Dinner With Strangers

The Search for Culinary Identity at Little Meats LA

[5:33 PM]

I didn't think traffic would be so light, but here I was 30 minutes early. I punched the gate code, meandered past the koi pond and opened the door at Little Meats LA.

Inside, there were five people prepping the night’s menu in near silence. I hung there in the doorway for several seconds, not exactly sure how to proceed… It was awkward.

The kitchen was in the back, surrounded by a sushi-bar-like table arrangement that wrapped around to form a U shape.  On the back wall, a floor to ceiling stack of compartments holding all manner of spices, herbs and ingredients. At the center of the U, a large island top where the chefs and cooks prepared the night’s feast with meticulous attention to detail.

When one of them finally broke focus and noticed me in the doorway, he said casually, “Hey. What’s up? Come in and hang out. We'll get going soon.”

It was the evening’s host and the loft’s resident, Robin Chang.

I entered and took a seat on the couch, taking in my surroundings. There was the deconstructed Apple iMac desktop that had been recycled into an oddly aesthetic photo canvas. The two flat screens playing mesmerizing art house films on silent. The half dozen motorcycle helmets ascending the stairway to a second floor bedroom where Robin and his wife live.

By day, Robin works in IT. On nights and weekends, he hosts carefully curated dinners in an experiment called Little Meats LA.

In his own words, Robin describes Little Meats LA as a dinner party for strangers, a deliberate response to modern restaurant culture where there’s little to no connection between the chef and the patron.

“You know, we live right now in an era of technology, where we have all this information about a restaurant. We have all these social media worthy pictures... We have all these things and these visuals that have absolutely no link to the food or the stories that go behind them,” says Robin.

[5:50 PM]

As more strangers began to file in for dinner, the evening kicked off with Robin explaining how Little Meats came to be.

“When I was younger, I used to love to host. I was always the go-to guy amongst my group of friends when I would cook, and you know we just loved cooking. There was a certain point where my friends started coming to my dinners… and then my friends’ friends started coming together,” he explained. “We thought it was very interesting when our friends’ friends’ friends starting wanting to come… the people that you don’t really have any type of link with.”

In its current state, the Little Meats LA format is anywhere from 10-13 people who come together for an intimate dining experience. You sit around the couch, you hang out, you engage in some light chit chat (as strangers do), and then you transition over to the table for an evening of Omakase (ōməˈkäsā).

[6:19 PM]

“Omakase is, for lack of a better translation, chef’s choice,” Robin explains. “Little Meats is basically a canvas for cooks, chefs, and artisans to cook without apology and tell their story. Each one of the cooks and chefs all have different paths and different roads that they’re taking.”

At that point, it was becoming clear that Robin wasn’t just interested in disrupting the restaurant industry. This was an open rebellion against the increasingly impersonal relationships of those who cook and those who eat.

“[Omakase] is saying, “Hey, I trust you to spend the next 2-3 hours of my time for you to serve me your best,” he explained. In other words, it’s setting aside your picky habits and preconceptions, and trusting the chef–the one who’s spent their whole life practicing this craft–to be your culinary guide. It’s is the antithesis of have-it-your-way food culture.

Something about the experience about people coming together, cooking around a grill. It’s very theatrical.

The Bromance With Chef Matt

[6:29 PM]

After Robin kicked off his hosting duties, he introduced us to his close friend and the evening’s menu creator, Chef Matt Yuen. 

“I remember our first bro date,” he said through a grin. “We were over at Grand Central Market in downtown to eat at Eggslut, and I asked “Who do you want to be? What’s your end goal?” And Chef Matt at the time responded with, “I want to be my own boss.”

Chef Matt added his side to the story. “It’s funny because nowadays, people find their significant others online. Things like Tinder,” said Chef. “I found Robin on Instagram. I saw a couple of postings of people having fun at dinner, and I wanted to be a part of it. It just seemed like such a fun culture.” He explained. “I sent him a DM, and a bromance ensued.”

Chef Matt continued, “The food that we had growing up was very similar, and our style of cooking and eating is very similar. We’re both first generation Asian Americans here. Our parents are immigrants, and I think that’s something we connected on.”

Robin picked up where Matt left off. “My signature thing is if I’m very impressed by somebody’s food, I actually start throwing profanities at them, and so, the first time Matt ever cooked for me, I cussed him out.” 

“Here [at Little Meats LA], we want to know people’s culinary identities, and food is a quick, simple way to explain somebody’s story.” said Robin. “I know that [Chef Matt] has plans to eventually open up his own restaurant, and I know that he’s using Little Meats LA as a creative outlet, ‘cause at the end of the day he’s an artist.

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[7:12 PM]

As we moved deeper into the menu, Robin revealed that earlier in the week, he had challenged Chef Matt to connect as many pieces of his six-course menu in some way to the grill, and boy did Chef rise to the occasion. The menu looked like this:

Course 1: Crispy Mochi (mochi started on the grill and wrapped with nori)

Course 2: Lobster Aguachile (with grilled lobster)

Course 3: Grilled Oyster Congee

Course 4: Grilled Octopus (featuring avocado smoked on the grill)

Course 5: Grilled Pork Jowl (pretty sure I heard Robin cuss a little during this one)

Course 6: Jujube cake (no connection to the grill, but holy crap was it good!)

[7:40 PM]

As we eagerly awaited each new course, Robin paused to offer his perspective on grilling. 

“A lot of times you have this idea about what grilling is, you know, and it’s a very American thing to do. A lot of times we associate it with just being protein, you know some type of meat that has to be cooked over the grill,” he said. “Once you start understanding how a grill works and how to maintain it, it’s something that you can use every day and multiple times throughout that day.”

“People cook pies. People cook different things that allow them to really experience using a grill as not just purely for cooking steaks, burgers and hot dogs. It gives you opportunities for cooked vegetables. It allows you to bake if you really need it to… It gives you a lot of dry heat, which gives you a lot of amazing flavors.”

[8:23 PM]

Each course had been meticulously planned and executed, which in retrospect, is no surprise. Robin is a sucker for the details: how much people eat, when they eat, how much they drink, the transition from course to course, the stories behind each bite–all of it deliberately planned in order to connect us more closely to our food. The music playing had to reflect the chef’s course progression. The two mesmerizing TVs were playing films selected by the chef. The texture of the plates, the typeface on the menu design… all chosen with intent. 

By the time we made it through the 6th course and were convening back in the living room, each of us felt something had changed, as though we had been hanging out on the regular.

Any awkwardness I felt initially had vanished. We were perfect strangers, pulled together by a shared experience, chef's choice, and the stories behind our food.

As we filed out one by one, it was night and day from when I walked through that door to silence. The music still playing. The film credits rolling. Past the koi pond. Through the gate. Still no traffic in sight.

Check out Little Meats LA on their website, littlemeatsla.com, or follow their latest dinners with strangers on Instagram at @littlemeatsla.

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