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Food by VICE

LA Restaurants Help Weave the City's Social Fabric

When my surrogate brother passed away, it illuminated how powerful a restaurant can be in facilitating human relationships. Now, as a chef in LA, I've noticed how our restaurants are becoming part of the city's social fabric.

by Michael Hung
Feb 19 2015, 5:30pm

For me, food has always been about communion. Many of my fondest memories growing up are intimately linked to food, be it a backyard BBQ with my uncles when I had my first sip of beer, or sitting around the kitchen counter with my mom and aunts while they made spring rolls.

When my surrogate brother passed away, it illuminated how powerful a restaurant can be in facilitating human relationships to me. After the funeral, many of our friends and family met at an old popular restaurant in the area. The manager and servers looking after our party were so gracious and empathic. They quietly took care of our needs, arranged lovely plates of comforting Italian food at our tables, and encouraged us to eat and drink.

WATCH: Chef's Night Out with Faith & Flower

As I ate, my despair became bearable, and I found voice enough to talk to the person next to me. And as we drank, the pain eased, and stories were told of my brother, our friend, and those memories burst forth in laughter and tears. I remember how grateful I was to know my brother, to know the friends and family surrounding me. I also remember how grateful I was toward the people working at the restaurant—for the comfort they provided in merely doing their jobs well.

Of course, a successful chef at some point must accept that his or her life will diverge from the lives of many friends and family who do not work in the restaurant industry. We keep different and longer hours, we work when others celebrate, and, unlike many other careers, our work relies on our physical presence.

An image or idea sits in my subconscious mind and develops from a formless state into something tangible that I can finally put to paper. My inspiration for food works in a similar way.

But this is not to say that we are isolated. Among chefs, there is an esprit de corps that exists, because we share the same experience. A great example of being part of this community happened to me recently. Ray Garcia, a great chef who has been a respected figure in Los Angeles for many years, is opening a new restaurant a block away from Faith & Flower. I was walking past their new space, and I saw Ray through the window. He waved me in and sat me down to an impromptu lunch tasting of the dishes they were working on.

Restaurants like Terrine, Union, and Faith & Flower are becoming part of Los Angeles's social fabric. Our chefs have a shared sense of experience, so that gives us a place of connection to start with. We are also always looking for inspiration, and one of the best ways to find inspiration is to see what your peers are cooking. With the many food events and festivals that take place in a major metropolis like Los Angeles, we have the opportunity to see each other often.

Writing is another activity that fulfills me. I get turned on by well-written sentences so it has been important for me to pursue that craft as well. During my journeyman stage as a cook/sous, I felt stagnant and needed a new challenge, so I applied for University of San Francisco's Master of Fine Arts in Writing program and, to my surprise, was accepted. Going to graduate school and working as a sous chef full-time was an incredible challenge, but I think it was the exact kind of creative and mental stimulation that I needed.

As a writer, I tend to ruminate. An image or idea sits in my subconscious mind and develops from a formless state into something tangible that I can finally put to paper. My inspiration for food works in a similar way. There are often dishes that I revise in my mind until I can see the finished product, upon which I will finally cook it and put it on the menu.

With regards to cooking, however, I am also very spontaneous, because the medium itself can be very temporal and spontaneous. I might find a beautiful bunch of greens at the farmer's market and a dish springs to life in an instant.