Manuela DTLA: A True Work of Art

Enter through an unassuming alley off 2nd Street and walk down a hallway lined with floor-to-ceiling exposed brick. A Shinique Smith installation dangles over your head, and to your right and left are rooms brimming with sculptures, installations and contemporary works. You have entered Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in DTLA. The new gallery, which opened in March, is a complex housing their current exhibition, a bookstore, and a breezy courtyard. It is what some would describe as the quintessential Arts District gathering space, and smack dab in the middle will be a destination for LA foodies.

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Image courtesy of Manuela DTLA

Manuela is one of the most anticipated restaurants set to open this summer in LA. Led by Chef Wes Whitsell (formerly of Gjelina, Osteria La Buca, and Soho House NY), the menu will have influences from Southern cooking and Mexican cuisine, with local ingredients and a wood-burning oven. The space is a modern take on California industrial design by Matt Winter, with an on-site herb garden and chicken coop. Chef Whitsell met Paul Schimmel (VP of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel) while Schimmel was at MOCA and Whitsell was working at Osteria La Buca. Some years later they reconnected, and Whitsell cooked for Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the restaurant’s namesake, at Soho House in New York during his residency there.

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Photo by Joshua Targownik

“Now here we are,” Whitsell states. Manuela will be the first restaurant that Whitsell has been involved with from the very beginning, and he is the co-owner. “This is all me, and I get to make it whatever I want to make it. It’s inspiring, and it’s scary! The fact that I get to do this with the partners that I have [Iwan and Manuela] and that I get to be a part of what they do aesthetically with art and culture, and for us to understand each other makes it the perfect partnership.”

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Image courtesy of Manuela DTLA

Whitsell has a refreshingly humble approach to the challenge of opening a restaurant within a space dedicated to art. “Art is a new world for me. I can’t see how it relates to food. When someone labels me as an artist, I don’t understand it. I just want to put good food in front of people that they can enjoy.” Endlessly trying to convince him that there is artistry behind what he does, Whitsell replies, “Yes, but to me that’s a craft. It’s not an art. I don’t see it.” Eventually he acquiesces, either out of surrender or deliberation, admitting, “When I walk through the space and look at the art, I do think, ‘How could this influence my cooking? How much do I want this to influence my cooking?’ I’m not sure that it has yet, but it is something I am aware of.”

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Image by Joshua Targownik

Whitsell’s approach to food is soulful, a nod to his Southern upbringing. It takes time and effort. To him, Southern cooking is the food that came from grandma’s garden and the locally sourced resources on which he was raised. “As a kid, everything that was put on the table was something that my dad hunted and foraged himself.” In addition to tender, slow-cooked meat and barbecue, the menu at Manuela will be vegetable-heavy. “Probably the most inspiring thing food-wise and menu-wise is being able to utilize what we have here as far as produce in California. There is such a vast array of things. It’s not just tomatoes. There are so many things that we grow here.” That’s the main difference, he sees as a chef that has gone back and forth between New York and Los Angeles for years.

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Image courtesy of Manuela DTLA

Ingredients will be prepared slowly, fermented, pickled, canned or cooked on a wood burning fire. And to wash it all down: “Oh! There will be cocktails!” Whitsell declares with a smile. The beverage program, like the food, will be riddled with home-grown and locally sourced tinctures, shrubs, herbs, and garnishes. It’s currently being debated whether Coca-Cola will be served. “I don’t want that high fructose corn syrup being served in here.” He’d rather your whiskey come with a splash of homemade ginger syrup. “There is so much more integrity in that, and people will wrap around that. I don’t want to be like everyone else,” Whitsell says. “I want to hold true to what I believe in.”

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Chef Wes Whitsell Image courtesy of Manuela DTLA

Manuela is now open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, even when the gallery is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. “I want to make a space that everyone in the neighborhood will want to come to all the time.”

Check out manuela-la.com for updates on hours.