Betty Fraser can't finish her lunch.
As she works her way through her signature "after school special," a grilled cheddar and Swiss cheese sandwich on sourdough with a bowl of creamy tomato soup, she can barely get in two bites before someone inevitably interrupts to chat, catch up, compliment her on lunch or wish her good luck on that television show.
Fraser, owner of Grub Restaurant in Hollywood and the only Los Angeles contestant on Bravo's reality series "Top Chef," happily puts down her sandwich and spoon to laugh and joke with her customers.
"It's like a family," Fraser says of Grub, located on a tucked away corner of Seward Street in the middle of Hollywood's post-production hub. "We have a lot of regulars … and we have a great staff. Most people have worked here for a long time so their hearts are really in it."
The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Fraser, 44, opened Grub approximately five years ago as an outgrowth of her catering company, As You Like It Catering, which she started in 1995 with her partner Denise DeCarlo.
"We took this space because we needed to cater out of it," Fraser says. "We had no idea what the neighborhood was all about, which is post-production Hollywood. To drive through, it looks very industrial, very quiet. But there are hundreds and hundreds of people who work in these buildings and there are no other restaurants around, so we were kind of an instant hit because people needed someplace to go."
The food, often described as "California comfort," turned them into regulars.
"Everything we do here is different," Fraser says as a waitress sets a tiny bowl of raw vegetables and mini-pretzels with a ranch dressing dip on the table in lieu of bread.
Grub's menu includes a lot of nostalgic bites with a twist -- like the after school special, the southwestern take on the sloppy Joe called the "Joe Mama" and the homemade ginger ale, which comes in a frosty glass rimmed with sugar and a wedge of lime.
It is a formula that served Fraser well on a recent "Top Chef" episode where contestants had to come up with a new version of a childhood favorite. Fraser's winning creation, a jazzy grilled cheese sandwich inspired by her after school special called the Tuscan Portobello Melt, is now served at T.G.I. Friday's restaurants nationwide.
"It's really good," Fraser says with a friendly wink. "It's so interesting to be in the midst of these challenges because you have to really think on your feet. And you have to think well, because the people this year are so much more advanced than the people they had last year."
Despite her fellow contestants' serious culinary credentials, the self-taught Fraser is confident in her skills.
"I always felt very comfortable about the fact that I am self-taught," Fraser says, "because you can get a lot out of technique, but the real bread and butter of [cooking] is what's in your heart; anybody can cook from a recipe, but what can you come up with on your own?"
Still, she adds, being in such a competitive environment ups the ante.
"Just looking around during those first couple of competitions and thinking, 'Holy Moses, Sammy's over there cooking with shrimp and espresso'... it's definitely inspired me," Fraser says. "It's always really interesting to be around creative people and to see how they think and see how they choose their products. It's wonderfully exciting and yet very, very stressful."
Fraser, who started her career as an actress, starred in various stage productions and played a "hooker with a heart of gold" on the 1980s television "Wolf" before becoming a full-time chef, and sees some parallels between the two professions besides the small screen stardom she's found.
"I'm sure it's no accident that I went from acting to cooking," Fraser says. "They're both about creativity and what you can bring to it; they're both about creating a final product for others."
In scripted television, however, there are fewer surprises for the actors -- like the one Fraser got a few weeks ago when she saw a that fellow competitor, Mia, ratted her out to the judges' table after Fraser altered a pre-approved cookie recipe during a challenge, unintentionally breaking a rule.
"I was surprised and disappointed," Fraser says. "I didn't know up until I saw it [on T.V.]."
Fraser's status as a contestant wasn't hurt by the incident, and she's not giving away any hints on who the final "Top Chef" winner is. But whether or not she comes out on top when the season ends, Fraser's future looks bright.
Next year Fraser and DeCarlo will launch Grubette, a lunch spot on the Ren-Mar Studios lot in Hollywood, and plan to apply for a wine and beer license for Grub and open the original restaurant for dinner. Fraser has also been approached about authoring cookbooks and even hosting her own cooking show.
"I am not so stupid that I don't know I need to strike while the iron is still hot," she says. "It just sometimes seems like there aren't enough hours in the day."
Photos by Chuck Green