With a Name like Betty

By Leslee Komaiko

Three years ago, Betty Fraser was a Los Angeles chef and restaurateur with a popular neighborhood spot called Grub and a sister business by the name of “As You Like It Catering.” Then the San Francisco native became a contestant on season two of Bravo’s Top Chef. She was the ninth competitor to be dismissed. It was, she says, a life changing experience.

Let’s start off with a little word association: the economy.
Challenging.

Wolfgang Puck.
A visionary.

Yelp.
Great.

Why do you say that?
We look at the majority and we address anything that’s not positive because we believe people’s opinions are valid. Sometimes when you get a lot of exposure there’s no way to meet the expectation. We are pretty good at all things food. We really stress customer service and kindness to our service staff. They’re hired on the basis of having a sweetness. We have a tiny kitchen. Sometimes it does take a bit longer.

A lot of chefs and restaurateurs don’t like Yelp.
I think everyone has a right to an opinion. If I’m going to take the good I have to take the bad.

Small plates.
Really satisfying. I think it gives you variety.

Bacon.
My favorite ingredient in the world. I made bacon cookies in the shape of pigs.

That people can get at the restaurant?
We’re still working out the kinks.

Comfort food.
Close to my heart. It sort of emulates what Grub is: a sense of home.

Now let’s go back a bit. When did you first start getting interested in cooking?
I was a self taught chef going way back to childhood. With a name like Betty, you instantly see the Betty Crocker Cookbook and have a kinship with a friend.

Did your mom cook?
She couldn’t cook very well. She’s gotten much better. We had hamburgers and mac and cheese from a box.

And you came to LA to act?
Yes. At about 30 I came to LA. I was an actress but I was always in the restaurant business. I worked at California Pizza Kitchen with a fellow waitress, Denise DeCarlo. She and I became partners in a catering company. Every year our business doubled.

You were doing this while at California Pizza Kitchen?
Yes. As a struggling actress with no guarantees, at about 35 I decided to switch my focus and put acting aside. The irony is I end up on a friggin’ TV show.

Grub is best known as a breakfast/brunch place. Was that your objective?
It was progressive growth. Where we’re located in the heart of the post production part of Hollywood, we weren’t even going to open a restaurant until the neighborhood asked us to. It was going to be our catering kitchen. They were coming by when we were painting saying, “Are you guys going to open a restaurant?” Denise and I looked at each other and said, “How much work could this be?” We were young women without a clue.

I know you serve dinner. Is it hard to overcome the breakfast place image?
The growth process is slower for dinner because of the fact that during the day we have a great, built-in audience with the studios. The neighborhood does get a little more low-key in the evening.

Tell me about your ‘crack’ bacon.
It’s one of the most popular dishes or ingredients at Grub. I use it in three or four dishes. You can get it as a side dish or in a BLT. We do four versions of BLT, also a cracked bacon quesadilla with apples.

What is it?
It’s bacon with a secret, magic ingredient that the elves make at night which I can’t tell you. As with almost every dish on the Grub menu, it’s playful with big, big flavors. We want to have fun when we cook and that hopefully comes through. The menu is very playful.

Do you ever think—maybe people just want to know what’s in a dish? They don’t want the silly names and menu commentary?
Some people are in the mood for it. Some people aren’t. I have seen people laugh out loud. It’s all part of the experience. I don’t think you‘ll find anything boring at Grub. It’s a destination because we’re not on a walking path. If people put the energy out to come where we are, we want to make it special.

How did the Top Chef thing happen?
Completely serendipity. I was closing up one Friday afternoon and got a phone call from Scott Shatsky. He said, “I’m with Magical Elves. I want to know if you want to bring me some food.” He said it again. I was like, what? He explained, “We do this show called Top chef, also Project Runway.” I said, “I’m really confused.” I’m like, “Do you want me to be on your show or do you want us to cater something?” He was like, “Do you want to be on our show?” When I saw I had to be available for 30 days straight, I said, “I can’t do this.”  I thanked the receptionist and I left. About five minutes later I got a call. They said, “You need to do this show. It will be great. People will find out about your restaurant.” Then I turned around.

I’m still not clear. Why he was calling?
He called us to cater the shoot. My season was in LA and he knew of our catering company.

Did Denise give you her blessing?
Her full and complete blessing and it was tough, tough to be one man down.

Were you sequestered?
No conversation with the outside world.

Were you in a hotel?
In lofts Downtown.

Was it fun?
‘Fun’ is usually not a word I use to describe the experience. It was hard, stressful. I made some great friends, learned some amazing things, met some spectacular chefs in the judges. What it did do is kind of changed my life. It opened up so many doors. I cooked with Al Roker on the Today Show. I am invited to food events to be a guest celebrity chef all over the United States.

Do you feel like some people underestimate you because you were/are a TV chef? Like oh, she’s not a serious chef.
Does that mean that Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse shouldn’t be taken seriously?  Not that I would be put in that league. I fail to see how that could be. They saw me cook. I think if you’re making a living at it, you can own it.

I know you’re from San Francisco. Do you think the food is better there?
No. I don’t think there’s a better or worse. I think, every man for himself. I think that’s kind of general.

What should a first timer order at Grub?
We created the original after school special. If mimicry is the highest form of flattery—I’ve seen it on how many different menus. It’s grilled cheese with tomato soup. It was originally created by a great chef we had at one point. We take those classic comfort dishes and give them a gourmet twist.

How?
We use wonderful sourdough, dill butter, two different types of cheese. Our soups are made from scratch. We call it ‘creamy dreamy tomato soup.’

Where have you eaten out lately?
I try to go out often. I ate at Fabio’s restaurant last week.

Who is Fabio?
Fabio [Viviani] was the season five fan favorite. He has Firenze Osteria in Toluca Lake. I love going to Ilan’s Gorbals. He was the winner of my season.

Is there a neighborhood place you frequent?
I love to mosey on down to Birds in Beechwood Canyon and have a beer at the bar.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
I don’t think I’ve thought about it. I’m too busy thinking about being one.