invaluable to show you what real food was. Cafe Pierre was our bright and shining star.”

Feldmeier worked under the tutelage of Mozza’s Nancy Silverton, who runs her restaurants like one big family, and later opened his own restaurant, Moruno, which focused on Spanish cuisine. Mozza’s fare was Italian and Moruno was inspired by his own travels in Spain.

“It’s kind of ironic the two things in my background are Italian and Spanish — it is kind of like the job was made for me. It’s totally bizarre,” said Feldmeier, who also took over as chef at Love & Salt this year. “But what really attracted me to this project was the family in general. That was the thing; what an incredible family to be involved with.”

And Gabi James is indeed like an extended family. Manager Victor Salcedo has been with the Gabriele family since 1982, when he started as a busboy at Cafe Pierre. He looked after Sara when she was a tiny child, and watched her grow up to become a server and a hostess and eventually general manager at Zazou.

“Now she is my boss. I work for her,” he said, laughing.  

On nights when Adam goes home early, Salcedo sometimes walks his boss out to her car, looking after her like he did when she was a little girl at the old restaurant. “She is like my daughter, you know?” he said.

And he never forgets how Guy looked after his own two daughters. After Salcedo’s oldest daughter got married, Guy heard the couple wanted to honeymoon in Europe. He told told Victor he would pay for it. “I said, ‘No, no, no!’” Salcedo recalled. “But he said, ‘I’m the boss here, you know.’”

Later, when Salcedo’s father passed away, he told Guy he’d have to go to Mexico for a little while, worried that his boss would be upset by his absence. Instead Guy pulled out his credit card and bought the plane ticket on the spot. He called Victor several times when he was gone, making sure he and his own family had everything they needed.

“Those kind of things really make you appreciate the fact that this is a family, not only a business,” Salcedo said.

And Guy himself remains involved at Gabi James. He has no formal title.

“And it’s tough to describe his role,” Aro said. “He is still El Jefe, even if he doesn’t own it. The guy is brilliant, and we want to squeeze him for all his knowledge. I guess he comes in to oversee things we may miss, help taste food, see old regulars and make new ones. No title can do him justice.”

He shows up on any given night, but one senses it’s not only about making sure the customers are happy. He is a very proud father, and he loves his son-in-law.

“They have both impressed me,” he said. “And I am not an easy guy to impress. I am amazed…. I tell you, if it wasn’t for how I felt about Adam, I would not have done it. He’s a great guy. Just because your daughter marries someone doesn’t mean you are going to help them, but I thought, ‘This guy, he’s got it.’”

And so Gabi James has begun, the latest chapter in a longer tale, with Adam and Sara at the helm of a journey that began by houseboat.

“We are great team,” she said. “And we were great friends and adventurers together since the beginning. I think every day is an adventure. We’ve had the best time doing this, so far. It’s hard work and there are days that are more stressful than others. But we love each, and we love what we are doing, so it’s made it really awesome.”

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