Alvin Cailan is an L.A. native who got a Business Management degree from California State University Fullerton and worked in construction before food took over his life. He attended Oregon Culinary Institute and worked for top Portland restaurants like Castagna and Ten 01. Cailan staged down the California coast in restaurants like Bouchon and Hatfield’s before signing on at M.B. Post. From there, he opened Eggslut with cousin Jeff Vales, starting with a truck before landing a counter at Grand Central Market. To start 2015, Cailan and Michael Sudjati teamed on Ramen Champ in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, and they’re working to open The Proper beneath Chinatown’s Gold Line stop. I recently met with Cailan at Ramen Champ, where he shared unique insights.
Alvin Cailan: We’re at a critical moment with food in L.A. So many people are taking shortcuts and they’re doing so well. There are people like us, people who do everything from scratch, who have to pay extra in labor, who have to do the extra step to make the food taste good. It sounds so cheesy, but when people say, “I put a little extra love into it,” it means I put a little extra effort into it. Now we’re getting e-mails left and right about this wage increase thing. $15.25/hour. Pretty soon we’re all going to be eating stuff out of boxes.
Josh Lurie: Is this sort of effort that you’re putting in sustainable?
AC: In a technical sense, it is. It’s sustainable because we’re trying to use all of the product. We’re not trying to waste anything. We’re really honing into a craft, but is it sustainable as a business? After the $15.25 wage increase, it’s going to be tough. We’re talking about having to increase food prices and having to compete with people who do use base and bouillon and manufactured stuff to make food.
JL: How does this affect your hiring practices?
AC: It doesn’t. Right now, I’ve always been the kind of person who hires people to train them. If you’re a regular cook and you’ve cooked for a taqueria or food court, but you know the process of the kitchen, I like that better than someone who’s worked for 50 different amazing chefs. They come in here with a different attitude. I’d rather be able to train you from start to finish, and show you how it should be done the right way. Eventually, you go on to another job and bring the habits I created, or I helped you create, to that job, and you do well. That’s the biggest thing I can do besides making really good food, is investing into our employees 100%. That’s kind of been my goal now. I’m partnering up with really great chefs. That gives me time to be creative, but also have the time to individually help each person, from dishwasher all the way up to me and Mike. He’s my business partner. I’m learning so much from him, and he’s learning so much from me. We look at our current state as a restaurant group, being that we have two places and a third on its way, there’s an opportunity to be able to strengthen the workforce. Even if we have to pay them $15.25 an hour, it would be justified, but right now, it’s not. We just opened this restaurant. We’re still very new… Five years down the line, we’ll have a brigade. We’ll have an army of people who have worked for our group and say, “I learned so much from you guys, and it wasn’t just a job. It was like going to school.”
At Eggslut, we’ve been doing this for the past two years. We get dishwashers and turn them into prep cooks. Then they end up going on the line. Right now, at Eggslut, three people who last year were dishwashers are now on the line. One of them is actually calling tickets, expediting food, which to me is amazing. I’ve been in the restaurant industry for awhile. Going through the traditional brigade system takes a lot longer to get to that level. But that’s purely on ego: “He’s not ready yet.” “You didn’t spend time with me one-on-one to know if I’m ready yet.” We give all of our employees the benefit of the doubt. Here at Ramen Champ, we had an amazing dishwasher. Now she runs our prep. Without her, I’d be screwed. I’d have to be here and at Eggslut at the same time. She’s amazing. She’s like a firecracker. She runs. Her sense of urgency is, “I have to get this done right away.” It’s really hard to teach.
JL: Looking back at your career, at what point would you have been a smart hire?
AC: I’ve always been. When I was young, I really just wanted to cook. I worked for free. For a good year-and-a-half of my career, I didn’t get paid at all. I would just fold towels for two hours to get the respect of the chef, just to be able to learn one dish. Because some chefs I worked with trained me really well, I got to where I’m at right now.
JL: Who specifically has been a mentor to you, and in what ways?