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Importing Asian-Style Fast Casual To LA

Gisela Salazar-Golding is the culinary director at Grain Traders, a restaurant founded in Singapore that opened an all-day cafe in West Hollywood in October 2020, along with a coffee and tea shop. A dessert bar specializing in Taiwanese-style shaved ice opens this summer.

I landed in LA on February 21st, 2020, and moving during the pandemic has definitely been one of the biggest tests I have faced personally and professionally. I moved from Venezuela when I was 18 years old and have lived in seven countries, including Spain, Ireland, China, France, Cambodia, Singapore, and now the US, so the experience of starting in a new place is nothing new. I know the drill. But without a doubt, the pandemic made the experience much harder.

Sometimes I have the feeling I haven’t moved yet, that I’m in some kind of limbo and haven’t actually landed in Los Angeles. People ask me if I like LA, but I have the feeling that I haven’t enjoyed the city as it really is, so it is difficult to say yes or no. We’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and I hope I can start meeting people in the community soon. I don’t know many people from the restaurant business here yet. That’s something I really miss—the sense of community I had in Asia.

I live in West Hollywood, so I can walk or bike to work. I don’t drive—I don’t drive anywhere in the world. Going around the city with my bicycle during the pandemic was great, but now that traffic is back to normal, it’s a little crazy. Not many people are biking in the city, so cars will get very close to you.

Today I was at the Santa Monica Farmers Market with one of my suppliers. I’m really looking forward to getting seasonal products in summer. I think California is well known around the world for having a great variety of local produce. We are living in a great moment where a lot of people are conscious of what they eat, and what they want to eat. We want to be intentional with our sourcing, our producers, and our environmental impact, which are all elements of eating well. And we want to make that accessible to a larger audience.

When Javier Perez and I started Grain Traders six years ago, the idea was to bring people back to the way we used to eat when we were children. In Venezuela, a plate at my house always had the same components—rice or a grain, a protein, and lots of vegetables.

Eighty-three percent of our original plates are completely vegan. We only have three options with dairy. The customer can choose a protein, but we have already changed the composition of the majority of people’s plates to be predominantly vegetables. You can choose flavors and ingredients that you might not eat normally.

Each element of the bowl is comprised of several recipes. Each component is cooked or marinated separately, and I use a lot of different spices for the vegetables and proteins. There are some veggies, like the eggplant curry that we make with fresh spices, that have 20 or more ingredients in one element of the bowl. Then we have simpler elements, like the root vegetables roasted with olive oil, maple syrup, vinegar, cumin and coriander seeds, and tossed with caramelized onions and grapes. It’s simple but you want to taste all the flavors of the different root vegetables we’re using.

In my 12 years in Asia, pickled components were part of every cuisine. I understood how important that element on a plate is, and we offer it in every market plate, from pineapple kimchi to Japanese cucumber to mixed pickled mushrooms and seaweed.

In Singapore, our location is in the office district. Before the pandemic, we would serve 500 to 600 people a day, mostly during lunchtime. You’re eating over a pound of food, but you have components like pickles to help with digestion so it doesn’t feel heavy. It feels good on your body. It’s a big plate, and not everyone can finish it, but you can go back to work and not into a food coma.

The healthy fast casual movement started in the US maybe 10 years ago, but I think now Asia is doing it better. The movement in Asia is still new, so most concepts have learned from the US market in terms of what people want and how they want it.

Here in the US everything moves so fast, and during that growth process I believe the passion for food, the craft, and the interest in the product and the customer were lost. It becomes a transaction rather than an experience to go into these places. You go, you buy, and you leave.

In most Asian countries, the day-to-day is much slower, and food has a great importance in everyday life, so people are always looking for what is new, what is better, and if it is affordable. In Singapore, you have hawker stands all over, and these are the liveliest parts of the city. The whole community meets there, and I found that environment incredible, the tradition of foods from all ethnicities in one place. In Bangkok and Vietnam too, there’s great food on the street everywhere you go. Your day starts and finishes with eating.