Interview with Los Angeles Rising Star Concept Chef Alvin Cailan of Eggslut

by Antoinette Bruno
May 2014

Antoinette Bruno: How did you get into cooking?
Alvin Cailan: Out of necessity, when I was 17 years old. I grew up in the era of gangsta rap in L.A., so there was a lot of gangbanging going on. It was a simple way to stay out of trouble. My parents are very religious people, so, when I started hanging out with a lot of other people, they got me my first job dishwashing at a retreat house. I wanted to cook so bad. It was a huge kitchen—150 people fed every day. The other dishwasher was Filipino as well, in his 40s, and ended up helping to cook, so I cooked with him. In my senior year, when I was 18, I ended up cooking as the kitchen manager.  

AB: So, what did you do after high school?
AC: I studied business at Cal State and then got a job at a construction company, but there was funny business going on. They let me go with severance pay for two years. They didn't want me to talk about what I was working on. I took the money, went to Oregon and did my dream—went to the Oregon Culinary Institute and had the best experience of my life. Then I staged at every restaurant I wanted;  I didn't need the money.

AB: Where did you stage?
AC: When Matt Lightner won restaurant of the year at Castagna, I was there, for about 6 months. I worked at Olympic Provisions with Elias Cairo, Jason Barwikosky, staged at Bouchon for three months, The French Laundry for one week. In L.A., I did Spago and Hatfield’s.

AB: Who do you consider to be your mentor?
Michael Hannigan from 10-1. I was part of the closing team, it was my favorite restaurant. I was on the fast track to be sous chef, but it just wasn't manageable.

AB: What are your most important kitchen rules?                                                 
Honor. Integrity. Respect.

AB: What’s your mission?
Elevating breakfast in L.A. We're such a Denny's city. There wasn't a great fast-casual breakfast place. When I looked at my driver's license and I was 30 years old, I sold all of my expensive belongings and put a down payment on a food truck. I took a lot of flak from all of my chef friends. I had paired up with craft coffee: Handsome Coffee Roasters and Commissary Coffee. I was the food provider for both places. So, I thought, what if we do a truck all about breakfast. We set out with a six-month plan, a pop-up. If it's good, let's keep going. We only had enough money for six months. If it doesn’t work, stop and go back to work somewhere. We made money!! After the second month we had 45-minute lines.

Two years later, I thought people can't wait 45 minutes. So I hired a couple of people and let the word spread that we were looking for a restaurant. We were going to be in the arts district; it's like the Williamsburg of L.A. [Early on], we got offered three different locations and then immediately the bigger companies like Umami Burger and Senor Fish took our locations. 

Then Grand Central Market approached me. I’d just finished watching something on No Reservations where it said there's no breakfast better then eating it in a market. I took it as a sign. Here we wait for the right butcher to show up and do butcher specials with the meat. The cheese shop just opened and we do different cheese specials. We sell juice from the juice place, our coffee is from the coffee shop here. We want to do more breads, and create an actual breakfast place completely sustained by the market. It’s a big challenge, but I wanted to do it so bad. In France and throughout Europe, that’s how they do it. If they can do it, then I can do it.

AB: How do you describe your cuisine?
AC: Trailer-Park French

AB: Hardest thing had to do in your career?
Work for a Michelin-star-hungry chef like Matt Lightner. Those were the toughest six months of life. 

AB: What's your five-year plan?
I want to get to the point where I can open my two other concepts: amazing pizza and amazing fish and chips. I want to make an impact. I want to have at most five Eggslut units—all different, like Eggslut Ramen or Bibimbap.