It is not always easy to get a seat at Ricebar in Downtown Los Angeles. That's not a surprise, as the place only covers 275 square feet. The size limitation of the Filipino establishment is chef and owner Charles Olalia's biggest complaint of his first restaurant.
"I was frustrated because people wanted to come here but there's no space," Olalia said. "Since it's just a tiny kitchen, in the beginning people would wait in line 45 minutes, get their food after they ordered in 20 minutes, so it wasn't fair to the customers. But they were coming and they were happy about it."
Olalia didn't grow up dreaming of owning a micro-restaurant in LA. His story is a tale as old as time: His parents wanted him to become a doctor, and he didn't. "I was always on a path to become a doctor. I come from a family of doctors," Olalia said. He got as far as finishing his pre-med education before veering off track.
He broke the news to his parents that he wanted to go to culinary school instead. Working in kitchens seemed to offer more freedom to Olalia than a job in the medical profession. "I wanted to travel, and I knew as a doctor I would be limited in traveling, so I decided to cook," he said. "As a cook you can work anywhere, you can learn from anybody."
He left his native Philippines for San Francisco when he was 21 years old and found a job working at the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay. Before long, he swapped SF for Vegas. At Restaurant Guy Savoy, three-Michelin-star chef Guy Savoy's uber-fine dining spot in Caesar's Palace, Olalia was introduced to the best ingredients in the world.
"That's where I learned that a truffle was not a chocolate. I was that cook," Olalia said. "That's why I have so much compassion for cooks who are like, 'What's that—a radish or potato?' Because I was like that at one point."
In between learning about truffles and cooking French delicacies, Olalia took advantage of the lifestyle Vegas had to offer. "It was the time of our lives, he said. "You work all day, party all night until the morning. You learn stamina, to work through hangovers." Vietnamese coffees certainly helped.
Two years of Vegas insanity later, Olalia left the city of sin for bucolic Napa, California to work at The French Laundry. "My first responsibility was to accept the produce for the entire restaurant—on my second day," he said. But Napa wasn't for Olalia, so he packed his bags for San Francisco after six months and took on a role at Coi just as the Great Recession hit.
"Back in '08, the downturn of the economy, when you're working so many hours and you're serving 20 to 30 people," Olalia recalled. "Thirty people would be weekend numbers."
The economic misfortune sent Olalia into a state of despair. "You're tired, you're broke. It's like, 'What am I doing?' That was my what the fuck am I doing moment. I actually did tell my parents I was going back to med school."
Olalia left Coi and started studying for med school for a few weeks, quickly remembering everything he had hated about the field. He then refocused his attention on cooking, although he didn't return to fine dining. Instead, the cook thought he needed to work on his fundamentals, so he took a job at an all-day dining spot in the South Bay.
"It's funny because I hid from everybody. Coming from Guy Savoy, Coi, and suddenly you're in this family-owned restaurant. I didn't tell anyone where I was working."
While there was no foie or caviar at the California bistro, there was a valuable opportunity to learn how to successfully run a food business. Once he built his cooking confidence back up, Olalia took a job in Los Angeles at Patina, Joachim Splichal's French American fine dining restaurant in the dazzling Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Olalia loved Los Angeles immediately. He lived and worked downtown, which fondly reminded him of Makati, Manila. He spent four and a half years as Patina's executive chef before pangs of his home cuisine began to hit. After a momentous trip back home to the Philippines to marry his wife, Olalia started to wonder why he couldn't eat great Filipino food in the US.
"Cooking all of this fancy food at work, you can never really make it at home. You don't have all of the equipment, the ingredients are expensive. Throughout these years, when I eat at home it's always rice. Rice and steak. It's always rice."
He started hosting pop-ups at his business partner Santos Uy's restaurant in Hollywood. The straightforward Filipino food was well-received, and the pop-ups were well-attended. After one such dinner, Uy handed Olalia a set of keys: He had quietly rented Olalia a restaurant space downtown.
On Olalia's first visit to the dilapidated space, he sat down and wrote the restaurant's concept immediately. "It's going to be six dishes for the six days that we're open. It's going to be based on what we ate at home," he said. "Santos was like, 'OK, great.'"
Olalia crowd-sourced ideas for those six dishes from his family, narrowing down their favourite foods that could work in the minuscule kitchen as well as for the clientele. "We had to work on keeping it light, keeping it lunch-friendly—so you don't fall asleep after it," he said.
As the restaurant's name suggests, the menu centres around rice. Olalia is passionate about using non-GMO, fair-trade heirloom rice from the Philippines in an effort to help farmers from his homeland as much as possible. After tasting some 30 rice varieties, varying by region, grain size, starch level, and so on, Olalia narrowed down his favourites for Ricebar.
"People would probably kill me for buying rice this expensive and selling it at this price point, but I was like, 'We've gotta do it. I'll make up the difference on my end,'" he said. "That's what chefs do. If you want it, you make it work—somehow."
Today, guests at Ricebar have the pleasure of watching their heirloom rices being prepared by a fine dining veteran just a few feet away. The intimate setting is a constant source of joy for the chef.
"I didn't start cooking for the magic of it, for the technique of it," he said. "It's for the interaction, it's for the connections that you make."
Olalia has paused his plans for expansion since the birth of his son last fall, but still hopes to open more Filipino concepts—with more square footage—in the future.