Interview with Karla Subero Pittol of Chainsaw LA
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your path in restaurants and food...
I am a Venezuelan born, Los Angeles-raised chef and artist based in Echo Park, CA. I grew up in a home and culture that was passionate about good food. My explorations in it have always been about finding a way to connect with people. I battle with major social anxiety, and making something to share with people has always served me the purpose of having an ice-breaker in situations that otherwise make me feel nervous and vulnerable. While I was in college, what started out as casual dinner parties to host new friends turned into a full-blown pop up out of my shared 1br apartment with up to 70 guests in an 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. window. By the time I was graduating in 2013, I’d been running the operation for two years, and I knew in my bones that I was going to become a chef. I just didn’t know how yet since I’d already “wasted” four years getting my bachelor’s degree. I’d obsessed over Danny Bowien’s Chef’s Night Out episode of Munchies and his talking points on creating a restaurant that his chef friends could actually afford and thought, “THAT’S IT.” From that point, I started working in busy restaurants, long enough to foster the skill set I needed to set out and open my own, which ended up being a very tumultuous six or so years. It can be miserable being a woman in the restaurant industry.
A lot has changed since then regarding my relationship with restaurants and kitchen culture, but the one constant is this: My relationship with food is such that I am so grateful for its role in helping me communicate with and nourish the people around me with a little more help than just words.
2. Can you tell us about Chainsaw and how it came to be?
The concept for Chainsaw was born during the inevitable contemplation of, “What the f*ck am I doing with my life?!” I was with Sara Marlowe Hall, my unfathomably talented friend who is now creative director of the project, swimming in the Hotel Figueroa pool on a hot summer day three years ago. We lazed about while dreaming up our perfect restaurant that we felt didn’t quite exist in LA yet; a candlelit olive tree-laden somewhere that we could have really good snacks, a carafe of house wine that wouldn’t break the bank, and play rounds and rounds of cards without feeling pressured to leave. After saying all these things out loud, it occurred to me that making that place a reality wasn’t so far out of reach anymore at that point in my career. Together, and with the efforts of the team we’ve built, we’ve been fighting for it ever since.
After a handful of wine-soaked conversations in the early days, we came up with a wacky idea that was definitely the catalyst that set Chainsaw in motion. We transformed a garage into a bar~restaurant set by Sara with a curated selection of vintage wares from her Venice shop called Merchant Modern. Over time, she’s created an aesthetic unique to Chainsaw, which truly guides the whole project.
Once the tables were set, I got a team together of back and front of house champions, and we started hosting monthly reservation-only events in the space with savory food by chef Max Sheffler, desserts and cocktails by me, a good ass playlist, and 90-120 strangers who were daring enough to let loose in a garage where food was passed around on trays to be paid for with little paper carnival tickets.
3. What kind of community did you hope to create with the restaurant?
I’m always working on that one. In my perfect world, the place is an approachable space where truly anyone can walk in, sit down, feel at ease, and find something they’ll enjoy on the menu. After being humbled and put in my place by this pandemic, I’m moving away from “restaurant” and more towards “eating place,” a term I was introduced to by an anthropologist and mentor who I often go to for big-picture advice. I’m still working out the kinks on how to achieve that and am very open to new ideas. I hope to keep finding new and better ways to give back to the community I’m already a part of—the same one that supports me as well. I hope that it is not just a restaurant.
4. How have you had to reinvent or pivot your ideas for Chainsaw during the pandemic?
I really believe that when this is all over, the word pivot is going to be what Voldemort was to Harry Potter and his people. From May 2019 to March of this year, we’d relied on building momentum for the business through the attention that the garage was attracting via the monthly events. At that time, the garage parties felt like the only way I could open a restaurant in LA with the little money I had.
When the pandemic hit, my survival instinct was to develop products that could be packaged and passed around easily. That’s how the ice cream was born. I’d been wanting to incorporate a long-time love of making ice cream into the project for so long, but the urgency just wasn’t there during the garage days. Once I really internalized the fact that events are indefinitely cancelled, I got a fancy ice cream maker and made it happen. The first round of flavors were the Genmaicha + Grilled Strawberry, Milk Chocolate Buckwheat Blueberry, and Pie de Limón—a line-up which reminds me too much of the 3 starter Pokemon choices (Charmander, Squirtle, Bulbasaur) from the iconic Gameboy game. If that was intentional, it was purely subconscious.
5. How can people best support restaurants during this challenging time and moving forward?
I’ve thought for a while now that we all need to reshape the way we put a mental price tag on food. Good, ethical, sustainable ingredients are EXPENSIVE. That translates into any creative, material-based work. Especially fashion! But the truth is: We all need to eat, and every day we have to make several choices about what to feed ourselves. Those are choices that also affect every member of the supply chain. If we get the less expensive thing, or the thing made with less integrity, that usually means that all the people that contributed to its existence were also paid less—way less than anyone should be comfortable with.
One of the best ways to support restaurants right now is to accept the real value of food and normalize it. Order from others as often as you can afford. Otherwise we will never get away from the toxic model of paying restaurant workers as little as possible for the backbreaking work they do just to survive!!
6. Current rituals outside of the kitchen?
Before the widely felt slowdown of the pandemic, my ritual for taking care of myself wasn’t much more than washing my face with Dr. Bronner’s and calling it a day. Since slowing down, I’ve really tapped into the power of the “look good to feel good” mantra. After trying some things out, I found the best food for my skin is e-ver-y-thing by NOTO Botanics, and I find a lot of serenity in lathering my face and body every morning in their oils and serums for a charge that translates straight into the energy I put in my work. Honorable mentions are putting on old salsa or Prince records and dancing with myself in the mirror, long and aimless walks in the neighborhood, singing while plucking at my banjo, and giggling loudly into the night on the porch with my loves. Lately, these activities are all essential to my wellness outside of the kitchen.
7. Some of the ice creams have very distinctive flavors involved –– genmaicha and grilled strawberry –– what does the creative process look like for you?
My creative process is intensely guided by nostalgia. For example Genmaicha + Grilled Strawberry is the baby of a memory of a juicy green tea-strawberry boba drink I’d journey to Chinatown on my weekend Metro adventures as a teen. Most of my creations have a similar backstory. My long and short-term memory needs a ton of help, but often if there is a scent or a flavor associated with a memory for me, I’ll unknowingly lock it in for the rest of my life. These memories get triggered later down the road when I see, smell, taste, experience something that pulls them out of the vault in a flash. When I catch a feeling like that about a new flavor, I usually get to work right away on recreating it. However, sometimes my creative process is as basic as eating a piece of fruit or candy high and thinking, “Damn this would be good as an ice cream flavor,” and then toying with ideas about how to make it my own.
8. What are some things we can find on the menu, and what is your current favorite offering at Chainsaw?
Always and forever, there will be pie. It was a happy accident that one day when I was at work I misordered peaches by a whole case, which is an expensive mistake when dealing with top notch fruit. I told my boss through clenched teeth not to worry—that I’d just make some pies with it and run ‘em up for a few days until the flat was gone. Some people kept coming back to the restaurant just for pie day after day in a really exciting way. That’s when I knew I’d landed on something special. Now I have a range of flavors that change seasonally or with my mood. Right now, my favorite is the apple, date, and strawberry pie that I make particularly with produce from farms I’ve been working with for a decade now. I have some really exciting things in the works for the new year that I can’t wait to share with everyone. Coming soon ~ I’m rolling out a savory menu of offerings drawn deeply from my Venezuelan roots and time spent there with my whole family. In other words: It’s arepa time.
Photography by Jennelle Fong, more of her work can be found here.