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L.A. super chef and food entrepreneur Eric Greenspan, BS 97, reinvents an American classic
By Ronna Kelly
With modern art-deco décor, jazz music, white tablecloths, and a serene outdoor patio in the back, Eric Greenspan's The Foundry on Melrose presents a surprising contrast to its neighboring punk-rock clothing shops and the noisy traffic outside. That's intentional.
"In Beverly Hills, you walk into a place like this and you think, 'OK, this makes sense.' But you walk off of Melrose into a place like this, you think 'Ha,'" says Greenspan, BS 97, the West Hollywood restaurant's owner and chef. "It's got that sense of transformation that I think is really important."
Apparently he's not the only one who values that transformation. Condé Nast Traveler magazine named The Foundry "Best New Restaurant" when it opened in 2007. Despite his timing—the financial crisis hit less than a year later—The Foundry has thrived, and Greenspan has become a top celebrity chef. Since his modest beginnings washing dishes at a Telegraph Avenue café, Greenspan has built a food empire that now includes three Los Angeles restaurants and a TV show.
Next on his plate: Plans to open a more casual eatery to focus on one of his favorite signature dishes—an awardwinning grilled-cheese sandwich. "I think I'm one of the few chefs who's down-home enough to want to open up a place that sells grilled cheese," Greenspan says.
But Greenspan's grilled cheese is hardly the down-home variety with orange cheese and white bread. Greenspan's trademark sandwich, called "The Champ" because it won the 2008 Grilled Cheese Invitational in L.A., contains Taleggio, a soft, "super-melty" Italian cheese slightly stronger than brie; apricot-caper purée; short rib; and two pieces of raisin-walnut bread fried to perfection.
Greenspan hopes to serve The Champ and other twists on the American classic at Greenspan's Grilled Cheese next door to The Foundry later this year. "That's the one we have dreams of growing and expanding with as many as the market will allow," he says.
The concept capitalizes on a couple trends, Greenspan says. First, there's the growing popularity of comfort food. Second, Americans are eating out more.
"Destination restaurants are dying because rather than having one special meal every year, you're having special meals every week, which you can't afford to spend as much on," Greenspan explains. "So people look for things that are still creative and exciting but that they can afford. The comfort thing really fits that bill."
"Plus, it's a great palate to work off of: Everybody understands it," he says. Yet, The Champ still plumbs his creativity. Deconstruct it and you end up with a sophisticated cheese plate.
"But a cheese plate is highfalutin and snooty," Greenspan explains, "and people coming in from off the streets of Melrose aren't necessarily looking for a cheese plate."
From Telegraph to Melrose Place
The Foundry is the third restaurant on Melrose where Greenspan has manned the kitchen, following Patina and Maison G. In the past year, he has extended his restaurant footprint off Melrose by overseeing two restaurants in the Hotel Wilshire, including The Roof, a poolside restaurant that boasts sweeping views of the Hollywood Hills.
They are all a far cry from the hippie atmosphere at Café Med on Telegraph, where Greenspan began working as a dishwasher—for six hours—after his freshman year at Cal.
"The kitchen was a lot busier, and I said, 'I want to do that,'' he recalls."The owner asked if I had any cooking experience. I walked to the microwave and I pushed 'one minute, start.' Luckily he had a sense of humor, and he said, "Ah, you're hired!"
At Haas, Greenspan ended up working on a business plan in an entrepreneurship class for Chef Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook fame. After graduation, he attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and cooked at top New York restaurants and elBulli in Spain.
Greenspan's big TV break came as the only L.A. chef to compete on the Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef" show in 2009. He was ultimately undone by his "challenge ingredient"—grasshoppers. Despite the loss, the network asked him back to appear on other shows. He also nabbed a spot co-hosting A&E's "Fix this Kitchen," advising homeowners on their IKEA remodels. One of his frequent refrains: You need more counter space.
Continuing to focus on building his brand, Greenspan is now in development talks with the Food Network for his own show. It would be the ideal side dish to help ensure the success of his grilled-cheese empire, he says. "That's the retirement plan," Greenspan says of his grilled-cheese concept, acknowledging he can't work 14-hour days as a chef-restaurateur forever. "That," he jokes, "will fund the Eric Greenspan School of Entrepreneurship at the Haas School of Business."
Above: Eric Greenspan, BS 97, plans to expand his three-restaurant empire with a more casual eatery that offers "The Champ" (left).