On the Line: Leonard Chan, Part One

No, he's not a chef. And yet Leonard Chan is associated with more eateries than I can count. It started with California Shabu-Shabu off Baker in Costa Mesa, then continues at South Coast Collection/The OC Mix, Anaheim's Packing House, and future developments in Tustin, Mission Viejo, ARTIC in Anaheim and even Los Angeles. Whether the man is likeable or cray cray is up to the beholder. Either way, he's got a lot on his mind, and I was ready to listen.

I hear Iron Press is undergoing a menu makeover.
Yes! I spent a good portion of the final quarter of 2014 bouncing ideas around with our chefs and staff until we came up with a menu we were happy with. I think we have taken a huge leap from where we were at our last menu iteration. We are really looking at our waffle irons more as a cooking vessel rather than simply a waffle making machine. Don't get me wrong. I still love waffles, but there are times I would love to sit down and have a couple great brews and munch on something different. We wanted to create a menu that was concise, but flexible at the same time.


What's the biggest challenge to opening a storefront? How do you overcome it?
I believe the biggest challenge to opening a storefront has to be coming up with a concept that will fill what that market desires. There are ways to find money, you can hire people to help you along with all of the red tape. But if you do not have the right idea and attitude, you're walking into a minefield.

I hear a lot of ideas swirling around me. Some are just blurbs, while some are very well thought out. For me, I don't necessarily look for the busiest ideas or the hippest scene. I want to find a neighborhood that wants something fun, interactive and delicious. From there, I take a look at the demographic: Where are they eating when they stay local? Where do they go when they leave? Why are they leaving? How far are they willing to travel? How much are they willing to spend? And most of all: What is missing? Things like this.

There are so many things I want to do, but sometimes, the time and the location just don't click like Lego pieces. Don't be afraid of asking others their opinions and talking it out. There is no shame in going for help. An idea you may think is trivial could prove to be the next big thing. At the same time, a grandiose gesture could prove to be too specific to an area or audience. The better prepared you are in the beginning, the less headaches and forks in the road you will encounter down your path. That, and keep an eye on those darn contractors. You can't live without them, but getting things done in a timely manner haunts me at night.

Most undervalued ingredient:
MSG. Okay, I kid! I am going to say something with the knowledge that this may sound cheesy, but my most undervalued ingredient would be LOVE. There are so many different dishes and ingredients out there, but if someone made a dish with love, there will always be something to gain from putting at least a bite into your mouth. If it's terrible, you can spit it out and laugh about it together. If it's delicious, you know why. It's the Like Water for Chocolate effect for me. Maybe if I were a full-blown, trained chef my answer would be different, but I feel like no ingredient is undervalued. A dish is an ensemble cast, from the main character down to a gripper.

Where was your most recent meal?
I'm a little under the weather right now, so on the way back from picking up my mom from John Wayne Airport, we stopped in a Capital Noodle Bar in Irvine. Their soup is clean and hearty at the same time. The kitchen there operates at break-neck speeds, so the broth comes out steaming hot and helped clear up everything that was clogging up my noggin. I am a vegetable fiend, so we also shared some stir-fried green beans and spinach garlic. Those and maybe 10 or so glasses of ice water.

One food you can't live without.
Is water considered a food? If so, then that is my answer. If not, see the next paragraph below. Why good 'ol one oxygen particle and two hydrogen particles? It is in everything we eat and drink. No water, no beer. No water, no whisky. I love chicken soup. I drink upwards of 20 cups of water a day. Can you imagine not having ice? It's magical. Did I say no beer and whisky?

If you are looking for a more substantial answer, it would have to be a pot of slow-cooked chicken soup. I stew mine for at least seven hours with heaps of ginger, green onions, some salt, rice wine, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots (man, oh man. If you can find fresh bamboo shoots, they are AMAZING!), tofu sheets, Jidori chicken if available, Tien Tsin chilis, and of course, LOVE!

What's the one thing people didn't tell you about running a restaurant?
Just how small the community is! I feel that, for the most part, this is great for our industry. There is a great sense of camaraderie, even amongst competitors. We are all in this together, and there is room for all of us to do well as long as the respect is there.

This is even more prevalent in the brewing world. Getting our feet wet now in that arena is scary enough, but Derek and Dougie over at Beach City Brewery, and Evan at Noble Ale Works have been amazingly supportive. I am never one to even pretend I know everything, so having the right foundation and encouragement from our fellow brothers and sisters who share the same fight has been rad.

Are there any food trends that you're tired of?
I wouldn't say I am tired of them, but I think food trucks have seen their pinnacle already. There is definitely a place for them in our ecosystem, and I have friends that own some legitimate rolling restaurants serving better food than most restaurants around.

With the burgeoning food hall scene, people are getting the variety of a food truck round-up with the comfort of seating, restrooms, climate-controlled buildings, shelter (laughs), etc. . .It's almost as if Southern California skipped the great food shack communities seen in Portland and Singaporean hawker centers and went straight to it. Again, there will always be a place for these roving chefs, but as we are already seeing, more and more of these guys are popping up brick-and-mortar shops.

Most frequently asked question by guests:
“How did you get into restaurants?” Followed closely by, “How old are you?”

You're making breakfast; what are you making?
What time of day is it? Regardless, I like to keep it simple. If it is after midnight: Spinach, ham, mushroom and garlic omelet with sliced sourdough and some Lucky Habanero Dragon Lips salsa. I used to make my own salsa, but there was no point anymore after having theirs.

If it's a proper morning, I usually go with a more Asian-inspired breakfast: Three pan-fried eggs, sunny side up (lots of black pepper and white pepper), Chinese sausage (la chang in Mandarin or lap cheong in Cantonese), sliced baguette and a Maggi and muddled Thai chili sauce for dipping.

Most important quality you look for in a manager.
A single quality is so tough, but I would have to say honesty. If you are honest with me from the get-go, there will be no misunderstanding on where your strengths are, and where we can help you fill in some gaps.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true.
The biggest thing I hear is that people think that a busy restaurant equates to swimming in a cash vault like Scrooge McDuck. This is by no means true. Otherwise, I would be answering those questions from a satellite orbiting the Earth and sending you Moon selfies. We are working on such tight margins day in and day out. There are so many other things to consider like rent, if there were loans, research, cost of goods increase, investors, salaries, slow seasons, repairs. The list goes on and on.

With that being said, I feel super fortunate to be where we are after all of these years. Our goal is to have everyone leave with a smile on their face, a stuffed tummy and happy taste buds.

What would be your last meal on Earth?
Ha! I ask this question to all of my friends, right after I ask them, “If you could only eat one meal for every meal the rest of your life (health risks can be ignored, so you could eat chocolate cake with peanut butter icing three times a day), what would it be?” I'll answer that question for you next time I see you.

Mine would start off with a plate of piping hot chicken nachos, a bowl of clam chowder, move to a medium-rare bone-in rib eye, a steamed Dungeness crab with garlic butter dipping sauce with a side of stir-fried morning glory/ong choy with garlic, a glass of Scotch with rocks on the side, a cold pint of imperial IPA, ten glasses of ice water, finishing off the dinner with a vanilla Drumstick ice cream cone. I don't even think I could do this right now, but if it came down to it, this would be devoured.

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