Evan Kleiman: Recipe for Reinvention

How beloved L.A. food personality Evan Kleiman has built a modern culinary career, from restauranteur to media maven to pie queen.

written by ALISSA WALKER
photography by AMANDA FRIEDMAN

 

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In the subterranean studios of KCRW, buried beneath a cafeteria on the Santa Monica College campus, Evan Kleiman ('80) is performing an appropriately food-oriented sound check.

"Say pie."

"Pie. Pie."

The host of the public radio show Good Food looks like a teenager, wearing a black linen tank top, her hands tucked in her pockets, kinky hair piled atop her head on this rare 90-degree day. She's been at this for 15 years, but she still sounds positively tickled about everything she discusses - especially when she says the word "pie."

"Deep-fried P. B. and J. Pie, pie, pie," she continues into the microphone. But Good Food isn't just about decadent dining. Stirred in with talk of deep-fried county fair confections, strip-mall quesadillas and alpaca burgers are serious explorations of the rights of prison inmates demanding vegetarian meals, how climate change will affect wine-growing regions and what NASA feeds astronauts on a mission to Mars.

On this particular morning, her interviewee is Los Angeles Magazine dine editor Lesley Bargar Suter, in the studio to talk about the magazine's annual "Best of L.A." issue. Kleiman's questions demonstrate that she's read the issue cover-to-cover, as she digs deeper into the city's best bread baskets and juice cleanses. The interview flows like a lively dinner conversation.

Kleiman comes to her host's chair with rich experience in both food and media. "She's worked like a fiend as a chef and as an interviewer," says famed food writer and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, a frequent guest. "She talks to interesting people all the time and, unlike too many interviewers, she actually listens to the answers and engages. Some of the best food conversations I've had have been on air with Evan."

UCLA DAYS

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Growing up in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, Kleiman had a different career path in mind. Like so many native Angelenos, her first aspirations were toward film production. As an undergraduate at UCLA, Kleiman created her own major that was born from an obsession with long trips to Italy in her teens: Italian Literature and Special Fields, with an emphasis on Film. She then entered the Arts Management Program at UCLA Anderson, intending to become a Hollywood producer.

"It was a really amazing program. All of the graduates went on to run most of the major arts institutions in the country," she says. Kleiman's internship was in the marketing department of MCA Universal, and upon graduation she was quickly hired by an independent producer. But almost immediately, she realized something was missing. She had stopped cooking.

Kleiman had always cooked - at first, alongside her mother, then working her way through a mountain of cookbooks. On those trips to Italy, she'd find herself gathering recipes in the cucinas of Italian women. To put herself through school, she spent nights catering glitzy charity events. When she took the job in film, it all ended.

As she pined for the kitchen, a new restaurant called Mangia opened in L.A., dedicated to authentic Italian cuisine. Kleiman's interest was piqued. She offered to work there for two weeks for free, she says. "When I walked in, it was like the rays of sun were shining upon me, and the choir sang, and I felt like I was in an environment where I could truly be very productive."

She made the switch, and after working a few years in other kitchens, Kleiman opened Angeli Caffé in 1984 on Melrose Avenue, just as the nascent punk scene throbbed to life. Offbeat galleries and funky boutiques drew crowds to the surrounding blocks. The restaurant itself was modern, designed by a young Thom Mayne (who would go on to win a Pritzker Prize for architecture and teach at UCLA) as an abstract take on an Italian church. Paired with Kleiman's simple, farmers' market-driven menu, Angeli Caffé looked poised to change the conversation about Italian food in L.A. - which until then had been mostly red sauce on red-checked tablecloths.

Just down the street, celebrated chef Susan Feniger had opened City Café with Mary Sue Milliken a few years earlier. When Angeli arrived on the scene, Feniger says the community took note of Kleiman's personal approach to Italian. "She brought this great rustic spin to it," says Feniger. "Not fancy, not expensive, but very fresh ingredients. It was one of those places where you could see the influence of the markets, and all of her experiences in Italy made it very authentic."

The influx of local ingredients wasn't the only way L.A.'s restaurant scene was changing in the '80s. Kleiman became one of a handful of female chefs who began appearing at celebrity fundraisers and charitable events. "There weren't a lot of women chefs, that's for sure," says Feniger. "Having another woman cook at those events was such a great thing. There was such a mutual respect." Thus Angeli became a pioneer in another way: It was one of the rare, female-owned restaurants that helped nurture a tradition of strong women chefs in L.A.

IN THE STUDIO WITH EVAN
At first, Kleiman was a reluctant radio host, taking voice lessons to become more comfortable on-air. But over time, she’s realized that Good Food is her calling. “I’m a total culinary omnivore and I’ve been that way my whole life,” she says. “Really, this is what I’m meant to do.” Kleiman’s show has covered topics ranging from the ethics of foie gras to the history of the toothpick, even cannibalism.

At one point in the 1990s, Kleiman had expanded into a four-restaurant empire. Her tables were filled with diners, hungry for handmade linguine and salads made with fresh mozzarella. She authored best-selling cookbooks that educated a generation of home chefs in her beloved style. But by the early 2000s, she started to see changes: namely, restaurants were gravitating toward the cult of the cocktail (she only served beer and wine). Kleiman was bleeding cash.

By 2008, she knew she would have to close, but ironically, the recession prevented it. "More than the average restaurant, a very large number of people had worked for me over 10 years, and a core group for over 25 years," she laments. "I could not deliver them into that economy."

THE NEXT CHAPTER

Finally, after weathering the worst of the recession for the sake of her employees, Kleiman closed Angeli Caffé in January of 2012. "This was a huge emotional thing for me. It took a lot of therapy to get me to do it," she laughs. But she has no regrets. "A restaurant is such a life of minutiae and lists and details which are mostly pretty boring. When you take that away, I just have more time to think and to ruminate about everything."

She toys with the creation of a product line or a new restaurant venture, but those ideas remain fantasies for now. "In the meantime," she says, "I have pie." She's serious.

In the summer of 2009, Kleiman started baking a pie every day, which she'd photograph, Tweet and post on the Good Food blog. Soon, readers began sending in their own pie projects, tagging their adventures with the hashtag #pieaday. What began as a whim became a wildly popular baking contest, attended each year by the city's culinary glitterati. "People wonder why the pie contest has become so huge for me and I think part of it is that it's become the perfect example of how something virtual can be something real," she says.

Kleiman's cross-platform approach has even spread into apps. Seeing the popularity of Pie-A-Day, El Segundo-based Clear Media tapped her as the latest guest chef in their Appetites app family. In 2011, they launched Appetites' Easy As Pie, a video series that brings Kleiman's melodic voice and easy demeanor to your iPad as she walks you through the steps to making a pie, from crust to meringue.

For Clear Media, Kleiman's well-established and highly engaged audience was a great advantage in promoting the app, and the instant popularity of Easy as Pie demonstrated what many people in L.A. already know: Evan Kleiman's food persona has no limits. "Evan is engaging, she loves food and you can really identify with her intelligence and curiosity," says Jennifer Ferro, general manager of KCRW and producer of Good Food.

Ferro saw Kleiman's potential as a radio personality immediately in 1997, when the original Good Food hosts, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, began bringing her in as a regular guest. "I was struck by the amount of preparation she did," says Ferro, "She would read an entire book on a day's notice." When the show expanded to an hour, Ferro encouraged Kleiman to join the show as a host. "The way to make it in public radio is to be real. And smart," she says. "That's why Evan is popular." The weekly show now counts 500,000 listeners per month. During the pledge drives, says Ferro, Good Food consistently raises more money than other shows on the schedule.

Because Kleiman likes her work to have a real-world presence, the show has expanded beyond the radio waves into a Good Food Happy Hour, a roving cocktail party hosted by Kleiman, which pops up at notable L.A. restaurants. The most recent event was co-hosted by Gustavo Arellano, OC Weekly food critic and author of the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. "Old and young, all different ethnicities, they come out in droves. They just want to be around her," he says of Kleiman. "She's not so much a reporter or host, as a curator. She is the food goddess of Southern California."

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And she's also using those real-world connections to change L.A.'s food culture for the better. In 2009, L.A. public works commissioner Paula Daniels launched a task force to form a food policy council for the city that would improve citizens' access to healthy food. Daniels immediately tapped Kleiman to help recruit local chefs to participate. "She is a deep thinker who cares about fairness and quality in every aspect of the food system," says Daniels. Kleiman is now an active member of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, a 32-person committee focused on issues from hunger and obesity to school gardens and farm worker rights. It is the latest of many activities for the self-described "culinary multitasker" as she morphs into the role of thought-leader. "There are so many different ways of looking at humanity and looking at the world, and I choose food," she says, "which kind of encompasses everything." While economic trends and dining preferences will always vary, Kleiman has carved out a niche where her work can evolve and remain relevant. If the daily uptick in her Twitter following is any indication, Kleiman's audience will never stop being hungry for her particular brand of culinary inspiration.