Meet Neal Fraser, Chef and Co-Owner of Downtown LA's Redbird and Vibiana
“Try hard every day.”
Chef Neal Fraser, owner of multiple restaurant concepts in LA, including the acclaimed Redbird, stopped by the Institute of Culinary Education's Los Angeles campus for a demonstration for ICE students, staff and faculty as part of ICE's Guest Chef series.
Chef Neal has been cooking in and around Los Angeles, where he was born and raised, since he was 20 years old. He has an impressive resume including roles at Wolfgang Puck’s Eureka and Spago, the Checkers Hotel under Thomas Keller, Joachim Splichal’s Pinot Bistro, Hans Rockenwagner’s Rox and the critically acclaimed Boxer.
“I started my culinary journey just by knocking on a door,” Chef Neal says.
That “door” was at the restaurant Caioti, now called Pace, one of the few restaurants in LA’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood at the time. There, Chef Neal began his career and developed his skillset.
“[Working in the hospitality industry] has afforded me a great lifestyle and it’s something that I really enjoy,” he says. “If you can do a lot of things well, you’ll get a job. It’s kind of the best part about this business. The reason why I wanted to learn culinary is [that] I wanted to learn a trade.”
His most recent — and long-standing — business venture with his wife, Amy Knoll Fraser, has proven very successful for them both. In 2014, they opened Redbird inside the historic Cathedral of St. Vibiana in Downtown LA. Opened in 1876, the building was the first-ever cathedral constructed in the city of LA.
The name Redbird comes from the restaurant’s location. The actual dining space is in the rectory, where priests and cardinals (often cloaked in red robes) used to reside.
“[For] my wife and I, everything is very site-specific,” Chef Neal says. “Redbird is kind of invented in that space. If you were gifted the oldest building in Los Angeles to have a little restaurant out of it…we wanted it to be much more fine-dining than we ended up being. We started off being more fine-dining and pivoted.”
The entire Vibiana event space, including an outdoor dining area, covers three and a half acres with eight event spaces. This ample open-air space came in handy during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. For three months during the early days of the pandemic, Chef Neal hired back the staff he initially had to lay off to cook meals for over 1,300 unhoused people daily for over three months. The initiative was in partnership with Wells Fargo and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).
That generosity is a reflection of Chef Neal’s attitude towards food and his restaurant.
“We always wanted to be the place where somebody’s in a tuxedo next to somebody in jeans and a t-shirt…and have it just be about the restaurant,” Chef Neal says.
The experience of giving back to the community was important for Chef Neal as a person. It also allowed his business to stay open while many other restaurants in LA stayed locked down.
Being able to adapt is crucial to being a successful business owner, according to Chef Neal.
“How do you be successful in this business? By doing more than one thing,” he says. “The pandemic and supply chain shortages have proved to be big challenges to those who can’t pivot or have more than one specialty.”
Chef Neal has a profound respect for culinary tradition and innovation not only as his subject, but also as his teacher. Food, like wine, he says, “tells you histories and stories about the world, and politics and wars.”
Food humbles. It connects the dots that many chefs might not have learned in history class, and frankly, things some students don’t even learn in history class.
For example, Mexico is the seat of many ingredients now commonly used in American cooking. Polenta. Tomatoes. Chocolate. Coffee. Grains.
As Chef Neal told ICE students, the ingredients we cook “are from somewhere else.”
"That’s the story of all you guys,” Chef Neal says. “You guys are all from different places, and you get to put all that on a plate. It’s a lot of fun, especially in Los Angeles.”
For ICE students, faculty and staff, Chef Neal prepared his most complicated dish on the menu: Gemelli with braised goat, rapini, breadcrumbs, poached egg, Fresno chili, Calabrian chili, tomatoes and fennel pollen and bulbs.
“The way I think about my own food is: how does your palate eat through the dish? If you had to dissect the…dish a balance of acid, fat, salt. That’s what enlivens your palate,” Chef Neal says.
Chef Neal also encouraged students to focus on longevity by asking themselves “what’s going to make people come to your restaurant?”
“What is going to happen in ten years? What’s going to happen in five years? Pretty monumental things are going to happen in LA in the next five years,” Chef Neal says. “One is the World Cup, one is the Olympics.”
According to Chef Neal, taking into account one’s audience, location and having a clear mission behind a restaurant concept is central to its success in the long run.
In 2019, The LA Conservancy bestowed Vibiana and Redbird with its highest honor, the Chair’s Award, to honor Chef Neal, Ms. Knoll-Fraser and their partners for their efforts to preserve a piece of LA history. Redbird was also awarded a spot on the Los Angeles Times’ former food critic Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurant List, among many other accolades.
Making inspired food requires inspiration from those around you. For Chef Neal, “it’s all about the camaraderie in the kitchen and the people you meet, and the stories you learn through culinary, which I think is really the best part about it.”
Watch the full replay of Chef Neal’s demo below.
More ICE Guest Stories: Meet Chef Eric Klein of Wolfgang Puck Catering