Sage – Greg Laning Interviews Chef Rich Mead

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Chef Rich Mead sits down with Sage newsletter writer Greg Laning to examine Sage’s past and future.

Everyone knows you’re famously reclusive and don’t give a lot of interviews. Just kidding. But at this crucial time I think your fans want to hear from you directly. Sage will stay open only through New Year’s Eve, and then will kind of go underground for a while. You sent an email on December 3, Sage’s fifteenth anniversary, announcing that you were close to signing a lease on a new space. Can you reveal yet where that is or when it might open?

It is a restaurant near the airport, but we are still in lease negotiations. I was hoping to start a remodel in early January and to be open sometime in March, so we’ll see.

You’ve been looking for a new location throughout the fall, while running two restaurants and doing a number of events. Can you just re-cap all the events you’ve done in the last three months?

We haven’t done that many–most were in the summer. We did a great birthday dinner on a farm for a longtime customer and we did an SOS event. We’ve also done a couple of barbecues with farmers both at Sage and Canyon. Plus Thanksgiving. And the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market anniversary bash at the beach club.

Is that all? Well I said reclusive. And you did all of them with a torn meniscus?

The pain started in July but really set in in September.

When can you finally get treatment for it?

In January, after we close. I need arthroscopic surgery.

Sage closes its doors at the end of the year because the lease wasn’t renewed, is that the same thing as “going out of business”?

It could have been, but I realized we have done something good and didn’t want to stop.We have such a great clientele and wonderful staff members.This is my family.

What accounts for Sage’s longevity in Eastbluff?

We worked hard and have retained good people and havedevelopedgreat relationships with our customers.We also had a vision and created a great space where others saw only a dumpy restaurant with no potential.Finally our customers bought into our vision–the food, the atmosphere and the service.

Are you concerned that you can’t pack up the ambience in a box and take it with you?

We created the ambiance and I know we can do it again, although it will be a little different because of the space.It will evolve and grow into a Sage because our heart is in it.

What were some of the surprising things, good and bad, about opening a restaurant in Eastbluff?

That we would be here fifteen years is surprising–one night soon after opening we did only two dinners.It’s surprising that we wouldn’t be able to renew our lease.Also that we had a Playboy Playmate work for us.

Looking back, what were some of the dishes or events that you now think were milestones?

Our herb roasted chicken.Feeding Jacques Pepin.Getting our liquor license.Going to the Santa Monica Farmers’Market.Getting on CBS Sunday Morning after our first Outstanding in the Field Dinner at Coleman Farms.All of our Farm Dinners.Creating food porn.And my Kia Motors tour of the United States.

Other than Christmas, New Year’s, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, you didn’t take a day off for five years.What kept you going, and can you do that again?

I knew down the road that it would work out, and I believe we will do it again.

Do you think if you had charged for split plates you might have won over the landlord with higher profits?

I do believe if the economy didn’t change so drastically we would be open five more years.

Sage has spawned a number of epigones in Orange County in the last decade.Do you think in your new venture you’ll double down on the Farm to Fork idea, which you pioneered in this area,or tweak the concept to stay ahead of the young turks?

Farm to Fork is our mantra, but this will be a chance to change some of our thinking, to revitalize and refresh.

If this were an episode of House Hunters International, what would be on your list of must-haves for a new space?

Three thousand square feet.Patio.Great kitchen.And a bar area.Of course you have to compromise.

As a small businessman and job creator, what do you need to succeed in 2013?

A location with a reasonable lease, close to our current customer base.The economy in our area seems to be movingforward.

A September New Yorker article quotes Julian Brizzi of Rucola saying he held “back on changing the menu more than once a week, because that’s fifteen dollars in paper:”Alinea is said to have “eliminated the tablecloths altogether, saving forty-two thousand dollars a year.”Because profit margins are so thin and expenses so high, “the restaurateurs who survive” according to the article, “are those who ruthlessly cut costs and eliminate waste.”Will moving give you the chance to play with your concept and cut some overhead?

Yes, definitely.We also want to reach people we haven’t touched before.

Tyler Cowen, the author of “An Economist Gets Lunch,” argues that only five to ten restaurants in DC are really first rate, although dozens aspire to be.He says a new restaurant will try for three to six months to impress guests and reviewers, but after they get popular, their initial obsession with quality slacks off, and they just become places for socializing.Do you think that Sage peaked at three months or six months?

[laughs] That doesn’t apply to us.This year we’ve had one of the best years we’ve ever had.

Will the new space be larger or smaller?

It looks like it’s going to be larger.

You can still do great things in a small place.Look at Amanda Cohen in downtown Manhattan, her place Dirt Candy has only 18 seats, and she can do fun things like cornflake fried cauliflower on waffles and eggplant tiramisu with rosemary cotton candy.What do you think of that approach?

It’s nice to be in Manhattan.

Joe Bastianich, in his book Restaurant Man, writes “You have to appear to be generous, but you have to be inherently a cheap [expletive] to make it work.”Agree or disagree?

Well it’s all about perception.People have to believe they’re getting value and a great deal.

Which of the following would you choose to name your new restaurant?a. Taupeb. Ecruc. Fawnd. Heathere. Sage

[laughs] Sage.

Choose two of the following to incorporate into your new concept:a.Himalayan pink saltb.a $195 tasting menuc.leather-bound menus from local cowsd.whole suckling pige.fried chicken and catfish

The last one would be good.I’ve been thinking about fried chicken for a while.Catfish, too.

If folks are really missing your food this January, what should they do?

They should look up the recipes on our website.They’ve all been tested and they’re really good.Or they can go to Canyon.I really appreciate everyone’s patience.And all the support.I really do.This is the best thing I’ve ever been a part of, and I want to thank everyone for being so good to us and wish everyone a happy new year!

Many thanks to Darin Meyer of First Light Pictures for the use of his beautiful photographs.