When sustainable seafood guru Michael Cimarusti entertains a crowd, it's all about celebrating members of his L.A. restaurant family—and of course, the West Coast's most incredible shellfish.

By Chris Hughes
September 20, 2017
Photo: Thomas J. Story; Prop Styling: Kelly Oshiro; Food Styling: Yasmin Alishav

It's one of those pristine L.A. days—70 degrees, no clouds, and a gentle breeze rustling the palm fronds high overhead—when you'd give just about anything to uproot your life for a new one among the California firmament. Black butterflies flit through potted kumquat trees, a flock of Pasadena parrots cackles loudly from a nearby eucalyptus, and Nesta, a graying French bulldog, stands sentry over coolers overflowing with Burgundy and bubbles.

Amid this zen tableau, chef Michael Cimarusti barrels out of his back door carrying a melamine tray full of split spiny lobsters. Despite his burly frame, all beard and bearish carriage (think Seth Rogen minus the guttural laugh), he's struggling under the weight of all that ice and crustaceans. Luckily he doesn't have to go far; as he unloads his haul next to a wheel-cranked Sunterra grill, the hardwoods inside disintegrate into a crackling bed of embers.

Photo: Thomas J. Story; Prop Styling: Kelly Oshiro; Food Styling: Yasmin Alishav

Along California's pescatarian-crazy coast, Cimarusti's name has become synonymous with sustainable-seafood wizardry. Since opening in 2005, his modernist white-tablecloth mainstay, Providence, has racked up two Michelin stars, a James Beard Award, and a semipermanent spot (four years running) atop Jonathan Gold's vaunted "101 Best Restaurants" list. Overseeing one of the country's premier fine-dining spots—not to mention a third-wave seafood shop and his ode to Rhode Island clam shacks, Connie & Ted's—is a seven-day-a-week hustle, but for one weekend every summer, Cimarusti relishes playing host to his chefs, managers, bartenders, and even loyal customers in a cook-all-day feast he's dubbed "Shellfish-a-palooza."

Photo: Thomas J. Story; Prop Styling: Kelly Oshiro; Food Styling: Yasmin Alishav

Now in its fourth year, this paean to all things oceanic has evolved into a well-orchestrated banquet among friends and colleagues. Brandon Gray, culinary director at Cape Seafood, carefully pares Cara Cara oranges for a citrus salad studded with English cucumber and diaphanous slivers of geoduck. Sam Baxter, executive chef at Connie & Ted's, heads up the raw bar, where he shucks tubs of Kumamato and Hog Island oysters. And Cimarusti's trusted deputy, Tristan Aitchison, watches over a cauldron of billi bi, a bubbling amalgam of cream, wine, and mussels.

Unlike the breakneck pace at Providence, there's a sense of calm as courses are plated and whisked onto communal tables. No need to wait on those spiny lobsters, now being grilled and brushed with herbed oil. Go ahead, steal a bite of Cimarusti's Pernod-marinated roasted fennel, or some of the steamed stone crab claws that Baxter has thrown on ice.

Related: Shrimp Boil

"Now comes my favorite part," says Cimarusti, illuminating the growing dusk with the strike of a match and a great exhale of cigar smoke. Guests help themselves to an impressive selection of bourbons as Cimarusti's wife/business partner, pastry chef Crisi Echiverri, slices into an almond cake dolloped with orange blossom mascarpone cream—Nesta perched at her feet, on alert for any stray crumbs.

"When I have everyone over to my home, the pressure is off," Cimarusti says, a rocks glass of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon tinkling in his hand. "The food can be great, but it's really about the time spent connecting with friends on a different level, outside of a restaurant kitchen. Whether we're eating lobster or grilled cheese sandwiches, it's about having fun."

Photo: Greg DuPree; Prop Stylist: Claire Spollen; Food Stylist: Torie Cox

Herb-Roasted Clams
Providence chef Michael Cimarusti’s herb-roasted clams pack a pleasant crunch thanks to his garlicky breadcrumb topping spangled with chopped jalapeno and fennel pollen.

Connie & Ted’s Mignonette
At L.A.’s Connie & Ted’s, Michael Cimarusti’s ode to Rhode Island clam shacks, mignonette comes with a kick as shallot and red wine vinegar are infused overnight with jalapeno and tarragon.

Connie & Ted’s Cocktail Sauce
To take any raw bar spread to the next level, chef Michael Cimarusti (Providence, Cape Seafood) suggests freshly prepared cocktail sauce with tear-inducing, Atomic brand horseradish.

Photo: Thomas J. Story; Prop Styling: Kelly Oshiro; Food Styling: Yasmin Alishav

Billi Bi
From the legendary Maxim’s of Paris emerged billi bi, an amalgam of cream, wine, and mussels. Despite its high-society origins, this decadent soup is easy and inexpensive to make. Pro tip: While cooking, keep an eye on the mussels and discard any that don’t open.

Photo: Thomas J. Story; Prop Styling: Kelly Oshiro; Food Styling: Yasmin Alishav

Clam Salad
For the tart and juicy top notes in chef Michael Cimarusti’s clam salad, you have Cara Cara oranges to thank. Mix the citrus segments with clam (littlenecks, or sliced geoduck for the adventurous), cucumbers, and plenty of arugula and you’ve got a side a sunny as California high noon.

Grilled Spiny Lobsters with Herbed Oil
The big difference between spiny lobsters and its East Coast brethren is the lack of edible claws seen on the Maine variety. Otherwise, the same rules apply: the simpler the better. Hence why L.A. chef Michael Cimarusti simply brushes his local catch with a garlic-herbed oil and grills over an open-flame.

Roasted Fennel
Roasting fennel in a Pernod-and-herb bath plays up the aromatic bulb’s sweeter, earthier side. A final smattering of browned breadcrumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese just puts it over the top.

Photo: Thomas J. Story; Prop Styling: Kelly Oshiro; Food Styling: Yasmin Alishav

Almond Cake with Orange Marmalade
Pastry chef Crisi Echiverri’s almond cake dolloped with orange blossom mascarpone cream marries the warmth of almonds with the bright notes of fresh citrus. Prepare the cake with orange marmalade, or, as she does, garden-fresh kumquats cooked down with sugar.

Photo: Thomas J. Story; Prop Styling: Kelly Oshiro; Food Styling: Yasmin Alishav

Angling For a Change

A longtime advocate for sustainable seafood, Cimarusti often rises before dawn to meet up with Santa Barbara fishermen such as Eric Hodge, actively participating in the West Coast chapter of Dock to Dish. Here's how the program, spearheaded by Cimarusti in California, is altering the fisheries-to-consumers paradigm.

"You might know what a redfish looks like," Cimarusti says. "But once it's scaled, filleted, and sitting under cellophane, it's difficult to know what you're getting." The easiest way to combat seafood fraud? Working directly with artisanal fishermen like Hodge, who can convey exactly where each fish was caught.

Participating chefs agree to purchase hundreds of pounds of seafood a month, much of which is not the usual tuna and halibut. Some weeks, the haul might be heavy on rockfish. Others, shovelnose guitarfish. But Cimarusti welcomes the spontaneity, both to shake up his repertoire of dishes and to expose guests to the unfamiliar.

Community Support
Restaurants can purchase seafood in quantities far greater than sustainably conscious consumers. And by eliminating pricey wholesalers, fishermen can sell their catch at consistently higher prices. That means keeping American fishermen, particularly those using sustainable gear (hook and lines, traps, spears), on the water.