Disillusioned with fine dining, one of the world’s great chefs took on fast food. It has been harder than he ever imagined.
A little over a year ago, in a small building at the corner of East 103rd Street and Anzac Avenue in South Los Angeles, chef Daniel Patterson zigzagged among trainees in the bright clean kitchen of what was about to become Locol, the fast-food restaurant with a mission. Patterson was 47 years old, bone-pale and wiry, and among the most creative American chefs of his generation. He owned five restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area and had another on the way. He was also one of the cool kids of international fine dining, invited to speak at the most prestigious culinary conferences and part of a circle of friends that includes the Italian chef Massimo Bottura, the Danish chef René Redzepi, and the Australian chef Ben Shewry, owners of, respectively, the restaurants currently ranked first, fifth, and 33rd in the world.
Patterson’s trainees were almost entirely from Jordan Downs, the 714-unit public housing project in Watts. Many had never been employed before, and those with prior cooking experience had worked mostly in conventional fast food or prison cafeterias. They paid rapt attention as Patterson showed them how to weigh out patty-size balls of Locol’s signature burger blend, a pale pink combination of ground beef, tofu, barley, quinoa, and seaweed.
For the previous two years, Patterson and his partner Roy Choi, the tattooed king of L.A. food trucks, had been raising money, developing recipes, designing the Locol brand, overseeing construction, and giving presentations and interviews about their plan to disrupt the predatory corporate fast-food industry. They talked about creating a chain of gorgeous new restaurants that served healthy food at Burger King prices in so-called food deserts, impoverished communities where the only places that sell anything edible are liquor stores, convenience stores, and conventional franchises. They promised to hire from surrounding neighborhoods and pay fair wages while teaching the culinary fundamentals necessary to launch a cooking career. That first Locol, near Jordan Downs in the core territory of the Grape Street Crips, one of the most famous African American gangs in the United States, had been deliberately designed to appeal to neighborhood residents and not look like the first step toward gentrification.
Patterson and Choi were too culturally sophisticated to come out and say their expansion plans targeted other low-income African American communities, but that is what the list had come to look like. After East 103rd and Anzac, they hoped to build on the other side of Watts near the Nickerson Gardens housing project, then maybe nearby in Compton, then East Oakland, South Side Chicago, Detroit, and Ferguson, Missouri. Patterson even echoed tech culture’s obsession with scaling ideas to a thousand X, saying that he figured they might open a thousand Locols over the next five years.
To get that first Locol built, Patterson, who lives with his wife and two children in Oakland, spent half his time in Watts for more than six months while still working a full schedule of long and arduous dinner shifts at Coi, the two-Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco at which he built his international reputation. Then, in early January 2016, Patterson permanently handed off Coi to another chef and spent nearly three straight weeks in Watts to prepare his crew for opening day.
Weaving through that kitchen, with only a week to go, Patterson found a pot of rice burning on the stove. His angular and sensitive face twitched with fury before he remembered the cardinal kitchen rule that Choi, who happened to appear just then, made for Patterson and other outsiders. To wit: “You cannot yell at people in Watts.”
“Not that we would,” said Choi, a no-nonsense presence weaving past in a black Stussy T-shirt and black ball cap.
“Well, some of the rich kids I deal with,” Patterson said, referring to his employees in San Francisco, “I have to yell to let them know I’m serious, because they’ve never known trauma or difficulties like people down here.”
“It isn’t a matter of that,” said Choi gently. “They’ve just never done this before. You can’t yell at someone for not ever doing something.”
Patterson took Choi’s point to heart and said, “Their learning curve really is much faster than anything I have ever seen.” Patterson beckoned to 36-year-old Keith Corbin, who learned to cook at home and during the ten years he spent in prison. After his release, Corbin worked for a year at a Chevron oil refinery, quickly rose to manager, then quit for a supervisory job at Locol, where his mother and brother had also been hired. With an air of enduring patience, Corbin leaned close as Patterson said, “Keith, we’re going to need to get all the cooks together for a come-to-Jesus moment, because if it continues this way, we are just going to get flattened. Speaking of … I’m getting flattened. I need a coffee.”
Patterson stepped out the back door onto a sunny patio where three neighborhood men worked as “ambassadors” — greeters, really, but also unofficial security guards and community liaisons tasked with convincing neighbors that Locol really was for them. Watts has such a deep history of economic betrayal and abandonment, such pervasive skepticism about outsiders making big promises, and such well-founded fear of gentrification — a billion-dollar “urban transformation” plan has the support of Mayor Eric Garcetti — that acceptance of a splashy new restaurant created by two famous outsider chefs who are not African American was not a given.
Patterson embraced an ambassador named Anthony “Ant” Adams, a 44-year-old poet who was in the middle of telling a visitor about getting shot five times with an AK-47 during a 2007 attempt on his life a few yards from where he was currently standing. Patterson then walked past an ATM/lottery/tobacco shop where floor-to-ceiling bulletproof Plexiglas separated customers from the cashier and inventory. He entered a store called Donut Town & Water, where a young man sold doughnuts, water, and other convenience foods, also from behind Plexiglas. Patterson ordered coffee to go and said, as if exhilarated by the speed and audacity of his own thoughts, “I can’t remember if I told you that Roy and I might start a coffee company, too. We’re bringing back the great $1 cup. The fancy coffee industry is not going to be happy with us. We’re going into institutional food, too. We’re already talking about prisons and hospitals and schools. It all comes back to this question of ‘Why does our society always serve the worst food to the neediest people?’ It makes no sense. And everybody always says, ‘That’s just the way it is, there’s no other way,’ but we are going to prove that whole paradigm is fundamentally false.”
Patterson prefers not to talk about his childhood in the affluent town of Manchester, Massachusetts. He offers only that he has few memories of his early family life and almost none of family meals. Patterson’s mother taught history and French; his father was a lawyer. As a teenager, Patterson started working in restaurant kitchens, and he found the ribald camaraderie more comfortable than his family’s privileged world. “They were misfits,” he said of the cooks and servers whom he met, “not the kind of people you’d find in a bank or an office, a little screwed up in some way but super-passionate and really caring. I know how to blend into a nice setting — it mostly means dressing well and keeping my mouth shut and a lot of please and thank you — but I wasn’t very well socialized.”
Patterson attended Duke University for one year. Not long after, he moved to California. At age 25, in 1994, he and his then wife opened Babette’s, a modern French restaurant in Sonoma. After closing Babette’s in 1999, they relocated to San Francisco and opened the more upscale and ambitious Elisabeth Daniel, which was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2001 but failed in the economic downturn after 9/11.
Patterson also began to write. In 2004, he and perfume maker Mandy Aftel published a book titled Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance. His 2005 essay for The New York Times Magazine, “To the Moon, Alice?” caused controversy by arguing that Alice Waters’s outsize influence on Northern California cuisine was stifling culinary creativity. When Patterson opened Coi in 2006, in San Francisco’s strip-joint neighborhood, the notion of a relatively casual restaurant serving an expensive and extremely ambitious tasting menu — combining refined technique, foraged wild ingredients, and a quasi-mystical reverence for the natural world — was unheard of in Northern California.
Soon Patterson emerged as the face of a newly ambitious and outward-looking Bay Area food scene. He appeared in food gossip blogs frequently enough to have acquired that ultimate food-world honorific, a rap name — D-Pat — and opened additional restaurants, including Aster and Alta in San Francisco and Plum and Haven in Oakland. Patterson became a regular at the food conference that Redzepi held every year in Copenhagen and also at Cook It Raw, an invitation-only gathering for which A-list chefs flew somewhere remote, like rural Lapland or Ishikawa, to cook for one another in splendid isolation while posting Instagram updates that sent tsunamis of envy crashing through the world’s smartest kitchens. Those trips had a profound effect on Patterson’s reputation. As Bottura put it, “Daniel is known internationally as an extremely deep and important chef.”
Patterson’s stature abroad, however, never quite translated into unconditional love from San Francisco’s dining public and food critics. His intensity, artistic seriousness, and austere intellectualism would likely have gone over better in New York or Chicago, where they might have read as symptoms of admirable ambition rather than insufficient mindfulness. His food may have also played a role; always thrilling and deeply satisfying, it had an abstracted originality that could make an evening at Coi feel less like hedonistic feasting than high culture — experimental chamber music, perhaps — of the kind that lotus-eating Northern California has never wholly supported.
As his stature rose, Patterson received numerous invitations to cook at charity banquets and soon judged this a ridiculous way to better the world — lavishing fancy food on the rich in order to scare up crumbs for the poor. He turned his attention to Larkin Street Youth Services, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps homeless young people get off the streets. Malnutrition is a serious health concern, because most of these kids live on cheap processed food. So Patterson, on days off, invited groups of homeless teenagers into Coi and taught them to make simple inexpensive meals like salad and chicken. Patterson’s students were so quick to prefer this healthier fare that he wondered if the junk-food habit might be driven by availability and familiarity more than taste.
Within Patterson’s cohort of peers, social purpose had become de rigueur, and organic carrots no longer sufficed. The Nordic Food Lab, an experimental kitchen founded by Redzepi, worked at combatting the global food crisis with insect protein, and Bottura created soup kitchens to feed the poor in cities like Milan and Rio de Janeiro. Patterson eventually started a nonprofit of his own called the Cooking Project, through which other chefs volunteered with homeless kids, and he began to wonder whether a new kind of restaurant chain could break the stranglehold of fast food in poor communities.
Patterson sat on this idea until early 2013, when he suffered a depression so severe — he described feeling as if he had lead in his veins — that he sought help. All his creativity was gone. “I went to a doctor,” he said, “and I was like, ‘Yeah, so I’m depressive and I need something,’ and he said, ‘Do you want to kill yourself?’ ‘No, that would take way too much energy.’ He said, ‘You can take Prozac, but it might kill your libido, or Wellbutrin, but it might make you speedy.’ Is that really a choice?” As medication put Patterson’s demons “behind glass,” as he put it, he began to suspect that pursuit of a third Michelin star might not be the path to happiness.
That August, in Copenhagen, Patterson saw Choi give a talk about poverty on the streets of Los Angeles. Choi had grown up in an immigrant family in L.A., worked briefly selling mutual funds before culinary school, and struggled as a fine-dining chef before he bought his first food truck in 2008. Choi’s Korean-barbecue tacos, savantlike understanding of street food more generally, mediagenic personality, and commitment to feeding the less-than-wealthy soon made him the biggest food celebrity in Los Angeles, with multiple restaurants and a chic hotel in Koreatown.
In Copenhagen, Choi pointed out that most chefs spend their lives titillating the palates of a tiny slice of privileged humanity while ignoring everyone else. He concluded by asking, “What if every high-caliber chef, all of us here, told our investors … that for every fancy restaurant we would build, it would be a requirement to build a restaurant in the hood as well?”
“I just immediately thought, ‘That’s my guy,’” Patterson said. “I was like, ‘This is the purpose I’ve been looking for.’” A few months later, he called Choi to propose going into business together. Choi said, “Yeah, let’s go.”
“Chefs are like that,” Patterson told me. “We move fast.”
Soon after the phone conversation, Patterson flew to Los Angeles and met Choi for lunch. On the spot, they decided to compete with national chains and embrace classic fast-food trappings: cartoon characters aimed at children, dining rooms that felt like playgrounds. The food would incorporate beef, chicken, and pork but also sprouted whole grains and legumes, fresh and fermented vegetables and fruits, and no added sugars or artificial fats. There would be no french fries or sodas, but Locol would otherwise adapt familiar forms like burgers, tacos, chili con carne, and noodles— to meet customers where they were and deliver the same addictive sensory pleasures as fast food while never advertising healthfulness or cultural superiority.
Patterson and Choi make an odd couple, with the former coming off like mid-career Woody Allen, vacillating between anguished alienation and passionate connection to others, and the latter oozing socially conscious hip-hop charisma. They complement each other remarkably well. Patterson, for example, had zero personal relationship to fast food. Choi sent him emails that said things like “‘I want something that feels like a monster taco — crispy on the edges, just enough greasiness.’ It was almost like I was sending Daniel paper airplanes going, ‘Hey, Daniel, if we’re going to do fast food, this is fast food.’ I was looking for addictiveness. ‘Can I imagine people I know with this in their hands and being hyped about it?’”
For the mood of the inevitable burger, Choi thought about being 16 years old — “trying to get laid, problems at home, trying to do better in school but wanting to smoke a joint,” he said. “Scanning the streets trying to see if anyone’s creeping, smoking a cigarette under the streetlamp in the fog. It was sitting on the curb and eating two cheeseburgers from McDonald’s and having an Oreo shake. Down to how I love to tear the sauce packet, the sound of the paper. I knew we had to honor those OCD nerd things that everyone who eats fast food has a connection to.”
Patterson turned these thoughts into a burger through a mental process that sounds almost comically dissimilar: “I thought, ‘OK, burger: cost problem, health problem.’ Arrow to solution: ‘Mix in something not meat.’ Scroll down list of possible ingredients, winnow to grains and tofu. Arrow to flavor problem. ‘No flavor in those things.’ Arrow to umami. Scroll list of umami ingredients. ‘I want MSG, but let’s go old-school: seaweed, garum, white soy, flavors of fermentation that lock together to create a propulsive umami under the meat flavor, so that it tastes like meat-plus.’ Then, ‘What grain?’ And then, ‘I’m going to fine-pulse the grain for texture. Got it, like it.’”
Garum is a liquid flavoring typically derived from fermented fish, much like Vietnamese fish sauce. Patterson sourced an unusual beef garum—a means of enhancing flavor without artificial ingredients—through Redzepi, who had developed one at his Copenhagen restaurant, Noma. Patterson leaned on another of his cool-kid friends for the buns. Chad Robertson of San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery delivered a recipe leavened in part with a Korean fermented rice known as koji, which adds sweetness, umami, and digestibility. To this bun, Patterson added Monterey Jack cheese, relish made from burnt scallions and lime, and what they called “awesome sauce” built around tomato and gochujang, the Korean fermented chili paste.
In July 2014, Choi brought his wife and daughter into Coi for dinner. Coi had recently been included for the first time on the Restaurant Magazine list of the world’s 50 best restaurants, at number 49, so business was surging. During the meat course, Patterson sent Choi’s table the first complete Locol cheeseburger. Choi told Patterson to thicken up the sauce so it didn’t run and smash the sandwich on the griddle for that all-important L.A. functionality, eating with one hand while driving with the other.
It is one thing to build a brand and a burger, of course, and quite another to launch a viable business in Watts, a 2-square-mile community of 41,000 people with high unemployment, organized gangs at each of its four major housing projects, and exactly two sit-down dinner restaurants — a Subway and a Popeyes. Watts is 70 percent Latino and 20 percent African American, but it has long been a center of African American cultural and political life, with world-class public art and community groups that — as I was told by the captain of a nearby LAPD station — have dramatically reduced violent crime. Watts has also been starved of bank credit and investment capital for generations, however, and the closest thing to meaningful economic development in the past half-century was a shopping center built just outside the neighborhood boundary in the 1980s.
Locol ended up in Watts by accident: A planned first store in San Francisco’s Tenderloin stalled over landlord hassles, so Choi mentioned Locol to a Watts community activist named Aqeela Sherrills, who grew up in Jordan Downs, helped to broker a historic 1992 gang truce, and now consults nationwide on gang-violence prevention. Sherrills happened to own a small commercial building on East 103rd, a street that burned to the ground during the 1965 riots and later came to be kown as Charcoal Alley. He rented the space to Patterson and Choi and then walked the neighborhood with Choi to build trust. Sherrills also helped them hire former Grape Street Crips as ambassadors and, as project manager, a man named Vaughn Glover, who’d grown up in the affluent African American neighborhood of Baldwin Hills and graduated from Columbia University and the Wharton School of Business.
Glover became the face of Locol at Watts community events and took on bureaucratic hurdles, like the perplexing discovery that in the early ’90s, with minimal community input, that stretch of 103rd Street had been rezoned residential. Every local business, as a result, was out of compliance and therefore required to pay an annual variance fee for nothing at all. This also meant that Patterson, just to get the city’s permission to use an existing commercial building for a normal commercial purpose that would bring dozens of jobs, had to spend many thousands of dollars over six months of bureaucratic hassle just to get a variance of his own.
Once that variance came through, Patterson hired yet another prominent Watts native as general contractor: Prophet Walker, who had served six years in state prison, earned an engineering degree from Loyola Marymount University, and built a management career with one of California’s largest construction companies. After a break-in during which a burglar cut a hole in the ceiling, a previous tenant of the building had poured concrete over the entire roof, leaving the structure on the verge of collapse. Once the ceiling was demolished and the floor torn up, it was discovered that the dirt below was riddled with hundreds of glass bottles left over from a PCP-dealing operation. Then a city inspector decided that Locol had exceeded its demolition permit and shut down the entire job until further notice.
Almost every city agency, Patterson came to believe, provided a level of service in Watts that would not have been tolerated in affluent white neighborhoods. Garbage sat uncollected in alleyways; street-cleaning vehicles sped through so fast they seemed to make everything dirtier; police allowed constant low-level criminal activity outside the smoke shop with the bulletproof Plexiglas. Getting all this dealt with, however, risked raising local resentment over outsiders receiving special treatment. As Glover put it, “One of the hallmarks of gentrification is that once white people move in, it’s not just that coffee shops and cheese shops open, it’s that the city starts providing services they were supposed to provide in the first place.” Walker ended up telling the police that Patterson and Choi wanted their help and needed the area cleaned up but could not have anybody knocking heads on account of Locol.
Patterson and Choi scheduled Locol’s official opening for 11 a.m. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2016. A line started forming five hours early. At 8:30, an ambassador named John “Ready” Bailey raised the steel shutters to reveal three pairs of double doors and three giant windows. In place of glass, these openings had screens, such that music playing inside would always be audible on the street and anyone walking past could chat with anyone in the dining room. Such radical openness would have been unexceptional in Santa Monica, but here it read like an architectural billboard declaring Watts a safe and thrilling place to do business.
Sixteen out of the 20 employees in the kitchen were African American, and the dining room, painted black and off-white, was decorated with moody photographs of Watts taken by the underground rapper Evidence. Like all entrepreneurs who consider their businesses “heart-driven,” Choi and Patterson had written up a mission statement. They knew about widespread concern in Watts that Locol would soon discover how hard the neighborhood could be and leave, so they settled on a peculiar no-promises phrase painted in large letters across an interior wall: We are here!!
At 10:30, a navy convertible Bentley eased to the curb and Jim Brown, the NFL Hall of Famer, rose from the driver’s seat. With jumbo-size golden scissors, he sliced a red ribbon across the front doors. Then the actors/directors Lena Dunham and Jon Favreau arrived, and the DJ cued Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” The crowd fell into reverential silence for King’s speech, and Patterson emerged from the kitchen to embrace Ready and Sherrills with the stilted but affectionate chest-bump hug that he was still learning. Patterson’s wife, who had driven down from Oakland with the couple’s children and their two pony-size Great Danes, looked on. Patterson picked up his 5-year-old daughter, his face radiant with joy.
King’s speech ended, and then Adams, the poet and ambassador, titrated customers into Locol. The rich and famous kept coming. Tyrese Gibson, pop singer and star of the Fast and Furious movies, showed up in a silver Rolls-Royce. Mayor Eric Garcetti stood on a box out back and congratulated Roy Choi and “two other men” whose names he could not remember — an unintentional zinger that sent Patterson walking quietly away.
Like many Americans, Patterson had been consumed for the prior year with the horror of police killings of African Americans and the mass murder of African American worshippers in a South Carolina church by a white supremacist. He had been deeply affected by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s bestselling Between the World and Me and trained his staff during a summer when two people were killed in Watts — one a 16-year-old boy shot on the same block as Locol. Employees held bake sales to raise money for plane tickets so that relatives could attend funerals. He also made friends. A wounded outsider at heart, involuntarily hunting for dishonesty, deception, and insult in the eyes of everyone he meets, Patterson responded to a distinctive emotional style in Watts, an impulse to judge people on the sincerity of their self-presentation: Don’t lie about who you are and we’re more likely to accept whoever you might be.
That sense of belonging was coupled with a conviction that his Watts employees’ competence and work ethic were more impressive than what he’d seen in most restaurants, and he found himself thinking, “Well, of course! All you have to grant me is that Watts has a perfectly average human distribution of talent and intelligence and that no company ever skimmed off the cream for staff, and so how could it be any other way?”
That led to the awkward realization that every other one of Patterson’s kitchens — like nearly every fine-dining kitchen in America — was run by white men who complained eternally about a terrible shortage of cooks and yet rarely hired African Americans. So Patterson decided that Locol would make a point of rotating employees through his and his friends’ restaurants.
In mid-March of last year, Locol caught the eye of the African American venture capitalist Stephen DeBerry, a partner in Kapor Capital, the well-regarded Oakland firm. Through his own firm, Bronze Investments, DeBerry led a round that generated enough funding for Locol to open more stores. Patterson commissioned a meat-and-sauce fabrication plant in East Oakland. Soon he flew east with Sherrills and Corbin—who had been promoted to corporate chef—for a meeting with Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, about opening a store there. Patterson told me that plans called for a Chicago store, too, and then Atlanta. “From Atlanta we spread thru the South,” he wrote in an email. “From Chicago thru Midwest. Starting to grapple with concepts around regional hubs. Start in low-income places that need it the most, and then spread into the affluent areas.”
DeBerry knew that Locol was a complicated cultural package. “The cavalry has arrived, and it doesn’t look like we imagined,” he told me. “It’s a white dude and a Korean dude and a Chinese dude” — he was referring to Hanson Li, the company’s business manager — “and a black dude, but let’s get past that. This is blossoming into something important and special.”
Locol sold more than a thousand burgers in Watts on opening day, and long lines persisted for weeks as curious outsiders kept coming. Food & Wine named it Best New Restaurant of 2016, and Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold placed Locol at number 58 on his 101 Best Restaurants list. Eventually, however, those lines faded. At about the four-month mark, I dropped by during the lunch hour to find a sparse crowd that included the vice principal of the elementary school across the street; four 30-something white women; Los Angeles chief of police Charlie Beck, who dined out back with his deputy chief and a plainclothes security detail; and few Watts residents.
Sherrills told me this was typical. “You come down here on any given afternoon,” he said, sounding frustrated, “and the majority of people spending money at Locol are white and Asian, foodies and hipsters. Folks from the neighborhood, they look in the door and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s gorgeous! That’s not for me.’ That happens.
“You have to understand this about black folks, too,” he said. “We don’t jump in with just hands and feet, because we’ve been let down so many times. We’ve been betrayed so many times, we’re tired of having our hearts broken. So it’s like we’ve got to walk slow up to it, we’re going to check it out all the way around, and then after we say it’s cool, then it’s on.”
Patterson always knew that overcoming that reluctance was going to take work, and he had explicitly asked his longtime restaurant architect, Scott Kester, to design a space that Watts residents would find welcoming. “A restaurant is all symbolism,” Patterson told me. “From how it’s painted to the color scheme to the music and the decor. Before you talk to one person, that environment has told you who that restaurant is for. If they want their customers to be rich, they create symbolism where rich people feel comfortable and poor people do not.” Patterson explained the effect this can have on a community by saying, “If you go into a neighborhood like, say, Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York, and you open a Blue Bottle Coffee, you’ve taken a ruling-class-symbolic business and, by implanting it there, said to the locals, ‘This is the prow of the ship.’”
Akida Kissane Long, principal at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary, the school across the street, went out of her way to praise Patterson and Choi. But, she said, “I’ve seen more white people in Watts in the past six months than I have in my whole lifetime.” Members of her own staff, she said, still had conflicted emotions. “They feel like, ‘Now that it’s cool to come to Watts, you’re here. Where were you when it wasn’t cool?’ It’s not ‘What did you bring white people here for?’ But that it has attracted people into this community who didn’t know Watts existed. And I may not have realized I was marginalized until I check my reaction to the people coming here. There’s a bittersweet thing that stays bitter more than sweet.”
Locol was never going to be easy, but it turned out to be hard in curious ways, like the time Corbin stood out front as an armored car pulled up to collect earnings. An acquaintance of Corbin’s commented that he hadn’t known Locol made so much money, and within minutes Corbin had Patterson order the business office never to use an armored car again. Then there was the fact that the name “Locol” incorporates a signature Crips slang term, loc, from the Spanish loco. Combined with its address, near the intersection of East 103rd and Grape streets, that may have contributed to a feeling elsewhere in Watts that Locol was a Crips thing, and a Grapes thing above all, and therefore not entirely safe for people from other parts of the neighborhood.
“Some of the old cats, like the older daddies, they come,” said Corbin’s mother, Lydia Friend, who is general manager at Locol. “But these youngsters trying to make a name for themselves, they ain’t coming. Even if you see them come this way, the police will say, ‘Where are you going? Turn around.’”
When I met with Patterson in May, he acknowledged that the Watts Locol was losing money. “We thought we might do $6,000 a day,” he told me. “We’re doing $2,300, and that just covers payroll.” He responded in part by redesigning the cheeseburger. “As good as it is, people don’t crave it. So we’re talking about it and then I suddenly knew what needed to happen,” he told me by email. “I got up from my seat, walked back in the kitchen, mixed the awesome sauce with buttermilk mayo and chopped cucumber pickles and a small amount of scallion relish until it was secret-sauce-ish. Cheeseburger, sauce, and some romaine lettuce on top. And suddenly it was a McDonald’s burger, but better.”
Lydia Friend, meanwhile, worked to turn things around by embedding Locol more thoroughly in Watts community life. She offered discounts to a men’s poker group and a women’s knitting group and organized a big “Taste of Watts” food and hip-hop festival, for which the LAPD closed nearby streets. The staff created — with Patterson and Choi’s blessing — a “secret menu,” including O.J.’s Burrito and Kaitlyn’s French Toast Sundae. Several employees told me the new items were selling well, and Friend said the first Watts resident to become a truly devoted regular was a cousin of Corbin’s named Raymond Arnold, a 31-year-old father of five known alternately as “Ray-Ray” and “Mafia,” who always ordered O.J.’s Burrito.
Last summer, Arnold went for a haircut at a salon on Crenshaw Boulevard and was shot during an argument. “Everybody that knows him and knows that he loved Locol,” Friend told me, “they come in and order his burrito, something to remember him by. They sit around and talk and laugh and tell us to play his song” — by a rapper named Lucci — “that goes, ‘Mafia, Mafia, Mafia.’ And now the police, the sheriffs, the city employees, the hospital, everybody’s coming. They just want Locol to work.”
Slow sales in Watts prompted a strategic pivot. “We thought we would be able to open only in Watts, Detroit, South Side Chicago, without touching affluent areas,” Patterson told me. “But we need some busy stores. So we lose money in Watts right now, and we do that for a little while, and the reason is we don’t want to lay anyone off.” Patterson saw a chance to compensate by opening a Locol in Oakland’s affluent Uptown commercial district. One of his restaurants, Plum, was struggling there, so he had contractors split it in half to create Plum Bar on one side and a Locol on the other.
A friend of Choi’s, the hip-hop artist Bambu de Pistola, passed along word that people in Oakland’s historically impoverished African American community Deep East might feel passed over if Locol opened only in Uptown. So Patterson scouted a Deep East pizza shop to buy and develop at the same time as Uptown, and gave Uptown a Deep East brand identity by covering an interior wall with a gorgeous black-and-white photograph of two young men smiling on bikes near a Deep East bus stop — the aesthetic equivalent of those old family photos in Italian restaurants and Jewish delis.
De Pistola also advertised Locol Uptown’s job fair in Deep East, but few people made the trek to Uptown for interviews. I dropped by Locol Uptown that day and saw Choi step onto the sidewalk and look around in disbelief. “The Bay Area is weird, man,” he said. “We’re surrounded by people, cars, all day long, but there’s this thing in the Bay where they are not interested. If this was in L.A., even if they didn’t need a job, people would be like, ‘What’s up? What’s going on?’ Here, it’s like we don’t even exist.”
Turnout was a little better on May 25, 2016, when Locol Oakland opened for business. Of course, May 25 was not a national holiday celebrating a slain civil rights leader. Neither Patterson nor Choi enjoys the kind of celebrity in Oakland that Choi does in L.A., and Uptown could not be less of a food desert. Uptown’s racially diverse crowds, furthermore, make enough money that the difference in price between a $5 Locol cheeseburger and the $12 kale chicken Caesar salad across the street is unlikely to be dispositive.
I ate nearly the entire Locol menu and was startled by how much I liked it. Patterson’s food seems to have been at once too Coi for Watts and too close to conventional fast food for Uptown, where it had none of the context that made Locol Watts so intriguing to what Sherrills aptly called “foodies and hipsters.” That interstitial quality — neither here nor there — was likely responsible for slower-than-expected sales during Locol Oakland’s first six months in business. It was almost certainly responsible for the devastating review that New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells published on January 3 of this year. “Dry burgers made with filler bring me, at least, right back to school lunch and Boy Scout camp,” Wells wrote. He described the Locol fried chicken as “mysteriously bland and almost unimaginably dry” and said “the best thing to do with it is pretend it doesn’t exist.”
The Los Angeles Times’s Jonathan Gold wrote a thoughtful defense in which he said the real question was not how Locol’s burgers compared to more expensive options but “why The New York Times was using its main restaurant column to gripe about bland turkey chili in an Oakland burger stand whose mandate was to feed a community with limited access to good, nutritious food.” In a text message that surfaced in yet another Los Angeles Times defense of Locol, Choi wrote, “I ain’t mad at Pete. But what he didn’t take into context is that none of our team ever had a job before. They didn’t deserve these harsh words, as they’re trying their best every day.”
Choi’s sentiment recalls John Updike’s first rule for book reviewers: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Wells would doubtless have sensed this if he had gone to the Locol in Watts, where he could have seen that neighborhood and staff and thought twice about harming their prospects. But he didn’t, so Wells saw what is also true: In addition to its good intentions and positive impact on dozens of lives, Locol is a for-profit would-be mega-chain owned and operated by a pair of celebrity chefs, and thus fair game for a critic.
I dropped by Locol Oakland at 1 p.m. a few weeks later and found the place nearly empty — with the exception of Choi, de Pistola, and Patterson. I could feel their duress.
Patterson, looking for somewhere quiet to talk, led me into Locol’s rear kitchen and through a door into Plum Bar, a room lined with artisanal whiskeys and liquors, which was closed for the day. He brought a pitcher of water and two glasses to a window table. “Why would a reporter from The New York Times fly 3,000 miles to go apeshit on a five-dollar burger?” he said. “It was like aliens possessed him. I was there all week. The food he described and the food he ate were different, right? I do this for a living. I have a lot of flaws, but my palate is not one of them. So what is it that is invading people’s brains and changing their perceptions?” Then Patterson shrugged and said, “Maybe I have one review in The New York Times in my entire career and it’s zero stars. That’s awesome, right?”
He reminded me that all businesses have growing pains; Locol was no different, and they were moving forward — “not exactly the way we planned, but that’s every restaurant that tries something new.” That Oakland meat-fabrication plant, which happened to be in a neighborhood analogous to Watts, would soon become a retail outlet. Patterson had just been down to Watts, too, helping Corbin develop a new shrimp-and-grits item for the revamped Locol menu on which nearly all evidence of Patterson’s culinary innovations were erased in favor of straightforward Americana: double cheeseburger, chili cheeseburger, waffles ’n’ wings, chili cheese fries. Patterson insisted this was merely an evolution and not a retreat from Locol’s original conception. It was true that every burger on the new menu had a veggie option and green juice was still available. On the other hand, Patterson had initially hoped never to serve fries.
“Watts took a while to find its groove,” he told me, “but the sales have gone up dramatically this year, after the new menu.” Locol Watts also launched a food truck and started catering, which has increased revenue. “L.A. will be in the black in the second quarter, as will Oakland,” he said, adding that the company still was planning to expand nationally and that a spin-off coffee business — the one he and Choi had been talking about from the start — would be coming in late spring
Patterson seemed also to have confronted the biggest elephant in the room by removing himself from the management team and taking on more of a background role. “Don’t you think the optics of a white person being in charge of an entire staff of color is problematic?” he asked. “So why do it?” Later still, over the telephone, he told me, “I have a role to play, but it’s behind the scenes.” Patterson also mentioned putting time into his other restaurants, especially Alta. He has deals in the works to open three more Altas, and is partnering with the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United to bring more people of color into his kitchens and dining rooms.
The last question I asked Patterson was a banal one: What had he learned in the three years since he and Choi had first plotted Locol over lunch in L.A.? He laughed and said, “I have learned that crazy people make very bad narrators of their own stories.”
He told me that he’d been to Europe recently for a chefs’ conference and hung out in Copenhagen with Redzepi and Ferran Adrià, arguably the world’s two most famous chefs. “It’s this moment where I’m in the moment and I’m with people I love. Still, I felt very awkward. I felt like I wasn’t a part of that world, and in a sense, you know, I’m not, innately. We have a lot of affection for each other, and we get along, but that doesn’t mean I’m of that world in any kind of deep way. Maybe there was a lot of searching in vain for an answer that was there kind of all along.”
I asked what that answer might be.
“That I was never going to fit in anywhere,” Patterson said. “To accept that is to stop looking for that type of belonging.”
I turned the question back toward Locol, and he said he had learned that “the depth and breadth of institutional racism in this country is impossible to understand unless you spend time in the places and with the people most affected, and even then you really can only understand a fraction of it.”