LOS ANGELES — It's been a while since chef Johnny Cirelle has cooked for a large group, but as pandemic restrictions continue to relax and vaccination numbers increase, recently, he was back in the kitchen at the DTLA Dinner Club for their first event in over a year.
Cirelle has worked at several DTLA eateries, including Bestia and Bavel, which had become mainstays of the downtown culinary explosion over the last decade. Although the pandemic cast a gloomy shadow on the food scene, the DTLA Dinner Club's return is signaling signs of culinary life returning.
“Events especially like this are so important for getting back to the norm of things,” said Cirelle as he garnished some squid ink arancini for the 35 vaccinated guests who attended.
Cirelle was lending his culinary skills to the first DTLA Dinner Club event in over a year, and he said it was great to be back in the kitchen, connecting with people again.
“I worked in restaurants for a really long time, and now I'm working as a private chef and I get to have more of a personal relationship with my clients,” he said. “It's part of the reason I started cooking in the first place, and part of the reason why I still love it to this day.”
DTLA Dinner Club started eight years ago as a group of friends just sharing meals and connecting with their neighbors, and it has grown to a rotating lineup of professional chefs who share the same mission.
“Bringing communities together. Bringing in family, friends, and just meeting over good food,” Cirelle said.
The DTLA Dinner Club is the brainchild of Josh Gray-Emmer who has been making friends in the neighborhood since he moved to the downtown core 19 years ago.
“This is a totally free event,” said Gray-Emmer. “It's strictly about building community.”
Gray-Emmer was simply inviting friends over for home-cooked meals until one day a friend who was a professional chef asked if he could cook.
“Cut to eight years later, it's all professional chefs. They donate their time. I pay for their ingredients. Guests come for free,” he explained.
The not-for-profit club is open to residents of DTLA who get to meet their neighbors and enjoy the view from the rooftop of the El Dorado lofts as they sample the culinary delights. Both Gray-Emmer and Cirelle agree that the DTLA foodie community remains intact and that if you cook, they will come.
“I believe that we're going to come back bigger, better, stronger,” Gray-Emmer said. “I really believe in our neighborhood. It's an incredible community and great people and I'm here for the long haul.”
Although the pandemic has been devastating for the food industry, Cirelle said there might be a silver lining as well.
“We've also seen people learn how to not take things for granted, and how to appreciate the moment, to enjoy their neighbors,” he said. “Bringing people together is the ultimate goal. It's the ultimate satisfaction.”
Johnny Cirelle and Josh Gray-Emmer both have faith in the resilience of the DTLA food community, and still believe that the best way to make friends is through the simple act of sharing a meal.