Chef Dakota Weiss | Rolling Stones, Sacrifice & Success on the Sunset Strip
Dakota Weiss embodies everything that True Cooks stands for. After discovering her passion for cooking while in college and subsequently attending culinary school she began a journey that took her all over the country. She’s worked in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles—which she currently calls home. Much of Dakota’s professional career was spent in hotel kitchens, the Ritz-Carlton and W included, but in 2015 she took the leap to being a partner in her own restaurants—Sweetfin in Santa Monica and Estrella on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. At the latter, she has brought on original True Cooks team member, Saul Que as chef de cuisine. We recently caught up with Dakota to get her full story, it’s certainly an interesting one.
Let’s start with your history—where you’re from and your background growing up. I was born in Southern California. The High Desert is what I believe they call it. It’s basically, have you seen the movie The Salton Sea? That’s where I grew up. Back in the ‘80s it wasn’t quite as bad as it is now. Now it’s kind of scary. I get scared driving through there. It was very white middle class. It was actually a great place to grow up. We lived in a big neighborhood with lots of families. But it’s in the desert. We literally played with rattlesnakes and coyotes during the summer. From there, my mom and dad booked their honeymoon in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And they decided that that was a fabulous place to live. I think they were both trying to escape some early demons from before they met each other—ex girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, and what not. So they kind of uprooted us—I have an older sister, she’s two years older than me. And we moved to Santa Fe, which coming from California was a complete and total culture shock to say the least.
How old were you when you moved to Santa Fe? I was going into seventh grade, so like 13. It was really quite crazy. It’s a really interesting town. It’s either extreme wealth or extreme poverty. It’s obviously very tourist driven. It’s beautiful. There’s so much to do. But living there is a totally different experience. So moving from California—I had the blond hair and blue eyes—and pretty much stuck out like a sore thumb. So that was crazy—just kind of getting used to living in a different area. Santa Fe is such an amazing food city. And it’s kind of where I really started paying attention to food. Cause it was so different than anything that I had ever been used to. Even in Lancaster where we grew up, my grandma and grandpa had a pheasant farm. So I was used to the butchering of animals. And my mom made everything from scratch and all of that—which sometimes I hated. I wanted that Kraft mac ’n cheese. But moving to Santa Fe, it was all of these different flavors and smells. It was really quite awesome once I was able to appreciate it a little bit more.
From Santa Fe, I went to college in Las Cruces. Which is closest to the boarder of Mexico—right there next to El Paso. That was super fun. Also another desert area, so it was kind of like home. I kept skipping classes to pick up shifts at this cute little coffee bar that I worked at. They had this pastry chef. She made all of the muffins, scones, and everything from scratch. My mom sent us off to college with the red and white checkered Betty Crocker cookbook. I look back at it now—I still have it—and I just crack up. At the time, I was overwhelmed. Like, “these are crazy recipes, I’m never gonna cook this stuff.” And I started really falling in love with what she was making. It was really fun. We made all of the sandwiches and everything. I noticed I was skipping classes to pick up extra shifts to work the baking shift with the chefs. It got to a point where my mom just called me and said, “Can you please stop wasting my money? Figure out whatever the hell it is you want to do. And grow up a little.” So at that point, I decided that I was going to go to culinary school. That was 1995.
Initially you were studying International Business studies. How did that shift happen? I think when I first decided to go to college—well I didn’t decide, I had no choice—It was one of those areas that didn’t have a lot of commitment. Like what is International Business? I had no idea really what that meant. It just sounded really cool. And I knew I could travel and learn to speak lots of different languages. And that was kind of the beauty of it. When I started to get into the classes that took you in that direction in your career, it had absolutely zero interest to me. Honestly, school in general, even going to an English class and writing a summary on whatever was quite boring to me. Ever since I was in elementary school, I was never the best student. When I go to the point when I could make the decision to go to school or not go to school, it was mostly I don’t think I’m gonna go to school today. And that was in both high school and college. So when I started to like the cooking, I thought “Maybe it’s because I don’t like what I’m studying.” When I started going to culinary school, I found myself not wanting school to end. I just wanted to keep learning—like, “Oh gosh, can I stay extra and mess around with this cookie recipe, butcher this piece of salmon.” In culinary school, there’s not much room for extra credit. In regular school, they’re like, “Yeah, you can do this and that.” In culinary school, they’re like, “Nah, you’re here from nine to three then get out of here.” So yeah, that kind of fizzled quickly. So once I got to culinary school—I went to culinary school at Scottsdale Culinary Institute—and I chose that school because it was still pretty close to my family. And coming from Santa Fe and California, being in Arizona was kind of natural. And a lot of my friends had also lived in Arizona. So it was just kind of an easy transition for me. And I loved it. I loved everything about culinary school.
I graduated in 1997. Way back then, they didn’t offer bachelors in that career. They do now, obviously, I think everybody knows that. So the highest I got was an AOS degree. I did my externship at Coyote Cafe. It was kind of a cool time to be there actually, because Mark Miller was there pretty often. Jeff Drew, being my first chef coming out of school, was a huge impact on how I developed as a chef. He was just such a gentle person. And he’s so frickin’ serious about everything. He was so passionate about everything that it definitely furthered my decision that I was definitely following the right path of what I was supposed to be doing. Because I just admired him so much and wanted to constantly work with him, and learn everything that I could and pick his brain. So I was there, gosh, probably two years I want to say. I started to get a little antsy. So I moved to Dallas, Texas to work at the Mansion on Turtle Creek with Dean Fearing—also a great chef, really fun. Unfortunately for me, he wasn’t in the kitchen that much. Being a celebrity chef, he was out and about doing celebrity chef things. So his chef de cuisine wasn’t my favorite person in the world. We didn’t get along very well. And I decided that it wasn’t really working out for me. I put in my notice. And as I put in my notice, the chef de cuisine got pissed off and fired me that day.
From there, I went back to Santa Fe. I called Jeff Drew and said, “Hey, this didn’t really work out. Can I please come back over?” He was really excited, actually. He said, “You know what, I think that’s fantastic.” When I got back to Coyote Cafe, the sous chef had just left. I approached the two chefs at the time to see if they would consider making me a sous chef. It was kind of cool. In the beginning, the executive sous chef said, “Had you asked this when you were here last time, I’d say absolutely not.” I think I was gone for about a year. I had kind of matured a little bit and gained some more skills. Mansion on Turtle Creek was no joke. That place was gnarly. The stations there, as a line cook, were probably the hardest stations I’ve worked in my entire life. It was like a panic attack trying to get ready for service on time. It really taught me to get things in place and put your head down and get back to work. So they had noticed a little bit of change in my demeanor and skill level. They had lots of people that wanted to be the sous chef there. So they told me to put my two cents in. I did a tasting for them, got hired as a sous chef. It was fantastic. I think I stayed there another two or three years maybe.
At that point, I had fallen in love with this guy. He wanted to move to Atlanta. So I was like, “Of course, let’s move to Atlanta.” That’s when I started Atlanta. I worked with Tom Catherall for a little bit. At that point, I was very serious. Career was everything to me. I wanted to work in a five star five diamond place. That got me to the Ritz-Carlton. I was in the dining room with Bruno Menard. That was just… it changed everything that I did basically. He’s probably the most insane chef that I’ve ever worked for as far as his skill level and the stuff that he comes up with. He’s pretty awesome. In his kitchen, everything that was on your station—you had to make it. If you worked the salad station and you had croutons on your salad, you had to make the bread. It was insane. The fish, he would import from Japan or France depending on what it was. I think that’s really the point in my career when the light-bulb went off and I said, “Oh, I’m gonna become a chef. I’m not always going to be a line cook. I’m here to be a chef. Start soaking more in.” I grew a lot, and Bruno was an incredible teacher. He’s definitely the chef that kind of helped me open my palate to… made me well-rounded I should say—taught me, like, your dishes have to hit all of the different aspects on the tongue. It has to be salty, it has to be sweet, it has to be acidic.
I was ready to become a chef after a couple of years of working with Bruno. An opportunity came up in Sarasota. I went there, and got the job as the executive sous chef to the Beach Club. Opened that up, it was awesome and fun. I really got a feel for that sort of hotel corporate life. And then, I had an opportunity to move back to California to Marina Del Rey.
Did you work there before or after Chad? He was working there as well. He came after I did. I we didn’t overlap. The Ritz-Carlton creates such a great group of chefs. Even though we didn’t work together, we still knew each other. Plus, L.A.’s a pretty small town when it comes to chefs. Everybody knows everybody. And we just always kind of kept of in communication through just being at events. And then when Facebook and all of that stuff came around, it was so much easier to stay in touch with people.
Cool, you can go back to the timeline, I just wanted to check and see if there was an overlap there. At Marnia Del Rey I took over the position of chef of Journey. I had a blast. I kind of started to experiment a little bit more and finding my style—how I was able to express myself through food. I knew I wasn’t ready to be an executive chef of a hotel—at least not the size of a Ritz-Carlton. Because I basically didn’t have the office work mentality of it, the financial side. I kind of knew how to do it. I kind of knew how to do it, but not really. I feel like a long time ago, it was really just about the cooking. Especially when you’re in a hotel, there’s other people to worry about the financial side of it. It’s a whole different world. But it was something that I really wanted to start learning. I knew I had to learn that in order to take the next step in my career as a chef.
So I quit the Ritz-Carlton—which I’m still pretty heartbroken about to this day. It’s such a great company. But I was offered an executive chef job at the Sunset Tower hotel in Hollywood. And it was just that perfect-sized hotel for me to kind of take on that responsibility of really overseeing the entire operation without being too overwhelmed. You’ve gotta be a little overwhelmed. Otherwise you’re not pushing yourself and you’ll get bored. I took that position. That’s where I kind of started getting into the managing side of being a chef. It’s not just all about cooking. It really is managing your crew, and making money really. I stayed there for two years, and my husband at the time got offered the GM position for Eric Ripert’s new place in Philadelphia. And I felt like for my whole career, I had kind of drug him around the entire United States. It was kind of his turn. He had a good opportunity, obviously, to work for Eric Ripert that he couldn’t pass up. So we moved to Philadelphia. Obviously, he had a great job to start with. But I knew nothing about Philadelphia besides Le Bec-Fin—that’s really all I knew. The other person in Philly is, obviously, Steven Starr. Jose Garces was still kind of small at the time when I was there. He was kind of building his empire. I feel like if you go to Philadelphia as a chef or someone in the restaurant business and you don’t work for Steven Starr, you’re doing yourself a disservice. He is a restaurateur to the bone. And is very passionate about everything as far as the looks of the restaurant. The fact that he designs all of his own restaurants. He really is at every single one of his restaurants every single day. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s a pretty awesome guy. He’s very hard to work for, because his standards are pretty high. Working with him at Park kind of really solidified my management as far as the numbers and the financial side of cooking. He would really come up to us on a crazy Saturday night when we’ve got 600 reservations and be like, “What’s your food cost at right now?” And he wanted an answer. It was pretty intense. He was great to work for, but I was really missing California. Coming back here after all of those years when I started Marina Del Rey, it kind of sunk in. I was very comfortable. I kind of knew that this is where I wanted to stay. I was a little reluctant to go to Philly, but when you’re married to someone—you have to make your compromises. So we wound up getting a divorce, which was a good thing. It was a very easy and amicable divorce. And I was just super excited to come back to L.A.
When I did, I started as the chef of the Shangri-la hotel. Which is just kind of a little private boutique hotel owned by the worst human being on the face of this earth. She was just terrible to work for. I don’t know if you heard this, but there was this terrible controversy. We had a pool party one day in the summer. It was for some charity. She literally said in front of hundreds of people, “Get those fucking Jews out of my pool.” So, needless to say, that turned into a huge controversy. She got sued by just tons of people. And she lost—which is a good thing. Ever since that whole thing happened—she was just an awful person to work for in general—but that just made it that much worse. She just wouldn’t admit to making a wrong move in any way shape or form. So I was glad that I got there. And it got me out of Philadelphia. It was just kind of my way to get back to California. So, obviously, after that whole thing happened, it was time for me to start looking for another job.
And perfect timing, the W in Westwood was looking for a chef. So I went and did several tastings for them, and got the position. Since I had been cooking, that was my first real big hotel. It was great. I was there just a little bit over five years. That’s where I met my partner now, his name is Alan. He owned Choice Hospitality. And so he managed all of the F & B operations inside the W.
It was during this period that you did Top Chef. Top chef was when I was at the W. I had just started. I think I was literally there for maybe four months. One of the casting directors gave me a call in my office. I had gotten a recommendation to audition, but I was hesitant because I had just gotten the job at the W. I got off the phone and the food and beverage director who was in the office with me asked me about the call. I told him, and he told me to call them back immediately and tell them yes. So that’s how that all happened. That was a really long process from the phone call to the actual being on TV. It was probably a year of going back and forth.
What was that experience like doing whole Top Chef TV thing? It was surreal. I had done a few TV shows—like news shows demonstrating random things here and there. But I didn’t really consider that like TV. I never really watched Top Chef. The only season I ever watched before that was when Jen Carroll was on it because she and I were friends from Philadelphia. So I was excited to watch her. It looked like torture to me. I think any chef when we watch a cooking competition—we all do this and will never admit it—we sit there and critique the fuck out of everybody. Then you actually get in that situation and it’s flippin’ nerve-wracking. The season I was on was the one where they brought in like 30 chefs. And we all had to compete against each other to even get a spot on the show. So even on that first one, I was shaking so hard, I couldn’t even hold my knife in my hand. In my head, I was so nervous about how they were going to portray me. Before that, I had dinner in Philadelphia when Jen was getting ready to go on to Top Chef. I sat down with her and Chef Eric Ripert—he was a judge at that point. He was kind of telling her that they do twist your words around. They’ll cut different days to kind of mix and match things that you’re saying. He was telling her that you have to be very careful of what you say, what you do. Be very mindful, because you signed your life away. Having that knowledge, and knowing that that can happen, I was so nervous about how I was going to be portrayed. Mainly because I had just become a chef at the W. I didn’t want the premier image being ruined by something stupid that could come out of my mouth, or whatever they could possibly do. So I feel like the whole time that we were filming, I was not myself. I was just a ball of nervous energy. It was crazy. I was so nervous and freaked out that I was crying the whole time. It was intense. Another big part of it was I didn’t want to go back to my kitchen and be like, “Dudes, I fucking failed.” You don’t want your cooks to look at you and be like, “Oh man, she couldn’t even get on Top Chef.” It was good. I wouldn’t changed anything for the world. It was such an experience. And I do feel like I grew a little more confident in myself. And again, I had become a little bit more of a hotel chef and was in the office. One of the reasons why I wanted to go on there was to get off my ass and get back in the kitchen and see if I still had it. I made it up until six or seven episodes I believe. So not terrible, I think I could of done a little bit better if my head were a little more focused and I stopped thinking about what everybody else was thinking and just focused and honed in on it.
So you were at the W for about four or five years after filming Top Chef. So back to the W, loved it, but our contract was nearing its end. And Alan, who was my boss at the time, asked me if I was maybe interested in opening a restaurant with him. I had never really wanted to own my own restaurant just because I like spending other people’s money. And I like having a safe paycheck. It’s a lot more comforting. But at the same time, I think I was kind of just done with hotels as well. They really wear you down after a while. So I was like, “Yeah, why not? That sounds like a great idea.” So we just really started looking at locations and kind of putting together a concept of what we wanted to do. While that was kind of all going down—obviously, opening up a restaurant doesn’t happen overnight—he’s like, “Hey, what do you know about Poke?” I was like, “It’s raw fish, kind of cut up, like a salad. I like it.” He asked me what I thought about opening a Poke restaurant. I was like, “Ok, why not?” So that’s where I got involved with Sweetfin. He was hooked up with these two guys that came to him asking for restaurant advice. And they’d come up with this cool Sweetfin concept. And this is kind of before the whole Poke thing exploded. We were working on Sweetfin for almost two years before we actually got it open. Right around the time that we opened it, it just kind of took off.
When did you actually open that? We opened that one in April of 2015. I had no idea that anyone else was working on a Poke restaurant. There were a couple in Los Angeles, but nothing like what it is now. Within one to three months of opening it, there were a bunch of new Poke places. We were like “What the fuck? How did this become such a trend?” When we started talking about it and how we wanted to grow the business, we always had as our end goal becoming a national company. We knew we wanted to grow and expand, and open several of them. I think that’s why it took us a little bit longer to get our whole concept nailed down. Probably after a million tastings of the same fish, same sauces, and everything, we kind of felt like we had where we wanted to go. I feel that we stand out from the other Poke shops just because our ingredients are a little more unique. I took a very almost Japanese / California fusion approach to the menu. It’s definitely 100 percent not traditional Poke.
Is it sweet? Most of the Poke that I’ve had is the sweet Hawaiian Poke. We do have that. We have a classic Poke salad. But the rest of the sauces and all of the flavor combinations are absolutely 100 percent not traditional. Instead of white sticky rice, we use a shaved bamboo rice. I was just trying to find avenues to really help us stand out. And different ingredients that people hadn’t seen before. And again, as a chef, I wanted to make it a little fancier. And some of the stuff I made a bit too fancy, so we kind of scaled that back while we were in the tasting mode.
After that we opened our restaurant Estrella in West Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. That opened in October of 2015. 2015 was kind of a crazy year. 2016 has been crazy too. We got this up and running, and it’s a beast. This restaurant is so frickin’ big. We knew it was big, but I think when we really got in here, we were like, “Oh my god, this place is really big.” Breakfast, lunch, dinner, it’s just a machine going to town.
It’s basically classic L.A. / Americana with your twist on it? Yeah, absolutely. I feel that I’ve worked in so many different places. And each chef that I’ve worked for have all had their influences. You pick up the things that you like from them, and you make them your own. The menu is primarily kind of small share plates. I feel like with those, you can have a little bit more fun. And you can be a little bit more daring and dangerous. As opposed to your entrees that have to stay a little more user friendly. I also have a great chef de cuisine, Saul.
Tell us a bit a about how the menu evolved. I saw that video with the bacon-wrapped avocado egg—which was really cool and different. I’ve never seen that anywhere. So I was wondering where some of these ideas came from? That came from one of my really good friends, William Werner. He owns Craftsman and Wolves up in San Francisco. He’s just a crazy talented chef. We knew at Estrella that we wanted to do our own bakery program in the morning. We figured that there was nobody that really does that on this street, and we wanted to have that neighborhood feel. Where people could come here, not necessarily in their pajamas, but they don’t have to get super dressed up. They could just walk over from their house or whatever. I knew I wanted to make everything from scratch. I don’t want to buy anything. That’s not the right way to go on some things. So I asked him if I could go up to his bakery in San Francisco and work with him for a couple of days. I love to come up with deserts and baked goods, and the flavor profiles. But if you asked me to make it, I will kick and scream and fight you the whole way through. Because baking and pastries are just a whole other beast. It’s really hard. And I’m not a super fan of weighing things out or measuring things. I feel like it slows you down. You can’t not do that when you’re baking. So he’s like, “What do you want to do.” I said, “Make some muffins. I want to make some muffins with you.” Let’s start with the basics. He makes this, it’s call The Rebel Within. It’s like a sausage, chive, cheddar muffin and when you cut into the center of it, there’s a perfectly soft-boiled egg inside of it. And the yoke just oozes out, and it’s frickin’ mind-blowing. The Rebel Within’s gone viral several years ago when he came up with it. And I was like, “This is such a great thing.” In this day and age, you really have to have that social media name to be on point. So I’m always thinking about what would gain some social media, or get some press where people would think, “Oh my god, this is amazing!” So I was inspired by his Rebel Within. I’m like, “Something like this. You’ve got to come up with something like this.” You can’t just take the same thing and call it something else, so I was wracking my brain on what I could do. I thought, “I could take an avocado, maybe I could throw a poached egg in it. I don’t know. Would that work? I can wrap it in bacon. That’s going to hold it together.” It really just kind of evolved trying to figure out how I could replicate his idea of this gorgeous egg housed inside something equally delicious. I just kind of sat there with a pen and paper thinking of ingredients and it turned into The Rolling Stone.
So is that how a lot of your culinary ideas come to fruition—just getting creative and figuring out what would work? I I mean honestly, I feel like that is a dish that definitely kind of stands on its own. I never like to create food or dishes that challenge the guest. I want people to come in and just have really good food. I don’t want to be too fancy. But I don’t want to be too boring. Me as a person, I can tend to be a bit eccentric and crazy. And sometimes that comes out in my food. But I knew should I ever own my own restaurant that that’s not the route that I wanted to go. So I constantly have to kind of reel myself in. When I think about what I want to go eat tonight, I don’t think I’m gonna go to the Bizarre and eat some spiracle olives. It’s delicious, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not something that you crave every single day. You think, “Oh, I’m gonna go get some kick-ass tacos, or some great pizza, or some great pasta.” So I’m trying to tone down putting odd things together and hoping that they work out. Just because it’s fun for me, doesn’t mean the guests really want to eat it. I feel like the majority of the menu—and we’ve been open for almost a year now—I feel like we’re almost where it needs to be. In the beginning, the menu was good by all means. But I was never like, “This is a great menu.” I think I was just so scared. I had been in hotels for so long. I was thinking, “What am I doing in a stand-alone restaurant?” I hadn’t done this in such a long time. In a hotel, you know people are going to come to your restaurant regardless. Because you got all of these people sleeping above you. In a restaurant, it didn’t even dawn on me until two weeks before we opened. But I was like, “Fuck, what if nobody comes in?”
How’s the response been. Are you getting people coming from all over L.A. or more just that West Hollywood area? It’s evolving I feel like. Any restaurant that opens up in L.A. is going to get a lot of hype. And you’re going to be busy without a doubt. You’ve got to sustain that though. And how do you do that? I feel like in the beginning it was those people being like, “Ooh, new restaurant, gotta go.” But now, we’re kind of starting to feel our rhythm. And we definitely, without a doubt, have nestled into the neighborhood. We’re lucky enough to be kind of right in the middle of the hills. So up above us are all of these beautiful mansions, and we for sure without a doubt get that clientele. And then right below us are just a million apartments. And we get that as well. The response has been good. Not everybody is going to love us. And that’s alright. But I feel like we’re starting to gain some momentum. We opened up from the get go opening up breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As everybody knows, doing all three services is very hard. Is the beginning, our breakfast was literally crickets. Lunches were pretty slow to begin with as well. Dinners from the start have always been very solid. Breakfast and lunch were slow, but we’ve seen the increase in revenue weekly, honestly. Now we’re at a point where lunch is very steady for us. Breakfast is a little, eh. But we definitely have our regulars. I keep hearing, “Maybe we should close for breakfast and just focus on lunch and dinner.” But we do have our regulars that are here three or four times a week. As I said, our revenue is growing during those hours. I don’t think we make any decisions until we’re open for exactly a year. And we kind of analyze and figure out what direction we want to go from there.
What’s been the most difficult part of the process? I would say the most difficult part is definitely the ownership side of it. It’s very easy for a new chef to come in, and all they literally do is focus on the kitchen. And everything else around them is just kind of blurry. There’s other people to manage and run that. And having it actually be your restaurant and every single thing count, that for me has been the hardest part. I see a server walk by a piece of trash on the ground and I’m like, “Why wouldn’t you pick that up?” Or like, someone breaks a dish. If someone breaks a dish at a big hotel, it’s like no big deal. But if someone breaks a dish here, I’m like, “Oh my god, that’s a 22-dollar plate. Stop breaking things.” When I see wine glasses break, I’m like, “Oh, crap.” I care about every single thing in this restaurant. I think coming together with the front of the house has been huge here as well. I’m used to just focusing on the kitchen, and the GM can deal with the front of the house. But now, it’s like, “I care about these people, are they making enough money? Are they happy? What do we need to do? Let’s do a big staff karaoke night.” You constantly try to think of if your staff is happy. Obviously if they’re happy, they’re going to make the guests happy.
How did you discover True Cooks and what’s your personal take on the brand? Chad reached out to me when he was first getting it going. He was like, “Hey, I’m gonna send you these shirts and some hats and stuff. If you don’t mind just wearing them, see what you think, and give me some feedback.” I was like, “cool.” He sent them, and I didn’t really get what he was doing and what was going on. I didn’t really understand what his vision was. But then, Saul had really started getting into it. I had kind of been watching him on social media, on Facebook, and just in life. Literally wearing the hats, the shirts, the socks, and everything. I was like, “he’s on to something here, what’s going on.” It wasn’t until I got on to Instagram that I said, “Holy shit, this thing has blown up! What is happening here?” I wasn’t on Instagram for many years. I was very late on Instagram. And it wasn’t until then that I was like, “Oh my god, Chad is building an empire here.” I think it’s pretty awesome. Because in general, I think the type of people that the kitchen attracts—we’re kind of gnarly. We’re rough around he edge most of the time. We aren’t the most sane people. And again, the sacrifice, the humility, and the dedication, people don’t understand that you literally give up everything for this career. I gave up a marriage. I gave up having children. I gave up all of these things because I was so focused on my career and what I do. Because it’s so demanding. At the same time, it’s also so incredibly rewarding. The general public, they do not get that. I don’t think they’ll ever understand. I remember when I was at The Mansion on Turtle Creek we would go out every single night, the whole kitchen crew, and sometime even Dean Sterling would come with us. And we’d go to the same bar. We’re all still in our chef uniforms. We smell like shit. One of us has been butcher fish all day. The other guy has been chopping onions all day. We’re just gnarly. We’re sweaty. We’re cussing up a storm. We’re drinking tons of beer and being a little rowdy. And I could see people look at us like, “Who the fuck are these people? Oh My god, they’re crazy!” We were kind of like an outcast. But I feel like what Chad is doing with True Cooks is kind of like opening up the general public’s eyes. Like,”We are the people back there cooking your food. And making you happy.” It’s not just the cooks. It’s the front of the house as well. I think it’s pretty cool. And the family in general that he’s build through True Cooks is mind-blowing. When I see people from New York all the way to California who have never met each other, never worked together, yet they’re friends on Instagram. They’re supporting each other. They’re liking each other’s photographs. And they’re sending each other words of encouragement social media. I think that’s so frickin’ amazing. Because as cooks, we don’t get paid a lot. I don’t know any rich chefs. And some days you don’t get any “thank you.” And Some day you don’t get any “hey good job.” With what Chad’s done with True Cooks, you’re getting that. But you’re getting it from the people that are in the trenches with you.
How did you get started at Estrella? I was working at the Penthouse. When I started at the Penthouse, I had already known that Dakota was going to be opening a restaurant. I had already known that I was the dude that she selected to help her open her restaurant. When the time came around and she was getting ready to open it, she sent me a text saying, “All right dude, we’re gonna open soon.” But I had worked with Chef for maybe seven years before I had worked at the Penthouse. I met Chef when she was the executive chef at Shangri-la hotel. I started there as just a part-time prep cook. That’s where it all escalated from I guess. I don’t know what it was that she saw in me. But she gave me a shot. She’s the first one that gave me a shot and let me be me as a person. But also teach me as a cook and a person. You know what I mean. But Back then, I never thought of it as I had a mentor standing in front of me until a couple of years down the line.
When you went to Estrella, what was the process or creating the menus and putting everything together? She has so much experience in menu creating and just putting ingredients together. She actually already had a menu made for Estrella. She told me that she wanted a fried chicken and a short rib. She kind of just let’s me do what I know. At the same time, she’ll say things like, “I think it would go better with this.” At the end of the day, she really let’s me do what I want to do. But still correcting me at the same time.
What are some of the items on the menu that Stand out the most to you? The fried chicken, that’s something that I devoted my time to. Thinking about how to make it better, that’s something that contributed to the menu that’s actually mine. I’m proud of that dish.
How do you think Estrella fits the overall landscape of cuisine in Los Angeles? As far as it fitting into the whole food scene, I think we fit well with it. Along with the whole genre of people sharing plates and ordering a bunch of things on the menu. But I think what separates us from everybody else, is that where you come in—there’s like that sense of homeliness. There’s no restaurant like that on Sunset Boulevard where you can just come in and hang out outside and be sitting next to Nicky Diamond or some actress from Hollywood. And you’re just doing your own thing. I think that separates us from everybody else. Because there is no restaurant like Estrella on the Strip.
Do you have any menu items that you’re currently working on? Not really, my style of cooking is see what you have in your refrigerator and make what I can—like ghetto gourmet type shit. For me, when I’m working on a dish, it’s working on something that I haven’t particularly done for myself. Whether it be practicing making cheese or something else, it’s just things that people don’t do anymore. But when it comes to creating menu items. These things are ever evolving. What you’re working on may not work down the line in three months. So it’s just like a waste of time. That’s why I’m never like, “okay, I’m gonna work on this dish and work on this dish.” I experiment. And if my experiment goes well, then we work on the dish.
So what’s the process from experimentation to bringing it to the menu? With the fried chicken, a lot of people just take chicken and fry it. I really thought about and wanted to see what I could do. I thought that it’s a bird, so why don’t I confit it like duck. So then I experiment with two pieces of chicken. And it worked out well. So then, let me get 8 pieces then and sell it and see how it goes. It escalates from there. And from there, we’re putting it on the menu. But at the same time, there’s just some things that you know as cook or a chef that they’re going to be good and people will like it.
Dakota mentioned that you were partially responsible for her taking a deeper notice of True Cooks. How did you go about introducing it at Estrella? That’s funny that Chef said that, because Chef was actually friends with Chad before I even met Chad. Chad was a chef from the Ritz-Carlton and so was Dakota. I never knew that they knew each other until I was already rolling with TC. Dakota told me that a friend of hers owned that. And I was like, “What?!” Until right now that I found out that I was the one that really introduced Chef to TC, this whole time in the back of my head, I always thought that Dakota told Chad about me!