Chef Suzanne Tracht comes home to a cozy kitchen
Tracht doesn't want to spend her off hours in a modern, stainless-steel kitchen that feels like the kitchens at her restaurant, the Beverly Boulevard chophouse Jar. “I don't want to come home from work and see that,” she says.
The atmosphere was set when she moved to the house in Beverlywood about a decade ago. Her friend, the artist Jill Young-Manson, painted a still life of pretty pink and yellow flowers in a pale blue vase near two blue teapots.
“It's done on the back of a grocery bag,” Tracht says. “It was the first thing I put up in the house.”
It's a kitchen that's worldly but cozy, a collection of things that carry family history and present-day preferences. Her mother's squat silver sugar bowl and creamer sit on the breakfast table, and plates from Luna Garcia in Venice hold fresh fruit and vegetables on the white tile counter. There's a round vase holding small white roses, and near the sink there's an orchid from Orchids Anonymous on 3rd Street.
“Orchids are beautiful, and they're low-maintenance,” Tracht says. “They're nice, they mind their own business.”
She and her daughter, Ida Trevino, often eat in the breakfast nook, which is set off from the rest of the kitchen by a doorway and has its own built-in entertainment: One of their three rescue dogs, Juno, can jump high enough to peek in at the window.
Up on the shelf that surrounds the nook, Mexican dioramas include one of skeletons playing pool. The corner hutch has two ingenious triangular drawers that open toward each other. Its shelves hold a collection of seltzer bottles and four ivory-colored metal water jugs.
“I always stop at garage sales and antique stores,” Tracht says.
Next to Young-Manson's painting, on a narrow ledge, a wooden painted rooster seems to be inspecting the work. On another wall is a poster by de Roger Blachon in which a complete chaos of cooks and cakes and copper pots makes a mess in a delightfully wild restaurant kitchen. Spilled pastries, dirty dishes, even a toque-wearing pig at the stove fill every bit of space.
It's the polar opposite of Tracht's own kitchen. She good-naturedly complains about Ida and her friends leaving a mess in the kitchen — pizza boxes and the remnants of pasta.
“I like my house nice and clean,” Tracht, 48, says in serious understatement.
The breakfast nook and, separated by a wall, a room for pantry and laundry lead through separate doorways to the working heart of the kitchen, a square area with the appliances and, of course, the food.
On the counter sit tomatoes and lemons, an apple cut to eat, as well as a loaf of bread from Bay Cities Italian Deli in Santa Monica. Tracht enthuses about the Umbrian lentils she buys there; two bags sit in a cupboard that also holds Nutella and chestnut honey for tea, and truffle salt for topping pasta with butter and Parmesan cheese. In a drawer, an old carbon steel knife has a blade that's nearly black.
A glass-fronted cupboard near the sink holds three big white mugs, decorated with initials for Tracht, her daughter and her son, Max, a student at the California Maritime Academy. Another cupboard holds a fold-down ironing board.
The refrigerator is smaller than average. It's big enough to hold the two rows of boxes of chocolate milk that Ida says she “could live off of.”
“I think people work better in a small kitchen,” Tracht says, adding that the space didn't leave enough room for the one appliance Ida and Max always wanted.
“My kids are still mad at me for not having a microwave,” says Tracht, who has been cooking professionally since she was 19, when she left college for a job in the “very male” kitchen at the Arizona Biltmore hotel in Phoenix.
And sure enough, a few minutes later Ida walks in and says she doesn't cook much but can use the O'Keefe and Merritt. “I learned how to do the oven because we don't have a microwave,” she says with a glance at her mother.
Tracht cooks steak or a whole leg of lamb out back on an old-style Weber grill. She and her daughter eat lots of salads and make omelets or sushi, using ingredients from Tracht's weekly farmers market trips.
“One of my joys is when my daughter gets up, I make her breakfast.”
Tracht has a set of brown plates she collected from the Heath factory outlet in Sausalito and some Laguna Beach consignment shop china.
Tracht was raised in a kosher home, where the rules of kosher eating would mandate different sets of dishes for different purposes. She does not keep a kosher kitchen now, but the effects of family never disappear, as Tracht acknowledges when she says of the china plates, which she uses for breakfast: “I would never put meat on this plate.”
KITCHEN ESSENTIAL: THE MORTAR AND PESTLE
With all the electric gadgets on store shelves, many chefs still turn to a lowly piece of equipment, one that has been around for centuries, to mash garlic or make spice blends: a mortar and pestle.
Chef Suzanne Tracht has a white porcelain Milton Brook version, which she got 20 years ago in London after seeing it while working at the L.A. restaurant Campanile.
“I love working with that one because I love the feel of it, and it's not grainy, especially when I'm working with garlic and I want a smooth paste,” Tracht says.
The bowls (mortars) and mashers (pestles) are also made from marble, rougher stones, glass, steel and wood. To use one, put garlic or chiles or other spices into the bowl and use the pestle to grind to the desired consistency. It was for a time considered chic for waiters to make guacamole table side using mortar and pestle.
When she cooks a special dinner at home, Tracht likes to use the mortar and pestle while she hangs out with friends in the kitchen, sharing some wine and conversation without the noise of a machine. But there is a catch: “My rule of thumb: I never let anyone else use it because if they broke it, I'd never speak to them again,” she says. “It's my baby. I love it.”
Most kitchen shops sell mortar and pestle sets. The Milton Brook one is available through Amazon.
-- Mary MacVean
Photo, top:Suzanne Tracht in her kitchen. Photo, center: Metal water jugs on the ingenious corner hutch. collection. Photo, bottom: The long view. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times