Friends since elementary school, chefs Josiah Citrin and Raphael Lunetta made a big splash when they opened JiRaffe in Santa Monica in 1996. In 1999, Citrin left JiRaffe to start the Mobil 4-Star rated Melisse a few blocks away. While remaining at their respective establishments, the two reunited last year to create Lemon Moon, a more casual eatery that caters to the lunch and breakfast crowd at the Westside Media Center in West Los Angeles. The Santa Monica natives are now looking to open two additional Lemon Moon restaurants.


Question: When did you first think you might be interested in pursuing a career in the restaurant business?
Citrin: That must have been in our late teens. We loved eating out. We'd go to Thomas' Coffee Shop when we were in sixth grade, seventh grade, after surfing, or go eat here or there. We always said, "Yeah, let's open a restaurant."
Lunetta: We were going out to Thai restaurants and having sushi in the seventh grade, eighth grade. We would spend all of our money to go out and eat. I do think early on we did have ambitions, because there was a lot of good food around Jo's house and my dad cooked every Sunday.


Q: What was the first place you worked at?
Lunetta: I worked two nights a week at a little restaurant called Italy's Little Kitchen, just as a busboy. I was in the seventh, eighth grade. I basically begged my mom to let me work. My dad was very much against it because he thought it was going to interfere with school.
Citrin: Square Pan Pizza in the Santa Monica mall. I had to grate the cheese, which is basically all I did, hoping I'd get the chance to work the cash register so I could look at the girls.


Q: What did you do right after high school?
Citrin: I worked for Bruce Marder at West Beach Caf & #233; for five months.
Lunetta: I went to Hawaii. I really wanted to be a pro surfer. I enjoyed the cooking and all that, but growing up, what we were doing every weekend and what probably kept us out of a lot of trouble is that we were surfing competitively.


Q: Was there any pressure to go to college?
Citrin: No, my parents never pressured me.
Lunetta: My dad pressured me. But I couldn't go to school, surf and work and there was no support financially there, so we had to make our choices.


Q: You both have French citizenship and worked in Paris restaurants soon after graduation. What was that like?
Lunetta: In France and in Europe, it's a career. People work in the same restaurant for 20 years.


Q: What made you come back to the U.S. in 1990?
Citrin: Our families were here and the ocean was here and we'd been in France for a while. We couldn't keep living like we did.
Lunetta: We had a living room and a one-bedroom, so the bedroom had the box spring and the living room had the top mattress.


Q: Sounds like someone got the short end of that deal.
Lunetta: We'd switch off every month.


Q: You've studied under some very well-known chefs here, including Joachim Splichal, Bruce Marder and Wolfgang Puck. What was the biggest learning experience?
Citrin: I'd say Patina.
Lunetta: I have to say the same thing.


Q: Why?
Lunetta: It was a very difficult place to work, but it was difficult in a positive way. I saw how much pressure Joachim put on himself to make that restaurant a great restaurant. That showed us a lot, and it also showed us how to run a business. It wasn't one of those restaurants that was just there. It was a restaurant that needed to be one of the best restaurants in the city.
Citrin: He expected you to perform 110 percent no matter what the conditions were and if you did that, he was fine with you. If you didn't, OK, that's going to be hard, like anywhere. I try to tell the staff, success is the sum of a lot of little things done correctly.


Q: How did JiRaffe, your restaurant, come about?
Citrin: In the world of working as a chef for an owner, it's pretty difficult because there's always ego, especially with young chefs like we were. You're working as the chef and you're not getting the credit.
Lunetta: I had a goal to open up a restaurant by 30. We'd spend time at Jo's house trying to figure out the numbers. Joseph Miller (owner of Joe's in Venice, a friend) had already been in business and he was very successful. If anything, that was an inspiration to say, "We could do this."


Q: You'd been together for three years when Josiah left to open Melisse. What happened?
Citrin: I really always wanted to do fine dining super, super-fine dining.


Q: Were there any hard feelings?
Lunetta: In that kind of situation, there's always going to be some stress and some uncertain feelings. But, given the circumstances, and given that people say you should never go into business with your best friend especially something like the restaurant business, because you want to talk about backstabbing, that's really where you see it we were really pretty good about it.


Q: Was there any hesitation to work together again?
Lunetta: Not on my behalf. One of the things I think may have benefited us at JiRaffe in the early days was the strength of two. And I think here, once we were able to spend some time apart, coming back, the strength of two once again is good. We both have restaurants that are successful and we have that confidence and bring that to the table.
Citrin: It wasn't hesitation. Once we talked about it, it was like, "Yeah, it's going to work. It'll be good."


Q: How would you describe Lemon Moon?
Citrin: It's healthy food that's available quickly. There are no restrictions here. (The chef) can make whatever food (he) feels like making. You can say, "I had a great Thai noodle salad," you can come back and make that. We're creating something that people can eat everyday.
Lunetta: It's all the foods we enjoy and all the foods we understand. We've been around classic French cuisine and California French, Mediterranean, Asian. It's not fusion, but we put it together in a very simple, healthy way. Speed, efficiency and simplicity are what we are going after.


Q: What hours do you typically work?
Citrin: 8:30 a.m. to 12 at night.
Lunetta: I may be on phone speaking with a fish vendor at 6 and 7 a.m., four times a week, just to double-check that everything's coming. It may be the same with the vegetable vendor, and also with our meat purveyor. Then I take the kids to school, stop by Lemon Moon and look into what we have for catering and parties. We communicate with our chef and our manager to make sure they're on track, survey everything from coffee sales to daily maintenance to quality control, follow up on what we spoke about the day before, and depending on the day, may go into service and help out a little bit. At this point, it's important for Josiah and I to communicate with our clientele, so one of us is usually always there. Then I head to JiRaffe from 2 to 10.


Q: Why is it worth it to put in so many hours?
Citrin: It's the career I chose. It comes along with it. You just get trained to do it along the way.


Q: Was there anything in starting Lemon Moon that surprised you?
Lunetta: The prices of the to-go containers and the plastic ware are incredible. You almost have to add 45 cents onto every dish. And then there are issues of tips because it's self-service. You have to pay the service staff a little bit more. This is something that appears to be very simple from the outside looking in, but it's far more complicated than what it appears to be.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.