MISSBISH Lien Ta | A Conversation with Co-Owner of LA’s New Progressive SoCal Restaurant, Here’s Looking At You
“Here’s looking at you, kid.” No, we’re not talking about the famous line from the 1942 movie Casablanca. We’re talking about Lien Ta and business partner Chef Jonathan Whitener's new restaurant, Here’s Looking At You. Located in Koreatown in Los Angeles, the restaurant brings together the multicultural diversity found in their neighborhood by whipping up some incredible fusion food. Recently, we had the pleasure of speaking with HLAY’s beautiful co-founder, Lien Ta, about opening her first restaurant, her experience as a woman in the industry, and what it’s like to be an all-around BOSSBISH. Read the full interview below!
First off, congratulations on the opening of Here’s Looking At You! How does it feel?
Thank you so, so much! It feels like a giant, full-body upheaval of effort. But oddly enough, it also feels very normal. It feels the opposite of feeling lost and unfulfilled. I think what can feel normal to a lot of us these days is the feeling of questioning our purpose; and what I feel now is easily the opposite of that.
What’s the story behind the name Here’s Looking At You?
We decided on the name over a heavy bento-box lunch in Little Tokyo. We were struggling to find a name that felt "enough." Nothing quite embodied what we felt the spirit of the restaurant would be, which, at the time, wasn't fully formed yet. We knew we wanted the personality of the restaurant to feel original and even a little wacky. One day, I was sifting through my stationery drawer, and I came across a small greeting card I had added to my collection who knows how many years ago, and on the front was a cute tiki girl holding up a drink. I thought: I should mail this card to Jonathan, famously a lover of tiki. We had recently secured a couple of investors thanks to some dinners Jonathan executed beautifully, and who doesn't love a little note in the mail? Underneath the tiki girl, the card read: Here's Looking At You. I remember I stood there thinking: OMG, this could be it! The name! I brought it to the aforementioned lunch get-together, slid it across the sticky table of the adorable Japanese cafe, and Jonathan said: "I'm not gonna lie - I like it."
The card itself was meant to be a thank you to Jonathan's efforts at that time. Now, it's easy to see and say that it's a toast to our neighborhood, our future guests, our mentors, and to SoCal.
You describe the cuisine & concept as “progressive SoCal food in Koreatown.” Care to elaborate?
In the beginning, when I asked Jonathan what he'd be cooking inside his first restaurant, he replied: MY food. My job was to figure out what "his" food is. Jonathan is a SoCal kid, and the coolest thing about Southern California is its aggressive diversity. He grew up in a Mexican home, adjacent to Little Saigon, raised by a father with roots in the South, swapping lunch food with Japanese kids whose mothers packed them katsu and rice. Here's Looking At You is an expression of who Jonathan is, who he is as a chef, and in every single dish on the menu, I get to know Jonathan a little bit better.
Koreatown is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Los Angeles, yet its restaurants are mainly Korean (and delicious). Since opening Here's Looking At You four weeks ago, it's been incredible to meet all of our nearby dwellers who are so unique, interesting, thoughtful. I've heard guests describe Jonathan's food as "creative," "different" and "surprising" - and I think it's such a direct ode to the current makeup of a Southern Californian.
Prior to opening your own restaurant, you also spent some time working at Animal Restaurant, and as a culinary liaison for Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo. Were there important skills learned from those past experiences that better prepared you for this moment?
My experience working with Jon and Vinny was most rewarding for me because my role within the restaurant group was not very black-and-white. I wasn't JUST a manager at one restaurant. At first, I worked as a swing manager at both Animal and Son of a Gun. Despite being sister restaurants, the two entities operated very differently, and possessed their own unique personalities. It was my job to relate to each individual restaurant and its key players and still run its day-to-day operations with the desired expectations. Six months later, Jon and Vinny asked if I wanted more to do, and of course, I didn't say no. I still remained a manager at both restaurants, but I began assuming more hats (this was the Culinary Liaison stuff) - taking on tasks, big or small: organizing our participation at national events like the Food & Wine Festival in Aspen, or re-negotiating a better trash disposal plan. Every single bit of it prepared me to be an owner. My to-do list right now is never ending, but I now work faster and more efficiently knowing that it ALL has to get done, because a lot of people depend on me for the restaurant to open at the same time every night.
“Find a partner. Find help. The process of opening and operating a restaurant is difficult to do alone. There's simply too much to do. Identify your point of view, figure out why this world cannot live without it, and have a viable, assertive plan to get people through your doors on a regular basis.”
You met Jonathan Whitener, co-owner of Here’s Looking At You, as colleagues at Animal Restaurant. What’s the dynamic between you two as the creative minds and business partners of the restaurants?
At first glance, we appear to be extremely different - beyond our physical sizes, even. Jonathan's demeanor is brooding and stoic, while I give off an endless barometer of sociability and openness. When we encounter problems, Jonathan tends to be quick and reactive while I take my time to absorb the whole situation and, hopefully, come to a solution. But I think we motivate one another, if only, to seek balance in our partnership. I like that we're both adults, and we can speak to one another bluntly and with patience. I am grateful to Jonathan that he pushes me to act with more immediacy; in the past, I would often become paralyzed by problems or simply with too many things to do. Now, I attack each thing one by one the way Jonathan would cross things off a prep list. Our dynamic works because we deeply respect one another. Jonathan doesn't trust a lot of people, and I don't take it for granted that he trusts me. Jonathan has a highly-active creative mind, I'm excited by all of his wacky ideas, and I'm here to help deliver his message. Truthfully, we are actually very similar. We are introverts. We'd rather be alone and eating fried chicken, but we find ourselves a little too generous with our time.
What were some highlights from opening your own restaurant? Were there any unexpected challenges?
No process can ever escape challenges, and by definition, almost negates the very concept of "highlights." But once a process is completed, the highlights become more apparent. What I considered a challenge all throughout was designing the restaurant, and now, I consider it an extraordinary highlight and feat. Jonathan took charge of this 100%. I was too overwhelmed with all the choices, and he would make certain executive decisions - everything from lighting to furniture to paint color, and I would just execute the process. Get all the players together. Make sure deadlines were met (or in most cases, extended). We are so happy with the outcome. It feels like us, rather than, say, a Pinterest feed.
Getting all the money was difficult. This seems obvious, but it was more physically and emotionally demanding than I could've ever anticipated. It's not even that we had to ask hundreds of people; the pool of investors we approached was actually quite small, but it is a mental roller coaster to try and sell yourself for three-quarters of a million dollars. Even after someone agrees to invest, the process of getting the money into our bank account wasn't easy! It's a big deal. We are quite literally indebted to each of our investors. They took a huge risk on us, and it's almost silly for us to try and describe what that feels like.
Run us through an average day!
Ha, OK! I wake up around 8, and I walk my dog. Then, I sit down with a cappuccino, and obsess over our OpenTable reservations, see who's cancelled, who I can call to squeeze in. Then I get a bit of news and e-mailing in, before I send a managers' note dissecting the minutiae of the sales and employee performances from the night before. I am essentially a communicator for the rest of the day: juggling unpaid invoices, getting payroll processed, writing a schedule, posting to our Instagram account, ordering sustainably-grown coffee, making a trip to Smart & Final - definitely always fixing something. I arrive at the restaurant by 12 or 1pm, sometimes with a couple of sandwiches from Wax Paper to share with Jonathan and to discuss what's on our minds. Sometimes, it's ideas for the future, sometimes we threaten to leave for Costa Rica and never come back. In the afternoon, I'll coach my host on how best to get people through our doors. Then the bartenders arrive, then the servers, and things start coming together. I print menus, I pull together bits of information to help our servers sell wine, 30-day dry-aged ribeye or offer tips to deliver more engaging service. At 5 o' clock every day, we sit together and enjoy a family meal before we pull ourselves together to open our doors at 6PM. The rest of the night is easy. I chat with guests, I bring them food, I take away their empty glasses and offer them more. This is the part that makes sense for everyone. It's synchronized. When the night ends, we clean up, I wrap up closing financials and reports; I might share a drink with Jonathan, sing some songs with the staff, but I typically try to get home as quickly as possible, because I am the opposite of a night owl.
What do you love most about your job?
What I love most about my job is that I offer jobs. And the people that work for us, I love fiercely like my family. There are three cooks in particular that bring so much joy to my life that my favorite part of the day is to say hello to them. They were our opening team - that's it, just the three of them in the kitchen with Jonathan - two cooks, in particular, who came on before we had finished building out the restaurant, and they hauled debris out of it and scrubbed it down with their bare hands. I will never, ever forget this. Every day, I have a chance to make an impact as a decent employer, and this is my biggest priority. Every extra dollar we can make, it is our intention to pay it forward to our employees.
Are there any challenges that you face as a woman in this restaurant industry?
Sometimes, I will locate a hint of surprise on the faces of guests when they learn that I'm a co-owner - and I think it's because I'm a woman and "petite," as already billed by a writer of a previously published story about HLAY. I am most often mistaken as the host, which I actually treat as a high compliment, because the host is one of the most difficult positions in the restaurant.
To survive in this industry requires an enormous amount of will. No matter if you're male or female, you might reach a breaking point - but it's a matter of how you handle your own implosion. What's difficult about being a woman and imploding is: you might immediately be billed as "crazy." Or moody. Or worse: hormonal. This is unfortunate, because a moody man might be normal to tolerate, but it's possibly true that women within the restaurant industry have to work twice as hard to "appear" as if she can survive the work load.
Do you have any advice for someone who’s thinking about opening their own restaurant?
Find a partner. Find help. The process of opening and operating a restaurant is difficult to do alone. There's simply too much to do. Identify your point of view, figure out why this world cannot live without it, and have a viable, assertive plan to get people through your doors on a regular basis.
Looking ahead, are there any plans for the restaurant or for yourself that you’re particularly looking forward to?
The most important plan for the restaurant is to stay alive. To offer an experience that is fresh, fun and consistent ... forever. I personally want to dedicate myself to elevating our communications with our invaluable guests, and I'm not sure what that looks like yet, but I'm excited about it. I am also a dormant writer, and I would like to carve away more time to uncover more stories to tell. And finally, for my partner Jonathan, if we survive this, perhaps another restaurant or two. His ideas are too hard to deny.
What are 3 of your favorite dishes at Here’s Looking At You?
The Quail, the Beef Tartare, the Veal Sweetbreads.
The Tartare is the first dish Jonathan made for me at our first investors' dinner, a dinner wherein we were seeking funding. We didn't get the money from this group, but I cried because the Tartare was so, so good.
The Quail is the first HLAY dish that Jonathan prepared for me at the restaurant, a few weeks before our grand opening. The quail is propped in a dollop of beet BBQ sauce that is so intensely flavorful and addictive.
The Sweetbreads is the first dish I craved after we opened. I love running food to tables, and I found myself wanting to run the sweetbreads right into my mouth. I haven't had many sweetbreads in my life that didn't make me want to gag; these ones, however, I could eat like a pack of Chicken McNuggets dipped in Sweet N' Sour sauce!
What does MISSBISH mean to you?
MISSBISH is a woman of her word.
Photos by: Belle The Queen