Frustrated by the complications that can arise when trying to open a restaurant, Alvin Cailan of EggSlut has founded Unit 120, a “culinary incubator” where both established and up-and-coming chefs can test out new ideas and menus.
It's a common problem in the restaurant industry: Poorly matched partnerships between chefs and financiers can pose issues—and even sink restaurants before they open—when the two sides don't see eye-to-eye.
Alvin Cailan of LA's egg sandwich mecca EggSlut discovered this firsthand in the course of opening EggSlut Grand Central Market. "That was the time I really needed to grow [from the food truck] into a brick-and-mortar spot and didn't have the money," he tells me. "So I sought out partners that could help, not realizing what the consequences were for creating such a relationship."
But what if chefs had a space to refine and perfect their restaurant concepts before the money people get involved?
That's exactly what Cailan hoped to create when he founded Unit 120, a "culinary incubator" where both established and up-and-coming chefs can test out new ideas and menus, hone their skills, and ultimately develop themselves during residencies within the space.
"We use our kitchen to test and simulate concepts using a real restaurant," Cailan tells me of Unit 120, which opened its doors in January. "Knowledge and experience grows as our clients consistently run their menus. Through time, a concept can run service three times a week and save their profits to open their own restaurant."
Not only that, but it keeps the meddling of financiers at bay—if not forever, at least for a while.
"During the growth of EggSlut, all our partners had different ideas for the future. One person wanted to rule the world, and I wanted to open—maybe—one more location that had a better rent structure," Cailan reflects. "During this struggle, the idea of a kitchen incubator made so much sense: a place where chefs can test their menus, their partnerships, and business strategies without having to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars opening a restaurant."
On any given day at Unit 120, there's something different happening. By day, you'll find Amboy, Cailan's popular Filipino takeout window, serving dishes like grilled whole pompano, succulent pork belly wrapped in banana, adobo green beans, or ginger-simmered mung beans. During the evenings, Unit 120 welcomes visiting chefs to take over. Recent residencies have included the highly anticipated Here's Looking at You by Lien Ta and Jonathan Whitener, previously of Animal; bibimbap by Susan Yoon; and a delicious take on Filipino cuisine by Portland's Carlo Lamagna.
On a recent Friday afternoon, the room has been arranged for service and Notorious BIG plays over the speakers as a couple sips on San Miguel and waits for their table. The space has been transformed into LASA, A Filipino fine dining concept by brothers Chase and Chad Valencia. Service seems to come naturally to the duo, making the experience of eating their bomb fall-off-the-bone Filipino-style ribs and coconut cream-drenched corn all the better.
"LASA is making waves—they're constantly booked up," Cailan tells me. "They are truly incubating their business and are nearing the point of funding their own restaurant."
The rest of the week at Unit 120 is just as busy. You can find amateur cooks developing their skills on Tuesdays, more accomplished chefs hosting dinners on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and hush-hush "Project Pizza" nights throughout the week. On weekends, acclaimed pastry chef Isa Fabro hawks her mango sago pudding (a tapioca pudding with mango curd, Thai basil, and black caramel), Filipino-inspired halo halo and coconut malas, and her namesake "Isa Puffs" and "Isamadas."
In addition to that lineup, Unit 120 also hosts what is being hailed as some of LA's best industry nights. A by-donation fried chicken dinner fills up the space each Monday, when different chefs take turns cooking up their version of the dish. Everyone else pitches in whatever goodies they desire, from fine wine to Osetra caviar.
"[It's] a combination of the best chefs/cooks in the city making fried chicken, and some of the best wine people bringing their stash for all to enjoy," Cailan laughs. "Oh, and it's free."
Those industry nights also offer an opportunity for chefs to meet and talk about issues in the LA restaurant community. "I'm not saying we should all hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' together, but I think we should celebrate food and spread the knowledge—look at each other as colleagues instead of competition," Cailan stresses.
That outlook is essential to Cailan, who talks about his legacy as a chef in terms of who he can help along the way.
"The future of Unit 120 is still uncertain, in a good way. For now, we have a solid team working with amazing chefs and concepts. We hope that we continue to receive the love and respect from the industry and hopefully we can keep taking new people in that can use our help," he says. "If you're serious about creating something special and do not want to jeopardize your future by taking money from the wrong person or signing a terrible lease, we're here to help!"