Chef Speak: Scott Zwiezen

In the hands of Scott Zwiezen at Echo Park's cozy Elf Cafe, humble ingredients are transformed into something rich and completely delicious -- as with his recipe for Risotto-Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms.
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A roasted beet, braised fennel and wild rice - sounds like a fairly benign plate of healthy fare. In the hands of Scott Zwiezen, head chef of Echo Park's cozy and low-lit Elf Cafe, these humble ingredients are transformed into something rich, surprising and completely delicious. It is Zwiezen's creativity, along with his commitment to making delicious food (that just so happens to lack meat), that keeps diners coming back for more. Above all else, he's cooking with love and it's impossible not to notice.

With a background in painting and music, Zwiezen moved to LA in 1997 and landed in the film industry. A culinary neophyte, he adopted a vegetarian lifestyle in 2004 and officially leaped into the world of food by starting a raw food business with partner Jennifer Strand. Two years later he opened Elf Cafe with his longtime bandmates Astara Calas and Evan Haros. With around ten tables and limited counter seating, Elf is packed nearly every night. But you get the sense that even if there were fifty tables, people would still be lining up to taste Zwiezen's Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-inspired fare. Dishes like Tahini Avocado Puree served with warm garlic pita, Stuffed Mediterranean Dolma, and Apple Tarte Tatin with homemade orange blossom syrup appeal to both meat eaters and non-meat eaters alike, making Elf simply a great place to go for a satisfying meal. You'll just happen to feel good after eating it.


Entering the dining room and exposed kitchen at Elf Cafe.

Heather Taylor: How did your love of food develop?

Scott Zwiezen: I think it was the first time I ate at a Middle Eastern restaurant and tasted those flavors. This experience ignited something that's been with me ever since but only really took hold when I became a vegetarian and started experimenting in the kitchen with raw food.

HT: When I think of Elf, I think of these words: cozy, delicious, vegetarian, small, satisfaction. Please describe Elf in your words.

SZ: What we try to do at Elf is to create an experience that's just as fulfilling as any restaurant without the onus of being a "vegetarian place." I cook primarily Eastern Mediterranean style food. Instead of simply classifying ourselves as a vegetarian restaurant, it's important to me that the dishes be flavorful and satisfying and just happen not to contain meat. We don't use any fake meat products; the vegetables stand on their own as entrees in the Middle Eastern tradition, and are far healthier than processed imitation meats. And of course, we use as much local and sustainable produce as possible.

HT: It looks like you run a really tight ship in the Elf kitchen. Can you tell me a bit about the unique layout? I've heard something about toaster ovens.

SZ: We opened Elf on a tight budget and since this was my first restaurant, I really didn't know what I was doing. The previous establishment in our location was a coffee shop. It lacked a hood or any real kitchen set up, and I figured we would open with the kind of appliances you would find in a small cafe like that. We wound up with an all-electric kitchen with hot plates and a convection oven. I had no idea what to expect, but I honestly never imagined that Elf would explode as quickly as it did. We found ourselves at capacity most nights, working very hard to crank out the amount and quality of food that comes out of full service kitchens. It is really tricky.

HT: Sounds incredibly tricky. Although every time I've eaten at Elf, everything seems rather seamless. Do you have the desire to expand into a more traditional kitchen?

SZ: We're actually currently in the process of installing a full service kitchen. We recently acquired the space next door and eventually would like to expand into it, which will allow us to become a more fully realized version of ourselves.

HT: Lastly, is the restaurant a political statement for you?

SZ: No, it's really just a restaurant. I mean, yes - the idea of living with less and conserving resources is of great interest to me. And it does make me happy every time someone tells me I changed their opinion of vegetarian food. But mainly, I just wanted to create the kind of restaurant where I personally would like to eat and hang out.



Seasonal Risotto-Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms with Roasted Tomato, served with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Port Wine Reduction and Arugula Salad

For the Risotto:
6 cups mushroom or vegetable stock, warm
1 cup white wine
2 cups arborio rice
2 medium beets, red or golden, medium dice.
1 cup yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, sliced into medallions
2 tsp chopped garlic
1/2 cup shaved or shredded parmesan
1/3 cup fresh goat cheese
2 tbsp sunflower oil(high heat) or butter
sea salt and fresh pepper
1 tsp fresh sage chiffonade

Heat oil in a 4 qt. saucepan over med.-high heat. Add onions and a small amount of sea salt. Sweat onions until translucent, taking care to not brown onions. Add rice and stir until coated with oil. Add carrots and beets. Continue stirring until rice also becomes translucent around edges. Add garlic and enough white wine to just cover the rice and reduce heat. Stir until all liquid is absorbed. Repeat this process until all of the wine and all of the vegetable stock has been used. Should be about 30-40 minutes. After the liquid has been absorbed, the risotto should be nice and creamy. Remove from heat and slowly stir in the parmesan and goat cheese. Stir in sage. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (note: rather than serving immediately as is the case with traditional risotto, we set it aside to cool and thicken in order to use it as a stuffing for the mushrooms)

Preparing the Braised Portobellos:
4 large portobello mushrooms, stems removed
6 cups vegetable stock
2 tbsp. sunflower oil(high heat oil)
1 cup madeira wine
1 tbsp chopped garlic
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 tbsp. Tamari (can substitute soy sauce)
sea salt
1/2 tsp. peppercorns
2 tbsp. shaved or shredded parmesan set aside for later use
4 whole vine ripe or heirloom tomatoes (note: these will be set aside for later, when finishing the dish)

Heat oil in large saucepan over med.-high heat. Add onion and sweat until translucent, taking care to not brown onions. Add celery, carrot, garlic and a dash of madeira. Immediately add portobellos, face down, and cook until they just begin releasing their liquid, about 5 minutes. Add the rest of the madeira and the vegetable stock to cover the mushrooms. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a very low simmer. Add bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, tamari and peppercorns. Salt to taste. Simmer on low until mushrooms are braised through, approx. 45 min. to an hour. Remove mushrooms from broth and set aside.

Crimini Mushroom Garnish:

2 cups crimini mushrooms, quartered
1tsp. sunflower oil
1tsp. garlic
dash of tamari
sea salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss all ingredients together in bowl and lay out onto oiled baking dish. Roast mushrooms until browned, about 10-15 min.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes:
4 russet potatoes, peeled and diced into large cubes
1 tbsp chopped garlic
2 tbsp. butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1tsp chopped shallots
1 tbsp. finely chopped parsley
sea salt and pepper to taste

Add potatoes to large pot filled with cool water. Bring to boil and cook until potatoes are soft, but not falling apart. In a separate pan, melt the butter. When potatoes are cooked, remove from heat, drain and mash together with all other ingredients. Set aside covered to rest

Port Wine Reduction:

375ml. port wine
375ml. balsamic vinegar

Add port and balsamic together in a small sauce pan and cook on med low heat until reduce to a thick, syrup-like consistency, approx. 45 min. Check thickness constantly and remember it will be much thicker when it cools. Be careful not to caramelize the mixture. This is done by over cooking and scorching the mixture.

Putting it all together:
With oven still at 400 degrees, take the cooled risotto and fill each of the portobellos, making a rounded hemisphere shape. Place the stuffed mushrooms onto an oiled baking dish. Press a few of the garnishing crimini mushrooms into the top of each mound of risotto. Sprinkle with the parmesan set aside during the braisng process. Slice a cross shape into the top of the tomatoes and place on a separate dish. Rub with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the mushrooms and tomatoes in the oven simultaneously and roast until the risotto has a nice crust of browned parmesan, about 10- 15 minutes. Remove from oven. Set a few tablespoons of mashed potatoes on a plate and immediately place portobello mushrooms over the top. Place the tomatoes on the plate next to the mushrooms and drizzle port wine reduction over the top of the risotto. Serve immediately alongside a simple arugula salad, dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt and fresh pepper to taste.

Serves 4

2010-02-02-elf4.jpgChef Scott Zwiezen. Photo Credits: Alex de Cordoba

Elf Cafe
2135 West Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026-3124

Chef Speak is a bi-monthly column by LA-enthusiast Heather Taylor in which she explores LA's diverse and dynamic food culture, featuring interviews with Angeleno chefs of-the-moment, seasonal recipes, and rising restaurants.

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