The debut of Post & Beam, chef Govind Armstrong's Baldwin Hills restaurant -- which he had the chutzpah to open on New Year's Eve, of all nights -- was billed as a homecoming. Talented, telegenic and born in nearby Inglewood, Armstrong was tailor-made to star in a "local boy makes good" fable -- except that he is as local to Central America as he is to Inglewood.
The third child in a family of five, Armstrong was 3 years old when his father died. The family moved to Costa Rica, where Spanish became his first language. (His mother is of African, Costa Rican and Indian descent.) When he was 9, they returned to Los Angeles and settled in Encino.
If his provenance is intriguing, his path to the kitchen is even more so. At 13, Armstrong got his first job in the kitchen of Wolfgang Puck's newly opened Spago, an apprenticeship for which jealous culinary school grads twice his age would cut off and confit their own thighs.
He had always spent time in the kitchen with his mother, whom he describes as an engaging hostess but a distracted cook. "She had five kids to watch," Armstrong says. "What could she do?"
By the age of 11 he was catering most of his mother's dinner parties. When an attendee asked to meet the chef, "I told her: I want to open my own restaurant. Even at that age I knew." She brought him to Spago.
"I remember walking through the door and being blown away by everything. I was so nervous. I didn't know who [Puck] was, but I knew he was the man. I was, like, 'I will do anything you want me to do.' "
Armstrong spent three summers working in Spago's kitchen for minimum wage.
Nearly 30 years later, Armstrong, 42, has his own restaurant and a thriving burger chain, although neither happened without some very real failures. Chadwick's, which he opened with Ben Ford in 2000, closed two years later. Steakhouse Table 8, which he shuttered in 2006 so he could move into bigger digs, never reopened. 8 Oz. Burger Bar, in the Fairfax neighborhood, abruptly went under.
Something about lemons and lemonade comes to mind, an especially poignant aphorism for a chef driven by his love of gardening. Armstrong transformed 8 Oz. into a successful mini-chain, although there will be no locations in Los Angeles until the LAX outpost opens (theoretically) this summer. He also battled on Top Chef: Masters, wowed Oprah and Gayle with his grilled cheese sandwich and was voted one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People." If chefs have become rock stars, Govind Armstrong is at the top of the charts.
Post & Beam, then, is a homecoming: Armstrong's first eatery in his native city since 2010. The chef still tools to work in "Dijonnaise," a 1971 yellow Mustang with a white top -- but only when he's not with his newborn daughter, Willow. Having a baby has finally tamed his workaholic tendencies.
"I have always been really selfish and committed to working around the clock," Armstrong says. But fatherhood "opens your eyes. It's not about me anymore. It's not just about the restaurant."