Betty Fraser Interview: From the Soul of an Artist

by Josie Parrelli

This week Chef Betty Fraser from LA restaurant GRUB shares her story with From The Soul Of An Artist - I've been a fan of Betty Fraser since I saw her on the US reality television show Top Chef where chefs across America compete through a number of food challenges until one is crowned the winner - Betty's infectious enthusiasm and personality made for great television viewing. Having the opportunity to interview her has made her even more endearing to me.

Being from an Italian background, food is love, food is family - It has always been beautiful heading home for the holidays and having Mum's home cooked meals. Sharing a meal with my family and loved ones is truly something magical and special. GRUB gives you the same experience with their "home feel" and "California Comfort Food” which is taking the old-time classics and pumping them up with a contemporary twist, allowing the diner to experience something both familiar and new.

I look forward to sharing a meal and experiencing Betty's hospitality first hand when I visit GRUB next year. Here is Betty's story. Enjoy.

When did you decide to become a chef?
My path to becoming a chef may be a little different than most. I was working as a waitress in a restaurant in Los Angeles and while I had always had a love for food, I was pursuing other interests. My earliest recollection of discovering my passion for cooking came after a dinner party I threw for some friends about 16 or 17 years ago. Instead of just preparing a meal I approached it more like a performance with some fun decorations and interesting food choices. That's when I really began to understand the creativity involved in cooking.
One of the guests that night asked if I would cater a party for her which was a total shock. I did and thankfully I didn't burn the house down. When I had total strangers that night thanking me for the food and asking if I could cater their events as well something in me clicked, and I started getting my feet wet as a caterer. And because the marketing phrase "Word of Mouth" is never as true as it is in the culinary world I started getting more requests. And with that I'd found my destiny and began a new career.

You were once an actress. Is acting something you still have a passion for?
The actual acting was hard to give up but the business was not. Los Angeles is extremely tough on actors and while I loved nothing more than performing, the constant scrutiny and inconsistency has a way of taking the joy out of it. But now I think I've found the best of both worlds. I have some TV shows that are getting interest and I get to appear at live food events all around the country. I look at these as extensions of not just of my work as a chef but as a performer as well. And the best thing is if I screw up a line no one knows the difference!

Tell us about Grub and “California Comfort Food”.
My business partner, Denise DeCarlo, and I came across our current location because the catering company we started to really take off and we needed the space. We ran across a 1920's duplex in Hollywood for rent that had been converted to a restaurant. Since we both love that style of architecture we decided to lease it and move our catering operation in. We were there for maybe a day when the neighborhood residents began dropping by to ask when we'd be opening the restaurant. It was the last thing on our minds at the time but as the questions continued we just looked at each other one day and said, “Why not?” If we're going to be here cooking anyway we might as well sell the food too, right? How hard could it be?
The answer to that question came pretty early. It's crazy, ridiculously, fantastically hard! We had no idea what we were getting in to and made a lot of mistakes along the way. But the one thing we did do is learn from those mistakes. In hindsight, if we had really known what opening and running a restaurant entailed we probably would have been scared off. So I guess the old saying is true. Sometimes ignorance truly is bliss.
When creating our menu we wanted to provide food that worked within our surroundings. We had rented an old house and wanted to create an oasis in the concrete jungle of Hollywood that had a sense of “home.” And what's more homey than Mom's cooking? This is where we found the inspiration to develop what we call “California Comfort Food” which is taking the old-time classics and pumping them up with a contemporary twist.
I think that one of the reasons we've been successful is that we've been able to blend our food with the environment. We're a fun place and so is what we serve. And because L.A. is such a migratory place we hope to provide our guests with a little respite from the grind and let them relax with something both familiar and new.

You competed on Top Chef Season 2– what made you decide to enter Top Chef? What was it like to have cameras following your every move in the kitchen?
A producer from the show approached me in my restaurant and asked if I'd be interested in auditioning. My restaurant Grub is a pretty high-energy place and we all feed off of it so the producer might have felt that, at the very least, I wouldn't shy away from the camera. This was only the second season of the show and while I had caught it a couple of times it hadn't yet reached the popularity it's enjoyed for so long. I figured there was no harm in auditioning so I put together a little tape and sent it in. The next thing I knew I was meeting with the producers, packing my bags and heading off to one of the craziest experiences of my life.

Do you enjoy competing and challenging yourself against your fellow chefs?
When I'm at food events now that have celebrity chef challenges I really enjoy it. I love the pressure and the exchanges with the audience. Top Chef was a little different story. I'm a self-trained chef and when the other contestants were talking about their culinary training and which restaurants they'd worked in I was a little intimidated. But then I came to understand that just like it is in the restaurant business everyone has their own specific niche. Was I going to ace a challenge that dealt with molecular gastronomy? Hell no. But was I going to nail something that dealt with classic recipes? Yeah... I gave myself a pretty good chance there. So as a chef I tried to apply what I did best to the different challenges.
I never really envisioned myself winning because the kind of cooking they were looking for was very different to what I did. But I was proud of how long I lasted and had an experience that I won't forget. The funny thing is that the challenge that sent me on my way is actually something I was pretty comfortable with. But when you get tired you start making silly mistakes which is what happened to me. The show is as much about perseverance as anything.

Your love of people, your personality and positivity shone through and stood out in many of the challenges on Top Chef, how has this helped you with your business and influenced your cooking?
Well thanks for that wonderful comment and I'm glad that's how I came across to you. Unfortunately, not everyone felt the same way!
People who had some experience in the reality television world warned me to remember that the camera is always on. But what happens is that in a very short amount of time you forget that the cameras are there which, from the producer's perspective, is what makes for good television. And while I absolutely do love people and try my best to always maintain a positive attitude there are times, as it is with everyone, that certain things, or more accurately people, or even MORE accurately a person, can get under my skin. Of course, a large part of reality TV is playing up the moments of drama and there were a couple of instances where my emotions got the best of me and they ended up on air.
While my friends, family and restaurant guests know that I'm all about putting out good energy it was a little hard to take when some fans of the show formed an opinion based on a ten second lapse in good behavior. But that's the nature of television. If you can't take the good with the bad it's probably not something you want to pursue.
And there's no question that my food and restaurant are a direct reflection of my personality. And the same goes for my business partner Denise. We're both “glass half full” kinds of people who live our lives with the volume turned up to 11. We want our food to be fun, flavorful and accessible and we hope our guests feel that from the first bite.

Would you like to be a judge on Top Chef one day? If so what sort of judge do you think you would be?
I would love to be a Top Chef judge but I'm afraid I'd be a nicer version of Paula Abdul. I know how much is on the line for the chefs and how much they care about what they're creating. I have a feeling I'd love everything and everyone because I wouldn't have the heart to point out any flaws. That said, I have no problem in sending a meal back in a restaurant for some adjustments if I don't believe it's up to par. Maybe because it's a professional environment but I expect all restaurants to do their very best with each and every plate they send to a table.

Do you still keep in touch with any of your fellow contestants?
I do and it has been great! It's like we're all part of some strange fraternity that had a really intense hazing ritual. In addition to staying up to date on Facebook, I still see Ilan Hall who was the winner of Season 2 and am absolutely in love with his restaurant The Gorbals. That man can cook! I also stay in touch Elia Aboumrad who has some great things going on in her career as well as Suyai Steinhauer who is becoming a well known raw food chef. It was a really fun group of people and it's great to see them all doing so well.

By appearing on Top Chef what professional opportunities presented themselves to you once the series was over?
What started happening pretty quickly after the show ended was my being invited to cook live at food events which is something I just love doing. I've had the chance to appear at some awesome events with the best chefs around. To be able to get out there and perform in front of my fellow "foodies" and talk shop is a thrill for me. I actually just got back from New Orleans, one of the cities I've wanted to visit since I was a kid, and had an incredible time. A great thing about food events is that the people who attend not only have a shared interest but are almost always really great people. I'd do them every week if I could.

Would you like to have your own cooking show on television?
Don't tell anyone but I want my own show more than anything. Wait. Actually please tell everyone! I've been close a few times and have taken a lot of meetings but for one reason or other things have fallen apart at the last second. I've actually got two shows that are receiving interest right now and my fingers are crossed. I'm really ready to take my career to the next level and want to reach as many people as possible with my work.

What are you currently working on?
The shows I've created are about inspirational, exciting television with a big serving of happy on the side. I know that to be successful as a host it's important that your real personality is being reflected in the show. Could I create and take part in something where people are yelling at each other and throwing plates of pasta across the room? Probably. But is that who I am or what I want to represent? Absolutely not.
My goal is to encourage people to get off the couch and in to the kitchen to have some fun. I want to help make cooking accessible to people who may be too intimidated to try the recipes they see on TV. While I understand the draw of the high-end chefs creating high-end dishes I'm more about exploring the creativity in us all and using food as the canvas. And screwing up a Mac & Cheese is a lot easier to take than screwing up a really expensive piece of meat.

Who and what inspires you?
My Mom is, has been, and will always be the most inspirational person in my life. To see the way she raised us as a single Mom who always put my sister and my needs in front of her own drives me to be the best person I can be. I just don't want to let her down. Her ability to truly be about unconditional love and face each day with an extraordinarily positive outlook no matter what hurdles she's facing has provided me with more than a Mom but a hero as well. My Mom rocks.

What lessons have you learnt along your journey, personally and professionally?
It's a bit of a cliché but I've learned that nothing comes easy. In addition to being the co-owner of Grub with my awesome, amazing, incredible business partner Chef Denise DeCarlo, we also run our longtime catering company As You Like It and the commissary café at Hollywood's Red Studio. When you add those things up there is no escaping really long days filled with a lot of pressure. This isn't a gig you can phone in and if you're not 100% committed, particularly in a place like Los Angeles where restaurants open and close every day, you don't stand a chance in succeeding.
But what I've learned lately is that to be able to be successful on the professional side you need to make time for yourself on the personal side. I can, and do, work stretches of 18 hour days but if I don't take the time to walk away from it there's no way I can be at my best. I try and get to the gym everyday which really clears my head out and set aside "me time" during the week so I can recharge the batteries. Ironically, one of the things that really helps me unwind is going to new restaurants. Go figure!

Your favourite quote or saying?
Even though life sometimes gets in the way of living... you ARE living, so do it to the fullest!

What words of wisdom would you pass onto the next generation of chefs and business owners?
Set your goal, take the steps you can to eliminate as many mistakes before they happen, put your head down and work work work. Oh, and don't forget to have fun while you're doing it!
At the end of the day anyone working in this industry has a couple of things in common. They love food and they love pleasing people with their food. And within that there are so many different paths up the mountain.
The cold hard reality is that there are very few who make the big money in this industry so unless you really love what you're doing, owning a restaurant or becoming a chef might not be the right career choice. I just wish everyone had an idea of what really takes place behind the line during a rush. While the job is to keep that hidden from the guest so they can just relax and enjoy the meal, anyone who has been in a busy kitchen knows that it's usually hot, stressful and often filled with “Type A” personalities. You really have to love being in that environment to make a go of it. But if you do, the satisfaction that comes from a guest really enjoying their experience makes it all worthwhile..

What’s next for Betty Fraser?
Well, in the short term my car is in serious need of a wash after last night's catering gig. But beyond that I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing which is focusing on my goals and working to make them happen. While our restaurant is now well-established that doesn't mean it runs itself and there's always room for improvement. And the catering company is a never-ending flow of new situations to face.
But beyond the day-to-day I'm really focusing on bringing my TV projects to fruition. I'm confident that the shows we've created have something that would really be enjoyed so I'm ready to go from super long crazy days in the kitchen to super long crazy days in front of the camera. I figure I can slow down when I'm 80. Of course, by then I might be pitching a show called “Grandma Betty's Geriatric Kitchen” so I guess I'm in it for the long haul!