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Meet Lien Ta of Here’s Looking At You in Koreatown

Today we’d like to introduce you to Lien Ta.

Lien, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I attribute my first love for food to my first visit to New Orleans. I was 18 — exposed for the first time to fried oyster po’ boys, turtle soup and sips of fine wine, thanks to my friend’s mom, who was running the most famous restaurant in New Orleans at the time. Ten years later, I found myself ditching a very-LA career, as an entertainment editor covering Hollywood, that, sadly, left me unfulfilled and undernourished. But it forced me to consider: What makes me happy? What would nourish me? Food came to mind; people came to mind. I imagined a restaurant (it wasn’t the first time), and thought: Well, how the hell can I manifest this? I dabbled in a little food writing to first get to know Los Angeles on a culinary level. I begged restaurants to hire me despite never having worked in a restaurant before. I worked as a host, a food runner, a counter-service girl, a tiki-cocktail waitress, a server, a kitchen intern, and eventually as a manager. I wanted to see if I had it in me to stick it out, and truthfully, at times, it didn’t seem like I did. When I accepted a job as a manager at both Animal and Son of a Gun restaurants, owning my own seemed like a distant fantasy. It took more than a year for it to occur to me that my very favorite and most inspiring co-worker was the person I was destined to open a restaurant with: He was the chef de cuisine of Animal then, 27 years old, I believe, and Jonathan Whitener is still the best chef I know. I pitched him the idea of our partnership at a strip club in Thai Town the very same day the crazy idea hit me. A year later, we would sign our lease for Here’s Looking at You.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Every day is its own little struggle. And among my most heartbreaking of challenges arrive with little surprise: finding the right people to hire to execute this master vision, staff retention, the constant daily worry of whether enough people will join us for dinner tonight so that we can find the means to pay these wonderful employees what they’re worth … the list goes on, and managing humanity is the very root of my job. It’s a combustible job. And I fail at it sometimes. But this is the most satisfying pain I’ve ever experienced in my life, and it gives me something I searched for a long time: purpose.

Please tell us about Here’s Looking at You.
Here’s Looking at You is a modern SoCal-American restaurant that, first and foremost, lauds individuality. There is no staff uniform, for example, and in fact, each team member was hired to actively contribute to the HLAY personality with the help of his or her own original point of view. We are a team of unique. The cuisine of the restaurant is a direct tribute to my Chef/Partner Jonathan Whitener’s diverse upbringing in Southern California — I like to think of each dish being LA on a plate. My job is to “feed” our story to the world. First with my staff, then with the guests that are nice enough to make the time to visit us all the way out in Koreatown. As the Managing Partner of the restaurant, I am all but not limited to being the floor manager, CFO, branding director, chief Instagrammer, taste-tester, super-user of OpenTable, reluctant PR girl, staff therapist, the mom, all-around strategist and manifestor and the hungriest of all. The two words I hear used most often to describe our restaurant are: Fun & Different. This is a proud accomplishment.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
What were you like growing up? Personality wise, interest wise, etc.

I was shy! But I had a very pronounced sense of style. I grew up in Marietta, Georgia, a sizable suburban town outside of Atlanta. My family unit was absent for most of my formative years, so I spent a lot of time living/crashing with other families — lovely Southern families who took me in and instilled in me lasting values of open-armed hospitality. Meals around the dinner table with these families, especially around the holidays, taught me everything I know about engaging and connecting. If I was going to survive, I would have to talk. I asked questions. I loved getting to know people, and I was good at it. It would later help me in becoming a journalist and now restaurateur.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

Ten months into our life as a new restaurant, Food & Wine Magazine named Here’s Looking at You among 10 “Restaurants of the Year” in the country. We were the only restaurant hailing from LA, and in our opinion, the only nobodies on this list. It was and still is a ridiculous honor.

A letter that a former staff member wrote to us the morning after her last bartender shift at HLAY comes in as a solid tie for “proudest moment” of my career. The letter is seven-paragraphs long, a companion piece to a new tattoo on her hand, a likeness of one of HLAY’s well-recognized mascots (an African oryx head named Mary-Kate). The letter details, in her own words, the many dimensions to HLAY hospitality, describing it as having “a warmth to it that’s genuine and full-hearted.” She adds: “My time here has imbued in me hospitality as it could be, and how it should be. It has reignited my passion for my profession all over again. It has made me better occupationally, and it has made me better as a human being. I don’t know if I’ll ever work in a place again that embodies all these facets as well as HLAY does.” Besides the fact that this letter left me feeling skinned alive (in a good way!), it provided me with a little bit of validation that she … got the message. And now she will take it with her wherever she goes.

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