Friday, October 24, 2014

At Home in the Underground: Private Chef Robin Byle

As published in Ventana magazine April 2014

At Home in the Underground
To build the perfect restaurant, chef Robin Byle and her woodworker husband Eilam hardly had to leave their house. Welcome to Table 18 and the rise of pop-up restaurants.

Photo by Gaszton Gal
When I bought my ticket to Table 18, I felt like I was going to a speakeasy for foodies. Billed as a pop-up restaurant, I had to be vetted first and wouldn’t get the address until the day before. Other than a teaser description of a few choice menu items, including a fresh organic celery and lemon gin martini, citrus-marinated yellowtail crudo, and Watkins Ranch grass-fed beef with preserved lemon chimichurri, I had no idea what I was in for.
Charmed by savory aromas swirling through prayer flags hanging from the “restaurant’s” front porch and a shabby-chic front door flung wide open, the home on Rice Road in Ojai was nondescript and seemed tiny. I stepped over the threshold and down into an intimate gathering of exactly 18 well-dressed hungry guests.
I was instantly taken with the home’s interior design, a wide-open space of just 1,100 square feet flooded with natural light and full of colorful abstract artwork and intricate wood carvings. Rustic picnic-style tables rested on stained concrete and bordered an open kitchen, where I met host and chef Robin Byle, whose restaurateur parents and grandparents influenced her career choice.
“Because of my exposure to fine dining as a child and my grandmother cooking everything from scratch, I was drawn to unique foods and cooking at a very young age,” Robin says.
After graduating from New York’s prestigious Culinary Institute of America in 1984, Robin headed west to pursue her culinary ambitions. She cooked in some of the best restaurants in Los Angeles before she found her dream job as a private caterer to the stars (she can’t say who). She later moved to Santa Barbara, and eventually to this home in Ojai where her private catering operations are now based.
It was a walk in 2010 with her now-husband Eilam that set the wheels in motion for buying the house and getting married—even though, as Eilam recalls, the couple had only been dating for a short time. “When we used to walk by here, we were new to each other and just trying to learn each other. We would walk by this lot, and we always loved it. But it was not about the house; the house was pretty worn down,” he says. Rather, it was about a “feeling,” recalls Robin. “We always felt it when we walked past.”
Soon, the couple, both in their fifties, noticed a for-sale sign. They told the realtor they didn’t want to pre-inspect the house, built in 1947, because they knew they would see its many faults and change their minds. After escrow closed, they finally got a look, and it was worse than they imagined. Fortunately, Eilam is a master woodworker, furniture craftsman, and painter. “It’s all the same skill,” he says. “It’s all hands and patience.”
Without touching the exterior footprint, he tore the house apart, opening up walls, floors, and ceilings, converting the tiny chopped-up five-room house into a more spacious-feeling two-room home, bathroom included. A small second unit on the property has yet to be renovated and currently serves as the family’s sleeping quarters (between them, they have four children ages 11 to 19 who live with them part-time).
“A lot people say that when you work on a house, it’s one of the things that either makes or breaks you. For us, it definitely brought us together,” Eilam says.
Six months after escrow closed, the couple married, and Eilam tackled designing the kitchen while Robin scoured Craigslist ads for a commercial-grade oven appropriate for her business and their small residential space. She finally found her dream range: a stainless steel FiveStar six-burner stove with double oven. “It was sitting in someone’s garage for 12 years,” Robin says.
It was so big, though, she had to sacrifice having a dishwasher. But she was happy to do it. In fact, with such a small space and a desire to entertain, a lot had to be sacrificed and downsized, something the couple is pleasantly philosophical about. “Owning a lot of things carries a cloud of weight,” Eilam says. “Everything has value, and you kind of feel responsible for it.”
Eilam made the custom kitchen cabinets out of beech, a sustainable hardwood, and Kirei, a recycled straw. Opening up the ceilings, he fashioned exposed beams out of Douglas fir, hand selected for the grain, and finished with iron accents. He pulled up the wood floors, revealing the concrete foundation below, which was then polished and stained. The floor planks were hand-distressed and repurposed as picnic tables—one seats 10, the other eight—and in 2013, Table 18 finally became a reality.
Doors, cabinets, and other furnishings are also Eilam’s creations, always sustainably sourced. “Most of the furniture that I make, it comes from fallen trees in the valley or recycled sidings of old houses,” Eilam says.
Each piece has a story, even his carved art pieces. A dead old tree. An old house with layers of paint colors. The local tree trimmers and builders know him well. “Sometimes we come home, and there’s a big stump in the driveway!” Robin laughs.
All of the doors have glass insets, some made with vintage shower doors, which, along with the addition of skylights, bring in ample sunlight. Light fixtures made of vintage glass telegraph insulators pinpoint Eilam’s pieces and provide task lighting for Robin’s kitchen countertops. The house is a true reflection of both of them, minimalistic yet with all the necessary comforts and charm.
Eilam nods in agreement when Robin says, “I just feel very at home here.”

Pop-up dinners, cooking classes, recipes, and

The woodwork of Eilam Byle:
For more photos, click here.