The regulars at Local, a rustic open-air restaurant in Silver Lake, know what to expect during the day. Young parents with strollers, artists in skinny jeans, and retired residents drop in for home-style brunch or a vegetarian-friendly lunch from the salad bar.
But at night, Local sheds its neighborhood tavern charm and transforms into an edgy, avant-garde supper club. Out goes the chicken salad and tofu, and in comes the slabs of lamb belly, slow-braised beef tongue, and fusion flavors like Korean red pepper paste and Sicilian capers.
Dinner at Local seems like a completely different restaurant, because it is. Starting in March, Local owner Jason Michaud invited Chef Kevin Lee to revitalize the dinner menu, a typically slow service for the restaurant. The result was Project Ivanhoe, named after the historic name of Silver Lake, a gastronomical laboratory for the 37-year-old Korea-born chef.
"The things that I do is completely not the style of Local," Lee said. "Project Ivanhoe is a totally separate style, a separate restaurant from Local."
The idea for Project Ivanhoe began when Lee met Michaud in January through a mutual friend. The two quickly saw how they could help each other: Lee had worked as a sous chef at the Lazy Ox Canteen for two years and wanted to take the next step in his culinary career, and Michaud needed help at Local as he juggled another restaurant in Echo Park.
"We just started talking about bringing more excitement into [the Silver Lake] area, and then we said, 'Let's do it.' And just like that-it happened, just like that," Lee said.
Silver Lake is a socioeconomically and ethnically diverse neighborhood east of Hollywood known for its creative community. Lately, it has also become a haven for foodies: Several trendy and eclectic restaurants have opened doors in the area, but Project Ivanhoe is the first project of its kind.
Because Local regulars have come to expect certain favorites, Lee leaves the daytime menu intact. But he has free reign to experiment with the dinner menu, which means the dishes are always changing.
"[Creating my own menu] is more exciting and fun," Lee said. "But it's a lot more work and responsibility. Everything is me. Every dish I put out, it's me. It's my reputation on it, so I feel more responsibility for the things I put out."
Lee's menu is diverse, including things he grew up eating (crispy pork ears); seasonal, mostly organic produce he picks up from the farmers market (yuzu dressing on crunchy seaweed salad); and random inspirations that hit him while cooking (lamb shank with satsumaimo puree).
Lee is clearly in his element. In a recent unannounced visit to Project Ivanhoe, I had a chance to taste 10 of his dishes, a blend of both classic and innovative flavors.
Cubes of beef tongue oozed like foie gras yet stayed meaty like steak; slow-roasted pork shoulder melted into creamy Yukon Gold potatoes and runny egg yolk; vegan cauliflower "couscous" popped with bright colors and textures.
Lee's artistry with colors and tastes takes root from his background in art. Growing up in a household with five artistic aunts, Lee naturally gravitated towards an art career as well, working as a fashion designer for a few years.
"I think cooking was always at the back of my mind, but I never made it into my full-time job." Lee said. "I liked cooking, but it was a hobby."
After short stint as manager of a Yoshinoya franchise, Lee enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, an international culinary institute. "Once I started cooking, I never looked back," Lee said.
Yet Lee admits being a chef can be both physically and spiritually draining at times. Working 12 to 15 hours a day, six to seven days a week, means that inevitably tempers flare up in the kitchen.
"I get aggressive too," Lee said. "I get loud too, because it's so busy. You're playing with the fire, and the tickets are piling up and there's like 10 tickets in front of you, and everybody is yelling at you."
What goes on inside the kitchen, he said, depends on his faith and practice outside of it. Lee grew up attending church, but didn't actually feel an internal change until a friend shared the gospel with him in college. Lee said it was a "turning point" in his faith and now leans on his faith in the kitchen.
"Even though I work in a very stressful environment, at the end of the night, at the end of the day, I know Christ is with me," Lee said. "I think it all boils down to your personal relationship with God. Keeping up with my faith [in my daily life] helped me maintain myself even when it gets really hectic."
As a chef, Lee strives to eventually open his own restaurant, but for now, he says he's enjoying his creative freedom with Project Ivanhoe. In both his career and his walk with Christ, Lee said he's taking things day by day, dish by dish.