Meet Jason Francisco, Chef of Gray Tavern in Studio City.
Culinary creations, indeed.
Being a professional chef was never something Jason Francisco thought about growing up in Hawaii. After graduating from Cal State Northridge, he worked as an accountant for seven years. Then he had an epiphany. “They offered me a junior partner position and at that point, I just knew I didn’t want to spend my life sitting in an office all day.” Along the way Jason had worked as a bartender and server and “just loved creating food.” So at 37 years old, he decided to attend culinary school in Las Vegas, ultimately landing a job at the two-star Michelin French restaurant, Alex at the Wynn. Jason moved on to work in LA for eateries like the French brasserie Comme Ça and for lauded chef Michael Cimarusti at both Il Pesce Cucina and Providence, which has two Michelin stars.
All of this experience seems to have been a drumroll for Jason’s current gig as chef for Gray Tavern in Studio City. (The eatery is next to and shares owners with Mantee Café.) With an innovative menu that includes meat and seafood, he takes a unique approach to preparations. DIY fish tacos, for example, are presented in an innovative way. A rectangular wooden board is set on the table with a fully intact, broiled hamachi collar, a dollop of both pineapple kimchi and avocado crema and two sturdy, griddled, house-made corn tortillas.
While he’s worked for some seriously pedigreed chefs, Jason’s approach includes a wink and a smile. “Most chefs are artists, but we also like to have fun. I like to be playful with food,” he says. The menu incorporates funny little ditties throughout like: “Substitutions? Can we not and say we did?” and “Gotta Instagram this!”
The most underrated ingredient, in my opinion, is granulated garlic. It is garlic powder that is basically freeze dried and purified. I use it on mac and cheese. Who really likes to take a bite into a piece of garlic?
My favorite cocktail is probably the Bloody Mary. Phil [general manager and beverage director Phillip Collins] makes it with chorizo salt, and it is really tasty. I love using chorizo too; you’ll see it scattered around the octopus dish. I take a cast iron pan and fry it until it becomes small, crunchy bits.
When it comes to “wow” dishes, I’d say our bone marrow. The bone is soaked in salt water before we bake it, and it is a larger bone than you typically see. Diners can scrape the marrow out and spread it on a piece of toasted bread. It is served alongside three homemade garnishes: mushroom duxelles, lemon marmalade and crispy Brussels sprouts.
My favorite music to listen to while I cook is probably [Italian singer] Andrea Bocelli. I also love listening to bossa nova.
When it is artichoke season, I make artichoke everything. I use all kinds of cooking methods. I love them cold-braised and char-grilled. Come into Gray Tavern this spring, and you’ll see artichokes on the menu.
My go-to meal at home is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My fridge at my place in Toluca Lake is typically pretty empty. I don’t like to cook for myself, only for others. And my dog—he loves beef.
I view Gray Tavern as a great place to enjoy a variety of types of food in an atmosphere that doesn’t take itself too seriously. You can enjoy yourself without being too stressed about prices [the larger plates are all under $30]. Gray Tavern is essentially a fun house that serves alcohol and stays open late [1 a.m.].
I find it really puzzling when people refer to Gray Tavern as a gastropub. That is typically more of a drinking establishment that offers some food. Gray Tavern is a restaurant; we put a lot of emphasis on the food.
The kitchen tool I can’t live without is my hand blender. I like to puree stuff. You can combine lots of flavors into a single spoonful. On the grilled octopus with chorizo, for example, I use it to make the red bell pepper puree.
For me, spring is about pinot noir. Its range of colors and aromatic subtleties make it one of the most expressive red wines.