California French (and Filipino) Cuisine Goes WILD

Ria and Matt Wilson (Photo by Karin Johansson)

Ria and Matt Wilson (Photo by Karin Johansson)

With almost 4 million residents spread out over 500 square miles, Los Angeles is commonly seen as a gigantic map, but it is also an expansive menu of restaurants to cater to every whim.  On the LA menu, WILD at Canelé in Atwater Village could lay claim to the Adventurous Lunch category.  There, Wednesday through Friday, Ria Barbosa Wilson and her husband, Matt Wilson, reinvent organic dishes with everyday names like ramen, fried chicken sandwich and ginger ice cream.

The unspectacular names keep the customers’ attention on the ingredients, which are always imaginative and near the farms that grew them. When Ria, age 31, talks there’s also the sense that she and Matt don’t have time to brainstorm catchy names, much less touch the shift key for initial caps. Their pursuit of lofty standards consumes every waking moment. 

Even when the chalkboard lists daily specials that have little in common with Ria’s childhood meals in Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo, Philippines and Glendale, California, they conjure up the same sensations of delight. She doesn’t have the recipe right until the taste stimulates her memory.  She and Matt are committed to creating flavorful experiences that customers will file among the highlights of their lives.

“We seem to reminisce a lot with memories surrounding food,” Ria says. She would list anything “we ate as kids that left a lasting impact, the first time we tasted something new that was mind-blowing, a flavor combination that brings back a vivid childhood memory.  Thoughts like that are what we continue to pull from as we make food that we find exciting yet comforting.”

Yet, WILD’s kitchen ambitions are not always grandiose. “Sometimes, I think we’re just hungry all the time and are thinking what we want to make ourselves to eat!” Ria admits. 

What Happened in Vegas

In 2002, Ria met Matt at the California School of Culinary Arts (now Le Cordon Bleu) in Pasadena, California.  After formal training, they moved to Las Vegas and devoted the next five years to cooking in some of the finest restaurants on the Strip. 

While Matt distinguished himself at three restaurants, most prominently Thomas Keller's Bouchon, Ria was the garde manger chef for two years at The Mansion at MGM Grand, oversaw meat entremets for six months at Lutece at The Venetian, did another six months of raw bar and pastry duty at Michael Mina at Bellagio, and within two years of the opening of Daniel Boulud Brasserie, rose from hot appetizers to chef de partie. 

Ria found Chef Daniel Boulud to be the polar opposite of the stereotypical imperious French chef who would berate a defenseless apprentice for a ragged parsley leaf.  

“When DB Brasserie first opened and Matt popped his head in the kitchen to say hello…” She then cringes at the flashback. “Keep in mind this was a traditional French kitchen and it was very early in my career, so I was afraid of getting into trouble fraternizing on the clock. Chef was so excited to introduce himself and give Matt an impromptu tour of the kitchen.” 

Responsible Sourcing

Las Vegas was followed by three years in Salt Lake City. With new wedding rings on their fingers in 2010, Ria and Matt began their assault on Los Angeles to push California cooking to new limits at Canelé for two years before moving on to assist Chef Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl, which at a mere 800 square feet is the best flyweight restaurant in the millennial Bohemia of Silverlake.

Then came a new offer from Chef Corina Weibel whose Canelé has become LA’s soul mate in California cuisine to Berkeley’s Chez Panisse.

WILD fills more than unused space before Canelé opens for dinner. “What we’re doing is not, in the traditional sense of the word, a pop up.” Ria explains, “Chef Corina approached us to see if we would be interested in beginning a lunch program for her. She would give us free reign on the menu and we would draw people in.  We are compatible with Chef Corina because we share a common respect for using product with integrity.  It’s important to us which farm the produce comes from, whether proteins are responsibly sourced, that our green food waste can be composted to feed our gardens at home.”

‘Sometimes, I think we’re just hungry all the time and are thinking what we want to make ourselves to eat!’ Ria admits. 

California, Paris, Manila

California French cuisine includes the loaded term “California,” and with it, justification to add ingredients from Ria’s birthplace. It’s an unexpected delight for Filipino guests who often aren’t aware that WILD employs a Filipino chef until they peer into the open kitchen. “Recently, I realized that when I cook things that aren’t completely traditional, I tend to leave enough of a trace to leave the diner with a sense of nostalgia. I offer up the familiar to draw them in but leave them enough room for imagination and interpretation.”

Ria recalls, “For instance, one of my best friends brought her mom to lunch and I sent out a terrine that was in the style of embutido (Ria’s meatloaf features a duck egg) that she was pleasantly delighted with. While prepared like a traditional French terrine, I kept the flavors traditional and even used pan de sal for crostini.”

Ria doesn’t confine her countertop to continental cuisine, but she can be self-conscious when she serves Philippine-influenced items to Filipino diners. “I get a little nervous when old Filipinos visit. I don’t want the plate to be too crazy. I’m experimenting to freshen up the recipe,” she says before relating a memorable conversation with a 60-year-old Filipino man. “He pulled me aside to tell me how much he liked my bagoong (shrimp paste).”

Adults once showed class by their choice of elegant restaurants with an exalted address and purity in culinary tradition.   New generations have matured toward an era where intelligence is more impressive than luxury.  Ria and Matt Wilson are making WILD the gold standard with austere creations that are good for the brain and body. 

WILD at Canelé serves lunch Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and traditional brunches on Saturday and Sunday. Another way to convey intelligence is to arrive extra early since Canelé only takes reservations for parties of at least six. Call 323-666-7133 and map 3219 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles.

Pici, garlic scape, octopus, chili oil, green garbanzo (one of WILD's specials) (Photo by Ria Dolly Barbosa Wilson)

Pici, garlic scape, octopus, chili oil, green garbanzo (one of WILD's specials) (Photo by Ria Dolly Barbosa Wilson)

For their Fried Chicken Sandwich recipe visit The Happy Home Cook.

Anthony Maddela

Anthony Maddela

Anthony Maddela is a regular contributor to Positively Filipino. His day job is with the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. He also lives in Los Angeles with his family of four. 

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