Food hobbyists might not be able to agree on much, but the proof is in the pudding (or, in the case of L.A., the ice cream and doughnuts): If the L.A. food scene is anything, it’s dynamic. Its continual evolution and adaptation enables aspiring chefs to jump into a restaurant, truck, cart or pop-up as though they're playing real-life Double Dutch.
This is due partly to straightforward financials. Compared with New York, the other main U.S. city where a starry-eyed chef might arrive with dreams of "Best of" accolades, it is less expensive to open a restaurant in L.A., wild as that may seem.
But there are intangibles that make Los Angeles a draw, too. As a city, we seem to be open to new ideas, be they about physical spaces (see: food trucks) or cuisine (see: We don't even call anything fusion here. It's just all fusion). Just as the city itself does, L.A.'s restaurants offer a mix of cuisines, styles and even opportunities.
So it’s no wonder that so many chefs find themselves choosing to build their careers — and often, open their own restaurants — in L.A. Though it’s highly competitive, the embrace of the creative spirit here means a potential to win big in terms of revenue, customer base and critical acclaim. And Los Angeles has become one of the country's main food destinations.
What exactly about the L.A. food scene appeals most to culinary professionals looking to grow their career and business? We spoke with local chef/restaurateurs Ted Hopson of the Bellwether, Erik Oberholtzer of Tender Greens and Jed Sanford of BlackHouse Hospitality Management to find out.
It’s often said that L.A. doesn’t have its own unique culture — yet while it may not have the history or clear demographics of other cities, L.A. offers something even better: an always-overlapping array of cultures and, in turn, cuisines. From ramen on Sawtelle to bánh mì in the SGV, Little Ethiopia's vegan food and fine French dining in Beverly Hills, L.A.’s culinary culture is best defined by its diversity.
Sanford, one of two partners behind BlackHouse Hospitality Management and its seven local restaurants, notes that he and his business partner — both are San Fernando Valley natives — see L.A. as a home base. But that’s not the only reason they chose to open Abigaile and subsequent concepts in and around L.A. It’s also due to the area’s cultural landscape, which Sanford says offers “a ton of opportunity for restaurateurs to try new things.”
Oberholtzer, who founded popular chain Tender Greens after transitioning away from fine dining, is not native to Southern California, but after moving here for a job as the executive chef at Shutters on the Beach, he knew he wanted to start the next chapter of his career in L.A. Oberholtzer and his partners decided to launch Tender Greens here as the city is “big, international, forward-thinking, dynamic, with great climate and a rich history.” He also believes that “people in L.A. are open, sophisticated, globally influenced in culture and cuisine.”
It’s pretty much impossible to examine any part of Los Angeles without considering the influence of Hollywood. Cuisine is no exception. Sitting in the hub of popular culture, restaurants in L.A., as well as the chefs behind them, can set trends, rise quickly to fame and influence the larger national and international restaurant landscapes.
This is especially true with the dawn of social media and its emergence as one of the most powerful tools for marketing, especially when it comes to food-centric social media. Restaurants and chefs in L.A. are at the center of this movement, and represent some of the most popular Instagram and Snapchat accounts in the game. The concept still sounds strange, perhaps even unnatural, but it's a huge part of getting a restaurant's name out into the world.
Says Oberholtzer, “L.A. has a lock on American pop culture. If you can create buzz here, you can grow very quickly.”
Think of it this way: Everyone with a smartphone has a handheld, self-determined marketing campaign at their fingertips.
Traditionally, the culinary landscape has been characterized by an atmospheric gap: Restaurants have fallen at either the uber-casual or uber-fancy end of the spectrum. Ted Hopson, who worked stints as the executive chef at Lukshon and Father’s Office before opening the Bellwether in 2015, recognizes that this divide became even more obvious after the recession, when “L.A. really lost a huge chunk of the high end of dining and gained an army of food trucks.”
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According to Hopson, this shift created a space for restaurants to fill this gap. “Now, years later, we have hit that middle ground.” This middle is what inspired Hopson to open the Bellwether, an example of what he calls “neighborhood places with amazing food — nothing pretentious, nothing too fancy, but really good.”
This space was also what, in many ways, set Tender Greens up for success. Oberholtzer says that the inspiration behind Tender Greens was creating a restaurant with “high-quality ingredients from local farmers markets, prepared with the skill of a chef, offered at an approachable price point in a comfortable, casual environment that felt like our neighborhood spot.”
These concepts, which meld chef-driven menus with a comfortable atmosphere, in many ways define the local culinary landscape and, as Hopson notes, “are really becoming the backbone of the L.A. dining scene.”
This backbone will grow stronger, and probably turn into an entire skeleton. L.A.'s chefs will determine how tall it grows.