It’s 4 p.m., and Michelin-starred seafood restaurant Providence opens in two hours.
In the kitchen, prep cooks and sous chefs scale and slice thousands of dollars worth of wild-caught fish, while the front-of-house staff eats dinner before changing into formal server attire. The jackets and ties are pressed. Shoes are shined. Chef Michael Cimarusti and co-owner Donato Poto are preparing final rounds of notes for the night. As in many other fine-dining restaurants, Providence staff must bridge the crucial connection between the kitchen and those interacting with diners. Once seated, these diners spend $295 per person to experience one of Los Angeles’s most beloved and longest-standing tasting menus.
Though Providence is sold-out for the night — a regular occurrence in its 17-year history — there’s a slew of remaining tasks to complete before the first diners arrive. And the clock is ticking.
Reservations are booked weeks or months in advance. Some are repeat customers from neighboring cities, while others flew in from Canada, Belgium, or China. Each guest will sit at a specific table and the personal details listed for the team for each diner — whether a shellfish allergy, a longtime customer, or celebrating an anniversary — are thanks to reservationist Han Nah Kim.
Kim arrives at 10:30 a.m., and her tasks go far further than jotting down information. She is best characterized as a day manager, Providence’s point person who initiates the experience and manages expectations at this now-iconic restaurant on Melrose near Vine Street.
“They need to know that there’s only one tasting menu and how we operate, and always like to let people know in advance,” says Kim. “We want to make sure people are not surprised and want them to be excited for a tasting menu.”
Providence chef de cuisine Tristan Aitchison often comes into work as early as Kim. Aitchison worked alongside Cimarusti at the Water Grill when he was only 16, and started at Providence when it opened in 2005. Aitchison’s early hours include holding a kitchen manager meeting, where the team discusses the previous night’s service and any adjustments that need to be made whether ingredients, staffing changes, or other surprises.
“We just treat every ingredient with the most respect, and hopefully that translates to what we serve,” says Aitchison. “We aren’t the same restaurant we were [one] or five years ago. The goal is to constantly improve while staying consistent with our standards and figure out some tasty combination they haven’t tried before.”
Between noon and 2 p.m.
After the kitchen meeting and well before the 5 p.m. hour, Aitchison, Cimarusti, and Poto communicate additional notes for the servers, bus boys, bartenders, assistant manager Sarah Diaz, and captain manager Martin Luther Peoples III, who also joined Providence in 2005.
“There’s a lot of things to remember for this job,” says Peoples. “The menu changes every single day. They’re constantly tweaking, and all for the better. Michael needs to change something so it’s always delicious. Then we go over it with the guests, and [note] what allergies they have. It makes what I do easier and helps us provide a stronger sense of where [customers] need to be in the journey.”
Providence wine director David Osenbach coordinates deliveries while checking in with the kitchen. He’ll update the wine list and deal with invoices while pairing the current menu changes with Providence’s vast wine collection. The night might have a wine tasting among his recommendations. “Michael’s food is complex, but the flavors are always very precise,” says Osenbach. “If he describes a dish to me just based on the ingredients, I have a sort of picture of what the flavor’s going to be like. And there’s nothing extraneous. So that that in a sense makes pairing easier.”
The front-of-house gathers in the dining room, which is due for a renovation without an interruption in service over the coming months. Cimarusti and Poto stand next to each other while the group delves into a talk about whiskey and bourbon.
Last May, Cimarusti and his wife Crisi Echiverri traveled to Kentucky for two weeks and returned with a new collection of whiskey and bourbon from small-batch distilleries. Bottles of limited edition whiskey rest on a table while Cimarusti talks for seven minutes about his trip and customers who want to try a $380 two-ounce sip of Forman’s King of Kentucky.
From there, Cimarusti causally shifts into the menu changes for that evening. “Tonight, we have Buckley Bay oysters from British Columbia, four varieties of caviar from the Netherlands, and uni eggs on the menu. All uni in the house is from Hokkaido,” shares Cimarusti.
This particular pre-shift meeting is similar to one held in February 2020, the first one I attended at Providence, and just one month before a global pandemic changed the face of the industry forever. The familiar faces were just as attentive. In that meeting, I watched Poto outline service errors from a previous evening, silverware references, the night’s sashimi, and where to drop finished plates. In 2022, Poto designs the room to ensure the front-of-house staff is with him. He lists the particulars within minutes. “Table 24 at 6:15 is pescatarian, and the chef’s table will be five at 6:30,” says Poto. “At table 54, there’s no cheese preference. Table seven is another VIP who is celebrating a birthday.”
That massive amount of information — menu changes, whiskey offerings, wine pairings, guest preferences — is finally downloaded. It’s time for Randolph Dickerson, who originally worked with Poto decades ago, to unlock the front door. The general feeling in the room is now calm. But as Providence’s longtime host knows, the enthusiastic and professional momentum must remain. “Whether you come in at 6 p.m or 9 p.m., the same energy needs to be held. If it’s 10:30 or 11, you still need to make them feel like it’s still early. You have to keep your energy up and not downshift, even though it’s slowing down.”
The door swings open, and service begins.