Michael Cimarusti’s love of cooking can be traced back to the big Italian meals he shared with his family as a child, along with a passion instilled by his grandmother, Jo. After graduating with honors from the Culinary Institute of America, he worked in iconic New York restaurants, An American Place and Le Cirque.  He then moved to France to learn at La Marée and Arpege before returning to New York to open the Le Cirque spinoff Osteria Del Circo. Eventually, Cimarusti made his way west to Hollywood and the original Spago, where he was chef de cuisine, then executive chef of Water Grill. So he knew what he was doing when he opened LA’s highly decorated Providence and the grandparental tribute Connie & Ted’s. We asked the 2013 James Beard Award nominee about food, family and the future.

If I had to pick one cuisine that is most inspiring to me, it would probably be Japanese because they focus so well on fish. The sushi and sashimi are revered arts in Japanese culture, and it’s something that I revere as well, which definitely comes through in my food.

You grew up on the East Coast in an Italian family. How much does that play into what you do today?
A lot. I mean, the food that I ate growing up is why I do what I do. I remember the meals that my grandmother and my great-grandmother used to prepare, and my Italian grandmother saying to my mother, “if you’re going to marry my son, you’ve got to learn how to cook.” So, she was taught by them—how to prepare Italian food, which is still my favorite thing to make at home. In the summertime, I’m always outside grilling, but in the wintertime, I’m always cooking pasta and still have my grandmother’s pasta machine. At Providence, we do La Vigilia every year (Feast of the Seven Fishes), which is an Italian Christmas Eve tradition. I still do a couple of those traditional dishes at Providence, directly inspired by the ones my grandmother used to make.

Providence has been on many best restaurant lists. Would you describe the cuisine as modernist-French-Asian?
There’s definitely an Asian influence… more like a Japanese influence. If I had to pick one cuisine that is most inspiring to me, it would probably be Japanese because they focus so well on fish. They are the best at handling fish and bringing it to market. The sushi and sashimi are revered arts in Japanese culture, and it’s something that I revere as well, which definitely comes through in my food. I don’t know how to describe it, maybe modernist-French-Asian. Not terribly modernist though.

So what inspired you to open Connie and Ted’s… your love for New England seafood?
Yeah, the restaurant is named after my grandparents on my mom’s side. I spent all my summers in Narragansett, Rhode Island, eating this type of food… like, clam cakes for lunch in a paper bag, from a little shack that was, literally, right on the beach. I wanted to recreate that food here in Los Angeles, and I’m not trying to redefine or reinvent anything. It’s strictly cooking that is nostalgic and reverential of the food that’s from there. It’s not modernized in any way, or prettied up, or anything. It’s exactly like the food that I remember eating when growing up.

He looks like he’s teaching, but he’s secretly barking instructions at the Patriots.

Nice. Sounds special.
Yeah. To me, it’s truly about nostalgia.

Do you have any favorite comfort foods?
Pasta, all day long… and ramen, udon and soba.

Where do you like to eat in LA?
There are so many places, but usually I find myself eating ethnic food. Great tacos from a place I love in Highland Park called My Taco. I just found a new place in Little Tokyo, called Marugame Monzo, which is a Japanese udon place. There’s a chef who just stands there and makes udon all night, right in the dining room, and it’s fabulous… absolutely fabulous… super exciting and really great. I love Chinese food as well, and there’s one place we go to all the time, Chang’s Garden in Arcadia, that I just absolutely love.

Any plans for another restaurant?
You know, if anything, the next thing I’d do would be to open a little fishmonger shop and sell beautiful, wild, sustainable seafood.

Regarding another American tradition, what dishes do you recommend for tailgating?
Well, I don’t go much for tailgating or football. I watch one football game every year, which is the Super Bowl, and our family’s tradition is to make nachos. For some reason, to me, every Super Bowl, I just have to sit on the couch. I make the nachos, but I love it.

Lead photo: Jennifer Kelley Lublin; internal photo: John Sellars