Without hyperbole, the ongoing pandemic has changed life for 100 percent of restaurant workers in greater Los Angeles. Many have lost their jobs, and some may never get them back as restaurants continue to struggle at an alarming rate. Others have left the city entirely, or turned to other lines of work to make ends meet, while all of those still employed at restaurants across Southern California must don layers of masks, put on countless plastic gloves in a given day, and worry about their own health and safety while dropping food for diners (outdoors only, for now) and pouring drinks.
Yet amid all the uncertainty, a new class of cooking has emerged, with longtime industry veterans taking their already prodigious skills and sharpening them on Instagram instead. There’s the well-known former Italian restaurant executive chef, now selling Mexican-Italian crossover food on weekends by pre-order only. There’s the prominent pastry chef fresh off a 2019 opening in Nashville, back in town to sell cookies and slices of slab pie in the underground world of Instagram food. From former line cooks who turned to Hungary for inspiration, to an executive chef of one of Pasadena’s best restaurants now selling homestyle ceviches and shrimp empanadas, here are ten of the most talented restaurant folks now selling dishes in the vast LA underground food scene — including more than a few who are donating a portion of profits to charity.
Pastry chef Laura Hoang has been baking up treats for a variety of places around Los Angeles over the past year, including sister bar and restaurant projects Buddy’s and Bernadette’s in Downtown, as well as Kensho in Hollywood.
The pandemic has put those locations on ice for now, and without the safety of a vaccine or large-scale therapeutics, Hoang says she didn’t feel comfortable opting for a job in a different restaurant, working with a group of employees or interacting with customers.
“With the spike in cases right now, I just didn’t want to expose myself,” says Hoang, who opted instead for contactless pickups of cookies and other treats from her City Terrace home. Recent sales have seen some of the proceeds go to Black Lives Matter charities, and Hoang says the plan is to continue with a give-back initiative. “I just felt like I really needed to do something” from home, she says, “and luckily through that I’ve been able to build a customer base.”
Hoang is now making one-off desserts like cakes or trays of cookies for those who ask, and continues to donate to BLM-related funds. More dessert items are in the works, as is a rotation of planned pop-up bake sales via Instagram. After that will come some in-person events and further sales through places like Buddy’s, which sustained heavy damage during the anti-police brutality protests but is working on a comeback plan.
Aliza J. Sokolow
Instagram fans know Aliza J. Sokolow for her colorful food photography, including massive spreads of citrus and cheese. But the longtime food stylist (and soon-to-be children’s book author) has spent her pandemic downtime baking challah by the dozens, showing off versions with scallions and sesame to her more than 35,000 followers. She began in April — “when things started to feel just a little less scary” — and sells them via DMs, with a portion of each sale going to various charities. “If I had the money to just donate to every charity,” she says, “I would do that wholeheartedly, but that’s not the case.” Like a staggering percentage of people associated with the food and hospitality world in Los Angeles County, Sokolow has been unemployed for most of the pandemic, making baking a great workaround to continue to give back while also feeding people.
So far Sokolow’s weekly bread and cookie drops (using local Tehachapi grains) have benefitted a variety of organizations, including No Us Without You, the LA charity that donates meals to undocumented restaurant workers.
As for the future, Sokolow says she’s been selling out weekly, and she’s almost at her baking capacity. “After that, I don’t really have a plan,” she says, “because I don’t have any idea how long this crazy time is going to go on for.”
Individual challah loaves cost around $20, and distributes them to places like Secret Lasagna in West Hollywood, a private location in Encino, and Valerie in Echo Park for pick up. Fans can sign up for a spot via a handy Google doc, A portion of this week’s proceeds go to the Loveland Foundation, offering free therapy for young black women.
Elise Fields (found online under the name Ovenwitch) knows a thing or two about putting together delicious, seasonal sweets, including some of Instagram’s most photogenic cakes. But for her, selling the flower-laced delights to former regulars from her previous jobs (and fans via Instagram) is more than just a way to showcase talent, it’s an opportunity to continue to give back.
“It feels really good to use my platform and my skills for social justice,” Fields says. She donates 50 percent of her monthly cake sales to a rotation of charities, including this month’s recipient, the California Black Women’s Health Project. Fields calls this current national political groundswell a “straight-up revolution,” and says that cakes are just one way she’s been able to participate in the movement. She plans to continue to focus on “organizations that explicitly support black women, and also the Transgender Law Center in Oakland.”
As for the cakes, Fields currently accepts DMs for bespoke creations, with an agreed-upon delivery date sometime down the line. “I don’t have a menu,” she says. “I work off customer preferences, and it’s been great. The cakes span three different sizes and price points: $80 for six-inch cakes, $100 for nine-inch cakes, and $120 for 10-inch cakes.
Beyond the Instagram orders, Fields has also begun an ad hoc free food pantry, operating out of the small entryway of a building across the street from Republique on La Brea. The idea is to simply leave ingredients and whole items for the food insecure to pick up when they please. “It’s very guerrilla style,” says Fields, “I’m still hoping to get a few more shelves, or figure out how to get a fridge plugged in somehow.”
Northeast LA folks may know the name Kevin Hockin for various projects over the years, including co-founding the well-known Box Water company. He was an early partner in Burgerlords, now with two locations spanning Chinatown and Highland Park, and has for the past few years been running Collage Coffee as a small takeaway option on York, with a back patio perfect for all kinds of pita parties. The shop closed in March at the beginning of the lockdown orders but will reopen soon, he says.
In the meantime Hockin is keeping things close to home, operating a spot called Side Pie out of his Altadena home. Los Angeles has long loved pizza — particularly of the underground variety — but this one feels a little different, mostly because of each pizza’s big, thin crust and blistered, wood-fired edges. Pizzas are cooked from a standalone hand-built oven right off the pool, and fans can pick them up hot and ready right from the backyard, along with slices of slab pie to go.
“I’m fortunate to have a 200-square-foot footprint with very low overhead,” says Hockin of Collage Coffee, “which is a position that unfortunately not a lot of other people are in.” The flexibility gave Hockin the chance to build and cure his own oven (“I was going stir crazy after, oh, five days of not working,” he says with a laugh), and then to enlist the help of friends like Irfan Zaidi to cook in it over the past few months. By May, Side Pie was born — and with it a one-for-one donation model with VIP Cares in Downtown LA. “Call it a side hustle or call it a hobby,” Hockin says, “I don’t feel right about making money off this thing in my side yard.”
That’s not to say Side Pie isn’t capable of scaling nicely into something bigger. Hockin still has plans to open a standalone restaurant in Altadena called Deodara sometime down the line, and with roughly 100 orders a day already coming in Friday through Sunday, there’s going to be a need to move to a bigger space to continue selling pies and donating to charities. For now the side yard is enough, even if they do sell out every weekend. Hockin says fans of the pizza know the money is going to a good cause, and besides, who doesn’t like pizza as comfort food right now? “We’re all suffering from this one way or another,” says Hockin of the current pandemic and uncertain economic climate, “it’s just about getting innovate, being cautious, and doing the best you can with what you’ve got.”
Sasha Piligian is a Sqirl alum who has branched out on her own with a new Instagram-ready bakehouse named May Provisions. Piligian is fresh off a stint in Nashville, where she helped to open the lauded restaurant Lou. Now she’s back in LA and selling from a space in Glendale, as well as offering weekend slices of slab pie via the also-underground folks from Side Pie in Altadena.
“My original plan when I came back to LA was to not work in a restaurant,” Piligian says. “I wanted to make my own stuff and pop up around Los Angeles. I knew I could make that happen, but this was before COVID.” Now she’s taking the same approach, but via DMs instead. “People have just started asking me for things,” she says, including cakes, cookies, and lots of pie. “I don’t know if it’s the quarantine or what, but people are really eager to just eat some cake,” she adds with a laugh.
For now, anyone interested in buying from May Provisions can peruse the menu through the website. Piligian has plans to announce more regular pop-up dates and times for her baked goods soon, instead of selling only by pre-order. “I can only do so much from my house,” she says, “but for now this is a great way to stay connected to the community and to support the farmers markets, which are things that are important to me.”
Shanna Lynn Milazzo
Folks may remember Picnic as a onetime restaurant, the Silver Lake dream of chef Shanna Lynn Milazzo. While the Sunset Boulevard restaurant wasn’t able to stick around, Milazzo has stayed busy working in restaurants across the city since 2016 — and cooking up sandwiches on the side.
“After Picnic, everyone was still reaching out,” says Milazzo. “They just kept looking for sandwiches. So, being stuck at home, I figured why not do them out of my apartment?”
With the pandemic in full swing, she’s converted her Echo Park kitchen into a weekly pop-up, selling a rotating variety of meals from red sauce Italian specialties (Milazzo’s Italian family is from Queens) to fried chicken sandwiches. It’s similar to how she got her roots, selling food from the Dime on Fairfax back in 2011. “I didn’t know how to do anything else,” she says of her early pop-up days in 2011. “I didn’t have a voice in the kitchen world.”
Picnic Sandwich has provided that outlet, even during uncertain times. Milazzo says that she’s doing dozens of sandwiches and other meals every weekend, selling mostly on Saturdays and Sundays in the early evenings. Selections are made via DM, and a portion of proceeds go to the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts nonprofit.
Pasadena-based Eden Batki produces weekend batches of Hungarian dishes from her past, including savory mains like braised oxtail with cherries and red wine over mashed potatoes, or stuffed cabbage with pork and turkey. The Eastern European dishes are lesser-known in greater Los Angeles — think hearty goulash or a Polish-style dill pickle soup — but the largely self-taught Batki says that’s part of the appeal.
“So I started working on this Hungarian cookbook about a year ago,” Batki says when reached by phone (while picking up some bootleg goat whey, naturally), “I funded a two-and-a-half month trip to Hungry to start doing more research, and that’s where I realized that this is where I wanted to focus right now.”
Since the pandemic began, Batki says that “it just came naturally that I would cook food and serve it to people in whatever way that I wanted. I love that I’m coming up with the menu, and if you want it, you want it. If you don’t, you don’t, and that’s okay, too.”
The menu for Batki’s Hungarian pop-ups vary week to week, in part because it can be difficult to secure all of the ingredients she’s after. Batki worked the line at Elf in Echo Park and helped open Dune in Atwater Village, and all of her foods are meant to have a bit of California flair — meaning herbaceous, lively, and with lots of greens, no small feat for a one-woman operation when Hungarian squash can be hard to source.
Batki takes it all in stride, even as she delivers all the food herself on weekends, including to deep neighborhoods like San Pedro. “The stuff I love the most is the experimentation and the freedom,” she says of her underground cooking right now. This week’s menu, including a chilled wax bean soup and stuffed cabbage, can be found here.
Rashida Holmes is the face behind Bridgetown Roti, currently selling out of Boyle Heights. The longtime cook has worked prominently at places like Botanica in Silver Lake and the Exchange in Downtown, but a part-time, pre-pandemic plan to sell Bajan patties and roti at spots like Melody and Chinatown’s Lately has now turned into an every weekend affair.
“I was kind of at a crossroads in my career,” says Holmes, “and I realized that the food I want to make is the food I’ve been eating my whole life, in my house with my family.”
The cuisine of Barbados is deeply rooted in Indian, African, and Portuguese flavors, among others. Holmes says, despite a hectic childhood spent (in part) moving all over the country, that “West Indian food always traveled with us. It was always what connected me to home.”
Holmes is now working as a chef for a restaurant consulting firm in Los Angeles, but she plans to keep growing Bridgetown — named for Barbados’ capital city — into something larger. Maybe that’s a food truck, maybe it’s a takeaway space. For now the focus is mostly on handmade patties, with an even more expansive menu coming down the line. She’s been able to make more than 150 each weekend, but they all sold out tremendously fast so now Holmes is transitioning to a commissary kitchen and more robust pick-up schedule.
Danielle Duran-Zecca is a longtime chef with a varied resume, including running the kitchen at Pasadena Italian staple Union. During quarantine she’s been turning out unique food from her Glendale home, offering catering under the name Chef DDZ and running a pop-up called Amiga Amore that focuses on Mexican and Italian flavors. Think street corn agnolotti and enchilada tortellini, plus conchas, birria tacos, and lots of pie. Oh, and there’s handmade habanero hot sauce, too.
“In the beginning we just started making small packages for people, mostly comfort food,” says Duran-Zecca. “It grew to people inquiring about larger items, or wanting to get meals for the whole week.” Amiga Amore was born. She now sells a variety of dishes every weekend, from food that plays on the Mexican-Italian theme to straight-up comfort food fare like carnitas platters and key lime pie. For a time, she was even offering a weekend brunch service sold through Lincoln Heights bar Xelas.
“To be honest with you, it’s whatever we can,” says Duran-Zecca. “We’re a very small business, so it’s always about what’s next.”
Duran-Zecca considers the quarantine to be “kind of a blessing in disguise,” because otherwise she never would have been able to focus on getting Amiga Amore off the ground with her husband in the first place. “He’s my partner in everything,” the longtime chef and Food Network contestant says, “and I couldn’t do it without him.”
The money coming in has allowed them to donate to local hospitals and the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks, something Duran-Zecca says she’s also excited to continue working on, no matter how long the pandemic lasts. Contactless pickups are done in Glendale.
M. Elena Vega
Following the closure of Pasadena modern Mexican restaurant Maestro at the beginning of the state-mandated stay-at-home order, former executive chef Vega has been keeping busy as a private chef, and by cooking weekend batches of some of her most well-known dishes for regulars who used to frequent the restaurant.
“When I was working at Maestro, I was there 24/7,” says Vega. “I guess now I’m just finding comfort in being home, because I know that my home is safe.” Now she’s begun offering ceviches and campechanas and empanadas to the masses out of her Pasadena residence, selling quart-sized jars of seafood cocktails and other goodies after being asked by some of her restaurant patrons online. “It just grew out of this sheer want to do something,” says Vega, “and to be impactful. I’m very conscious of the moment that surrounds us. Nobody wants to go to a restaurant right now, because maybe they don’t trust it, or they don’t want to affect some worker who doesn’t have insurance, all for a pitcher of margaritas.”
It helps that Vega knows what she likes in her mariscos, too, and doesn’t always feel like she can find those specific flavors out in the world. “I’m from a specific part of Mexico, in Nayarit,” says Vega, “and it’s rare when I go out for mariscos that I’m like ‘oh my God, this is blowing me out of the water.’ I grew up eating all of this in the backyard. I know how it’s supposed to taste.”
Weekly orders for Vega’s food can be made days in advance, with pickups scheduled for Saturdays. Check Instagram for the rotating menu, possibly including shrimp pozole and tamales once colder weather hits.
Disclosure: Bridgetown Roti’s Rashida Holmes is the cousin of Eater LA’s Mona Holmes. Mona was not involved in the writing of this article.