With its hardwood floors, comfy banquettes, throw pillows and framed family photos, it’s like entering someone’s home. And in a lot of ways Dominique’s Kitchen—a small, intimate restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway in South Redondo Beach—is a home to Chef Dominique Theval and a burgeoning clientele that relishes affordable Euro-French cuisine.
The restaurant’s allure stems from a number of things: the subtly elegant décor, an impressive wine list, exceptionally reasonable prices (most entrees run less than $20), and the meticulously arranged plates, dishes that range from mushroom risotto (Chef Theval’s favorite) to linguini with smoked salmon to Boston sea scallops with crushed potatoes.
Open just over a month, Dominique’s Kitchen is the culmination of Theval’s long career, one that began in Paris and expanded to Bermuda, London, Cambodia and finally, Redondo Beach.
Talking at the speed of light in his decidedly French accent, Theval, 49, explained how he came to the U.S. in 2000 and spent his first night in Redondo Beach. “I remember (going) to the hotel and walking to the beach," he explained. "It was a Sunday, and I was thinking how great for these people to live here.”
Theval and his Malaysian-born wife, Liza (pronounced Leeza), are elated to have bought a home in North Redondo and opened their dream restaurant, Dominique's Kitchen (or DK's, as many call it), which Liza had a big hand in decorating.
“We wanted it to be comfy, cozy, not snobbish, (more as if) you are in our home,” she said. A vivacious woman with an infectious laugh, Liza is a human resource director at Chadwick School in Rolling Hills Estates and designs her own line of jewelry, JIWA, which means “soul” in Malaysian.
Where the Theval home is “a global mix” of things collected from their world travels, she said, it does reflect a strong Asian influence. The ambiance at the restaurant, however, is strictly French/European.
Big misty scenes of London and Paris occupy the walls in the main dining room, which seats about 28 and is decorated with wall sconces, candles, and other homey touches. And in a small, more private area alongside the bar, photographs of French marketplaces, cheeses and escargot shells intermingle with pictures of family, friends and frequent DK customers.
It all began for Theval in 1962 in Montreuil, the suburb of Paris where he was born and raised. “When I was 12 or 13, I already wanted to be a chef,” he said.
Although his banker father sometimes barbecued, his mother ignited in her son the desire to cook. He recalls standing in the kitchen as a boy and watching her whip up sauces, gravies and vinaigrettes: “She was very good at that.”
By age 15, he was already looking at cooking schools, deciding on Ecole Hoteliere de Jean Ferrandi, a school in Paris noted for turning out chefs. While learning his art, he was selected by Chef Jean Plet to be an apprentice at the Hotel Meurice, where he was given an interesting task.
“Salvador Dali used to stay at the hotel for long periods,” Theval said. “And I was assigned to make his fruit compote every morning.”
After working at a number of restaurants in Paris, he moved to London, where he progressed up the chef ranks at Whites Hotel and later at the Four Seasons. In 1987, he accepted a position at the Southampton Princess Hotel in Bermuda, only to find he missed “the charm” of London—the rain, the buses, the people. He ultimately opened his own restaurant, Mange Tout, in Central London.
It must have been destiny, because an associate's tapas bar in that city was where he met Liza Khalid, the dark-haired beauty he calls “the love of my life.” Since Liza, who was on vacation, lived and worked in Malaysia, Theval said, he had no choice but to sell his restaurant and move to Cambodia.
“I went to Cambodia in 1999 because we wanted to be together, and she couldn’t find a job in London,” Theval said. The closest place to Malaysia he could find work as an executive chef was at the Sunway Hotel, a new resort in Pnomh Penh. The two commuted back and forth.
One incident the chef remembers well was preparing dinner following a golf tournament hosted by Cambodia’s prime minister. The experience was “nerve-wracking,” he said, because the entire restaurant was filled with men carrying AK-47s. "If you can imagine this very elegant dinner (that was) spoiled by all these (security people) with huge guns. It was a very funny scene."
But Theval’s time in Cambodia was short-lived. In 2000, Liza, who worked in HR for Johnson & Johnson, learned she was to be transferred to California—a move she nearly refused. Eager to go to the U.S., Theval urged her to accept and, once again, quit his job to follow her. They married the same year.
Although it took him two years to get his green card, Theval had no trouble rekindling his career, first by catering parties. In 2002, he helped launch Morels French Steakhouse and Bistro in Los Angeles, and, as executive chef, “created the menu, organized suppliers and hired the crew,” he said. In 2006, he moved on to Taix, the oldest French restaurant in Los Angeles.
Moving from restaurant to restaurant (or hotel to hotel) is common for chefs, who characteristically lead gypsy-like existences to broaden their experience and perfect their cooking styles, the chef said.
Dominique's Kitchen is the culmination of the skills, the knowledge acquired from working with some of the world’s greatest chefs, and the passion for cooking that has resulted in his signature Euro-French cuisine. It's the kind of restaurant Theval has long wanted to open.
“I didn’t want something Michelin style (the guide that awards Michelin Stars to select, often pricey restaurants),” Theval said. “We wanted to have good food (that is) inexpensive.”
His aim, he said, is to generate repeat business “so customers could come once or twice a week” and not just on special occasions: “Good value, good product, fresh food—that was the idea behind the menu.”
So is good service. Aside from a prep cook, sous chef and kitchen help, Theval employs five servers, including Martin Salzer, 28, of Torrance, who came aboard at the start.
“I love it here,” he said, grinning as he polished a wine glass behind the bar. “It’s elegant, the neighborhood is nice, and the managers are great. Liza is really good with the front of the house, and Dominque is really good in the kitchen.”
Admitting he was once the typical temperamental chef in his 30s, Theval says he’s “now a bit more laid-back.” At home, along with two cats (Manga and Poupee), he keeps a big aquarium. “It keeps me quiet and calm.”
Not one to shy away from the limelight, the chef loves to mingle with guests, ask them about the food, if there is a certain wine they would like him to stock.
Liza Theval said her husband is all about satisfying his customers: “He’ll come out (of the kitchen) and check on me and say, ‘Did you speak to that person?’”
She laughs merrily, despite a horrendous schedule. Not only does Liza work all day at Chadwick School and host at the restaurant at night, she is busy with her jewelry line.
This weekend, for example, she will be showing her JIWA necklaces, pins and chandelier earrings at Unique LA Holiday Expo, a gift show at the California Market Center Penthouse in downtown Los Angeles that promotes buying locally made products. (The show runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.)
Both the Thevals are constantly thinking up new ways to attract customers to DK’s. Along with a Sunday brunch, which is planned to launch in a few weeks, Liza wants to create a Happy Hour Menu, and, just for the “humor” of it, a “Ménage à Trois” event from 3-6 p.m. one day a week.
“We would have $3 wine, $3 beer and a $3 appetizer,” she said. “We just have to figure out what we want to serve.”
Private parties and special breakfasts and lunches can be arranged at the restaurant, and pre-cooked holiday dinners and a catering menu are also available.
What’s for dinner at DK’s, however, is a combination of what Dominique’s mother still cooks in Montreuil (baked snails in garlic butter; spicy lamb sausage; salted cod with a baguette), and more American-sounding entrees: grilled angus rib-eye with green peppercorns; lamb chops with creamy polenta; beef short ribs braised in pinot noir.
Dominique Theval likes to offer a nightly special. That night, for example, it was yellowtail. Asked how he intended to prepare the fish, Theval said, “I don’t know.” The cooking style would depend on what produce he discovered at the farmer’s market that afternoon.
You can’t get much fresher than that.
Due to the seating capacity at Dominique’s Kitchen, reservations are strongly recommended on weekends. Open from 4-9 p.m. every day except Tuesday, the restaurant is located at 522 S. Pacific Coast Hwy. in South Redondo Beach. Call 424-247-9054 or check the website for additional information.