|Fraser and a pig roast at Vibiana|
Zagat: You’re stirring a lot of pots these days. How do you keep it all straight?
Neal Fraser: Very carefully. I’m getting much better at delegating and trying not to do everything myself. I use the analogy of my daughter, who’s 8 years old. I used to have to put her pants on and change her, and now I just have to feed her and watch her grow. You have to allow it to live on its own. Running multiple businesses, you have to have faith that it’s all going to be good. With BLD I’ve given them a lot of autonomy. I don’t know how much better it would be if I spent 50 hours a week there. Sometimes it’s better to lead from afar. It’s getting it up to speed and walking away. Being more of a mentor.
At Grace I worked the line every night. I plan on being a cook at Redbird before I do anything else. And I was like that at The Strand House. We went through one chef and brought another chef up to speed. And after a lot of time, patience and trust, we knew he’d do a great job. It’s taken time, but he’s doing a better job than I would. He really gets it, he’s really engaged with the property and the clientele. It’s definitely by far the busiest restaurant that I’ve been associated with.
Z: When did you open Grace and when did it close?
NF: Opened in 2002, closed in 2010. We started raising money during 9/11. Our business was flat when we decided to close. The person we sold the business to is now our partner. It’s been a roller coaster. It hasn’t been a straight shot. When I left Jimmy’s in Beverly Hills, we thought it would take us a year to open our own restaurant; it took three. We sold Grace to move Downtown and thought it would take nine months to a year, and it took three years. I don’t know if it’s us, the economy or the cosmos. It definitely takes time.
Z: Your Downtown projects are finally coming to fruition. You have the Vibiana now, with a restaurant on the way there.
NF: We have taken over the management of the entire property. Amy Knoll [Fraser's wife and business partner] has taken over management of the whole building, and she’s reshaping the future of Vibiana as an event space. We’re going from being a venue, much like a beautiful park with no amenities, and we’re building a full-service event space. The one advantage we have is that we started out with a spectacularly beautiful space, and we're trying to improve upon that, from the food program to the bar program to everything. It’s a work in progress. Our management team directed by Amy took over in January, and they have a backlog of events booked through the year. We're catering some of the events, but not all. We're the only ones doing the bar though. Our goal is to grow into being the only caterer involved with the space, sans maybe those that need a specific cultural caterer. But we’ll align ourselves with great Indian, Kosher or Persian chefs to execute through our eyes. We’ll align ourselves with those chefs and make it even better.
Z: So tell us about Redbird. Why the name, and when will it open?
NF: It will be in the former rectory of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, adjacent to the cathedral on the same campus. The main dining area will be an outdoor patio and the receiving area of the rectory, basically the ground floor of the rectory building. The aesthetic will be keeping the existing building with a modern touch. More modern than trying to buy old furniture and putting it in an old church. It will be as fine-dining as we can make it. I want it to have an adult quality without being sterile. If I had to compare it to something else in the U.S. right now, I couldn’t do it. The name Redbird is a play on Cardinal, as in church. The opening date is fall to winter of this year.
Z: What do you mean by "adult without being sterile"?
NF: It’s going to be relatively casual, but I want it to be fun. Not small plates, not a bistro, not a gastropub. A new interpretation of Neal Fraser food. Julian Cox is heading our bar program. The dining area is divided into two, with indoor and outdoor seating. The indoor will be designed like a beautiful lobby of a hotel, lots of comfortable furniture, rugs, a place where you can drink a scotch and enjoy it for an hour. After that we’ll have to kick you out. The outdoor patio has a wood-burning fireplace. And each will have its own bar. The circular bar is half inside and half outside.
Z: You’ve partnered with Bill Chait, who's opened other chef-driven spots like Bestia with Ori Menashe, Sotto with Steve Samson and Zach Pollack, and Picca with Ricardo Zarate. How’s that going?
NF: Bill’s a great negotiator. As far as the food and everything, he’s very hands-off, which is important to me. I want this to be a reflection of me. He’s not there editing. He definitely has his opinions on things, and I think those are valid. He’s definitely helped us get the deal done. For the day to day, it’s going to be Amy, not Bill running it. But it’s a good partnership so far. We’ve had a good time.
Z: And BLD is as good as ever. Anything new there?
NF: Our business is up, and we have a new chef who’s been with us since October, Lewis Chan, who started as a sous chef. When Diana moved on, he moved into her place. He’s continuing on a similar path as her. It feels good in there. It’s stayed relatively the same in the last seven years. I just don’t think you can eat in a loud gastropub every night. What Jonathan Gold said about BLD is that it’s a practical restaurant and fills a niche. And that helps with our longevity, by not being cutting-edge. Just be a good place with a good burger, good fries, a good breakfast. Maybe it’s not a eureka experience, but it’s well presented and well executed.
Z: What's news on the ice cream shop, ICDC?
NF: ICDC will open by the end of the year. It will be run by Amy and our long-term pastry chef, Mariah Swan, who’s been with us for seven years. I think it’s something we do well. We make great donuts, great ice cream, and coffee is a natural combination with that. It will be retail only, no seating inside. Just a little jewel box. We’ll fry donuts to order, make ice creams in-house and have great coffee.
Z: Are you still involved with Fritzi Dog?
NF: Yes. That’s also constantly evolving. We just redid our menu a couple days ago. Trying to feel out... you know, the Farmers Market is a unique place with a unique set of customers. We’re trying to mold into what those customers want. We get a lot of tourists, people on buses, so we’re trying to adapt for the tourists and the locals. Like, we have a new Memphis dog, a pork sausage with barbecue aioli, roasted peppers and barbecue potato chips on top. And there's a Tokyo Dog, a pork dog with julienned nori, smashed-up wasabi peas, sriracha ketchup and a Japanese hot mustard.
Z: Are those for the tourists or the locals?
NF: Well, both. To me, I’m a little bit of a purist, I’m a ketchup and hot dog kind of guy. We came up with some fun interesting combinations on top of a great bun and really great hot dog.
Z: And you’re still consulting with The Strand in Manhattan Beach, correct? There have been some amazing guest-chef dinners and more on the way (Doug Keane, Timothy Hollingsworth). Do you help curate those?
NF: I do, most of them. Some are coming up that the owners did. It's like inviting a chef into your house to show off his best work. The next one is oversold, Doug Keane, who’s a good friend of mine. It’s definitely more than a value - it’s like paying for half of your gift. We'll have abalone, really great caviar - this dinner is going to be out-of-control spectacular. That’s kind of the idea, really push the envelope a little bit. Manhattan Beach is a vibrant bedroom community, they're really appreciative of bringing this experience to them. We’re not trying to be cutting-edge there, we want to be a regular place. We have regulars coming in more than once a week. But this dinner is definitely the one that’s right up my alley. They’ve all been spectacular, but I’m excited to be Doug's prep cook.
Z: So you cook for those as well?
NF: Yeah, I’m going to be Douglas Keane’s monkey for 48 hours.
Z: Any chefs you’d like to cook with that you haven’t before?
NF: Well there... I’ve asked people who haven’t been able to. Paul Kahan. Marc Vetri. We’re all friends. The older you get, the busier you get. They all have their own empires and all have their lives, it’s hard to take time off and do a dinner. I’d love to host them down there.
Z: Is there a dream chef you’ve never cooked with before that you’d like to, in general?
NF: Maybe Joan Roca. Or Elena Arzak, Juan Mari’s daughter. She’s the most compassionate cook on the planet.
Z: You beat Cat Cora on Iron Chef America years ago, and we heard you recently did a bout on Knife Fight, Ilan Hall's new show. Any other TV appearances coming up?
NF: Nothing I can talk about right now. I was on America’s Most Wanted. I don’t want anyone to see it. I was a fugitive for a few days.