Eat Your Drink
Written by Holly Bieler | Photography by Julie Wuellner
Matthew Biancaniello’s to-do list, always long, is on this May afternoon even more unwieldy than usual. The famed LA bar chef, long cited as one of the most innovative and influential people working on the cocktail scene today, is only a handful of weeks away from opening his first restaurant, a 12-seat, omakase-style space within Malibu’s Calamigos Beach Club restaurant. Called Mon Li, the new restaurant will serve a “liquid tasting” menu, comprising 12 courses of both entrees and small alcoholic plates. When the restaurant opens in August it will be first of its kind on the LA dining scene, and the first time in Biancaniello’s acclaimed 10-year career he’ll be putting on display his skills not just with liquids, but with actual plated dishes. As he preps for his opening night in the Calamigos kitchen, cutting spongey strips of Saint Lucian seamoss, just flown in from the island last night, for a gin infusion, and shards of cactus from the Calamigos property for a vodka one, Biancaniello’s excitement over the impending opening is palpable.“It’s feeling right because it’s my style,” he said. “It’s all self taught, its all what I want to do. I’m not thinking about right or wrong.”
But is he nervous? “Of course,” Biancaniello says, not missing a beat. “If I wasn’t nervous, I wouldn’t be doing this.” Indeed, much of Biancaniello’s career has been shaped by his willingness to embrace the unknown. During stints at hotspots like the Library Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel and Roy Choi’s Commissary in Koreatown, Biancaniello shot to prominence with cocktails unlike anything the city had ever seen, from fresh arugula gimlets to alcoholic oysters. Utilizing a dizzying array of local farm-fresh and foraged ingredients, inventive homemade infusions, and unexpected flavor combinations, Biancaniello came to be known for concoctions that toed the line between food and cocktail. “My philosophy’s very simple: everything goes with everything,” said Biancaniello. “People get stuck on, you can’t put this with that, or that doesn’t go with that. I don’t think that way. [I’m] like, how can I put those things together? Maybe I have to put more of one than the other, but I’m going to make them work.”
At Mon Li, Biancaniello will have the chance to fully expand on this vision, and indeed all he’s learned over his career. This includes a dedication to hyperlocal ingredients and Southern California land that has been a driving force. On a tour of the Calamigos Beach Club property, he points out trellises where he’ll soon be growing fresh passion fruit and “every color of cherry tomato you can find,” and garden beds brimming with fresh herbs like Cuban oregano (“my favorite oregano”). Behind the beach club, Biancaniello shows off a newly installed apiary, home to thousands of bees, and a creek brimming with herbs and cacti he’ll be foraging for his menu. “This place is genetically made for me,” he said. “It’s on the beach, it’s got all of this space for me to grow things, it’s got all of this room for me. Every element of it supports my mission.” And while this mission, and his unrelenting passion for and dedication to food seems obvious today, the path which led Biancaniello to this point has been a surprisingly circuitous one.
Growing up, Biancaniello says he showed a deep interest in food early. On weekends his family would travel from their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to his grandparents’ home in New Hampshire, where they would prepare huge meals of traditional peasant food from their native Greece, all the produce coming straight out of their backyard garden. These trips and a children’s cookbook he was gifted when he was 7 years old had a profound effect on him, Biancaniello says, and by high school he was experimenting in the kitchen, making elaborate dishes like a 23 ingredient salad for holiday meals. “I remember my cousin saying, ‘I think you’re supposed to be a chef,’” Biancaniello says.
As he moved into his adult years, however, Biancaniello mostly abandoned cooking. Moving to LA in 2000 he worked a variety of odd jobs, selling ads for Timeout magazine, working as a fine art salesman, even moonlighting as an animal delivery person for the zoo at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. So when a friend offered Biancaniello a job tending bar at the Library Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel in 2008, he approached it as he would any other pay check, the notion this part-time gig might inspire a lifelong career and passion never even crossing his mind. Biancaniello had absolutely zero experience bartending, for one, and he wasn’t even much of a drinker himself. “My first night I had to ask the bartender what was in a Cosmopolitan,” he said.
Almost immediately, however, Biancaniello fell in love with the job. Soon he was trying out untraditional flavor combinations and scouting fresh ingredients, venturing to the Santa Monica farmer’s market before his shifts and picking up local produce and fruit to replace staid standbys like soda and canned fruit. With no formal education or really any kitchen experience to speak of, Biancaniello began experimenting, seeing how he might be able to transform uninspired standbys into truly innovative, flavor-forward creations. As he began serving up his drinks, the response was overwhelming. “You have to remember, I’m in this bar next to a club of 21 year olds asking for [drinks like] Vodka soda,” he said. “[So] I took three of the most common cocktails they were asking for—Long Island Ice Tea, Dirty Martini and Bloody Mary— and I put my spin on them. I made this incredible dirty martini [that] tasted like a pepperoni pizza. I did a 17-step Bloody Mary. And the Long Island Iced Tea was five different high-end spirits with fresh blood orange juice instead of Coke.”
Within months Biancaniello was being heralded as a trailblazer, drawing acclaim from the Los Angeles Times and Food & Wine. “I wasn’t trying to fill a void in the market,” Biancaniello said. “I was just doing.”
Chef Roberto Cortez, whom Biancaniello has collaborated with on popular pop-ups throughout the world, from Seattle to Japan, says that Biancaniello’s approach to flavors and his techniques, all self-taught, are truly novel. “I’ve met a lot of [people who work in cocktails], and there are like two or three different trains of thought,” he said. “Some are more traditional, some of them put spins on traditional [drinks] to be a little creative, and then there are people like Matt. He thinks completely out of the box. He doesn’t look at the drink first, [then think about] how he can change it. He starts with the final idea of, ‘I really want to have this incredible drink that has passion fruit and fermented mustard seeds, [then works backwards].”
Leaving the Library Bar in 2012, Biancaniello would go on to work at hotspots like Plan Chek and Commissary before setting out on his own, hosting popular cocktail residencies at restaurants from West Hollywood’s Ysabel to Cliff’s Edge in Silverlake, as well as pop ups around the world. However in the back of his mind, he said, the ultimate dream was to open his own place, an intimate eatery where he could showcase both his skills in liquid but also begin branching out into plated dishes, as he had recently begun to do at private events. “I’ve been doing this tasting menu thing for 3 years in peoples’ homes,” he said. “People have been telling me for 9 years that I should start my own place.”
Enter Calamigos Ranch’s Garner Gerson. The grandson of Grant Gerson, who opened the Ranch in the 1930s, Garner had been looking to bring a fine dining component to the Calamigos Beach Club, the ocean-abutting sister property of Calamigos Ranch, for years. At first, he says, the Calamigos team had been envisioning scouting and bringing in a traditional fine dining chef with a reputation that would draw serious foodies. However when Garner sought the council of family friend Bob Morris, owner of Paradise Cove, he received a suggestion he never could have expected, but which immediately clicked: why not bring in an expert bar chef? “No one in the world is doing that,” said Garner. “Where [you bring in] a great bar chef who really understands food and cocktails, and actually flip it around, where it’s cocktail-driven with a food pairing. And the first person you think of is Matt. He is such an incredible talent, and he’s probably the best in the world at what he does.”
Gerson was well-aware of Biancaniello, having worked with him years prior when he staged a popup at the Santa Monica bar the Gerson family owns with partner Paulo Daguiar, the Victorian. Gerson had followed his career in the ensuing years, and when he approached Biancaniello about the restaurant, the two soon realized they had an incredibly similar vision. “Matt’s ethos fit really well with us,” said Gerson. “Calamigos has been with the same family since 1937, so we have a great philosophy that comes from my being part of a five generation business in Malibu. Our philosophy is that we can be great land stewards and carry it forward to the next generation. We get to be here for a while and that’s a gift. Matt is very similar in how he thinks.”
Biancaniello says he was beyond excited when he was approached by Garner, and when he first visited the Calamigos Beach Club restaurant he realized it was meant to be. As he approached the lush property, ostensibly for the first time, he realized immediately he’d been there many times before. “For the last two years, me and my [sons] have been walking in the creek here,” he said. “And I had no idea who owned it. I was stealing cactus fruit from here and nasturtiums, and I didn’t even know it was from my future place.”
I wrinkled my nose. Do nasturtiums, the golden flower that blooms across Malibu, actually taste good? “They’re amazing,” he said, his eyes growing bright, as they often do when he talks about ingredients. In fact, he said, nasturtiums and the flower’s spicy pod are on his opening night menu. “This is what I love,” he said. “ I’ll use these ingredients, and [locals] will be like, ‘I can’t believe you used that.’ And it was underneath their nose the whole time.” MM