Mette Williams has certainly built quite the resume. She has worked extensively with the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group over her culinary career, operating in the kitchens of some of Los Angeles’ most popular restaurants, including Postrio, Spago and CUT. In a testament to the world we live in today, it was not her stellar credentials, but a victory on season two of Food Network’s Chef Wanted with Anne Burrell that landed her the Executive Chef position at Culina, a modern Italian restaurant in LA’s Four Seasons Hotel. We caught up with the rising chef to discuss the new menu at her restaurant, the city’s food scene, and not looking like, well, an ass, on TV.
You’ve been at Culina now for about a month. How is everything going?
Everything is going really well. The staff is all very supportive and I’ve settled in very nicely. We’ve been getting some new items on the menu.
You’ve changed the menu recently?
Yeah. Last Monday was the first official hard print of the menu change that we did. We kept on a lot of the regulars that have been on since they opened, but it’s about 45% new items now.
What flavors have you tried to incorporate?
We’ve tried to incorporate several different regions of Italian-inspired dishes. Now that we’re in spring, we have been using a lot of peas, favas and artichokes. We’re going to start using fiddlehead ferns as a special. I’ve also put on some new pastas — we have a big tortelloni that has whipped ricotta with fresh herbs with an egg yolk in the middle, covered with another piece of pasta served with a nice ragù. Everyone is into gluten-free these days, so we have a pasta dish made with amaranth flour that is selling really well.
Can you talk about the differences between being a TV chef and a restaurant chef?
I’m not sure that being a TV chef is really for me. Being on the show, you have to get acclimated really quickly because you have five or six people talking to you while you’re cooking, as well as a cameraman following you around. Always in the back of your mind, you want to make sure you are presenting yourself well and speaking clearly.
Why did you excel at being a chef on TV?
I think I stayed focused and didn’t veer off-plan, because there are so many distractions. I was able to keep my eye on the prize and tried to not do anything that I wouldn’t do in a regular kitchen.
Why did you decide to compete on the show, having already established yourself as a chef?
I decided to go ahead and do it because I had never done a competition before and it was in Los Angeles. I have a son who is 18 months old and didn’t have to leave the city. I had a good job and wouldn’t lose it, so I didn’t really have anything to lose, except for maybe making myself look like an ass on TV.
Did you avoid that doing that?
Yeah, for the most part. There were a couple of moments that stand out. But at least I didn’t cut my finger or drop somebody’s food on the floor.
How have Wolfgang Puck and Lee Hefter influenced you over the years?
One of the most important things they’ve taught me is the appreciation of the product that we work with: to take care of it and use it to the best of your ability, without fussing with it too much. Also, I’ve learned the importance of being organized and respecting your fellow co-workers.
What factors have contributed to LA’s exploding onto the national food scene?
I would definitely say all of the food trucks and different TV shows in the area. Also, being in Los Angeles, we are fortunate to have access to whatever product we want. I think in general, having celebrities who go out and eat good food also instantly puts us on the grid.
What are a couple of your favorite restaurants in the city?
One of my favorite places to eat is a Japanese restaurant downtown called Daikokuya. It’s delicious – it has such good ramen and the pork balls are sweet and savory. I’ll go there around twice a month. There’s a little Italian restaurant called Al Gelato that I have been going to for years, which has phenomenal gelato. They have great spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna and ravioli.
Who is a female chef we should look out for?
I love Suzanne Goin. She’s been in Los Angeles a long time and has several restaurants: The A.O.C., Lucques, The Larder and she partners with her husband on The Hungry Cat.
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