Since it first opened its doors in 1876, people brought their deepest hopes and prayers to St. Vibiana Cathedral in Downtown LA — generations got married there, baptized there, ordained there, and attended school there. Now, 140 years later, people from all over the world bring their appetites there, to what is now one of the most unique culinary and special event venues in the country, financed by East West Bank. The cathedral has been converted into a giant state-of-the-art special events space called Vibiana, and the rectory, where the priests lived, is now Redbird, a restaurant serving modern American cuisine with an eclectic menu created by Chef Neal Fraser.
“We’re not trying to be the latest greatest flavor of the day, we’re trying to be a restaurant that will be here for a very long time,” Fraser says.
Both the restaurant and event space are managed by Fraser’s wife and business partner, Amy Knoll Fraser.
“Typically restaurants don’t have a giant event space attached to them, and the operators aren’t operating both simultaneously. So it gets a little tricky, but it’s a lot of fun,” Knoll Fraser says.
The cathedral was almost demolished after being damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and a long and drawn out battle to save and rehabilitate the building ensued. But Knoll Fraser fell instantly in love with the architecture when she saw it.
“I had no idea this existed… it seemed like such a special opportunity. Such a rare opportunity that I didn’t want to lose it,” Knoll Fraser says.
After an extensive restoration, the Frasers opened Redbird in 2015, in the midst of a burgeoning food scene in downtown Los Angeles. At the same time, they operate Vibiana, which hosts more than 100 events a year, mostly weddings, as well as corporate and social events.
"We’re not trying to be the latest greatest flavor of the day, we’re trying to be a restaurant that will be here for a very long time."
The day we visited, lunch was being served in Redbird to diners including the city’s mayor and foreign dignitaries from Korea, while Fraser was preparing for the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America fundraising gala in Vibiana. Fraser was prepping an appetizer of Norwegian king crab with seaweed and Darjeeling tea, while celebrity chefs Curtis Stone and Scott Conant were working alongside him to serve up their own culinary bites for the VIP pre-dinner reception in the adjoining outdoor courtyard.
“It’s always a three-ring circus. There’s never a dull moment. Excitement is good in this business,” Fraser says.
"From the lovely tree-lined courtyard where the reception was held, to the spectacular dining room, topped off with chef Neal Fraser's talent, hospitality, and spectacular restaurant next door (where the chefs all gathered after the event), we really couldn't have asked for a better venue than Vibiana to gather some of LA's top culinary talent with local food lovers and James Beard Foundation supporters," says Alison Tozzi Liu, the James Beard Foundation’s editorial director.
Some nights they will serve 1000 people at once – 600 in Vibiana, and 400 in Redbird. There are five kitchens with high tech equipment to service all the varied large-scale and private dining events.
“Vibiana is a special events venue, so people coming there are coming to a very special event for themselves or people they love. It’s different every time,” Knoll Fraser says. “Redbird is more an expression of us, what we do and what we’re offering to people, and so people come here for that.”
The Frasers have been married for 13 years and Neal runs everything culinary, while Amy is in charge of business operations.
“It’s definitely hard sometimes, but we find we’re better working together than not… we respect each other’s domains, and we have the final say within our domains, but we certainly overlap and share opinions and ideas,” Knoll Fraser says. “We’re similar in that we’re trouble shooters by nature. I think that’s why we work together so well.”
"We respect each other’s domains, and we have the final say within our domains, but we certainly overlap and share opinions and ideas."
Fraser was born and raised in the Hollywood Hills and wanted his menu to be a representation of the diversity of Los Angeles. There are plays on classics such as the chicken pot pie and the 32-ounce Porterhouse steak (to be shared). Currently, Fraser’s two favorite dishes on the menu are the grilled lamb belly with jerk spice, sweet potato, pineapple, and serrano; and the aged Liberty Farms duck with wild rice, plums, and XO sauce, which is his version of bibimbap, a Korean fried rice dish.
“I was surprised how few restaurants have XO sauce on the menu. We make our own XO sauce. It’s fun when you find different ingredients or you experience a different culture and bring a small piece of that back,” Fraser says. “Although I don’t want to be the OG Korean BBQ place or the Chinese restaurant from Monterey Park, we definitely have plays on that.”
Lately, Fraser has been experimenting with lotus root, which is common in Asian dishes.
“I’ve never really done anything with it, other than crispy fried it – I’ve had it four or five times in the last couple of days. I want to come up with a dish with lotus root. “
"It’s fun when you find different ingredients or you experience a different culture and bring a small piece of that back."
In order to make their ambitious vision become reality, the Frasers, along with their business partners, financed the refurbishing of both spaces through a loan with East West Bank.
“They’re our largest lender… it has been a great relationship,” Fraser said.
With some of the funds they were able to install a state of the art audio and lighting system in Vibiana. They also installed drapery that helped with the acoustics and purchased additional party equipment to have available for rental in house.
“So we can really be a one-stop shop, which makes it much easier for clients and planners rather than the old way of bringing everything in and everything out,” Knoll Fraser said.
Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold says dining at Redbird is a unique experience: “You feel as if you are part of something bigger than yourself, a hungry, chattering component of a grand pleasure machine.”
Right now Fraser is designing multi-course dinners to pair with wines from various California and international wineries, as part of monthly wine dinners that Redbird hosts.
“Everything we do is based on hospitality. Trying to make people feel like they’re welcome,” Fraser said. “Hopefully the food makes them feel like that, the service makes them feel like that, the environment that we’ve designed hopefully makes them feel like that, and we try to do that every night.”
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