He saunters through the restaurant wearing a baseball cap, blue jeans and a Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt, with his long brown hair flaring from either side of his cap and his beard precisely shaped. With this casual appearance, you’d think he was at home rather than at work, and in a way, you’d be right.
For the past 28 years, which equates to his entire young life, Chef Dustin Trani has called J.Trani’s Ristorante home. The restaurant, which bears the family name, is synonymous with San Pedro.
It’s a quiet Monday morning in the middle of January and Trani looks a bit tired, which is no surprise. The whole reason we’re chatting this morning has to do with the fact he’s been pulling double duty running two kitchens, one here at J. Trani’s, the other at Doma, the hot new restaurant in Beverly Hills that he recently opened.
The decision to move from the security and familiarity the family business affords to uncharted waters 30 miles away, which in San Pedro miles is about 100, was a tough one for Trani. After all, who really leaves San Pedro? This is a town where generations run deep and Pedro Pride is serious business.
“I was back and forth, back and forth, and didn’t know if I really wanted to do it,” says Trani about the move to Doma. “But the opportunity was there and I talked to my parents and my friends and people in the community and I asked them what they thought, and they said I had to try it. I had to seize the opportunity.”
Stepping back a moment, it seems like Trani has been seizing opportunities his entire life. The son of Jim Jr. and Viki Trani and grandson of Jim Sr., Trani started in the family business fresh out of kindergarten at six-years-old, prepping lemon juice and chopping parsley. By 11, he was working banquets with his dad.
“The summer after fifth grade, that’s when I consistently started working a couple days a week, working the pantry section, doing the salads and appetizers and desserts,” recalls Trani.
Like any child who grows up in the family business, there comes a point in time where the choice to continue the family tradition or break away and follow another muse towards a different line of work needs to be made. For Trani, his passion for cooking collided with the discovery of The Food Network… and puberty.
“I remember it hitting me when I was in high school,” remembers the San Pedro High alum. “I’d work a couple nights up front on the floor, then I worked a few nights in the kitchen. And then The Food Network started airing and I’m watching these guys cook – that’s when this new idea of using the freshest ingredients [began]. You realize what a difference a great olive oil does to a pasta for finishing. And how layering flavors and using chilies three different times in the pasta will create a whole different balance in a dish. When I started seeing that, that’s when I was kind of like… wow. I knew how to cook as far as the basics, but there’s a whole other level I could get to.”
Trani admits he’s not much of a formal school guy. After graduation, he dabbled a bit at Harbor College but it wasn’t his thing. He even received a $20,000 scholarship in high school to study at The Art Institute of California – Orange County Culinary Arts and Design School, which he would eventually decline.
“I checked the place out and really did not feel like culinary school was for me,” says Trani. “I could see what they were doing and it’s great for starting out and developing an education on different products and what to do, but I didn’t want to be held back for two years and spend $60,000 to go to culinary school. That’s insane.”
Instead, another opportunity would reveal itself when John Blazevich, CEO and president of Contessa Foods, asked the then 18-year-old Trani if he would work on some research development for the company. Trani agreed and would split his time between the restaurant and Contessa, even becoming Blazevich’s private chef at his Rolling Hills estate.
“Getting the opportunity with Contessa to travel and going to Boston, New York, Chicago and working and meeting a lot of real famous well-known chefs like Ming Tsai and Todd English and becoming friends with them, that’s when I just completely fell in love with [cooking],” says Trani.
An Intense Science
Listening to Trani talk about cooking is like listening to Ted Williams talk about hitting a baseball. It’s more than just following a recipe or being able to manage a kitchen. There’s an intense science involved dealing with flavors and textures and the ability to figure out the best combination of each to make an original dish stand out.
“I try to apply to every dish that I make what I learned in Thailand,” says Trani, who, thanks to Blazevich, spent two months in 2007 training at the luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. It’s an experience Trani would refer to many times in our conversation and one he considers to be a pivotal life-changing experience.
“When you eat Thai food, you got sweetness, sour, saltiness and texture in every one of the dishes,” he explains. “I took what they do in that cuisine and try to apply it to every dish that I do whether it be Italian, Asian or American cuisine. I want to play on every component of your senses. So you’ll see on every dish we have your main focal point and then everything around it are just characters to make it that much better. What makes a great dish is to be able to play on all the senses and hit every component that, when you try it, everything – sweet, salty, savory, texture, smell – all that comes together. If you can do that in every one of your dishes, then generally people are going to like it.”
His Thailand experience prompted Trani to completely revamp J. Trani’s menu towards a more modern Italian cuisine.
“My grandfather and my dad supported me 100 percent,” says Trani. “But there were a lot of clientele in San Pedro who wondered what I was doing. Like, what is this squared plate doing here? You know, fish doesn’t need to come with mashed potatoes and vegetables and steak doesn’t have to come with roasted potatoes and vegetables. There were a lot of naysayers and stuff, but the end result was they liked it. It was scary at first when I started changing the menu. If I tried to do that in a new restaurant in San Pedro, I think it would have been very difficult. But being established like we are, we still had the business that was coming in. And now we’re slowly introducing everybody to this new style and it’s been a great positive response. That’s why people come in here now.”
A Different World
Beverly Hills is an entirely different universe and its inhabitants are a far cry from San Pedro’s locals, who have supported the Trani family since Trani’s great grandfather Filippo opened the family’s first food establishment in town, the Majestic Café, in 1925.
But Trani isn’t the first chef from San Pedro to venture into the land of glitz and glamour. Dan Tana’s, the famous West Hollywood eatery’s head chef is fellow San Pedran, Neno Mladenovic. As Trani explains it, it was the Croatian chef’s insistence that brought Trani to the land of swimming pools and movie stars.
“Chef Neno is from San Pedro and he’s been coming to J. Trani’s the last few years saying that my food is something I should have up in L.A.,” he explains. “He said the freshness that I’m doing, the different things, would just be great up there.”
Mladenovic then told his partner at Dan Tana’s, Sonja Perencevic, another Croatian, who, with her daughter Nikka, was in the process of opening Doma. He told them Trani was the perfect guy to lead the restaurant’s kitchen as head chef.
“They came down to J. Trani’s, tried the food and were really blown away by it and liked what we’re doing,” Trani recalls.
Trani was offered the head chef position and, with the blessing of his family, took it. He singlehandedly spearheaded the formation of Doma’s menu, hired the kitchen staff and was given full creative control of every dish served. It’s the kind of creative freedom that chef’s dream about.
The Hollywood Reporter says of Doma, “Chef Dustin Trani flexes his traditional culinary sensibility through a continental prism. A single raviolo is stuffed with sea urchin, stone crab and Mascarpone cheese. Meanwhile, sautéed Colorado lamb scaloppini in a butter cognac sauce holds court on a plate accompanied by golden chanterelle mushrooms, sweet roasted onions and agnolotti.” It makes one’s mouth water just reading it.
A writer for The Huffington Post calls Trani a “chef to follow” because he “was astonished at the accomplished and delicious dishes that have emerged from this kitchen in the course of my several dinners there.”
Doma, located in the heart of Beverly Hills, just a few blocks away from Spago, is beautifully modern in appearance, but carries with it a familiarity that creates a comfortable – not stuffy – ambiance, which makes sense because “doma” in Croatian means “at home.”
Dark wood chairs and tables caressed with white linen fill the space, with a beautiful large bar area on one side of the restaurant. Towards the back, a large bookshelf-like installation houses the wine choices. The walls are decorated with fascinating artwork of what appears to be various dresses, but on closer inspection, the dresses are made of finely shaved pieces of vegetables.
Visiting Trani in his new establishment, the support from the staff is palatable. “I just love the guy,” says Igor, a longtime server of the Beverly Hills/West Hollywood scene who probably has some incredible stories to tell in his own right.
“Oh, you’re doing a story on Dustin? That’s great, he deserves it,” says another staff member.
Trani, this time in uniform wearing a white chef’s coat and obligatory white Dodgers cap, is in full control. I watch as he meticulously garnishes a seared tuna dish, the name of which I couldn’t pronounce, nor spell, but it looks amazing.
Doma’s menu is described as “Mediterranean, eclectic Italian with a strong seafood influence.” Trani tells me that seafood, especially sea urchin, is his favorite dish to prepare.
I watch as he prepares a few dishes to try out, which would include a seared tuna appetizer garnished with buttery caviar, a red pepper infused pizza and a handmade ravioli dish, the likes of which my words are not doing justice to. Let’s just say all three dishes were amazing. We finished it off with a cheesecake garnished with espresso caviar. Again, to die for.
As he’s working, I ask if he’s taking what he’s learning at Doma and applying it to J. Trani’s and vice versa.
“Yeah, you’re always learning and finding better ways of doing things. That’s the nature of this business,” he says. “One of the biggest things they were telling me when I started here was that I didn’t understand Beverly Hills people.
They’re very picky and they like to change things. And I’m like, I’m coming from a restaurant that’s been established since 1925 and there’s a lot of people that come in and want things that they had back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So I think I’ll be okay with that.”
Trani splits his time equally between both restaurants, with Doma requiring a bit more attention since it’s still a work in progress. He’s been training the kitchen staff at J. Trani’s for the past eight years to get them to operate just the way he wants. They’re an extension of him, and he’s working hard with Doma’s staff to eventually get them to that point, as well.
Back at J. Trani’s, sitting at a table tucked away at the back of the restaurant, I ask Trani if there will ever be a day when San Pedro loses one of its favorite sons completely to the intoxicating throes of Hollywood.
Trani laughs and says, ” You know, J. Trani’s is going to continue getting better. And I definitely would like to open another place in San Pedro, somewhere along the waterfront, a little more casual. I want to do something where it’s a mixture between the Italian and Asian influences that I bring into the cuisine. Where it’s just an awesome, cool atmosphere, good music going on, you know, high ceilings, a bustling place,” he takes a pause and adds, “and no table cloths.” spt