We had the good fortune of connecting with Leslie O’Guinn and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Leslie, let’s start by talking about what inspires you?
What inspires me? Haha what doesn’t inspire me? I sometimes wonder if I get too much inspiration from the world! A bad meal can inspired me to create something better. A desert plant has been the catalyst behind pasta. Conversations with an Ethiopian friend inspire me to learn more about his country and try to recreate some of his favorite foods from home. My favorite response is “this is great! This isn’t (whatever I was trying to make) . But it reminds me of that!” Haha! My favorite thing to be inspired by is travel though. There’s so much history behind food. Geography can be learned and better understood when looking at a regions dishes and crops. I remember my first time in Grand Cayman. I was actually kinda disappointed with the food. Not because it wasn’t delicious, but because it was so familiar! I had grown up eating this! My mom was born and raised in the gulf coast of Alabama and New Orleans. She of course cooked traditional southern food. The traditional dishes on the island made use of most of the same ingredients and techniques I grew up with! It seems as we live in a society where so many people concern themselves with “what’s traditional” or more like, what THEY know to be traditional and jump on those who go against “the rules”. I embrace this diversity. What is traditional in one town, is different in another. Dishes can still be traditional and at the same time still be contrasting from one family to another, one town or Village to another, everyone’s “tradition” is a different story. I love to follow the lineage of a dish or ingredient and track how things have moved around the globe. I maybe inspired most by this. How techniques and ingredients are shared through the world. I’m inspired by all the similarities we collectively share. Last year I won an award from LA Travel Magazine at their “Taste of the World” event. Passport Provisions took a trip (through food) to India. Chili & cheese stuffed garlic naan with herbs, pickled cabbage & onions. Sparkling mango Lassi and Camden Town Curry Caramel Corn (named after a diverse part of London). We had people telling us they didn’t like Indian food and couldn’t stand curry… but the drink looked really refreshing, they love caramel corn and are just going to ignore the word curry and the food reminded them of a pupusa with curtido, so they’d give it a try. Haha everything reminded them of something they knew and enjoyed so they gave it a try. Passport Provisions took home a win and the door to another world of food opened for quite a few people. Stuffed naan is it’s own thing and I definitely didn’t create it. I just took a traditional street food from halfway around the world, which I have only had a quarter of the way around the world and gave it a California flair. This has now become my tradition with California cheese & chilies. I always want more acid with food so enter the pickled veg garnish, which was 100% influenced by Salvadoran curtido as well as German Sauerkraut. Wanted the mango lassie to be vegan, so it got a dose of coconut cream and since I wanted it lighter, with bubbles to play with the fat from the cheese and heat in the chilies. Mango lassie with coconut cream and ginger ale was born (champagne also works great!) India was the inspiration but my travels and with German and Salvadoran cuisine opened up these classics to a new tradition. Until I win the mega lotto and can travel FOR food, I’ll keep cooking to travel THROUGH food.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
At my core, I’m an artist. I’m creative, and I don’t take myself too seriously. Food should taste good and be fun! Soups need to have names like Wicked Woman and come with a creme friache spider web on top! Ha! Harp & Hen Supper Club started off as just that. A supper club. I’d have people over to my house for dinner. Throw out on social media date/time/cost and fill up seats. I was doing this when I was executive chef at a restaurant in the Claremont Village. It started off slow. Dinners were sporadic. Cooking classes got into the mix too. My favorites were the Pizza & Ice Cream “classes”. Everyone would learn how to make their own pie. Tricks and techniques in dough stretching. Ice cream was made while they waited. Make this first and get it in freezer. By the time pizza was done, ice cream was ready. A group of strangers eating and laughing together makes my heart happy. One of my favorite things about food, is how it brings people together. Soon I was hosting parties at other people homes as well as doing meal deliveries. I kept letting H&H evolve naturally. I didn’t even look at it as work. All parts were (are) fun! Maybe three years in, I got a call asking if I wanted to cook for Queen Latifah while she was in LA! Ugh… yeah! Let’s do that! Up until Covid-19 hit, half my week was meal delivery, the other was cooking for Queen Latifah. Somewhere in the middle of this I didn’t think I was busy enough. So I took a job with Neal Fraser doing part time event work at Vibiana. This is where I ended up meeting my (former) business partner for Passport Provisions. Starting Passport Provisions happened kind of on a whim. It’s something I had in the back of my mind for several years. Had a few products that were in R&D and when a coworker pitched we start a business, I was game. Its what I wanted to do, I knew I just couldn’t do it alone. Unfortunately after starting we didn’t stay on course. Everything felt rushed. I was happy with the products I was making but knew I could do better. I knew we could be in a better shared kitchen space and we could make a craveable snack that was unique. The responsibility of creating the products fell on my shoulders, even though we are both chefs. Super frustrating, in a solid year, my partner hadn’t made a single flavor. If I were out of town, orders were put on hold until I returned. Too many times I fill several cases of orders alone. I gave it a full year. “Partner” had been out of town for almost three months. I didn’t have a choice. I had to release them back into the wild. The business needed both partners to be present and focused and working together. We clearly were not. This split has given me time to restructure and refine. I’m more proud of what Passport Provisions stands for now and what is coming in the near future. Cooking for Queen Latifah has currently become full time work which is great because Covid-19 definitely hindered the Supper Club and Passport Provisions. The few retail spaces I was selling in have been closed for months at this point. Still not sure when they will be reopening. Taking this Covid lockdown time to make over our backyard. Looking forward to having more supper club dinners again at the house this time with social distancing in mind. To be in any business, you gotta be flexible and planning for the future. Even while knee deep in a project, I start thinking “what’s next” or “how can I create a better experience and environment?”
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Wednesday morning start the day early in Santa Monica for the farmers market. Easily spend a couple hours pursuing the stalls, tasting all that our California farms grow. Grab a late breakfast at Milo & Olive. Casually start making our way back to my house and picking up anything else we need for a relaxing dinner at my house. Thursday morning set off to The Huntington Garden & Library. Walking these grounds are so peaceful, and the restaurant in the Chinese Gardens is a favorite spot of mine. After a morning walk, stop for lunch. A table in the shade over looking the water can’t be beat. Refill my Leeche Lemonade before entering the Japanese Gardens to relax and sit by more water! That might seem redundant but they are two very different gardens with water. Pie & Burger are pretty close to the gardens. Anytime I’m in the area a slice of pie (Huckleberry or boysenberry) and a cheese burger are in order. In a perfect world, Friday would have a Gogol Bordello show at The Troubadour. That’s highly unlikely but it is a good night for live music somewhere. Saturday morning, feeling adventurous we drive up to Santa Maria wine country for an afternoon of sipping at Presqu’ile winery. The vineyards are home to several wine makers including one of my favorites Habit Wine from Jeff Fisher. We’d spend the night to enjoy the wine country, coming back on Sunday in time for brunch. Sunday morning brunch is a must in Downtown LA at Redbird. Always the best brunch paired with Tobin Shea’s cocktails are the perfect way to end the week and start off the new one.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
There are a few people who have helped me become, well, ME! Susan Feniger will always be top of that list! I wasn’t the most focused student in high school, but nothing would distract me from being home by 3pm to catch The Too Hot Tamales! Susan and MarySue would teach me through the TV. Introducing me to ingredients and techniques I didn’t grow up with. Now my mom was a pretty good cook and gave me a solid foundation to build from. But The Too Hot Tamales got me exploring the world through food. About six years ago I was fortunate to fall into a job working with Susan. After twenty five years, I’m still learning from her.
Instagram: @Leslieoguinn @harpandhen @passportprovisions
Carolina korman photo