When harried post-production TV and film personnel in L.A. hear the distant rumble of their hungry stomachs, they head for a restaurant with a whimsical style all its own: Grub. Betty Fraser and Denise DeCarlo started Grub in a 1920s bungalow when they were renovating it to house a catering business six years ago. Neighbors kept coming by and asking if they were opening up a restaurant. Featuring "California comfort food", the restaurant quickly established a loyal following for its traditional American food with a twist as well as the warmth and energy exuded by its owners, self-described workaholics. Fraser has since appeared on a number of TV cooking shows including the Bravo Network's Top Chef, where her "Ba-Da-Bing Betty's Grilled Cheese Sandwich" won a cooking challenge and is now served on TGIF Friday's menus throughout the world. Next up are plans to expand Grub's hours to dinner several nights a week and take over operations of the Assistance League of Southern California's luncheon and high tea service at the historic Fountain Court in Hollywood.
Fraser, a native Californian, pursued acting in San Francisco before deciding at the age of 35 that it was time to follow her second dream, cooking. "Like all actresses, I was also a waitress, and Denise and I were both working at the California Pizza Kitchen.," she says. "We found out we had a similar interest in cooking and I wanted to start my own catering company." Two friends who owned catering companies and wanted to exit the business sold them their supplies and Fraser and DeCarlo formed "As You Like It Catering".
At the time, Denise recalls with amusement, she hadn't yet been accepted into Betty's circle of friends at the restaurant. "She didn't speak to me," she says. "Then one day she just walked up to me and asked, Do you want to start a catering company? And I said, Sure. We've been together ever since. We'd have our weekly meetings at Starbucks and we got off the ground really fast, in less than the month because we were so determined. We ended up with big clients right away because of taking over our friends' businesses. We started off with high-end clientele. We weren't intimidated because we knew we were good. The only thing is, at the beginning we made too much food. We didn't know 100 people don't eat 15 of each thing!"
The catering business doubled in size each year and continues to thrive. When passersby suggested a restaurant as Fraser and DeCarlo renovated the bungalow, they thought, How hard can it be? "Well, let me tell you something," laughs Fraser. "Sometimes it's better to not have the big picture in front of you, because it might scare you out of doing it. My personal life fell apart, but I had this love for cooking I was pursuing with my friend. We knew the customer was the most important person, as well as treating our staff like they were gold. We gave them a fun work environment and the chance to be part of a creative environment, so they could accept working at a lower rate initially. And we just celebrated our six-year anniversary."
They financed Grub on credit cards, a song and a dance, the owners recall. DeCarlo skill at baking and Fraser's way with meats, sauces and savories produces a well-rounded menu. They came up with the name by playing with words. "Grub is a sweet and precious American colloquialism for good, downhome food. We came up with the menu by looking back over the hundreds of different dishes we'd made for the catering business over the years. We looked at the most successful dishes and used those to create the menu, knowing they would be sure-fire hits." A hamburger at Grub may feature gruyere cheese, carmelized onion, white truffle oil, and arugula.
Fraser met the Top Chef Challenge to create a childhood favorite with her Grilled Cheese Sandwich based on Grub's "Afterschool Special." It's one of the restaurant's best sellers and fit the mold perfectly.
The Grub Gals, as they describe themselves, are excited to bring back the 1930s Hollywood ambiance and elegance of the Assistance League Fountain Court Restaurant. Originally charity events were held there featuring celebrity waitresses like Judy Garland and Shirley Temple. "The restaurant is a rotunda, it's old Hollywood, and I just love it," says DeCarlo. "We'll have high tea, lovely luncheons, beautiful '40s music, maybe some French music, white linen tablecloths. We'll do catering events there as well when the Assistance League does not need the space."
DeCarlo's lineage includes a grandfather who was the chef at the country club featured in the movie Caddyshack. From Arkansas, she was always a "science" girl, however, studying biomedical science and then architecture at Texas A&M before moving to L.A. with the intent of finishing her degree while working. Instead, she picked up a cookbook during a six-week visit to England and began obsessively cooking when she was 25 years old. "I cooked until three in the morning," she says. "I couldn't stop. I made things like pumpkin spice cakes, marzipan -- they weighed 15 pounds each. People called them paperweights and are still talking about them."
One would expect that in the little spare time remaining between running a busy restaurant and catering business the last thing they'd want to do is fire up a stove. But in Fraser's case, you'd be wrong. "Even though we cook 24-7, Betty cooks for fun," says DeCarlo. "She cooks all the time, even when she goes home. In fact, we're having a dinner party tonight. Not me. I have a ton of animals. To relax, I just take them for walks, play with them. I have seven birds, three dogs and a hamster."