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Oct 19, 2011


I was ready and willing to fall in love with Ubuntu long before I got on the plane to Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, I considered Ubuntu as the highlight of my upcoming journey that was fully booked with lots of interesting places, soothing for our souls, eyes and stomachs. Yes, I did fall in love with other places on the way, say, The Slanted Door in San Francisco but according to what I had heard and read, Ubuntu was exactly my kind of place, where vegetarian food is concocted in the most refined and delicious way possible, both visually and flavorwise. As a food photography enthusiast, I was looking forward to observe, touch, photograph and finally taste the most aesthetically designed plates of food I would ever dream of.

Ubuntu, although more widely known as the name of a computer software, is actually a Zulu philosophy that champions the togetherness and interconnectedness of individuals with each other, as well as with the rest of the world. When a restaurant is, not only named after a humanistic philosophy that emphasizes notions such as generosity and sharing but also claims to embrace it, one wonders how that works in practice. Where does generosity and sharing stand in objectives of a restaurant where you pay a check, quiet generously, to eat?

Ubuntu The spacious interior of Ubuntu is uplifting, just like Yoga studios intend to be. Upper right, edible flowers beautifying every plate. Bottom left, bronze statues in front of the bar.

The philisophy is visible in their ecological awareness and in that sense, Ubuntu does get as noble and responsible as a restaurant can get. It seeks to reunite its guests with the generosities of earth by using vegetables and greens cultivated in Ubuntu's biodynamic garden (bidynamic meaning, soil, plants and animals on the farming area are self-sustaining without any inputs). For other ingredients, they collaborate only with local producers and suppliers, in the hope of eliminating repercussions of global trade.

Aaron-london-ingExecutive Chef Aaron London

Going to a vegan restaurant with two guys, a brother who's on paleo diet and a husband, an eternal carnivor, kept my enthusiasm in check. I tried to avoid my brother’s eyeballing each time I expressed my excitement as the day of our reservation at Ubuntu approached. And he said that "we may as well be munching the lawn outside" referring to the 'garden snake' we all delightfully ate but I wouldn't have cared less for his sarcastic remarks. I studied people around us in envy who unlike us, looked rather accustomed to Ubuntu, as though that's where they had lunch every other day. Then my eyes spotted Aaron London in the open kitchen, his head in front, absorbed in his work, executing his lifelong passion.

Ubuntu'Antibes Spring' cocktail and 'castelvetrano' olives with fennel pesto

When he was sentenced to a house arrest at the age of fourteen, to kill time he started cooking for the guardians. And see how that turned out. When Jeremy Fox decided to leave Ubuntu as executive chef in 2009, London who was a sous chef since the very beginning, was offered the position. His talent had drawn so much attention as to be nominated 2011 by the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef of this year. To become the executive chef of a world renowned restaurant at the age of 27, one can imagine the discipline and dedication he had put for his  carrier, since his darker days. And today, while chefs enjoy stardom like rock stars, I can’t think of any other chef suiting better to the role than Aaron London, in terms of appearence, background and age, coupled with the charisma of his name.   

Ubuntu1Roasted "Chioggia" beets, broccoli with yuzu kosho

Ubuntu’s interior is spacious and luminous thanks to its high ceilings and from bottom to top windows. It feels like a Yoga studio -which it is- as much as it looks like a restaurant. I am pretty confident that my cocktail theory which I explained in my San Francisco post will prove right. While we wait at the bar for our table, I order Antibes Spring cocktail and watch the bar tender mix, shake and pour the bright green juice to a wine glass, then sprinkle it with some fresh tiny flower leaves. Antibe Spring doesn’t disappoint nor me neither my theory: it is as unique as I would expect from Ubuntu. Refreshing, rejuvenating and delicious just like its name connotes; it is spring in a glass.

Ubuntu The “Garden Snake” with flowers, roots and leaves from Ubuntu’s biodynamic garden, stewed chickpeas a la Catalan with sauce romesco, ‘Seville’ orange fregola, and Sardinian pearl pasta 

Never before had the prospect of taking food photos in any other restaurant thrilled me so much. Ubuntu's dishes were by far the most beautifully designed plates I had ever seen in my life; with vibrant, dazzling colors and interesting shapes and were clearly products of hours and days of design study. As each work of art was placed in front of us, I was struck by the beauty and originality. Take Chioggia beet plate, doesn’t it look like it was inspired by one of Salvador Dali’s paintings?

 UbuntuLemon and tarragon granita: approaching and on the table

The lunch menu consists of 9 courses only; starters and mains are not classified. One of us proposed to omit focaccia and ordered all rest to taste and share. Plates came one after the other, leaving me barely any time to photograph them, and they were gone in a matter of seconds and a matter of few fork strokes. If I were alone, I would spend minutes to enjoy the beauty, observe the balanced harmony of colors and shapes before I messed up their perfect form, but there was fierce competition at the table. I took the shots with the blink of an eye and plunged along with the others. Thanks to the photographs I can still continue to appreciate the beauty of those marvelous looking plates.

Even though I’m not vegetarian, making food taste as perfect as possible without adding animal proteins is a skill I highly appreciate. So no wonder I was astounded with everything I ate at Ubuntu, from the snacks we had with our cocktails, to the last bit of the chocolate German cake we had as dessert. The dish we expected the least from, proved to please us the most: the bean stew with its richness and diversity left us wondering how a stew without meat stock can taste like that. A huge pot with carcass and meat boiling on the stove, behind doors in the back kitchen could be the only explanation.  

Ubuntu Dessert As beautiful as any dessert plate can get: German chocolate cake with Vodouvan crumble, coconut sorbet and whipped avocado

The menu was embellished with ingredients I had never heard of before such as ‘soffrito’, ‘arbequina’ or ‘hong tsai tai’. In a feature with London, I read that he is most concerned and uneasy about the amount of wasted food in restaurants. And in Ubuntu he does exactly the opposite: in his cooking, he takes advantage of every part of vegetables and fruits, including their skins, roots and stems. He believes he can achieve the perfect flavor without consulting to animal proteins.

As the lunch crowd started wearing off, so did the hecticity of the kitchen and we were the only ones left in the restaurant by the time we were ordering dessert. With the help of heartening of Doğa and my brother, I took my camera, stood up and walked towards the kitchen to meet Aaron London. Much as it sounds simple, I had been preoccupied with self-encouragement during lunch so much that I was on the verge of not fully committing myself to the precious, long-awaited Ubuntu experience.  

Ubuntu Sous Chef Nick Gabaldon and organic Arbuckle grits, fava beans, English peas, pistachio, mints and lemon balm

I told him I was coming from Turkey, had heard about Ubuntu’s reputation and expressed my admiration for every single plate we had tasted. Anthony Bourdain’s infamous opinion about food bloggers constitutes my reference point on how real chefs regard us, the food bloggers. His expression was not only free of any trace of neither dislike nor disdain, but he also responded to my complements in a surprisingly modest and even uncomfortable manner. When I asked his permission to take his picture, he loosened his shoulders, straightened and smiled to my camera. Fro the way he smiles, it is not hard to pick up his timidity, something that makes a man in his position even more admirable.

I thanked him and went back to the table all shiny and happy for successfully taken a picture and plotted “an encounter with Aaron London story” to brag about. I thought I did well but Doğa blew it. Not only was he wearing our friendly waitress with his lame jokes the whole time, he grabbed my camera without my consent, went to the kitchen to meet London himself and the sous-chef, completely undermining all the stress I had gone through. He finally took more pictures of the Ubuntu team and ruined the uniqueness of my experience! Those pictures were badly out of focus to be displayed here except for the one below, which I actually like.

Chef and sous chef  Executive Chef London and Sous Chef Lucian Prellwitz

Aside from that, while I’m sitting here and typing about that episode I realize I was overly absorbed by other details and have not asked him a single question whose answer I would proudly share here. I was too preoccupied with say, how to present myself and which opening line to use, it didn’t occur to me once to ask him whether he was familiar with Turkish cuisine, who was styling their food or how did it work not being vegetarian while rocking Ubuntu's kitchen?

If you are one lucky foodie who gets the chance to go there, ask him for me will you? And don't forget to mention my blog and this post while you're there. Thanks a million.

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