Grant Smillie will sleep when he’s dead. The ex-DJ and nightlife guru fell into the hospitality industry and found his calling as the creative mastermind behind LA’s EP & LP. Louis Tikaram, on the other hand, heard his calling from day one. The Fijian-born, Australian-raised head chef at EP & LP grew up in a culture that richly emphasizes eating, drinking and being merry.
CONVICTS caught up with the duo in their coppered-out, multi-story Asian eatery in West Hollywood. We interviewed Grant and Louis in their to-be-legendary digs and got their respective words on everything from rooftop cinemas to strained sleeping schedules and everything in between.
First, the kitchen wizard himself, Louis.
How’s it going mate? To start, can you introduce yourself and tell us where we are?
I’m Louis Tikaram, I’m the Executive Chef here at EP restaurant in West Hollywood, at the corner of Melrose and La Cienega Blvd.
We know you grew up in a heavily foodie culture, but why did you fall for Asian food in particular?
I fell in love with Southeast Asian food when I moved to Sydney and started working. I traveled to Southeast Asia a lot and just fell in love with the flavors and the complexity.
Why bring that cuisine to LA?
We just thought that in LA, there was a niche in the market for this type of food. The weather is great, all the produce that I use in Thai and Vietnamese cooking is grown here – like really locally because there’s so much sun. It’s a type of cuisine that leaves you feeling light and really healthy. I always say we didn’t find LA, LA found us. And this food fits perfectly with the clientele and the climate here. It’s amazing.
Talk about the vibes in the kitchen here?
Well any kitchen is what you make it. I would rather have a kitchen full of young eager chefs that I get to nurture and bring up rather than a kitchen full of rockstars. I’d rather put in the time with younger guys just as I had all the time put into me when I was a young chef. I had some really great mentors and got taken under the wing. So that’s really all I want to do, is just pay it forward and have a really humble kitchen with no ego where everyone gets along with each other and shares the same passion for food.
Can you describe the flavors here, just so we can hear it from the horse’s mouth?
Really fresh and punchy. That’s really how I describe it. A lot of tamarind, a lot of lime a lot of chili, a lot of fish sauce. Everything is really seasoned but that does not necessarily means it’s salty. It can be seasoned with cashew nuts, with lime juice, with really fresh mint, Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, cilantro, and all these ingredients that I’ve had to source locally at farms and different Asian vendors and groceries. Asian is very different. We don’t do much to the raw ingredients. We leave them uncooked, so people are just able to eat them and taste what the ingredients really are. It’s really nice to bring a cuisine to people who have never eaten Thai cuisine before and for them to go ‘Wow, this is something I’ve never had.’ That’s my number one goal here.
As a chef and someone who understands food, do you still have guilty pleasures?
Yeah. Hot dogs, burgers. A sneaky one at the baseball or basketball.
What’s the most satisfying thing about what you do at EP & LP?
It’s nice to just have that kind of environment where your friends want to come in and see you and experience the kind of the restaurant that you’ve worked so hard to get to a certain level. Then to be able to knock off work and meet your friends upstairs for dinner. It’s a pinch yourself moment every time I get up to the roof to have a beer, the Hollywood Hills are behind us and there are all the lights and it’s packed with people and everyone is having a good time. It’s like “Wow, this is something that we’ve created.” It’s still pretty surreal every time I go up there.
Right on Louis, thanks for the chat. Now onto Grant Smillie, creative director at EP & LP.
Hey man. Can you introduce yourself for us?
Hi I’m Grant Smillie. We are currently sitting in EP & LP in West Hollywood.
Easy. So we talked about the food here with Louis, but with you we want to dig into the bigger picture stuff. Can you tell us what brought you to America with the desire of owning a restaurant?
The scale of it was the impetus to jump across the ditch and try something in America. Maybe not the scale EP & LP ended up being, as it turns out to be quite a big beast. A hundred staff here and I thought it would probably be half the size. But it’s the same amount of effort. Same amount of blood, sweat, and tears doing a big one or a little one so if you are going to do it, you might as well do it big.
Talk about the vibes here. Did you consciously bring an Aussie energy to the place?
Being outdoors allows for more lax service. When I say lax, I mean more casual, relaxed, a bit more Australian style. In America we find that most places have table service and bottles and we specifically went away from that. The social outcome here is one of collision by design. You can sit at a table and get waited on all night, but in reality, you want to be engaging with other people. Going up to the bar and actually ordering a drink is something we do everyday back in Australia. But it’s not necessarily something that they do in America.
Right on. What are some of the key elements of the EP & LP experience? Do you have any pillars for the restaurant’s overall design?
For sure. We have some significant pillars that we always go back to: design, music, fashion, and food. They are our primary four. Being in the design district in West Hollywood, you are surrounded by a lot of furniture, a lot of fashion, so you are always going to engage with that. All of your design outcomes better be pretty significant. That’s all the way through, from the art to the way you are plating up food.
Tell us a little bit about Australian cuisine. Is it something misunderstood?
I think if you asked an American what Australian cuisine is, they’d tell you it’s a kangaroo steak. In reality, it’s influenced by Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam. Louis has got that perfect hybrid of all those things with an American sensibility.
How do you navigate that tension, between the Americanness and the Aussie or Asianness of the food?
You need to have a fried chicken on the menu, but we will do it Szechuan spice. And if we want a rib dish – because they love spare ribs in America – well we’ll make sure it’s got a really good sticky glaze that Louis has perfected and taken up a level. So it’s definitely modern Asian, utilising American produce but with our own unique stamp. It’s uniquely Australian and uniquely Asian as well.
So you’re an ex-DJ. Do you see an overlap between that scene and the hospitality industry?
I do mate, I do, I think that with music and hospitality you’re designing and creating concepts. The creative outcome is the same as just writing music notes or doing whatever else. In reality it’s just the same, getting whatever vision is in your head into a tactical outcome. I find them very similar.
What keeps your creative motivation going?
Always challenging people, seeing if what we have can be better. Also, evolving my role in the business. I think that people in every business need to have the ability to progress and so for us, that’s driving our second location because we’ve got to do it. So that’s what keeps me rolling.
Right on. Changing gears a bit, can you talk a bit about LA?
From an Aussie perspective, one of the easiest parts about moving to LA is that it is easy to assimilate. The beach is literally down the road. You can be surfing at Zuma or swimming and you can go hiking every day. That ability to be active and healthy and sunny. It’s always great to go down to the farmer’s markets on weekends and get unreal produce or to go and watch the skating down in Santa Monica. Watch Corby go flip one out and hopefully not break his neck. There’s just so much to see and do here. So I find that, coming from Melbourne, it’s just a lot more livable here than the moody thing back home where there are four seasons in the day.
We hear talk of a rooftop cinema.
So we are going to be more than just a restaurant brand. It’s important to expand the brand and its footprint, so we are launching a rooftop cinema on the second half of our rooftop. It’s a 250 seat cinema looking up at the Hollywood Hills where we’ll be able to serve food and drink. This hasn’t been done in West Hollywood on that scale and I think people will really gravitate towards it. I mean, it is Tinsel Town, it’s a good place to show these things.
Do people treat you differently as an Aussie upstart?
We don’t get any favors because we come from Australia. We’re just another squirrel trying to get a nut over here like the rest of them.
Lastly, do you get much sleep?
Hear that Grant. Thanks for the chat and best of luck with everything.