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Located in the Arts District of Los Angeles is a restaurant by Chef Enrique Olvera named Damian. It is here that contemporary Mexican dishes made of fresh ingredients complement unique cocktails, impeccable service, and a sleek indoor-outdoor space. An oasis in the City of Angels that resembles a warm and inviting Mexican patio, the restaurant was designed by Alonso de Garay and Micaela de Bernardi with industrial accents that blend into the repurposed warehouse space. Upon walking in, a mix of warm materials, dim lights, and lush plants set guests at ease.
Then, there is the fare. Chef Jesús Cervantes, who previously helmed the kitchen at Olvera's other Manhattan hotspot, Cosme, leads the menu with traditional flavors, yet with a bold twist. Fresh California produce meets Cervantes's trained techniques for fresh bites and seasonal dishes, including homemade tortillas, uni tostadas, and striped bass ceviche. Plates are paired with small-batch cocktails with spirits from skilled Mexican artisans, as well as a selection of beers and wines—including Dramian, the restaurant's house label. And or guests that just can't get enough, there is a taqueria named Ditroit located directly behind the restaurant, welcoming guests to small bites prepared in the same kitchen, including fish tacos and churros.
After exploring the restaurant and meeting Chef Cervantes in person, Whitewall spoke with the chef to hear how his culinary journey led to Damian, which dish is his favorite on the menu right now, and which techniques and ingredients blend the authentic bits of his story—from Mexico and Texas to California and beyond.
WHITEWALL: Can you tell us a bit about your background leading up to Damian?
JESÚS CERVANTES: My career started in Austin at a restaurant called La Condesa. I joined Enrique Olvera’s team in 2014 for the opening of Cosme, and I also worked at Atla as the sous-chef of the restaurant. I have always been fascinated by the role that food plays throughout every culture, so when I was offered the position of head chef in Damian and Ditroit I was really excited to explore the kitchens—an opportunity to connect with a city like L.A., full of vibrant cuisines.
WW: Previous to Damian, you were at Cosme. How did that gear up you to leading the kitchen in LA today?
JC: I grew up in El Paso, TX—directly bordering the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. My family is mostly from this northern part of Mexico. Prior to joining Cosme, my experience with Mexican cuisine was predominantly based on the traditions and flavors of this region. Through my work at Cosme, I learned so much about the diversity and range of ingredients within Mexico, beginning with corn and its transformation into masa.
WW: How does the menu speak to your background—technique, ingredients, and presentation-wise?
JC: I consider myself to be a quiet and reserved person. Through traveling when I was younger, I found that cooking and sharing food can be an amazing form of communication. This is something I really fell in love with and because of this I’ve found a desire to create simple, clear and concise food, a way to communicate while celebrating the simplicity of good ingredients.
WW: What is your favorite dish on the menu and why?
JC: The ceviche. It’s a very simple presentation and true to a classic ceviche. What I love about our ceviche is that we have the opportunity to use beautiful locally caught fish through the relationships we’ve developed with local fishermen. It looks beautiful, and upon the first bite, it’s quite surprising the amount of varying textures and flavors you’ll experience.
WW: What are some ingredients, or play on dishes, that you feel make the menu unique from other properties?
JC: Every restaurant within our group is completely unique, and this might be my favorite part about our company. All of our restaurants are rooted in Mexican traditions, techniques, and ingredients, but are greatly influenced by the region in which they are located. For example, our uni tostada uses sea urchin from just north of us in Santa Barbara, and it is served atop a Caesar salad which originated in Baja California, Mexico.
WW: Damian is a true destination, based in L.A.'s Arts District, in a less-populous area of the city. What dishes do you feel most explore the culinary bonds between Mexico and California?
JC: The dishes that are most focused on masa. Once the corn is cooked and ground it can be shaped into various forms and cooked to varying textures. This can be representative of many different regions throughout Mexico while using local California produce within the dishes.
WW: How do inventive cocktails by the mixologist Yana Volfson, and the house's wine label Dramian, complement your menu's flavors?
JC: I find our drinks to be incredibly light, refreshing, and intentional. Mexican flavors can sometimes become complex with the varying amount of chiles, citruses, and other strong flavors. The drinks at Damian are a great compliment to these flavors and won’t leave your palate tired or confused.
WW: Can you tell us a bit about Ditroit?
JC: Ditroit is our taqueria, located directly behind Damian. The most fun part for us is that everything is happening in the same kitchen. It keeps things light for us! We all love eating and sharing tacos, so we can be playful and creative with the menu. Our fish flauta and our churro have been everyone’s favorite.
WW: How does the environment at Damian—inside a repurposed warehouse by Alonso de Garay, with interiors by Michaela de Bernadi—inspire you?
JC: Damian really is a beautiful place, and it is incredibly thought-out. To the eye, there may be a lot of simplicity, but being lucky enough to also experience the construction of the restaurant, I know the amount of detail and expertise that went into it. I feel the same way about our food, it takes a lot of work, practice and research to get to a place to where we have been able to source ingredients, we are proud of, and cook or use them in a way that may seem simple but best honors the ingredient.
WW: Where do you like to spend your time in L.A. when you're not in the kitchen?
JC: I’m a supporter of my peers. I love to go out and check out restaurants or bars where I have friends or people I’ve met throughout the industry. I also love sports, so going to the basketball games at the Staples Center has been fun!