When L.A.’s iconic Clifton’s Cafeteria re-opens at last on September 21st, Jason Fullilove will be executive chef. Fullilove is known for his innovative New American cuisine with an emphasis on sustainability and locally sourced ingredients. In addition to the main cafeteria, Clifton’s will house a craft beer bar and tiki bar, a fine-dining restaurant and special event space. Patrons can also venture to the basement for a high-end mixology bar with a “secret” entrance.

Fullilove is inspired by his cultured childhood experiences, having grown up in Ohio, Massachusetts, New York and Zambia. Following study at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York, he served as the Chef de Cuisine at the Ritz-Carlton US Virgin Islands in St. Thomas. After relocating to California, Fullilove served as Executive Chef of Campanile, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and most recently, at the critically acclaimed Malibu Pier Restaurant & Bar. While at LACMA, Fullilove launched his own pop-up restaurant, RED, where the tasting menus were inspired by the museum’s art and exhibitions.

At the recent Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival, we caught up with him about comfort food, Krav Maga and fake redwoods…

“In addition to the traditional Clifton’s Cafeteria experience we have several other outlets for food as well. You can expect to get a very comforting meal or you can have a more adventurous dinning experience, if you choose.”

First of all, we love your name. Sounds like you are full of love. Tell us how your love of cooking began.
My grandmother is an amazing cook. My mother also taught me how to cook a few things that I would practice on a regular basis. I fell in love with cooking and creating at a very young age. Cooking always meant family and community coming together.

There’s been lots of anticipation about the opening of the historic Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown LA, where you’re the Executive Chef. What can diners expect? How many floors, and what’s the most bizarre thing about it?
There are five floors total. In addition to the traditional Clifton’s Cafeteria experience we have several other outlets for food as well. You can expect to get a very comforting meal or you can have a more adventurous dinning experience, if you choose. I would have to say the dioramas and the tree (giant fake redwood, four stories tall) are probably the most bizarre things, but I love them!

The original Clifton’s Cafeteria opened in 1935. Will the new space pay homage to it in any way?
Absolutely, some of the most fun I’ve had on this project is exploring the original Clifton’s recipes and really getting into what was being served here originally.

We’ve heard your credo is: “Passion. Exuberance. Balance.” Other than cooking, what are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about nutrition. I’ve really taken an interest in understanding nutrition over the past two years. Eating clean, fermentation, healthy fats, managing stomach bacteria, et cetera. It’s fascinating to me and has helped me tremendously in my personal life. I’ve been able to incorporate it into my cooking style as well.

When you lived in the US Virgin Islands, what was island life like?
I lived in the USVI after spending several years living and working in New York City. It was a great change of pace. I took up free diving and scuba diving in my free time. However, I’m a city boy at heart so after a year and a half I developed cabin fever and relocated to LA.

What’s one unusual hobby or interest you have that most people don’t know about you?
I’m totally in love with Mixed Martial Arts. I’ve been studying Krav Maga and Striking since 2009. This past year I also started studying Jujitsu.

Lastly, what advice would you give to a young man who’d like to impress his date with a homemade meal?
Keep it simple, light, refreshing and seasonal.