The Jersey-born, self-taught chef transformed Abbot Kinney into one of L.A.’s most happening streets by cooking impossibly gratifying Cali-minded food.
“I’m working really hard to make it look like I’m not working really hard,” says Travis Lett, who’s sitting beneath a tree on a sleepy stretch of Sunset Avenue in Venice, California, explaining how he manages to make healthy food both delicious and seemingly simple in its appearance. “I don’t want to admit it,” he adds, tucking a loose strand of blond hair behind his ear, “but the simpler it looks, the harder it is.” Indeed, though the perennially tanned, wiry 37-year-old could pass for a reluctant male model with too much time on his hands, he’s been up since 4 a.m. baking bread at his whitewashed bakery/restaurant, Gjusta , and prepping for another busy day at his other Venice restaurant, Gjelina, beloved for its fresh, veggie-forward Cal-Italian dishes like salted anchovy wood-fired pizzas, dandelion salad, braised pork meatballs, and roasted fennel. Per Lett’s usual routine, he won’t be wrapping up until 11 p.m. “I don’t take days off and sit on the beach,” he says. “Learning how to be a chef, a businessman, and a company owner has been a gnarly, gnarly grind.”
Lett is an unapologetic apostle of farm-to-table cooking, counting the matriarchal triumvirate of California cuisine— Alice Waters, Nancy Silverton, and Judith Rogers—as his biggest influences. But his integrity-driven, distinctly West Coast–inspired style also stems from a childhood spent in the affluent suburb of Chatham, New Jersey, in the ’80s. Lett was that kid at the lunch table whom nobody wanted to trade with. Most often, all he had was seasonal organic vegetables, nori rolls, miso soup, and maybe—on special occasions—a brown-rice cookie baked with arrowroot. Lett loved cheap pizza as much as the next 12-year-old, but at home his parents kept what he calls a “severe” macrobiotic vegan diet, which his financier father had discovered during military service in Japan. When Lett developed asthma, his mother implemented a treatment plan that, at the time, was highly unusual. “My football coach told me to get inhalers,” he recalls, “and I was like, ‘It’s all good, I’m not eating dairy.’ He thought I was out of my mind.”
After attending the University of Colorado, Boulder (where he majored in “snowboarding, chasing chicks, and bong-hitting,” with a “minor” in studio art), Lett landed in Los Angeles at 23. He was drawn to the rough-hewn, surf-inflected atmosphere of Venice, even though all his friends in West Hollywood would tell him, “Be careful, Venice is a shithole.” Initially he slept in his Jeep (“Nobody would harass you,” he says), but eventually moved into a dirt-cheap apartment just off the speedway, with one tiny window. “If you looked from the right angle, you could see a little blue,” Lett recalls. “For a Jersey boy, it was a dream come true.”
Lett was always interested in the intersection of food and politics thanks to his parents, who believed, long before it was trendy, that one’s values were inextricably linked to what one eats. But becoming a professional chef was never his long-term plan. “I just remember thinking it would be cool to know how to cook when I date a chick.” After working as a kitchen manager in a sushi joint, at 25 he was tapped to open the 930 restaurant at the new W hotel in Westwood—a career-making, six-figure-paying gig that Lett recalls as “a fucking nightmare.” After two years of “staying up all night, doing God knows what” with B-list celebrities in their hotel rooms, Lett left and was, as he puts it, “over the whole chef thing.” He spent all of his free time at the beach and hanging out at a coffee shop called Abbot’s Habit, where a mutual friend introduced him to Fran Camaj, a Detroit native who wanted to convert a piece of property he owned into a restaurant. “For Fran, it could’ve been a burger joint,” says Lett, who initially agreed to help him come up with a food concept and design the kitchen—nothing more. But the more resources and freedom Camaj gave him, the more Lett became attached to the project, eventually securing a 50-50 partnership.
When Gjelina opened on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in 2008, the menu offered a few wood-fired pizzas, one meat and one fish, and vegetable dishes sourced from the Santa Monica farmers’ market. Lett insists that the food wasn’t passable at first. “It was just me and a couple of guys in our aprons trying things out, fucking everything up,” he says. Suzanne Goin, the James Beard Award–winning chef behind Lucques and A.O.C.,remembers it differently. “It was always good,” she says. “Travis makes the food I want to eat. Sinking into a chair on that patio at 2 p.m. on a weekday with a bottle of rosé became my in-town ‘pretend you’re on vacation’ spot.” The city’s preeminent food critic, Jonathan Gold, praised the restaurant’s halcyon patio centered around a fire pit as “everything that might persuade a snowbound New Yorker to change coasts.”
Venice has fueled escapist fantasies ever since Abbot Kinney (also a New Jerseyan) founded the city in 1905, but they generally didn’t involve rosé until Gjelina came along. The live-and-let-live seaside neighborhood has long been a haven for bodybuilders, surf bums, the homeless, and drug dealers. But in the last few years, Abbot Kinney Boulevard has turned into an open-air strip mall for the bougie set, complete with a Steven Alan boutique and pour-over coffee shops aplenty. Some point to Lett’s flagship restaurant as the catalyst, since it has been packed from the start with up-and-coming actors, multi-hyphenate creatives, and the latter-day techies of Silicon Beach. “Gjelina just hit,” Lett says. “Venice needed a place that spoke to what was shifting around here, and it had the right food sensibility.”
It wasn’t until 2014 that Lett decided to open his second outpost, Gjusta, an airy bakery/restaurant with a sailcloth-covered patio where idle Angelenos breakfast on whole-grain porridge and baklava croissants. Despite Gjusta’s preposterously serene vibe, its debut was greeted with protests by a small number of anti-gentrification activists—including resident Zach Galifianakis. It is located at the psycho-geographical intersection of two Venices: directly across the street from the first Gold’s Gym, and around the corner from Google’s office complex. Lett has long received a disproportionate share of the blame from the “keep Venice weird” crowd. “We could have had a dozen restaurants by now, but it’s not in my best interest to become the Donald Trump of Venice,” Lett says. “Google, Facebook, and Snapchat have moved a lot of people out here, but I’m an easy target. Look, I’m bored with the gentrification conversation. If someone wants to interest me in a discussion, let’s talk about how to get better food into L.A. schools. There are kids in Watts who are eating out of fucking cans.”
Lett certainly isn’t slowing down. He’s been taking frequent trips to Japan—digging up the roots of his parents’ Japanese vegan diet. Later this year, Lett will open his next as-yet-unnamed restaurant on Abbot Kinney. “It will have an izakaya feel,” he says, “but with a Japanese farm-to-table sensibility that we really don’t see in the States too much. Japanese food, as we know it, is sushi primarily. White rice and teriyaki—stuff like that. But there is a seasonality to Japanese food, and my parents ate all that. I’m paying homage to my childhood exposure. It kind of completes the circle.”