Lien Ta: How I Found My Joy Running Restaurants Again

Like other loves, restaurant love is complicated. Owning a restaurant isn’t easy. To state the obvious: it’s work, an absolute job. And like love, it takes work. It just so happens that it requires a whole lot of each. 

Photos by Carolina Korman

Like other loves, restaurant love is complicated.

Owning a restaurant isn't easy. To state the obvious: it’s work, an absolute job. And like love, it takes work. It just so happens that it requires a whole lot of each. 

I’ve been a restaurateur for seven years. When I set out to, one day, open my own restaurant, it was largely—and even naively—driven by my love of restaurants. My attraction and perhaps addiction to enjoy the delicious work of others: expression on a plate, in a glass, on the walls. The orchestra of noise and movement inside intentional, mood-enhancing spaces, all, of course, steered by individual humans, facilitating a vow of sorts, something called hospitality. For me, I sought out restaurants that delivered experiences. I wanted very badly to collect the feeling of belonging, the feeling of being taken care of—and being awestruck by innovation, transformation, and a distinct point of view.

In any such restaurant, someone was in charge. And, loftily, I thought I could be one of these someone’s, a humble one of remarkable thousands, but certainly a one who could wholly dedicate herself to serve thousands. Joy would, for sure, be on the menu.

At that point, opening a restaurant was the largest feat I'd ever accomplished. Without an instruction manual, it took about a year to put the pieces together. It was remarkable to see myself employ qualities I hadn't yet tried on before: enormous courage, overcoming fear, exercising inflated confidence. A lot about the "let's figure out how to open a restaurant" work was incredible to me. Asking for money from investors was, by far, the hardest thing I had to make happen. I told myself that if I found the money to open the restaurant (all $750,000), I would never complain about running a restaurant. That would be easy: the joy of feeding guests, a dinner party, over and over and over.

And, in both hindsight and truth, operating Here's Looking at You was a breeze. The space, first of all, a small, uniquely shaped corner restaurant in Koreatown with just 12 tables, if uncombined, and Jonathan Whitener, the best chef I knew, as my business partner. Eventually people would agree and even request to sit at the 15-seat bar, which boasted a two-tone zebra bamboo bar top, the wood sourced by us from a local lumberyard. Looking out at the dining room early on, I couldn't believe all these strangers were sitting inside our restaurant, eating our food, using our bathrooms, and paying us for all of it. At that point in my life, I was not naturally suited to tears but, in that first year, I found myself tearful and verklempt several noticeable-to-me times:

1. The morning after tasting Chef Jonathan's steak tartare for the first time and following up with the potential investor we’d made it for. (They didn't invest, but it's the best steak tartare I've ever had—and still our signature dish.)

2. Holding up a glass of Champagne to toast my staff, minutes before we opened our doors on opening night. I was so choked up; I couldn't even speak. I swallowed the tears—along with the Champagne.

3. When the Jonathan Gold review came out in the LA Times on Thanksgiving Day, four months after we opened and, when I called Chef Jonathan, he was with his family, and they were reading the review on a big screen. I could hear his family erupting in cheer and applause.

These were tears of joy.

There were also difficult times. A handful of us worked six overtime nights a week for the better part of a year. The leader I’m working on being today is filled with shame by this memory.

It is unclear why Jonathan and me, after only a year of owning a restaurant, thought it would be a good idea to open a second one. My short marriage had been subtly unraveling and, now I know, I just managed to bury myself in a new distraction, a project that, unlike its older sister, bore a name right away: All Day Baby. Jonathan and I embarked on a quest to open this second restaurant on a corner property in Silver Lake. It would serve breakfast and joy by way of sunshine, biscuits, and boozy milkshakes all day. We would also need over a million dollars to pull it off.

Immediately, All Day Baby was rife with challenges, something that I, confusingly, seemed to be drawn to. A bright spot was that, during this time, author Patric Kuh shadowed us for the better part of a year, eventually writing ‘Becoming a Restaurateur,’ as part of the Simon & Schuster series, ‘Masters at Work.’ I'll always remember that the book opens with me bending to pick up two strewn shishito stems off the floor, an act of care I performed just about every night. I was amazed that Patric, having recently left his longtime post as the restaurant critic at Los Angeles Magazine, had cherry-picked us to be the subject of the book. I was even more amazed that, when I glimpsed the book for the first time, I was struck by the names of each chapter: 

Visionary. Facilitator. Operator. Leader. Entrepreneur.

In spite of our challenges, I saw myself in these chapter titles, seemingly, for the first time ever. It was a joyous feeling to be so seen. And I thanked Patric for, perhaps, explaining to me what my work is, for all its pain and rewards.

Our journey, of course, hit still more bumps. All Day Baby had only been open for three and a half months, when the pandemic changed our landscape of routine and certainty.

Any given day of a restaurant's life is marred by unexpected emergencies, but the level-up of response required to manage the weight of Covid was unprecedented. The adrenaline, the despair, the responsibility—how our bodies could even hold space for it all seemed incomprehensible.

The surprising thing was, I discovered a new gear. Despite needing to save my own businesses, consider my 100 furloughed employees and do right by my several dozen investors, it made gut sense to me to try and find a way to help as many of us as I could. From the letter I wrote to then LA Mayor Eric Garcetti to my eventual appearance at the Democratic National Convention, sharing my own experience as a struggling small business-owner, to co-founding a non-profit to support women restaurateurs, or even to writing a response piece in the wake of learning about the murders of several Asian women in the self-care industry, what shook me most about these extracurriculars that I somehow eked out time for, was the joy that I discovered in my own capacity to become a leader, an accidental activist and decent civilian. This joy helped me manage some of my worst grief, like losing Here’s Looking at You, our first restaurant, for what seemed like for good.

None of this was easy. Suddenly I wore the effects of the pandemic and ‘everything, everywhere, all at once’ like scabs I couldn't seem to heal. I became impatient and bitter; my hair was thinning at a disturbing pace. Every night, I woke up at 3AM with heavy worry and guilt and couldn't fall back asleep. I had chronic pain in my upper thoracic spine and left hip. It looked like I had aged 12 years in three. I felt a deep urge to lash out at anyone who claimed I was an inspiration. Because I didn't feel like one. Yet each day and night, I, importantly, still mustered a smile and all the care I had left in my well. For others, of course, because I reserved not even a drop for myself.

Yes, I kept my business open during Covid. Yes, I even managed to resurrect our supposedly dead first restaurant by way of a GoFundMe campaign that helped raise $100,000. And yes, I gathered the community in previously unimaginable ways and helped to create leaders in and outside the four walls of the restaurants—the impact of these achievements was not lost on me—but I also took myself for granted and accidentally became addicted to work and let the addiction absorb me, mind, body, and soul. 

There had to be another way.

I recently learned that connection is arguably my favorite value. And someone smarter than me kindly pointed out: If I value connection so much, but I’m working all the time, what actions am I initiating to allow space for connection?

For years I personified the classic trope of making passion my work, and then losing passion for it. Now I’ve realized that my life includes my work, but I cannot only work, like, I cannot only eat cake (though it's delicious). After hitting no fewer than four rock-bottoms in the span of a year, I finally pushed myself to figure out how to heal. 

n a way, I had to give myself permission. Permission to neglect my work and prioritize two, arguably bigger, things: myself and the value I cherish most, connection. I tried to convince myself that if I could do this, I could patch up my relationship with my job and my joy. My inspiration was this:

I couldn't bear to have any of my younger-generation employees look at me and think: This must be the only way to reach success. To burn out beyond the pale. I wanted to be a better, healthier example of a human that knew she was only human -- and it was okay to have needs of her own. 

Seven years ago, I’d been brave enough to become a restaurateur, and what a wild ride it's been. A seesaw, if you will, with two magical restaurants on one end to show for all the effort. Now, with hindsight as my best teacher, today, what's on the other end of my seesaw is a buoyant stack of things that are good for me and my work: emotional wellness, space for creativity, a smart therapist, 20 minutes of yoga every day, carefree bullshit joy, strengthening relationships that serve me, understanding unplugging vs. recharging, even planning a long-desired trip to Sicily. Each end of the seesaw working together to create harmony – and sanity.

It's a miracle I got myself unstuck. And now as I, step by step, get whole again, I am once again gladdened and empowered to do restaurant work with a clear mind and full heart. As every restaurant worker knows, completing a day's work at a restaurant is a miracle in itself. And it feels a lot like luck to have the chance to do it all over again (or better!) tomorrow. At least to me.

Lien Ta
Lien TaAuthor

Lien Ta is the co-owner of All Day Baby, a feel-good restaurant with the soul of a diner. Located in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, it was open for just three and a half months before the mandated closure on March 16, 2020 in response to the novel coronavirus. Today, with over 60 employees furloughed, it is open for takeout and delivery with a small team and limited hours.

Her first restaurant was a fun little restaurant in Koreatown called Here’s Looking At You, also co-owned by Chef Jonathan Whitener. A “Restaurant of the Year” by Food & Wine Magazine in 2017, HLAY was revered as a toast to the fantastically-diverse landscape of Southern California. The impact of COVID-19 forced its indefinite closure on July 12, 2020, on the eve of the restaurant's fourth anniversary.

As a small business owner affected by the pandemic, Lien was recently featured, alongside LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, in a video aired at the Democratic National Convention. She is the subject of "Becoming a Restaurateur," a Simon & Schuster publication by author Patric Kuh. She was a fellowship recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s inaugural class of the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program in 2017.

She is a founding member & committee lead of RE:Her, a charitable organization for women-owned restaurants in Los Angeles. It launched its inaugural food festival, 10 Days RE:Her, on Jan. 21, 2021.

She was previously a Manager & Culinary Liaison at Animal & Son of a Gun restaurants. Before working in hospitality, she was a food, fashion & lifestyle writer and entertainment editor for eight years.


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