If you search Google Images for "celebrity chef," the first three results -- Wolfgang Puck, Eric Ripert and Gordon Ramsay -- are certified masters in the kitchen. Together, they own more than 100 restaurants and have won a galaxy's worth of Michelin stars.
The fourth Google Image result, Australian-born Curtis Stone, doesn't seem to belong in such august company. He rose to prominence not by wowing diners at acclaimed restaurants, but by starring in "Take Home Chef" on TLC, in which he would accost random supermarket shoppers and cook dinner at their homes. Since then, he's hosted two spinoffs of Bravo's "Top Chef," published six cookbooks, sold a popular line of cookware and regularly appeared on shows like "The Today Show" and "The Chew." So he's certainly a celebrity.
But is he really a chef?
Stone's Aussie affability and good looks have led some critics to assume not: That he's the Kim Kardashian of the food world -- someone who's famous because he's attractive, not because he has any particular talent. In the past year, though, Stone has become determined to prove them wrong.
An intimation of immortality spurred him to action. One day, Stone was sitting in the Hollywood Hills home he shares with his actress wife, Lindsay Price, watching his older son Hudson play on the floor, when he started wondering what kind of legacy he would leave for his children. (His second son, Emerson, was just born on Sept. 16.)
"I would never want him to think I just got lucky," Stone said. "People have said that to me, 'What happened to your career is Oprah took a liking to you, and that's what made you famous,' or 'You're good-looking, and that's what made you so lucky.' I wanted to make sure my son had the ability to know more about his dad than just what he reads in a magazine."
Stone wanted to show Hudson how hard he'd worked to become a great chef. He started cooking in high-end restaurants in Melbourne at age 17, moved to Europe to hone his craft when he was 21 and became the head chef of Quo Vadis, a London restaurant owned by legendarily demanding chef Marco Pierre White, before his 30th birthday.
"He came to London with an agenda," said Chris Haworth, Stone's sous chef at Quo Vadis. "He wanted to be a head chef -- and not only that, he wanted to work for the best, he wanted to work for Marco Pierre White. And got there, fast. He had a big pair of balls, and he was very talented."
For years, Stone worked 15-, 16- and 17-hour days in the kitchen, giving it up only when the Australian Broadcasting Co. asked him to film a TV series called "Surfing the Menu" in 2003. After that, he had a brief stint as the head chef of another London restaurant, but he focused on TV appearances and, later, building a multifaceted business empire for the better part of a decade. The fame game kept him engaged and well paid, but he missed the intense life of a line cook. So he decided that he would open his first restaurant in 2014.
A RISKY CONCEPT
Stone wasn't interested in opening some glitzy, profitable palace serving his signature mac n' cheese to the masses in Times Square or on the Las Vegas Strip. He wanted somewhere small enough to let him touch every plate that passed through the kitchen, and serious enough to showcase his talent. He would call the restaurant Maude, after his grandmother, who turned him on to cooking when he was 4 years old, and finance the entire thing himself to ensure that he would have complete creative control.
After months of location-scouting, Stone and his chief deputy, Jodie Gatt, a childhood friend, settled on an intimate storefront in downtown Beverly Hills that could only seat 25. Stone decided to serve every diner the same 12 courses, a popular format for a serious new restaurant. But there was a twist: Every dish would feature one ingredient that would change every month in accordance with the seasons. So in May, he might focus on rhubarb or peas, and he might shift to tomatoes or zucchini in September.
To the best of Stone's knowledge (and mine), no other restaurant has attempted anything quite like it. And with good reason: It's really hard to change your entire menu every month while maintaining high quality. Most top-testing menu restaurants keep signature dishes on deck for many years in a row. Even the main exceptions -- places like Chicago's Next and the dearly departed El Bulli in Spain -- serve each menu for a least a few months.
"If our goal was to win three Michelin stars, of course we wouldn't do this concept, because you want to refine and perfect things," Stone said. "As soon as we get everything right, we throw it all away and start again on our next menu, which is really stupid -- and exciting at the same time."
Stone bought and renovated a four-bedroom house two blocks from Maude, on a street where houses sell for $2 million to $3 million, to serve as both tasting kitchen for future menu development and offices of his empire. He also hired two head chefs, Brandon Difoglia and Gareth Evans, to oversee the restaurant in alternating months. While one cooks at the restaurant, the other works on the next month's recipes. Stone himself would hop back and forth between the two spaces, manning the line and developing recipes in equal measure.
Stone recruited the rest of the staff from some of the world's best restaurants and opened Maude to the public in February.
No one was surprised when the new restaurant booked up -- celebrity rules supreme in Los Angeles. What was striking, at least to those who had dismissed Stone's culinary acumen, was how much everyone liked it. Food writer Ruth Reichl called the food "seasonal, elegant in its simplicity, and completely flavor-forward." And in a glowing four-star review, LA Weekly restaurant critic Besha Rodell called Maude a "deliciously heartening antidote to the cynical business of celebrity in the food world." More recently, Rodell named it the best new restaurant of 2014.
CHEF STONE ON THE LINE
Eight months after opening, Maude is at hot as ever. The reservation line for each new menu opens up on the first of the preceding month. Stone said it's never taken longer than 6 1/2 hours for an entire month of tables to book up. Being so busy is, of course, good for business, and Stone said the restaurant currently turns a small profit. But Gatt said Maude will never be a major moneymaker for the company.
"Whilst Maude is a really important facet to Curtis, from a bottom-line perspective, it's one of the most demanding parts with the least return, because it requires so much of his time," Gatt explained.
Still, Stone said he sees full tables as the better sign of a restaurant's quality than an adulatory review.
"The truth about restaurants is that if it's busy, it's probably good," he said. "I know that some people come to the restaurant because they just want to see me, but if you're no good, they don't come back. There's plenty of failed celebrity chef restaurants."
As Stone showed me around the restaurant, test kitchen and offices on a recent afternoon, his excitement and pride were palpable. He clearly wanted to demonstrate the care he'd put into every aspect, from the charcuterie-curing closet, to the bookshelves crammed full of international cookbooks. He kept saying he wanted to show me the whole operation, "warts and all," but I barely saw a blemish. Everything looked as clean and well-organized as a TV set.
The same could be said of his whole demeanor. He acted in person much as he did on TV -- polite, gregarious, earnest and charming. He called people "mate" without irony. When fans asked to take a picture with him, he graciously obliged. And yet it all seemed genuine. If it was a schtick he was affecting in the presence of a journalist, it was one he was committed to: a case of the mask fusing with the face.
Australian chef Ben O'Donoghue, Stone's co-star on "Surfing the Menu," said he doesn't think it's an act.
"With Curtis, essentially, what you see is what you get," O'Donoghue said. "He's an open book. He really is the person you see on TV: a typical, friendly, fun-loving Ozzie kid."
But then, at 5:30, when the first guests arrived, something changed. Stone took his place on the line, furrowed his brow with concentration and stopped smiling. He talked less. He looked a little stressed out. He started acting a lot like the other 10 cooks around him, only with better hair and nicer jeans.
Chris Haworth said that when Stone was the head chef of Quo Vadis, he adopted Marco Pierre White's taskmaster persona by shouting at everyone else in the kitchen. ("He would fire people on the spot, in the middle of the kitchen, if they screwed up," Haworth recalled. "He fired quite a lot of people, actually. In Marco's restaurants, the policy was, somebody makes a mistake, they're fired. Somebody sniggers back at the chef -- they're fired.")
At Maude, he didn't do that. Half the kitchen is open to the dining room, so shouting would be disruptive. But he was in charge. He scolded one of his cooks for not getting the seasoning quite right in a sauce, and pulled another off the line when things got too crowded.
Mostly, though, he cooked. He tinkered with a finicky batch of parsnip butter, gently placed individual sorrel leaves on bowls of pear soup, cut a filet of ocean trout into slender slices, and at the end of the night, scrubbed grime off an induction burner.
None of that would be impressive, of course, if Stone and the other chefs weren't putting out good food. But that night, they were. It was the first service of October's menu, which focused on pears. All 12 dishes featured the fruit in different way: pear snow atop a tiny oyster, pears compressed with kimchi in a sous-vide machine as a garnish for raw tuna, pear cider sabayon enveloping a fat guinea hen raviolo, a little dollop of pear gelée beside a braised veal cheek. It sounds like treacly overkill -- and in the wrong hands, it might be -- but it didn't taste that way. Each preparation of the fruit was subtle enough that its flavor acted as a leitmotif that unified the meal, instead of dominating it.
But it was a riff on a beet-and-goat-cheese salad, of all things, that made the best case for the idea of Maude as a world-class restaurant. Stone managed to rejuvenate this moribund dish by accompanying the standard morsel of roast beet with roasted pear and dehydrated slices of beet, and wrapping the little ball of goat cheese in powdered smoked hay. A few leaves of purslane and a couple hazelnuts rounded out the composition, echoing the sharp and earthy notes in the beet and pear. It was marvelous.
At the end of the meal, I asked Stone whether the apparent success of Maude made him want to expand to other cities -- New York, London, Melbourne -- as many of the celebrity chefs around him in that Google Image query have. He scrunched his nose, shook his head and said, "Nah!" Then he paused to reflect for a moment before continuing.
"Opening Maude was always about enjoyment and pleasure, and it's given me that so much," he said. "I love it. But you don't get that enjoyment again if you open another in New York. I'm not going to rule it out completely -- but no, I don't think so."