How to Run an Illegal Restaurant
In 2008, when the economy went to shit, my wife and I decided to quit our jobs in the advertising and film industries to run an illegal Asian restaurant out of our small Los Angeles apartment.
Foto by Unplash Caroline Attwood
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2014.
Back in the mid-aughts, my special lady (a.k.a. my "wife"), Thi Tran, started cooking all sorts of fantastical Asian dishes, taking pictures of them, and posting them on Facebook. (This was pre #foodpornrevolution and was still considered VERY Asian). She made it, *snap*, posted it on Facebook, and I got to devour it all.
Then, in 2008, the economy went to shit. Thi lost her job in advertising the next year, and went to Facebook to vent, as one does. The response was unanimous: "Advertising? Pffft! YOU SHOULD COOK!" Three days later, I quit my job peddling Asian-American indie films, and together, we opened an illegal restaurant out of our tiny apartment with a couple of folding tables.
We flyered 300 apartments in our building, advertising our "restaurant," which we'd decided to call "STARRY KITCHEN" on Facebook.
It wasn't fancy. We'd buzz you in, you'd take the elevator upstairs, then walk to our patio full of random chairs in the middle of a concrete high-rise paradise. I would sit right there at my little folding table, take your order for a plate of my wife's version of Asian comfort food: Vietnamese thit kho, braised coconut pork, or Korean kalbijim, braised korean short rib stew, for example. There was a suggested $5 donation box, and after you threw your money in there (I never touched it) I'd yell the order back into the apartment. Our friends came out to support us (we knew we could guilt them all into at least one meal). But then, they liked it! Fuck, they loved it. And those friends brought friends, and friends of their friends brought more friends.
The party grew to the point where we got so busy that we added a Wednesday "service." Yelp reviews began to pop up—for our apartment—which brought even more people to "the Valley" (no man's land if you live in LA). Our patrons were pretty random, but my favorite group were the game developers, dominated by my small group of friends who had graduated from Carnegie Melon. If anyone was the catalyst for our explosion, it was them. Suddenly, our apartment became the #1 Asian Fusion "restaurant" listing in LA on Yelp.
Then, LA Weekly found us, which brought us patrons from San Francisco and New York City. As we began to receive more press, we got even bigger; big enough that the health department found us.
Even when the health department thought they had us, I was already in negotiations to take Starry Kitchen into a real establishment with proper permits. I offered myself as their poster-child—"Illegal Restaurant Goes Legit"—but they didn't buy it, and gave us a verbal slap on the wrist warning instead. We continued to run the restaurant behind-closed-doors in "black ops" mode right up to our last night, which brought 130+ people into our home for our infamous crispy tofu balls, our most popular dish. Everyone wished us farewell from the underground into the world of legitimacy.
In February of 2010, we finally closed negotiations and landed in a former casual sushi lunch spot in downtown LA, but we knew nothing about running a restaurant. The previous owners didn't know much either, but we learned from them.
I went to extreme measures to promote our new spot. Banana suits and lederhosen were involved. Our incredibly talented French chef friend, LA legend, Laurent Quenioux also dropped in to cook meals with us that involved things like smuggling illegal ant eggs from Mexico ($150/kilo), a 19-course white truffle menu, and a series of marijuana dinners—all on the sly. None of it made sense, but it worked, and we got coverage for it in places like the New York Times.
In 2012, we lost our lunch spot, our first real restaurant, after two years of maniacal play. We had two weeks to find a new place, so we transformed into a pop-up dinner in the fashion district.
We didn't know much about serving lunch, but we knew less about dinner. The love, the adoration, the CROWDS we experienced at lunch; dinner was the polar opposite. We were painfully slow, had to fight for every dollar, payroll was late, we couldn't pay our vendors or our own bills, and we lost friends and burned bridges. In only three months into our dinner pop-up in late 2012, we got our first glowing review from LA Times food critic/food God, Jonathan Gold, but we couldn't keep up. We weren't ready for the onslaught and everything that came with it.
But then, the Grand Papi of the LA Food Revolution, Roy Choi and his Kogi partners, the Shin family, shined a guiding light towards Chinatown where they moved their own spot, Chego. We fell hard for Chinatown, and decided to move our pop-up dinner to the historic Grand Star Jazz Club to become part of the movement. It was fun. It was refreshing. We miraculously got on the LA Times "101 Best Restaurants" list for the second time, but then the same issues we dealt with previously dragged us down all over again. It was hard to make rent and pay our employees, even though we were successful.
We've been in Chinatown for a year and half, and it's been five and half years since we began Starry Kitchen in our apartment. It feels like we've been in this business for a decade now, and its amazing to think how far we've come from turning an illegal dinner party into a full-blown restaurant. In the moments when I'm really in the shitter with the business, I look back nostalgically at how simple, fun, and free from responsibility we were at getting away with it while having a great underground dinner party. But in the end, I'm glad that we left our day jobs to (unexpectedly) become restaurant owners, because every day is never the same.