Chef Brian Bornemann turns Employees Only L.A. into a must-visit dining destination, and he’s now ready to take over the kitchen at iconic Michael’s Santa Monica.

By Andy Wang
August 19, 2019
Fried Chicken Sandwich Studios

The first thing Employees Only L.A. general manager Tom Sopit tells me about chef Brian Bornemann is that he’s “really talented and really young.” The word “young” is something you hear a lot when people talk about Bornemann, who was previously the executive chef at Casey Lane’s Viale dei Romani (one of Food & Wine’s picks for the biggest restaurant openings of 2018). 

Bornemann, who first worked for Lane at The Tasting Kitchen, is just 29, but he’s also one of the most competent, creative, and confident chefs in Los Angeles. (“I just walked in the back door and asked to make some pasta,” he says of how he was hired at The Tasting Kitchen.) At Employees Only in West Hollywood, he’s serving remarkable crudos like halibut with a resplendent yellow sauce that includes lemon juice, preserved lemon, shallot, and cava vinegar. The dish is finished with a little arbequina olive oil and covered in sunflower petals. The crudo is as delicious as it is beautiful.

Bornemann goes masterfully from the lightness of his crudos (which also include perfect spot prawns and uni) into the darkness of his crispy squid ink rice. The rice looks like it could be a modernist painting. It looks like it could be cover art for Skrillex or a poster for a Lightning Bolt/Black Dice concert. It looks like something Jordan Kahn might serve if he actually had a spaceship. The flavors and textures in this dish, which features crabmeat from beloved Maine seafood supplier Sue Buxton, are ethereal. As Bornemann points out, this rice gives you the socarrat and the umami bomb of paella without actually being paella. He says that squid ink is something he fell in love with when he was visiting Venice, Italy. But there’s also “a little bit of our L.A. heart and soul with the serrano chile and cilantro” in the squid ink rice.

Eliott Montero

What Bornemann is doing is creating food that’s a reflection of how he grew up eating in Los Angeles. After he connected with Sopit, a hospitality veteran who’s the nephew of Thai-food queen Jazz Singsanong of Jitlada, Bornemann realized that he should color outside the lines at Employees Only in West Hollywood.

“I love the Employees Only in New York,” Bornemann says. “It’s definitely a New York-style menu, and it’s great for that. I like the brand and vibe. Tom and I both being from L.A., we wanted to make something that resonated more with how we like to eat in our city.”

Employees Only L.A. opened in April 2018. Bornemann joined as executive chef around the end of May 2019 and quickly made the menu his own. He started with the foundation of a famous cocktail bar that was born in New York and also has an outpost in Singapore. For a crudo with spot prawns that might be sourced from Santa Barbara or Tokyo’s Toyosu market, he tops a raw tail with a sauce that’s a play on an aperol spritz. He uses aperol, calamansi vinegar, and Spanish yuzu oil for the sauce that’s mixed with prawn roe and spooned atop each tail. 

“I built that sauce to be the same color as the shrimp, with enough acidity to brighten it up,” he says.

Each order of this crudo also comes with a fried head.

“Eaten side by side, I think you’re just the happiest person in the world,” Bornemann says.

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The food at Employees Only L.A., which has suddenly become West Hollywood’s most exciting new restaurant, sparks all kinds of joy. Uni crudo comes atop nori, and you roll up the whole thing like a taco. The sweetness and richness of the Santa Barbara uni is balanced with masago, serrano chile, and smoked olive oil.

“Uni is great on its own, but it does need a little bit of acidity and a little bit of spice,” Bornemann says. “Going a little bit Asian with the nori taco was definitely part of doing more California flair outside of my traditional Italian background. I’m just cooking with a natural combination of flavors from the way I eat in L.A., be it from taco trucks, Thai food, all the sources we have.”

The most show-stopping entrée at Employees Only L.A. is chicken that’s prepared two ways. The dish is a culmination of where Bornemann has been and where he wants to go. The legs and thighs are smoked over olive wood, a preparation that’s inspired by when Bornemann (who took some time off from college at UCLA) cooked in Tuscany at a restaurant where he made olive oil, hunted wild game, and threw olive wood into the oven. The breasts, meanwhile, are sous vide in a fish sauce/garlic/chile de árbol butter. Crispy skin, moist meat, an array of dazzling flavors. This dish has it all.

“And then we essentially serve it with Italian agrodolce, fermented chile sauce, and pita to make a shawarma-type situation that’s neither Middle Eastern nor Asian nor anything else,” says Bornemann, who also has a “golden hour” bar menu with shrimp pitas, Southeast Asian-style skewers, masago blinis, and a karaage-style chicken sandwich featuring kimchi slaw. “I’m doing it because I’m from Los Angeles and I just grew up eating that way.”

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And like Joshua Skenes at Angler, Bornemann wants to take ingredients and make them taste like the best and most intense version of themselves. For example, Employees Only L.A. gets whole halibut, which is used for both crudo and an entrée. Bornemann poaches halibut and then lightly smokes the bones to create something like a “fortified dashi” that’s poured over the fish.

“It’s just that sense of using every part of the fish or the bird and everything we get, including vegetables, and cooking them all separately to bring them together in a way to best represents the original product,” he says.

Bornemann will soon have another place to showcase his very specific take on what it’s like to eat and cook as an Angeleno. He’s signed on to be the executive chef at iconic restaurant Michael’s Santa Monica, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in April. Despite his momentum at Employees Only L.A., where he’ll continue to help with menu development, “coaching,” sourcing ingredients, and empowering the kitchen team he’s hired to riff and create new dishes, he knew couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write a new chapter for Michael’s. He’ll be following in the footsteps of Michael’s alums like Jonathan Waxman, Nancy Silverton, Mark Peel, Brooke Williamson, Sang Yoon, and Miles Thompson. The plan is for Bornemann to unveil his menu at Michael’s in mid-September. (This Saturday, he will rep Michael’s at the L.A. Food & Wine Festival in Santa Monica.)

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This is a full-circle moment for Bornemann, who grew up in Santa Monica and can stroll from Michael’s over to the Santa Monica Farmers Market. He tells me about the respect he has for how Michael’s owner Michael McCarty, along with Bay Area chefs like Alice Waters and Judy Rodgers, were really at the “genesis of California cuisine.” He says that one of his formative experiences was working for seasonal-cooking luminary Teri Rippeto at Denver’s Potager.

“She was very militantly farm-to-table,” he says. “If you had a blizzard in May in Colorado, you just had radishes for four months and that was it.”

Potager is where Bornemann started to build relationships with purveyors. And the relationships he’s made over the years, whether it’s with the O-Med olive mill in southern Spain or California seafood suppliers like Ocean Jewels, are a crucial part of every menu he creates.

“These are people that I carry with me for life,” Bornemann says. “I always say, 'You can lose your job, you can lose your girlfriend, but your fish purveyors are going to be with you forever.'”

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