Alice Waters has spent decades defining California cuisine with her seasonal, market-centric approach to cooking at her legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. In November 2021, Waters brought her talents further south to Los Angeles for the first time, where she – along with former co-head chef and New York Times Food writer David Tanis – have opened Lulu, a sophisticated yet casual restaurant housed at Westwood’s Hammer Museum.
“We know each other pretty darn well. We share a similar aesthetic. So there’s a lot of trust there, which is very nice,” Tanis tells The Hollywood Reporter of his relationship with Waters, his mentor, former boss, frequent collaborator, and friend. Tanis came out of restaurant kitchen retirement (and moved to Los Angeles from New York, where he’s lived for a decade) to open Lulu, conceptualized by Waters (who is in a macro role) and Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum.
Waters was excited to work on a restaurant project at the Hammer, especially because of its relationship with UCLA, where an extensive food studies program supports the research of nutrition, food culture and policy, public health, sustainability, and more. “I am very interested in what is happening in terms of food at the whole University of California,” Waters says.
The restaurant, which includes a partially covered dining room and bar, sits in the museum’s courtyard filled with trees and other reminders of the natural world, a striking contrast to the highly curated galleries that loom just beyond. Luis Sierra, formerly of Estela and Altro Paradiso in New York City, is Lulu’s chef de cuisine. An eggplant banh mi sandwich, spicy black bean soup, and French lentil salad are among the menu’s standouts.
Waters and Tanis spoke to THR about the concept of market-to-table cooking, adapting to a Los Angeles food audience, and what to expect from Lulu as the new restaurant develops.
As collaborators, what is your conceptual direction for Lulu in terms of the menu and ingredients? What are you hoping to bring to the Hammer Museum environment with the restaurant?
DAVID TANIS The whole menu is going to be based upon what is available with the farms that we work with, and the farmers at farmer’s markets. Basically, those are the only places that we’re getting our produce; the idea being whatever is the best and whatever is in season is the thing that needs to go on the menu. It’s my whole approach to market cooking, which is what market cooking is: you go to the market, see what looks great, and then you make your menu.
ALICE WATERS We’ve been doing [this] for 50 years, a menu that changes every single day that we’re open at Chez Panisse. It’s a way of understanding seasonality, completely. When tomatoes are over, they’re over. You’re in a different place. This is the most important and inspiring part for Chez Panisse, and I knew that that was something that David always did so well at Chez Panisse — he always had great menus that inspired me.
TANIS There are two ways to eat at Lulu: we do a daily changing seasonal menu, and a 3-course fixed price menu for $45 with a reservation. It’s such a nice thing to do, to come in and trust the kitchen to serve you a beautiful lunch. We’re not going to have a large menu ever. We’re going to have a small menu that changes quite a lot over the course of the year.
How was the process of adjusting to the climate and agricultural environment of Southern California, coming from Chez Panisse in Berkeley? Did your approach to ingredients change based on location?
TANIS I lived in Northern California for a number of years. Of course I’ve visited LA a number of times but have never stayed here for weeks. Whenever I come to the West Coast, from San Diego up to Washington State, I’m always just impressed with the farmer’s markets. Because the East Coast in the wintertime, its potatoes and onions and apples; or in the supermarkets it’s California produce that’s had to take a long journey. So, the vibrancy of the LA markets is really, really wonderful. And it’s just inspiring to go and see — it’s so beautiful every time I go.
WATERS We have learned over 50 years how to find suppliers, how to bond with them, how to take back the vegetable scraps to the farms. We’ve learned how to use a vegetable throughout the season — at every moment when it’s changing, when it’s growing. And that is incredibly valuable information that David has just internalized. He knows that by heart just the way I do.
You’re coming in every day with what the Buddhists say is “beginner’s mind.” You kind of know what’s going to be on the menu because you have to make those [ingredient] orders, but you’re not absolutely certain about what you’re going to do with them until you see them and you taste them and then you make those fun judgments. That’s the excitement of cooking this way, and I hope it is for the customers to be eating this way.
Do you find yourself engaging differently with the LA community, like do Angelenos as an audience and customer base feel different from the one you’re used to at Chez Panisse in Berkeley? I’m curious if it feels like there’s a difference in food culture here.
WATERS I never thought about that. I only thought that if we make something delicious, that they will want to come. And I just felt like that little fixed price menu would be something special because [maybe there could be] professors from the university who have visiting guests and they want to come here and have more of a family meal where everybody’s eating the same thing.
Conceiving of a restaurant in a museum environment is I’m sure very different from creating a standalone outpost. How did you go about incorporating your ideas for what Lulu could be into the existing Hammer Museum and broader UCLA setting?
WATERS I’ve always wanted a restaurant in a museum because it’s already a beautiful place. It feels so much like an art installation that we’re creating. I love that aspect.
TANIS We hope it’s a very broad audience. We really want to serve the entire LA community. Being in an art museum — especially in the Hammer Museum where there’s such interesting stuff happening — it kind of gives us a built-in audience of interesting and diverse people.
Do you feel that your values surrounding food and sustainability are reflected in this space?
WATERS Fortunately, they have an enlightened director and Board of Directors; As a matter of fact, the chancellor of UCLA is on the board at The Hammer, and I spoke to the whole board and said I’m really interested in the ways in which regenerative agriculture can address climate and health. I’m putting all my eggs into the education place. I mean, I’ve been working on the Edible Schoolyard project for 25 years and I know that it works to empower children to learn their math in the garden and their history in the classroom kitchen. I believe that is our future. It’s local and regenerative. So, the idea that we can be that place there at the museum with those values, and we can invite people from the university, and that we have access to that beautiful auditorium — maybe we can show films about food, and maybe we can engage people in conversations on the stage to really amplify this very important relationship because everybody’s worried about climate. And we have the hopeful, delicious solution, which is to eat locally, make sure it’s organic and regeneratively grown, support the farmer’s markets, be in season; that’s a way that we all can address climate tomorrow. And if big institutions use their procurement to that end, they could really change.
What’s the origin behind the name Lulu?
WATERS Lulu, is the name of a mentor of mine and a mentor of David’s, who was Lucie “Lulu” Peyraud, proprietress of Domaine Tempier. Unfortunately, she died during the first year of the pandemic at 102. It’s so important to have her spirit of hospitality as part of the restaurant. But in fact, I wasn’t sure that that was the right name. My friend told me the definition of the word, which means something kind of whimsical and fun; you call it a “Lulu,” and I thought that could be charming just as a word, even if people don’t know anything about Lulu, and it just kind of stuck.
Interview edited for length and clarity.