Why This L.A. Chef Wants to Open 7 Restaurants in 7 Months
There are chef coats draped on a chair. Bottles are all over the place. A table is covered with wine glasses. Employees are marching through Woodley Proper, and suddenly there's a woman navigating a stroller through the space. In short, nothing is where it's supposed to be and in just a few days, Lee will have friends and family in to try the food. But Lee, who almost broke his hand two days earlier while moving freezers, is unperturbed.
Lee, who turned 30 exactly three weeks ago, is tasting a sandwich while sitting with his laptop. His wife/partner/pastry chef Margarita Kallas-Lee is teaching an apprentice how to make bread. It's been a busy week for Lee as he writes menus, deals with architects and trains his staff while also working nights next door at Scratch Bar & Kitchen, his restaurant that changes its 16-course tasting menu every month and makes its butter, bread, pickles and charcuterie from, well, scratch. ("If we want to put prosciutto on the menu, we gotta buy a pig and we gotta wait a year and half," Lee says. "Right now, we're serving two-and-a-half-year prosciutto because we made it two-and-a-half years ago.")
On this Thursday, Lee's schedule has become exceedingly complicated because he's also just agreed to take a last-minute catering job. He will drive across town as soon as we finish our interview.
"I have to leave in 45 minutes to go cook for 13 people on a two-story mega-yacht in Marina del Rey," Lee says.
He will be on the phone for some of these 45 minutes, figuring out how to procure an 18-pound scaled Canadian salmon for that evening's bash.
"I talked to my team about the party," says Lee, who knows that cooking for VIPs can lead to big opportunities. "We said, 'Fuck it, let's do it.' I could have easily said no. But why? Whenever you say no, you're limiting your potential."
Lee hates saying no, and living in a whirlwind is how he likes to roll. But this isn't just about youthful hubris. It's also about a willingness to put in a lot of time and effort to do things correctly even while it might seem like you're winging it.
"I don't believe in rules," Lee says. "When I say I believe in no rules, do whatever the fuck you want, it's kind of like calling Marty McFly chicken. You can't tell me I can't do something, because yes I can. Why can't I buy a book and learn how to make charcuterie?"
Lee is pure ambition: "When I was 18, I started as a dishwasher. When I decided I wanted to be a cook, I had goals. I had sous chef by 24, I had executive chef by 28, chef/owner by 31 and Michelin star by 30. I hit sous chef at 21, chef/owner at 24. And at 30, no Michelin star, but in seven months we'll have eight restaurants."
For the record, it's impossible for him to have a Michelin star at the moment because there is no Michelin Guide for Los Angeles.
Woodley Proper opens Friday, April 7 with "contemporary Americana-style bar food" from Lee and his culinary team along with cocktails and tableside punch-bowl service from respected beverage director Devon Espinosa.
You can come here, sit on a sofa and enjoy seasonal drinks or indulge in a cocktail cart with your own bartender. You can fill your candlelit bistro table with assorted toasts (like ground tomato with sweet-and-sour onions and burnt avocado atop sourdough), chilled seafood, charcuterie, cheese, a charred wedge salad, dry-aged steak or a half roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and broccoli. You can try playful riffs on bar snacks like olive-stuffed olives or chips and guacamole where the chips are crispy prawn heads and the guacamole is covered with salmon roe, pickled shrimp and serrano peppers. For dessert, Kallas-Lee has brioche donuts and boozy chocolates.
In the near future, you can also attempt to negotiate your way into a speakeasy-style back room that Lee is turning into another restaurant with a different kind of menu he will announce later.
"The secret to opening restaurants is just fucking opening," says Lee, who plans to open seven restaurants in seven months while also cooking at major festivals.
Here's his rough schedule, so you can better understand how crazy he's decided to make his life.
April 7: Woodley Proper opens.
April 8: Lee and his wife will be at their 10:15 a.m. cooking demo during the Santa Barbara Food & Wine Weekend.
April 14-16 and April 21-23: Woodley Proper will shuck oysters and serve cocktails at Coachella.
Later in April: Frankland's Crab & Co., Lee's casual seafood shack, will open next to Scratch Bar and Woodley Proper.
Late May or early June: Lee will open another Frankland's at Santa Barbara's Montecito Inn. He will also likely open his speakeasy space attached to Woodley Proper.
June 24-25: Frankland's will be at the Arroyo Seco music festival.
August: An outpost of Scratch Bar will open at the Montecito Inn.
September: A to-be-announced three-meals-a-day restaurant will open at the Montecito Inn. Lee's team will also handle room service for the hotel.
October: Another to-be-announced restaurant will open at the Montecito Inn.
What Lee is attempting might seem less insane if you consider what he's already done.
There was the time he rented an Austin alley during South by Southwest to create a 30-seat tasting-menu popup with food-truck operator Clayton Young. (Lee might open an Austin restaurant in the future.) On the night L.A. Times reviewer Jonathan Gold came into Scratch Bar's former Beverly Hills location, Lee, his sous chefs and his lead servers were in Austin. Gold wrote a positive review anyway. Lee then got concert promoter Goldenvoice to build him temporary brick-and-mortar restaurants for Coachella, and he put a chef's table in the kitchen of his pop-up Scratch Bar there.
"My parents taught me when I was young that I could have anything I want in this life and nothing was impossible," says Lee, who stopped getting an allowance when he was 12 and started working to pay for trips to the movies. "However, nothing was free and nobody owed me anything. If you work hard and you believe in it, you will get it. How do you do it? You just fucking do it. You just wake up in the morning and say yes."
And you just find enough hours in the week for your entire to-do list.
Lee worked at pioneering L.A. chef Neal Fraser's BLD and staged at Fraser's Grace while also being the drummer in nationally touring rock band Alpha and Omega. (He left high school at 15 to focus on music.) He staged at fine-dining standard-bearer Providence on his days off from working at the Viceroy and Westside Tavern. He was also attending culinary school at the time but dropped out when he was told that going on a trip with colleagues to The French Laundry wouldn't be an excused absence. Lee then went to work at another respected fine-dining restaurant, Hatfield's, where he was quickly promoted to sous chef. ("That's where I really learned how to be a chef," he says.) In Chicago, he cooked at L20 before joining the Alinea Group, where he worked on Next before it opened and briefly staged at Alinea.
By the way, Lee has spent many late nights at the Hollywood Park Casino playing poker tournaments, including some he's won. He's a serious cardplayer who used to hustle hundreds of dollars at summer camp. His wife is a working actress and model who's directed music videos. They've written screenplays together. Lee continues to make music and is working on a full-length album where he'll play all the instruments.
I ask if he's ever exhausted.
"My body's really tired," Lee says. "But I also drank a lot of beer last night and played cards until three in the morning. Life is about fucking living. Have fun. There is no limit."
Lee's enthusiasm is infectious, and he loves superlatives. The sandwich he's eating is made with "the greatest bread," and the charcoal ice cream Kallas-Lee serves at Scratch Bar is "the best thing in the world." Lee's exuberant about letting his "best friends" Marty Shields and Alex Carrasco help run his growing empire as regional executive chefs in Encino and Montecito. Lee loves that his younger brother, Lennon, is part of his team too.
Lee was quick to tell me on a recent night at Scratch Bar that a brilliant "bagels-and-lox" dish (caraway crackers with uni, cream cheese, salmon roe, capers and dehydrated pearl onions) was an idea from Ben Bowers, a cook who joined Scratch Bar as a dishwasher 18 months earlier after answering an ad on Craigslist.
"We have the freedom to play around and enjoy ourselves," says Lee, who you might remember as a smack-talker in season 13 of Top Chef. "Padma says you can't mix dairy and fish? Why, because somebody wrote that a hundred years ago? Fuck that. There are no rules anymore. You can do whatever you want, but you can't just do it without thinking. It's gotta be calculated. It's gotta be smart. And yes, you make a lot of mistakes when you try a lot of things, but you gotta go out there and try."
The most important driving philosophy for Lee is the willingness to figure things out. At Scratch Bar, the staff is fermenting honey water and pineapple liqueur. Lee's taking buttermilk from the butter they make and using it for ranch dressing on sandwiches at Woodley Proper. He remembers reading a long time ago that "the definition of a restaurant is a place that serves provisions made on site." He thinks about this constantly.
"You can buy processed and pre-made things, but why the fuck do that?" Lee says. "All the fun is in trying. We wanna put yogurt on the menu, cool. Next month we get to learn how to make yogurt. And we're going to tinker until we think, fuck, that's the best yogurt we've ever had."
As a chef/restaurateur, Lee wants to ensure that his talented staff never departs. He doesn't have servers at Scratch Bar, so cooks share tips and make more money than they would at other L.A. tasting-menu restaurants. Lee says he and his restaurant group will be there to invest in new projects when his veteran chefs want to create their own ventures.
"When people come to work here, I tell them you should never ever leave unless you're changing your career," Lee says. "If somebody's worked with me long enough that they're ready to open their own restaurant, fuck, we already have the same philosophies. I don't even need to watch them."
Lee and his team are just getting started.
"I want 100 world-class restaurants by the time I'm 50 years old," Lee says, smiling but also totally serious. "I have 19 years and like 350 days."