Tim Hollingsworth, who’s about to be on Netflix’s The Final Table, take things back to his childhood at Free Play.
It’s close to 1 p.m. on Sunday, October 28, the day of the unprecedented L.A. sports equinox. Five L.A. professional teams – the Kings, Clippers, Rams, Galaxy, and Dodgers – have home games on this historic Sunday. The scene at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, where the undefeated Rams are playing the Packers, is electric as tailgating fans dressed in jerseys grill and drink and talk smack.
Steps from the Coliseum, atop The Fields L.A. food hall, is Free Play, a new restaurant/sports bar/gaming lounge where one of L.A.’s most prominent chefs is serving Frito pies, wings, meatballs, and hush puppies to a packed house. It’s a good bet that most of Free Play’s guests, including many loud Packers fans who are having beers and nachos before they head into the Coliseum, have no idea that chef Tim Hollingsworth used to run the kitchen at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry or that Hollingsworth represented the United States at the prestigious Bocuse d’Or Finale in 2009. A lot of the people pounding double cheeseburgers at Free Play while they keep an eye on their fantasy-football lineup don’t know that Hollingsworth has an L.A. restaurant, Otium, that is next to the Broad museum. They don’t know that Otium recently served high-concept food inspired by the Yayoi Kusuma: Infinity Mirrors exhibit.
It doesn’t matter that they don’t know any of this. Free Play, which is next to the LAFC soccer team’s new Banc of California Stadium and also feels like an extension of the Coliseum on game days, serves some of the best bar food in L.A. Free Play, which opened on October 26, is also a place where families can bring their kids for a fun meal while students from nearby USC enjoy an inexpensive day of eating and drinking.
A Frito pie, served in a Fritos bag, is $5. An oversized tri-tip taco salad, which is built for sharing, is $12. The $10 cocktails, like the fierce El Trafico Old Fashioned with bourbon, mezcal, roasted pineapple, and barrel-aged bitters, are the work of respected barmen Julian Cox and Nick Meyer. There are $4 shooters, $9 glasses of wine, and $15 gametime pitchers of house beer.
“I went to the extreme in fine dining for so many years,” Hollingsworth says. “Every vacation was surrounded by it. Everything I did was very much that. When I left The French Laundry and came to L.A. and was trying to find out what to do next, I had to revisit a lot of things in life.”
At Free Play, Hollingsworth is eager to focus on food that reminds him of meals he had at chain restaurants like BJ’s when he was growing up in the small town of Placerville, California. He’s part of a big family, so it was important to find restaurants with something for everyone. He also remembers heading to Round Table Pizza and playing video games for half an hour before he ate. Actually, he still happily goes to BJ’s and Round Table Pizza when he heads back to Placerville and visits his family.
So Free Play has pizza pockets, fried pickles, and shrimp lettuce cups. Guests can play pinball, foosball, billiards, and vintage arcade games like Ms. Pac-Man. Hollingsworth plans to add console games in the near future.
A lot of what drives Free Play is nostalgia. Hollingsworth tops Frito pie with chili that reminds him of childhood afternoons.
“The chili, I’m not joking, I had it every week growing up,” he says. “My mom would make a big pot of chili, and I’d come home from football practice and eat a big bowl of chili with a whole thing of saltine crackers and a big, like, McDonald’s extra-large cup of milk. And an hour later, I would eat dinner.”
This, make no mistake, is Texas-style chili. Hollingsworth was born in Houston and moved to California at a young age. The chili was a big hit around Placerville when his mom brought it to church potlucks and chili contests. It’s also been a big hit on the Frito pie at Barrel & Ashes, an L.A. barbecue joint in Studio City that Hollingsworth opened before turning his attention to Otium.
Hollingsworth, who opened the C.J. Boyd’s chicken-sandwich stand at The Fields in August, is also inspired by the diverse flavors of L.A. So, yeah, Free Play is a sports bar with Buffalo wings, but Hollingsworth also serves wings with a smoky, nutty, spicy, completely delightful salsa macha. There’s also a riff on Korean wings at Free Play.
Hollingsworth will likely become a lot more famous when Netflix’s The Final Table debuts on November 20. The Final Table is a cooking-competition series where Hollingsworth and other high-profile chefs like global taco king Esdras Ochoa are battling. The judges include Grant Achatz, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Enrique Olvera, Anne-Sophie Pic, Clare Smyth, and many other culinary powerhouses. Hollingsworth hasn’t seen the final cut of the the show yet, and he’s excited to watch it with his family, friends, and guests at Free Play.
“We definitely want to do some sort of viewing party,” he says.
Maybe that’s when the crowd at Free Play will learn things like how Hollingsworth didn’t go to culinary school but ended up being chef de cuisine at The French Laundry. Either way, it’s not surprising that the experiences he’s had at The French Laundry, the Bocuse d’Or, and Otium prepared him well for The Final Table. A lot of people have asked Hollingsworth if he was nervous being judged by such A-list chefs on the show.
“My honest answer is no,” he says. “Why? Because I cooked for a lot of these chefs at The French Laundry. I’ve cooked for a lot of amazing people. We had Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller, these are like my two idols, and Daniel Boulud come into Otium.”
While The Final Table is a show that showcases fine-dining skills, Hollingsworth is hoping that any fame he gets from it can help him continue to do more accessible things.
“There are a lot of passions I have that hopefully I’ll be able to see fulfilled by the opportunities to open up places,” he says. “Maybe I’ll do a coffee shop. I love coffee. I love the cocktail side of things. Maybe one day it will be a bar that’s not necessarily focused on food. I hope to be known as a person that’s kind of diverse.”
One advantage that Hollingsworth has had, both in cooking competitions and in creating menus, is his ability to just take ingredients and figure things out. This is what he did with Free Play’s hush puppies. After doing R&D and not being satisfied with any recipe for hush puppies he tried, Hollingsworth decided to lay out all the ingredients on a table and make hush puppies without worrying about measuring anything.
“I put in all the ingredients and made it one time,” says Hollingsworth, who had a similar experience when he was deciding how to make fried chicken. “That’s what I’m better at anyway. I’m better at that than recipes.”
But when you have the skills and background Hollingsworth does, it’s not hard to turn on-the-fly cooking into recipes. Hollingsworth is also good at preserving food memories, so the wild red prawns in coconut-ginger broth he serves at Free Play are something that he’s been cooking since his first restaurant job at Placerville’s Zachary Jacques, where he started working as a dishwasher at 18 and soon found himself on the line.
“It was one of the first pan dishes I learned,” he says. “It kind of reminds me of Southeast Asia but done in a French way. It was the dish that I had a lot of fun making because I built it from start to finish from raw ingredients.”
What Hollingsworth is ultimately doing at Free Play is cooking the food that makes him happy. Nachos, for example, are one of his favorite things to eat. And that tri-tip taco salad? It’s big enough to feed two or more people, but the other day Hollingsworth sat down and ate an entire taco salad himself.
Free Play, 3939 S. Figueroa St., 213-419-9481