How Neal Fraser Cooks 675 Pounds of Steak for 600 Guests at L.A.’s Beefiest Blowout
L.A. chef Neal Fraser is in front of the stage at Vibiana, slicing and salting beef as party band The Shrines covers “Killing Me Softly.” Trays of sliced filet mignon are already on communal tables, and gluttonous guests are using their hands to gorge on the medium-rare steak with fingerling potatoes, broccolini, red wine jus and horseradish cream. There are no utensils, plates or napkins.
The crowd at Vibiana on this Saturday night is simultaneously wearing black-tie attire and aprons. Servers briskly walk the floor and deliver bones to some lucky revelers. Co-host Eric Wareheim and his buddy John C. Reilly pour Sweet Berry Wine at their table. Movie and T.V. stars like Oscar Isaac, Connie Britton and Natasha Rothwell are getting their fingers dirty as they eat, as are seemingly every comedy writer who used to live in Brooklyn and has relocated to Los Angeles.
This is Beefsteak VII, an event that hearkens back to old-school banquets frequented by politicians and gangsters. The 21st-century version at Vibiana, a stunning events space that dates back to 1876 and was the city’s first Archdiocese Catholic cathedral, is a fundraiser for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.
Guests will feel like they're at an elevated version of Medieval Times that’s calibrated for upwardly mobile Hollywood types who are well past the days of spec scripts. Beefsteak is as over-the-top as meat-centric gatherings get in L.A. It’s a night when 675 pounds of beef are served to just upwards of 600 guests. For those who don’t eat steak, there are whole five-pound Tai snappers and parsnips. The bash also involves close-hand magic, a karaoke RV, cocktails and meaty snacks both before and after dinner. For dessert, there are meaty sweets like bacon candy.
One day before Beefsteak, all the filet mignon is seared on a flat top. On Saturday at around 11 a.m., the meat goes into three ovens and is roasted for five hours. Neal’s been making red wine demi-glace for two weeks. This is an impressive operation.
But for Neal and his wife and business partner Amy Knoll Fraser, Beefsteak is just another night. The Frasers own and operate Vibiana while simultaneously running an attached restaurant, Redbird, that’s constantly packed with dinner guests as well as catered parties in its five private dining rooms and new garden. Neal stresses that the food he does for Beefsteak is “pretty simple” compared to some other events. Preparing 675 pounds of meat really isn’t a big deal for him and his staff. As producer of Beefsteak, Amy holds down all the non-kitchen logistics, so Neal and his team can focus on cooking.
Between Vibiana and Redbird, the Frasers put together more than 500 events last year in spaces that total 50,000 square feet of indoor space and 35,000 square feet of outdoor space.
“There are 85 people on the second floor,” Amy says when I see her at the 150-person Beefsteak VIP hour in Redbird’s garden. “There are 40 people for a 40th birthday party on the third floor.”
Amy, who runs the front-of-house for both Vibiana and Redbird, climbs maybe 20 flights of stairs every night. She smiles as she says that checking in on all her events is adding years to her life.
On this Saturday night, there are also guests pre-gaming for Beefsteak in Vibiana’s courtyard with hors d’oeuvres like bacon served out of Spam bacon cans. Plus, the public restaurant part of Redbird typically feeds 350 to 400 guests on busy Saturday nights like this. And this is after brunch service for 100 to 150 people.
But the Frasers look totally calm as they walk around the garden and mingle with the crowd while servers pass around sweetbreads, duck hearts, monkfish liver and soy chorizo. Guest chef Josiah Citrin, who was also here the night before for a 120-guest C-CAP benefit dinner in Redbird’s garden and west room, is cooking for the VIP hour. Citrin laters change into a tuxedo, joins the carnivorous crowd at Beefsteak and shows off his serious dance moves when the band plays “P.Y.T.”
When I run into Neal, I ask him how things are going.
“The peas and fava beans are coming around,” he says.
Neal’s in the middle of what seems like a crazy night, but he’s able to have a relaxed conversation about what he’s growing in the garden. A couple weeks earlier, he had walked me through the garden, where he’s also planted kale, cabbage, onions, edible flowers, bok choy and lots more. He thought I might want an update on what’s happening. He’s also growing catfish in his aquaponic garden. Once the catfish mature, the Frasers will host a fish fry with spears for each guest and a big Cowboy Cauldron.
One reason the Frasers can do so much is that Amy is remarkably organized with her Outlook calendar, her staffing needs and every number she needs to know. She can tell me, for example, that Beefsteak involves 82 front-of-house employees (including managers, captains, servers, bartenders and security) as well as four chefs, eight cooks and two dishwashers.
Before Beefsteak, she calculated that there would be close to 1,700 guests between all her spaces during the weekend. The Frasers have had busier weekends: Last year, during a week when 3,771 guests came by, there was a Friday with a buyout at Redbird plus five private Redbird gatherings and an 825-person event at Vibiana.
And things are much easier than they were during the Frasers’ first Beefsteak in 2011.
“We didn’t have a walk-in refrigerator,” Neal says. “We actually received the meat the same day because we didn’t have enough refrigerator space. Where we were vs. where we are now is a lot different.”
Redbird alone was home to 416 events last year. Between Vibiana and Redbird, the Frasers have done weddings, office parties, art shows, cocktail demonstrations with Redbird bar director Tobin Shea and all kinds of community gatherings and fundraisers. Neal has made sliders and his beloved fried chicken sandwiches for events. (The Frasers also run casual chicken restaurant Fritzi Coop.) He’s prepared Nigerian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Spanish, Italian, French and Moroccan food. He’s cooked a lot of whole pigs for Filipino parties. He bought a churrascaria setup to grill sirloin cap (picanha) during a wedding for a Korean family from Brazil. The gluten-free roll that Redbird serves is pão de queijo, Brazilian cheese bread that originated from the Frasers’ event business. Believe it or not, Neal cooked at another party for a different Korean family from Brazil.
Despite having such an intense schedule, Amy says she and Neal are focused on expanding their catering business to off-site events this year. After all, that’s how this beautiful madness started for the Frasers.
The couple, who previously ran popular restaurants Grace and BLD, were contacted about catering an event at Vibiana in 2008.
“It was a terribly boring event, a lecture in the main hall and dinner directly after.” Amy says. “ I had never heard of Vibiana. I went to go to a walkthrough. I had trouble finding it and I had to call. I was standing across the street.”
She had no idea that crossing the street would change her life.
“I was completely stunned by the beauty of it all,” she says. “I heard the story, the history of the space.”
She was enthralled by the tale of this former cathedral, one of L.A.’s few remaining 19th-century landmarks, a place that was heavily damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake and later resurrected as one of the city’s grandest party spaces.
“I did a tour of the rectory building, which was just concrete and dust and pigeons and weird storage,” Amy says.
The woman giving the tour told Amy the goal was to have a restaurant in the rectory space, which used to house priests in what was a gritty part of downtown.
“I stopped, I froze and I got chills,” Amy says. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, we have to do this.’”
The Frasers officially took over Vibiana on Christmas Eve of 2012. In January 2015, they opened Redbird in the rectory space.
These days, Neal is tending his new garden, which is located on land Redbird shares with the Little Tokyo library. Neal is on the board of L.A.’s Best, an organization that’s brought over elementary school students for after-school visits to the garden. Amy is on the board of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which could use the garden as a prototype for urban agriculture.
“That’s just the two things we’re working on now,” Amy says. “We’re open to anything, really.”
Amy worked on the interior of Redbird with designer Robert Weimer, selected all of Redbird’s art and is on the board of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. So it’s not surprising that she’d like to have more art shows at Vibiana. This is challenging because art exhibits typically exist for extended periods of time. Vibiana’s schedule can’t allow that.
“I’m trying to create this formula where it’s a three-day in and out, where you have an opening and show and de-install,” Amy says. “There’s not a lot of money in art shows. We’re trying to figure out how to do it at cost. We feel like we have a big responsibility to share the space with the community.”
The Frasers’ business at Vibiana and Redbird has grown so much that they’re storing everything from kitchen towels to circulator parts in the showers of their office.
“We have a lot of dead space we’ve grown into,” Neal says. “Now we don’t have the black corner we can just stuff everything into. We need a cistern.”
I ask the Frasers about other challenges that come with doing so much simultaneously.
“I have some sous chefs that like to do catering and other ones that don’t, and the ones that don’t suck at it,” Neal says. “The biggest challenge is always people.”
The first time Neal did an event on a night that Redbird’s dining room was full, he thought this must be what it’s like to feel bipolar. But, he says, everything “gets easier and easier the more we do it.”
So at Beefsteak VII, Amy has time to take out her phone and film a dancer who’s on the stage. Neal walks the room and gets big smiles and firm hugs from guests including Britton. The Frasers are holding everything down at Vibiana and Redbird, but they also look like two happy people enjoying a great party.