Los Angeles

Eat It, Live It, Breathe It: A Conversation with Bar Pintxo’s James Martinez

James Martinez strolls out of the kitchen in typical form – fitted baseball hat worn backward, prep container of iced tea in-hand, apron with a folded towel tucked into the waist, lip ring, and tattoos. For once, he’s not headed for a station on the line; he’s graciously agreed to give me two hours of his time to talk about himself and the people he cares for most: his kitchen family. We head for the outside corner table of Bar Pintxo in Santa Monica. Almost three hours later, I emerge with a full belly and brain full of inspiration. I’m honored to know this man and call him friend – enough that I’m up at 6:30 in the morning before a long day of museum professional development hoping I do his passion justice.

James has spent his life bouncing around Los Angeles – born in East Los Angeles, moving to the West Side with his family, then over to North Hollywood after a few years in the kitchen. Maybe his love of cooking is connected to his father, a courier who took the family for sushi dinners and attempted to mimic recipes from cooking shows, but he’s not certain. His first kitchen memories were the result of necessity: both his parents worked, and his mother saved her days off for much-needed rest. As a result, fourteen-year-old James started making Spaghetti-Os for his four-year-old sister and newborn niece. He realized food was something he could get lost in and fall asleep thinking about when he began attempting recipes from the L.A. Times newspaper. Whenever he was uncertain, he improvised.

Kitchen pursuits temporarily diffused when James entered his junior year of high school, during which he swapped his L.A. Times recipe experiments for Taco Bell family packs with varsity football teammates. The topic of cooking resurfaced in a conversation with his father before the end of his senior year, who surprised James by admitting a previous desire to become a chef.

After graduating, an aunt’s boyfriend mentioned a connection to a culinary training course. James jumped at the opportunity, and showed up to a rehabilitation program for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Never one to turn away an opportunity to grow, he stayed and learned the basics, eventually working in the coffee shop operated by program alumni. After a brief stint at a Pavillion’s deli counter, he decided to expand his culinary knowledge and deepen his anxiety about debt by enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena.

“School was different. It’s sped-up and rushed, which makes things inconsistent…..I picked everything up – it’s somewhere, but I’m still not sure what I paid for,” he admits, laughing as he remembers his externships. “With a restaurant, you master things. You do them again, and again, and again. I’ve seen people get fired over cooking a steak. I’ve seen people get pans thrown at them.”

His professional kitchen experience started at the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa with a pre-“Top Chef: Season 6” winner Michael Voltaggio, who now owns ink. on Melrose, where James worked for five months while finishing Le Cordon Bleu, and externing for Wolfgang Puck’s catering company. He speaks fondly of both experiences, noting Voltaggio’s energy and presence. “You knew when he was in the kitchen. Hearing his voice, hearing something happening – you knew….you had to just do something. Put your head down, cut carrots, cut anything. He was always there for his kitchen, making sure every single plate was perfect.”

He doesn’t need pressing to recall his most memorable experience with Wolfgang Puck. It occurred at the Oscars Governor’s Ball party, which Puck has catered for almost two decades. Appetizers were going out, James one of the many young externs cooking meat. A hand reached around him to grab a set of tongs, and James glanced over his shoulder to see Puck himself flipping over the steak on his station. “He just looked at me and said, ‘Don’t let me do your job again.’ ….What else was I supposed to say? ‘Oui, chef.’ ”

After changing his metaphorical pants, of course.

His began his first post-school job after meeting Jimmy Martinez, a chef at BOA steakhouse in Santa Monica, at a barber shop. Even though he was taken on for pastry duties, he became a line cook after two months, and a line lead one month after that.

His eyes light up and I can feel electrical energy shooting out of his fingertips when I ask him to talk with me about cooking on the line. His entire demeanor changes. He sits up straight, looking across Santa Monica Boulevard at a kitchen I can’t see.

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“There’s nothing else like it. It’s hot. Yelling. Feet hurting. Intense. My first time cooking on the line, I asked, ‘Is this what I want to do?” It’s fearful. After one week,  I knew this is what I want to do…..it’s the funnest thing. Cooking defines who you are: the way you keep your stations, your mise [en place]. You develop obsessions with knives. You get addictions like coffee, Redbull. You go out afterward….If you’re worried about cutting yourself, burning yourself, you make it harder. You have to just go. That’s how you can tell [who the naturals are], because their bodies take over. It’s a lifestyle. No one will understand kitchen humor. Sexual. I mean sexual….lighting people on fire. It’s more family than your actual family, than your girlfriend, than your boyfriend.”

BOA Santa Monica also led James to his first mentor, Jason Ryczek. Executive sous chef at the time, he pulled something – the spark I love seeing every time James is on the line at Bar Pintxo – out of James. On James’ first day, Ryczek asked him to whip four quarts of chantilly cream by hand. Halfway through, he pulled an electric mixer out and placed it on the counter. He checked every detail of James’ work, pushing plates back to him if they weren’t perfect. “To me, he was God. He taught me the world.”

Ryczek eventually left BOA to open his own restaurant, calling James one week after leaving to work at Artisan House in Downtown Los Angeles. However, James didn’t make the transition as a line cook. “He started me doing salad. He told me I’d never want to go back and learn those stations if I started as a chef or line cook. After one month, I moved up.”

There is also an overlap with BOA and Artisan House of James working for Red O by Rick Bayless, cooking on the line and working the saute and grill stations. It was a normal thing for others in the kitchen to be six or seven years older than him, with over a decade more experience. The cooks at Red O helped him realize speed comes from cooking intelligently: working clean, controlling tickets, and knowing how to read accurate temperatures when cooking proteins. All these lessons occurred during service, since there was no time for training in the hectic environment of morning and afternoon prep.

“When you see a full board of tickets, all you want to do is run. Just….fuck. Close the restaurant. Leave. We’re done.”

He emphasizes the importance of working smart and clean again, citing it as the most important thing he picked up during his time at Red O. “It’s like a dance. We should know where everything is without looking, no matter what. You can tell how long a chef has worked and where they’ve worked by the way they keep their station. Everything is a unit. The chef gets the credit, but he’s directing the orchestra and we’re helping making this beautiful music.”

James was eventually offered a promotion at Red O – more money, more control. The same day, he received a call from a chef named Brad Mathews, who he’d met on the line at Artisan House. Mathews was the first chef I encountered at Bar Pintxo, and my conversation with James becomes more vivacious and quick as we delve into familiar territory. Our snacks are gone and I’m pressing pen to legal pad so hard I’m almost ripping the paper.

He laughs as he describes his first encounter with Mathews, who was working at Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City at the time. Mathews had accidentally burned bread while working the saute station – a joke which runs through their friendship to this day. Mathews was in transition to work at Bar Pintxo, and offered James a junior sous chef position. When Mathews said Bar Pintxo was a Spanish restaurant, James responded, “Like paella?”

“I had no idea what else Spanish food was,” he laughs. He ate at Bar Pintxo twice before starting work, and was blown away by how much was accomplished in the small space. He remembers tasting the carrilleras de buy a la riojana, beef cheeks braised for three hours in red wine and iberico stock, served with market vegetables. He would later help Plonowski execute this dish at James Beard House in New York City.

We pause for a short trip down memory lane, where I talk about remembering the first time I saw him walk into Bar Pintxo for a meeting with Mathews, thinking he looked like a high school student. He reminds me that I acted bitchy the first time I saw him working on the line. Our relationship hasn’t changed much.

Plonowski is almost twelve years older than James, and was initially hesitant about what a twenty-something with a backward fitted hat, funky sneakers, and a lip ring could bring to his restaurant. He asks every interviewee the same question: “What are the last three restaurants you ate at, and what did you eat?”

James was prepared, flippantly answering, “Bar Pintxo, of course,” drawing a laugh out of Plownowski, before talking about Pica, Hatfield, and Animal. And after calling mentor Ryczek for a reference, James was asked to cook one piece each of meat and fish. James decided to make complete dishes to express more creativity: seared duck with fingerling potatoes and cherry reduction and chimichurri shrimp over rice with calamari and pea puree.

A unit formed. Plonowski, Mathews, and James quickly learned how to collaborate and put out fantastic food. “Every single tasting menu since I’ve started working here has had a dish by me. But something I’ve learned is that ‘we‘ made this food. Not ‘I‘ made this food.”

In January of this year, Mathews left Bar Pintxo, and it was James’ turn to step up. “I’ve learned simplicity, not restraint. Flavors. Balance. One quick punch, then you’re out. One to two things on a plate to bring out flavors.”

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Plonowski has become a second mentor, providing insight to the business side of running a restaurant. “Spanish cuisine is fun. We want to pioneer this. There’s bar food….there’s bizarre food….but where is the middle ground? We’re trying to find that comforting mix.”

Fast forward to James Beard House in New York City. The crew slept at the restaurant during preparations the week before, and James was reunited with mentor Ryczek, who came along to provide help and support. The trip started precariously, with Virgin Airlines leaving two packages containing 80 rabbits in Los Angeles. Arriving at the James Beard House to prep for service, the group discovered the pastry scale wasn’t calibrated properly, and the evening’s menu had already been printed advertising chocolate pate with blueberry caviar. James spent two hours mixing tapioca maltodextrin and calcium chloride blindly before giving up. He squints his eyes closed in frustration while relating the story back to me, clenching his fists while relating how the first thing he did after returning from New York was make a full batch of blueberry caviar – belated closure.

Regardless of the hiccup, the four-hour service went well. To James, it felt like twenty minutes. Each course meant sending sixty plates out at once from a kitchen the size of Bar Pintxo’s. James was happiest with the rabbit that almost got left behind, braised in sherry over lentils with chorizo, bacon, and iberico stock. The emotional circle completed with Ryczek expressing his pride in James’ growth. “Having a mentor is like having [a father] who says you’ve never done anything. He’s only said he was proud of me twice. It was amazing. I was always aching for a compliment from him – something. Anything.”

The food James puts out speaks to his constant desire to improve and ability to absorb. He gives as much credit and love to his kitchen family as he does to his accomplishments – he loves everyone he works with, down to the dishwashers. “You have to eat, sleep, breathe, dream, live it. If you’re not doing that, you’re not cut out for this. I go to bed every night thinking about my mise [en place] for the next day. I don’t count sheep.”

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We head inside and I sit in my usual seat at the bar that runs around the Bar Pintxo kitchen. I eat bone-in elk with tequila-infused tomatillos and peppercorn sauce, heirloom tomato salad with anchovies, padron peppers flashed in a pan with olive oil and salt, and end with the beef cheeks that started James’ journey. Per usual, he gets a hug and smooch on the cheek from me before I head out the door. He gets an invite to dinner at my apartment, as long as he agrees not to give me too hard of a time about my food.

Twenty minutes later, I receive a text that sums everything up.

A chef with that mindset and care can prepare my food any day, time, or way. Oui chef.