The Briks is a culinary gem within the Downtown LA area. On Yelp the restaurant is advertised as French and African food but upon trying the cuisine customers are greeted with bold flavors from a much larger array of cultures. Chef Mario Christerna’s love for food can be felt the moment you enter The Briks. His menu features unique culinary ventures that sum up his life journey.
What inspired you to become chef? Did you ever consider doing anything else?
A: What inspired me to become a chef starts with what inspired my love for food. I feel in love with food before I wanted to become a chef. I would always see my mom and grandma go into the cabinets when they cooked. I knew there were things in there…. secrets. I was curious so I pulled up a chair and started tasting stuff, this is when I realized I loved tasting food. Julia Childs’ would come on KCTV and her passion, and the way she talked about food made me fall in love. Like that I wanted to be a chef, I wanted to be the guy who made food at a restaurant just for people’s enjoyment. I would always tell my grandma that one day I would have a restaurant.
Where I lived in the projects you could see downtown. I would always tell her that one-day I would have something big, a building with my name on it. She would always tell me “Mijo if you believe it, then you can achieve it. Your biggest dreams can come true. Nothing is impossible. “
It’s like I’m living my life’s purpose. It’s a trip life is like a dream. If you see it and you say this is what I want to be, who I want to become it will happen. It’s like a book if we desire something so much the universe conspires in helping you attain it.
You have to want it. This is what I want to be, and I am willing to die for it. You’ll start to get there; it’s hard especially when you don’t have it easy. There is a lot of sacrificing but everything comes with a sacrifice. When I was a kid I wanted to be a lawyer or politician. I wanted to change history and help people. But I’m realizing that in my own artistic waiting I’m making people feel happiness with my food.
What roadblocks or hardships did you encounter on this journey?
A: Many first there were a lot of distractions in my environment where I grew up. A lot of my homies were dying, or running muck. There was not too much inspiration, sometimes its kind of hard to think outside of the box cause you think that this is your reality. The fact that you are trained to believe that you can’t achieve. Going to culinary school on my own was hard because I didn’t have all the resources needed. I went to school in the daytime and worked at a restaurant at night. I wanted to know everything about restaurants. I was a bus boy, a dishwasher, a server, and a bartender because I wanted to know everything. School to work at night trying to always beat the clock not sleeping.
Where did you go to school?
A: To Le Cordon Bleu here in La and Pasadena although I went to school there what really helped me in school was the fact that I was working in a restaurant at the time. You get an inside perspective on what’s really going on in a restaurant.
How was the process of opening and running a restaurant taught you about yourself?
Comment: I remember you talking about the picture of your grandmother
A: Yes! When I was a kid I told my grandmother when I had my restaurant I was going to hang her picture up in my dining hall and that is the first thing I did when I got here.
All the artwork on the wall I pretty much did myself. The big piece “love is the answer” was a collaboration with my friend. He did most of the work, I just told him what my idea was and helped him prep it but everything else you see in here I did myself. Every single thing here is a collage. On the tables is all my life history and things that I love. The dining room has all this stuff that I’m into sweet art, punk rock, graffiti. This represents me because I’m an artist. I paint, I wanted to be able to bring people into my world with every detail. I wanted the table to be a piece of my life. I wanted the food to be my life. The music that’s being played, it’s all part of my life. Its part of something I grew up with the picture of Johnny Depp Crybaby (that was my favorite movie growing up as a kid). The back room this is symbolic it’s the LA river. I grew up right across from the LA river. I always dreamt of making it across the river, making it downtown so this represents my journey. I wanted everything to represent me, I wanted people to connect and come into my world, into my struggles bring them through my journey. That’s what an artist does. I want people to see a picture of the cabbage patch kid and say I remember that as a kid. Oh my God nostalgia has the power to trigger the part of the brain that gives you a memory that makes you happy. It’s the same connection, it’s artistic, it’s beyond just eating something. I want them to taste my life. When I first got the place everyday for months I woke up with a paint brush and did art all over the restaurant literally manifesting the dream that I have been dreaming about for so many years. When I got my keys I started to make it all happen it was a super trip. It was a trip that I ended up on 1111-hope street, what more of a connection is that. Its surreal, it’s so surreal. It was destiny. Destiny and hard work is what got us here.
How did you come up with the idea of pairing African and French Cuisine?
A: It is a connection of my life, my travels, and my journey. It wasn’t typically about pairing; it was more about explaining my life through my food. There were a lot of influences in my life. The way I grew up is not just French and African. I mean, on yelp it says that because you can choose food but its more than that. If I could put my life story on a plate I would put that. I’m French trained, I went to a French Culinary school so that’s where my French techniques come from but I am also Chicano. I grew up in the Boyle-heights East LA so when I cook it has to have a little bit of that funkiness that street urban Chicano feel. That’s my home but I also trained in Barcelona where I worked in a 5 star restaurant. Living and working there influenced a lot of my food. I traveled a lot. I fell in love with North African food. One of my old mentors is a North African chef. I don’t want to mention his name but being with him for so many years I learned a lot about food. I fell in love with the cooking techniques of snow grazing. It was more about the love of flavoring, sweet and savory, and spices. I just had to connect it all. I knew by putting all these things together it would explain my journey of getting here. It’s much more than African Mexican I am American. Dude I am from LA but my friends are from a bunch of places so should I just pick one. My life is one big mash up and when I cook I cook with my heart, my journey, my mind, my thoughts, my inspiration. How do I translate it into this? Well this is how.
What is your favorite menu item?
A: The whole menu, ahahah it is very hard I think I would say the Biscada. It is something we would make at family barbeques. It is something I can share, it takes me about an hour and a half to make. It’s love; love is faithful, love is kind. These dishes take time. It takes love they get to taste the good times I had as a kid, its therapeutic. Everything that is on my menu is connected. I want everyone to feel like family.
Where do you see yourself and the future for the Briks?
A: I see the sky is the limit. I see growth. I see helping people, creating more jobs. I see happy faces. I see a beautiful, magical future. I see my daughter in the kitchen peeling potatoes. I see happiness, and love.