Many restaurants have open kitchens where people can watch their dishes being prepared, but only one culinary experience includes large blowtorches cooking your dish mere feet from your face. At the Gastro Garage, self-described gastro mechanics swap the aprons and chef hats for jumpsuits, goggles and welding masks, and they actively engage the diners while working a meat-skewered drill bit in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. Diners sit behind an industrial counter in a vintage garage-style space as the gastro mechanics torch gourmet sandwiches and desserts (called “tanks”) made with savory brioche donuts. With fire seemingly dancing across the tank trays, the Gastro Garage brings together showmanship, gastronomy and blue-collar aesthetics in an experience where everyone feels the heat.
This dining experience is the brainchild of Atlanta native Stewart Levine (Wolfgang Puck, The Bazaar, SLS Hotel), who was inspired by José Andrés’ deconstructed Philly cheesesteak. The famed Spanish chef gave Levine permission to create his own version, and the head gastro mechanic brought on two partners, including Adam Manacker (former general manager and co-founder of the Highlands nightclub in Hollywood) to bring his idea to life. Three years later, the Gastro Garage claims an impressive line-up of tanks that includes the Cubano (Gruyère foam, Applewood smoked ham, torched 12-hour slow-cooked pork) and the Campfire (double-chocolate foam, graham cracker powder, chocolate chunk, torched marshmallow), and its pop-ups and private events have become legendary, including a Bob’s Burgers party with a menu designed by the show’s animators. The Gastro Garage currently hosts a pop-up on the northeast corner of La Brea Avenue and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood (Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through February 11), and its first brick-and-mortar restaurant should open in downtown Los Angeles later this year. PRØHBTD spoke with Manacker to learn more.
Tell me how this all came together.
Stew and I go way back. He had been working for a long time on creating a franchisable concept that provided an overall experience. At the time he came to me, I owned a boutique event production company, and I partnered on a catering company. I took some of my marketing and promotional ideas, and the concept just grew. One day I was on the Warner Brothers lot doing a walkthrough with a catering company for The Mentalist. I don't know why, but I said, "You know, I have this really cool idea." They loved it, but they didn't book it. However, the Warner Brothers people called us literally the next day and asked us to come down to do a tasting. At this point in time, we had done three of these, and I’m just talking about me, [partner] James [Campbell] and Stewart sitting around a kitchen making a few of these. All of a sudden, we had to do a tasting, so Stew came up with a recipe for the Cubano and what was the Caprese, which eventually became the [Piston] Pizza. We went in there, did a tasting, and they immediately loved it. Before we even left the lot, they booked us for these international upfronts for five days, 500 to 1000 people a day. All of a sudden we had to figure this out very, very quickly. Nonetheless, it went flawlessly, and that was the beginning of our business.
Has anyone ever gotten burned?
Not even an annoying blogger?
No, no. There hasn't been a burn of any significance. I've been burned more cooking in my own kitchen than with the blowtorches.
Theoretically, you could set up in the middle of Burning Man with no wires?
Absolutely. We don't need electricity, we don't need gas, and we don't need water. We consistently do events literally anywhere—top of a mountain, in a desert, on a boat. Anywhere you could need us, we can go. We've packed up and gone to Catalina, Vegas, San Francisco, Utah, New York, Atlanta, San Francisco. We are a band of traveling food pirates, as we like to call ourselves.
What would be the most difficult venue in terms of location and set up?
The most challenging event was a yoga retreat in San Diego. They wanted us on a very small center island in the middle of a pond, and people had to walk across a very narrow bridge to get to us. This created an issue with the crowd getting around us, and we had to get everything across the water, but the visual factor was cool.
Our biggest challenges come between Stew and me. I'll be like, "Stew! Great news. I just got a call for an event.” This is actually a real thing that's happening in Palm Springs in about a month. “You need to come up with a Cuban-themed menu by the end of the day, and it's on the same day as three other events." He rolls his head back and probably hangs up on me and then begrudgingly calls me an hour later with an incredible menu.
That's something that makes us cool and unique, too. We have about 40 dishes, mostly spawned from people wanting different themes. For example, we created an Italian menu for Sylvester Stallone. We worked with Morgan Spurlock's company the Warrior Poets and the Travel Channel, who had us go down to New Orleans for three days to crack the code of the Oysters Rockefeller and recreate it. The Oysters Rockefeller is a dish from Antoine's, one of the oldest restaurants in the country [opened in 1840], and literally only two people in the world know how to make. We met with Antoine's, and they wouldn't give us the recipe, so we went to absinthe bars, Stew went out on an oyster boat, I went to a voodoo ceremony, and we spent three days in New Orleans trying to crack the code. Frankly, I think we made a better Oysters Rockefeller than the original.
What would be the most outrageous party you did?
We recently did Kate Hudson's Halloween party, and it was only outrageous because of all the crazy A-list celebrities you didn't know were there. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and all these guys came as a wolfpack, and because of their wolf masks, you didn’t know who you were serving. Probably the most celebrities we ever served in one place was The Avengers movie premiere for Age of Ultron, and then we did a private event at Seth MacFarlane's house, who's pretty famous for his parties. It was Sean Penn, Charlize Theron and a whole slew of celebrities.
We were in Park City [Utah] a couple years ago and showed up at a super exclusive CAA party right after they signed us. Everybody was dressed nice, and we came as the gastro mechanics. They had a s'mores station, and we just jumped in and started making our own s'mores. People were like, "What the hell is going on?" It’s all celebrities there, and we're blowtorching stuff. Stew is in his goggles and jumpsuit doing the chicken dance. That was pretty outrageous and fun.
I believe you also did a party for Imagine Entertainment and Ron Howard.
Absolutely. We did a very private Christmas event for Ron Howard at a house, and he was one of the first guests there. He spent maybe 30 minutes talking to us and checking us out. He took a picture in the mask.
Didn’t Ron Howard approach you about doing a show?
Let me explain the show story very briefly. In the first year we were operating, we did a pop-up residency at Harvard and Stone [in Los Angeles], and one day a woman comes up and says, "We're a production company, Collins Avenue, and we want to do a show about you." They do Dance Moms. We were like, "Oh, awesome." This was not on our radar whatsoever, but we met them, and they literally offered us a production deal on the spot. A few days later, we did a pop-up at Sassafras, and somebody from Pilgrim shows up and says, “We need to do a TV show about you!" Then we had our launch event, and somebody from CAA said, "You gotta come to our office. We're interested in representing you." We went on about 11 different meetings, and about 10 of them offered us production deals. Imagine didn't actually offer us a TV show, but they did want to put us on Empire.
How about the brick and mortar in the Arts District?
The brick and mortar, we believe, is the next step in the evolution of where we're going. It's gonna be the blueprint for the franchises moving forward. We'll hopefully have rolling glass doors in front like a garage and more cars and motorcycles and things like that. We want to create an experience that's a combination of Benihana meets Sugarfish so you're getting this interactive experience.
If you were in a state where it was legal, and a private company hired you, would you do a weed tank?
Yeah. Absolutely. 100 percent, for sure. You know, I hate to speak for my partners out of tune, but knowing my partners as long as I have, I would say that we are all pro-legalization, and none of us would have an issue making some sort of THC- or marijuana- or weed-based tank in a state where it’s legal. We could absolutely do that.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. First photo in the slider by Janet Jen, all others by Fitz Carlile Photography.