In his kitchen, a bad leaf in a salad or an herb that’s yellowed could be considered criminal to Jordan Toft—which at first comes across a bit fire-and-brimstone of the chef, but it’s not what you think. For Toft, who helms The Eveleigh in L.A., it’s less an emphasis on plating perfection and more on the ingredient itself: respecting where it came from and ending its story on a good note.
“The story doesn’t have to be this romance novel,” the Australian chef tells DuJour during a visit to New York, “but it’s about having a connection with the person who’s producing it, who’s looking for it, and moving forward from there.” These relationships between purveyor and chef make up the meat, so to speak, of Toft’s business practice, shaped by years of cooking as a personal chef in Europe where he was constantly interacting with the farmers and foragers themselves for his ingredients. “[In France], on Thursdays the cheese makers would come to the village center and you knew it was their cows and goats that made the cheese. And in Italy, dealing directly with the fruit and vegetable growers really gave me a sense that it’s these people’s livelihoods—they’re producing it, there’s dirt under their nails—and it’s up to me to treat the product right.” With this understanding, Toft has crafted a signature style that involves very little fussing with the food and using technique to add a simple spark.
It’s the philosophy he brought with him when he arrived at The Eveleigh in 2010, fully intending to create a menu dictated by Southern California’s rich, diverse ingredients. Except for one problem: As Nick Hatsatouris, one-third of The Eveleigh’s team (along with Nick Mathers and Lincoln Pilcher), saw it: “There hasn’t really been a community of chefs or restaurants trying to source amazing products in L.A.” Toft quickly got the picture: “When I first got to America in 2010 and started interviewing for purveyors,” he says, “I literally got the response: ‘kid, meat comes in boxes,’ when I asked for a whole pig.”
Realizing he’d have to create these relationships from scratch, Toft was tasked with reaching out to other neighborhood restaurants with similar philosophies and establish co-ops in order to get the product deliveries he was after. The purveyors had little reason to drop by Hollywood’s Sunset Strip—where his restaurant is located—otherwise, especially when their business was booming up north in cities like San Francisco. Luckily for Toft, the response over the years has been so great that today his menu at The Eveleigh changes daily, depending on what deliveries are coming in.
“We’re at a point [in] our relationships with farmers where they’re growing things specifically for us, which is fantastic,” Toft says. Agretti, a succulent from the Adriatic lagoons in Italy, took six months to grow locally, but now it’s an ingredient Toft can offer his guests. Sea urchin comes from a diver in Santa Barbara, and the list goes on. “Jordan has literally been at the forefront of the culinary community in L.A. developing those relationships,” says Hatsatouris, “but we’re also playing a very active role in growing that kind of understanding and awareness in the city.”
Beyond the strides Hatsatouris and Toft are seeing at their own restaurant, they’re witnessing how L.A.’s food scene is evolving. “I think for many years [L.A.] has been about glitz and glamour and less about substance,” Toft says. But with sustainable-minded establishments like Salt’s Cure and Alma championing simple approaches to California cuisine and younger chefs like Thomas Lim settling in the neighborhood, Toft believes downtown L.A. is on the brink of a culinary renaissance. “I never call myself and artist and I hate that word, but the art of eating is coming back. Now, part of the experience of going out is to eat dinner rather than just go out to be seen and eat dinner while they’re there.” Toft talks about sensing an underground movement of people creating interesting and simple things, a progression that L.A. hasn’t seen in some 20 years.
“We joke about it but everyone still knows Wolfgang Puck and people are still asking for the same types of things,” says Hatsatouris. “It just hasn’t moved forward at the pace that it should have or could have, and with such an abundance of amazing stuff available, it’s just a shame that people aren’t utilizing it in such a great way.” He recalls their experience growing up in Australia: “It’s very ingredient-driven, it’s a big island, we’re used to fresh food, and I think we have access to a lot of the same [products] in L.A. That’s been the philosophy of Eveleigh.”
Toft agrees. “We don’t fly the big organic banner over the front door, it’s not about preaching. There’s a lot of stories and [the guests] may never know it on the front end, but it’s about the relationship. I spend a lot of time at work—it’s my life—so these stories and connections are part of my life.”