Ephemeral LA chefs, nomadic restaurants, post-COVID future


On Tuesday, the sisters behind Bungkus Bagus buy ingredients. On Wednesdays, they line their Glendale aisle with steel tables and spend hours chopping up chillies and garlic for their Balinese pop-up, while Thursdays are spent frying herbs, long beans and sambal goreng. On Fridays, Celene and Tara Carrara cut the banana leaves to wrap the bungkus, their packages filled with coconut rice and fragrant curries and hard-boiled eggs, and on Saturdays, they set up a stall reminiscent of their childhood in Indonesia. and welcome their customers right inside. the door of their house. Sometimes the line extends to the sidewalk.

The Carrara sisters never intended to enter the restaurant industry – a year ago Celene was working as a doula and Tara was a makeup artist. But, like so many others, they had to look for new ways to make money as the pandemic ravaged entire sectors of the economy.

“I don’t think that without COVID, and without the birth of the metro [food] movement, that we would do that, ”said Celine Carrara. “It’s bittersweet because a lot of the landscape has changed, and we’ve seen restaurants close that we love, and yet there’s all this new stuff on the horizon, which is also really exciting. It’s a bit surreal.

For professional chefs, bartenders, waiters, and others in the hospitality industry, cooking and selling food from home – sometimes with permits and licenses from LA County, and sometimes without – offered a new way to survive for that restaurants and bars were closed. They were joined by people like the Carrara who had no restaurant experience, swelling the ranks of LA bakers and home cooks who offered special Angelenos social media savvy menus, direct access to makers and some of the most exciting restaurants in the area. in years.

Items for sale at Bungkus Bagus, a Balinese pop-up in Glendale.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Often it only takes a few clicks on Instagram for customers. Once an order is placed, an address is revealed or a delivery is scheduled, and some of LA’s best new foods are available, in the form of croissants or fried chicken or bentos or cheesecakes or dyed dumplings. naturally. Sometimes the options seem endless.

Now on the brink of a statewide reopening – slated for June 15 – LA’s pop-up chefs, nomadic restaurants and in-home cocktail vendors may need to rotate again when the meals and drinks inside return to what may very well appear normal. Some of them are ready to resume their daily work. Others want to stay independent and underground, or they want to develop their businesses more traditionally in a commercial kitchen. A few just want the party to go on, as long as they can. Current and proposed statewide regulations could also mean changes for those who operate home kitchens, although they may not help home sellers until 2022.

Currently, California only allows licensed operators of “artisan products” to prepare food – including certain baked goods, herb mixes, dried pasta, and preserves – at home. “Class A” operators can sell directly to consumers from their homes and at temporary events such as bake sales, at farmers’ markets and through farm subscriptions. “Class B” operators must be inspected and licensed annually, and may also offer their products in restaurants, markets and food trucks. Neither class allows gross annual sales to exceed $ 50,000, nor items that require refrigeration – disqualifying hundreds of underground LA pop-ups from legal sale. With AB-377 and AB-1144, that could change.

AB-377 became law in 2019 and allows “micro home cooking businesses” to prepare and sell refrigerated items and other non-food items from a private residence. But it is up to the county governments to choose and authorize such enterprises. Prior to the pandemic, Los Angeles County officials from several departments were discussing their authorization, according to Liza Frias, director of environmental health services, whose department oversees the cottage industry program. But the health crisis has blocked any decision in this area.

“At this point, everyone is really ready to step in on the pandemic response and make sure we of course mitigate that,” Frias said. “I’m sure that in the future – I don’t know if it’s between six months and a year – this topic will come back and we will present it to the board. [of supervisors] to consider.”

Frias added, “When you’re licensed and signed up, you care about what you offer; you want to be able to make sure your customers know you care. Otherwise, that’s when they contact us and file a complaint. “

Jess Wang is licensed for her bakery, Picnic; his pickle business, Pickle, is not eligible for a permit, but under AB-377 it could be, if the county of LA chooses. Tired of waiting, Wang is now looking for a commercial kitchen space where she could bake butter mochi and hand pies as well as pickles – instead of earning money from cooking classes. Zoom-based Pickle stripping, which she taught throughout the pandemic.

AB-1144, which passed Assembly on May 20 and was sent to the State Senate, would allow Class A artisan kitchen operators to sell up to $ 75,000 in gross sales; those with Class B licenses could generate up to $ 150,000 in gross annual sales.

Laura Hoang stands at her kitchen counter working a blender.

Laura Hoang, at her home in Monterey Park, sells baked goods under the name Largwa.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

This increase could help independent bakers such as Laura Hoang, a pastry chef who sells under the nickname Largwa and whose operation is gaining popularity and scope.

When the Buddy restaurant in downtown Los Angeles temporarily closed its doors at the start of the pandemic, Hoang lost an outlet for his pies, cakes and cookies. She was also supposed to start working at a local cafe, which opened a few days before closing and closed shortly after. She found a direction, and ultimately an income, thanks to an operation she carried out via Instagram: encouraged by the protests demanding justice for George Floyd, she began selling by direct message, and part of the proceeds of her cookies. and other treats was donated to the mutual. aid groups and non-profit organizations. Now she sells through retailers such as Chinatown’s Thank you coffee, always sharing updates through her Instagram account.

Working independently gave him new confidence and new direction; she recently moved into a larger home kitchen, one with ventilation, and another that she plans to get a Class B cottage cooking license. She says she sees no need to return to the kitchens of the restaurants, at least not immediately – especially when systemic issues of sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and industry underpayment remain rampant.

A baking sheet with five small pies

Mini pies with peaches and nectarines from Laura Hoang.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“The pandemic has allowed food manufacturers to safely break free from this toxic environment, but it has not spat us into a more stable environment,” she said. “It was kind of like, ‘Understand it’, and I feel lucky that I was able to understand it.”

Ai Kennedy, who sells sushi prepared in her home kitchen in Pasadena, is also reluctant to join restaurant staff. Former Sushi Chef Enya and Q hosts her weekend bento pickups at an art gallery she runs, but she wants to take the next step, whether it’s renting a commercial kitchen or to open his own full restaurant one day. She just wishes – for herself and for others – that the rent was cheaper in Los Angeles.

But even as she seeks to be part of the system, and although restaurants are reopening and removing potential orders from LA pop-ups, she believes the underground is here to stay.

“I think it’s still expanding,” she said. “People have learned that there are options like this – they don’t have to go to a restaurant – and there are so many interesting chefs doing interesting things.

Even the inspectors agree.

“I think we’ll always have an underground industry,” said Frias, of the LA County Department of Public Health. “I hope we have more people who want to grow up. We’ve seen successes with artisan cooking, then they make the transition to a shared kitchen, and then they end up starting their own business. I mean, for me, it’s a success: being able to have your own business. “

Some entrepreneurs say they don’t want to move towards a more formal restoration operation.

A close-up of two cookies on a plate.

Laura Hoang’s Chocolate Chip Rye Cookies.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Lazy J’s fries fish every first and third Sunday on the patio behind Sticky Rice in Echo Park. Chefs James Seitz and Jae Hee Lee and COO Justin Hodgson needed a reprieve from traditional kitchens – and wanted more of a casual, food-focused party where everyone is welcome and the Budweiser moves freely. With every Lazy J’s pop-up, the music blasts, there are cocktails from the Sticky Rice bar, Spirit House, and the team’s fries until they’re sold out.

“There’s a difference between having fun and making it a show, and making it a restaurant and seating,” Hodgson said. “We especially want to keep a blockage and a slow combustion.”

As for the Carrara, they could see the vines growing above their heads as they shivered, stirred, simmered and folded their bungkus for 11 months. There is a fountain in their garden which is bubbling all day. The serene surroundings of the house inspired them and kept them connected with their childhood.

“I think what’s really cool about our setup is that he uses the home and the business, and that’s a very Balinese thing,” Tara Carrara said. “In Bali, you don’t have a strict line between commercial and residential areas, so there are a lot of businesses running out of family complexes.”

They weighed their options for the future of Bungkus Bagus. If they grow their pop-up in a commercial kitchen, they are concerned that it will become too sterile. They aren’t sure they want to abandon their home, so they are also considering a private events route, which would allow them to bring their experience to another yard – with live cooking, an expanded menu, incense. , offers and music. .

“It’s part of the magic,” Tara Carrara added. “The whole experience is meeting us, seeing our house, hanging out – the lush plants – and if that was just the delivery, you’d be missing out on a big part of the equation, which is the connection, the community, the personality and the warmth of a true human being.




About Dawn Valle

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