Last year, I found myself at Coral Tree Cafe in Brentwood all the time. So naturally, I totally geeked out to learn that the same team is behind the Comoncy brand, which serves up some fabulous fine dining dishes in a casual, relaxed setting in Studio City and Beverly Hills. Chef Joseph Gillard is the corporate chef behind Comoncy and Coral Tree Cafe, bringing his passion for awesome food to both brands. Seriously, if you haven’t been to either place, I highly recommend making a visit.
Gillard designed Coral Tree Cafe’s current never-ending menu of sandwiches, salads, and coffees that’ll make your Sunday brunch always interesting and yummy at its locations in Brentwood, Encino, and Century City. Comoncy, however, concentrates on a smaller selection of deliciousness and has grown quickly since opening its first location in Beverly Hills in 2014. Since then, the brand has expanded to Studio City on Ventura Boulevard and Scottsdale, Az. (Check out our giveaway for free lunch at Comoncy!)
Gillard was nice enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about Comoncy, Coral Tree, and his delicious signature kale salad.
What do you think has influenced Comoncy’s success and fast expansion?
I just think that we’re just right for it. I came on board with the company four years ago, so I wanted to get immersed in the culture of the company and really bring my own culture to the company as well. I started out at Coral Tree Cafe and I worked on that brand for about a year and a half before we started to put Comoncy together. That’s one of the reasons I feel particularly connected to Comoncy, because I really had a lot to do with implementing the menu, 100 percent. On the Coral Tree side, the menu was already in place.
The reason I mention that is that’s one of the reasons why it’s easier to grow a brand like Comoncy as opposed to a brand like Coral Tree, where the menu was much, much larger. It’s been challenging in the past to take a brand like Coral Tree and transfer that to a location with such a large menu. With a brand like that, people would expect to have the same food items at every location. For our Comoncy brand, it’s a little different. It’s more neighborhood-centric. We base the menu size on the size of the kitchen of the properties we’re going into.
Comoncy’s an easier brand for us to grow. We’re able to go into properties that don’t necessarily have a specific square footage. For instance, our Beverly Hills location has a much smaller location. We have no open flame cooking there, but the location is just fantastic, so we had to develop a restaurant-specific to that neighborhood. It’s the same way in Scottsdale — the menu is different there as well. Here [in Studio City] the menu is a little bit different. We’ll continue to open Comoncy branded restaurants with a similar core menu, but there will be neighborhood differentiations.
What is the most popular dish at Comoncy?
Interestingly — and lovingly surprisingly — our Thai salad is neck-and-neck with our Kale salad. Our Kale salad is actually our No. 1 seller company-wide — we sell over 50,000 a year. I kid you not. It is amazing. That is a salad that is one of my signature salads. I put that on the menu at Napa Valley Grille when I was there as a chef and it was our biggest seller there. I brought that to Coral Tree about a year after I started — we ran a special and it immediately became the biggest seller. Interestingly enough, that salad actually increases in sales every year.
What is it about that Kale salad that you think makes it work so well and makes it so popular?
I think the combination of kale equally with romaine is part of it. The salad was on my menu well before there was a kale craze — some people say it’s waning, but I think it’s as strong as ever. We created a version that was super approachable for people, because I knew that dietary-wise, I needed to improve my eating habits. I knew that by eating kale, which is high fiber and filled with nutrients, I needed to get that into my diet. I love the taste of kale, but I don’t like eating a salad that’s 100 percent kale. I have become used to it — now I can, no problem — but as a kale newbie, I wanted to start out with a more approachable salad. The half and half romaine and kale gave it good textural contrasts — the softness of the kale and the crunchiness of the romaine — along with quinoa, the lemon vinaigrette, and these superfoods. The combination is just intoxicating.
I’m from the Midwest and I’m very much a meat-and-potatoes guy. I have tended to eat healthier in my later years, not as much red meat. I find that when I eat that salad you don’t even need to add chicken — certainly a lot of people do — but I’m happy with it the way it is.
You have a fine dining background. How does that background influence you as you bring that experience to a casual setting?
It’s the ability to be able to thoughtfully use premium or perhaps even luxurious ingredients in a casual environment. Being able to combine a premium ingredient that may be more casual. The other way we do it is technique — we use a lot of fine-dining techniques: Proper searing of meat dishes, proper seasoning, making homemade fries and blanching them, marinating meat properly and letting meat rest before you serve it. I have a steakhouse environment; I worked in steakhouses for a couple of years. That really built up my background of really understanding and appreciating meat.
For me, it’s about mixing it up. I get to do fine dining when I want to do it, but I also get to play around with all the casual stuff. Not only that, I get figure out a way to get these great ingredients in front of more people.
How did you becoming interesting in cooking? Did you always know that you wanted to be a chef?
I’ve cooked my entire life. Literally. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Before I could remember, my mother told me a story that when I was a baby — I believe I was two or three years old — and it was one of my first couple of Christmases. My family inundated with a lot of attention and a lot of presents. I was so zapped out with everything, so I went into the kitchen, sat on the floor, and pulled out all the pots and pans and played with them. I like to think there was something to that. I’ve always felt one with food. I didn’t want to do anything else.
In high school, I started working in restaurants as a dishwasher — in my first job, I made $2.25 an hour. I just have a love for it. I knew when I was five that I wanted to be a chef. I like to say it was a calling. I really believe that certain people have certain provocation in life and a lot of people are fortunate enough to figure out what it is. Some people never figure it out, I think I was just really lucky to figure it out. It’s a very tough business, but I never wanted to do anything else ever and I hope I never do.
What was the first dish you ever made?
I was thinking about this the other day. That’s the great thing about food — it has such a searing memory in our brains. I was eating this sandwich and I flashback to when I thought about these flavors. I realized what it was: I used to make this sandwich called “Joe’s Special Sandwich” and my mother worked. We grew up a little bit poor and we didn’t have much. So when we came home from school, my mother would still be at work and I would look after my brother. We would always be hungry, so I would always make snacks. One of these things I did was — so bizarre, but it was delicious — I would take whole wheat bread, butter it, and put it in the toaster. While the buttered bread was in the toaster, I would lay bologna over the top of the toaster and it would cook from the heat of the toaster.
So this is weird. I’m like five years old and figuring this out. I don’t even know how I figured it out; I just knew that it would work. And we do the same thing in the restaurant all the time at different levels, reverse engineering whatever it takes to make things happen.
What do you see next for Comoncy? Where do you want to take the brand next?
I want to keep plugging along with the menu. I’m tirelessly developing dishes. I’m sitting on dozens and dozens. I like to create and run a lot of specials. This next year, we are going to be expanding the brand again by at least 50 percent. We’re looking to open in Sherman Oaks, so that’ll probably be in the first part of 2017. There’s a significant amount of construction that needs to take place, because that location would be built from the ground up. In 2016, we’re going to open up another location in Scottsdale Galleria. We’re also potentially looking at airports.
What are some of your favorite places to eat in Los Angeles?
I have a lot and it’s all over the place. I love taco trucks. When I was working late at restaurants, I would eat at taco trucks a lot. Certain taco trucks are better than others. I love, love, love Thai food. There’s a place called Sanamluang Cafe that’s been around for 20+ years and they were open until 4 a.m. Really good Thai food and I think it’s more authentic than Americanized Thai food. I love Dim Sum, it’s one of my favorite because of the sheer variety of stuff you can get.