Hollywood hideaway Chateau Marmont, with its cadre of celebutantes, fringed lanterns, and butterfly-festooned decor, has always been known more for its trysts and tragedies than its food. But with the installation of executive chef Carolyn Spence, former chef de cuisine at New York City’s Spotted Pig, both Chateau and Bar Marmont are finally building some culinary cred. “It’s surreal,” says Spence of her glittery new world.
It’s hard to imagine a less likely arena for this North Jersey native who grew up in the gritty punk clubs of a pre-Giuliani Manhattan. Spence is tough, with a no-nonsense attitude and an aura of authority. She could hardly be more different than her clientele of waifish trendsetters and troublemakers. And though this West Coast scene may not seem like the perfect fit for an inveterate New Yorker, the opportunity to run her own kitchen was irresistible, even if it meant exchanging an acclaimed restaurant like the Spotted Pig for one whose culinary reputation needed repair.
Since Spence came on as executive chef in early 2007, the restaurant’s food—a mixture of the hearty, high-toned bar fare she turned out in New York and the lighter creations that the California crowd demands—has garnered praise from critics. Thanks to Spence, Bar Marmont is now more than a place to drink and hope to have your picture taken. It’s a legitimate culinary destination.
The challenge has been an exciting one for Spence, who is inspired by L.A.’s changing food landscape. “Chefs out here, we’re trying to evolve the scene,” she says. “It’s slow, but it’s happening.” Even in this calorie-conscious city, Spence has found an audience for the over-the-top flavors that are her trademark. “I tend to overdo everything. I like to really drive a point home,” she says. That explains one of her best-loved dishes, a dessert that piles pistachio crumble with pistachio sauce on top of pistachio gelato.
That same philosophy—if a little is good, a lot is better—drives her tattoo habit as well. What started as a small trio of fall leaves on her arm has become a pastiche of autumnal images that represents more than a dozen visits to tattoo artist Tom Yak, formerly of New York Adorned. The designs hint she’ll never really be a California girl, no matter who she’s cooking for.