LOS ANGELES — Louis Tikaram’s passion for food started during his childhood in Fiji, courtesy of his Fijian-Chinese grandmother, Collette.
“You never would know what would be on the dinner table,” Tikaram told NBC News. “It’d be really traditional Chinese, especially if we went fishing — rock cod steamed with ginger and shallot and fried rice. Or, because she was married to my Fijian-Indian grandfather, she could make fresh roti, chicken curry, dal. Or she would love to cook Western food as well ‘cause that was what she thought we wanted to eat.”
For Tikaram — who grew up in both Fiji and Byron Bay, Australia — life revolved around food, especially since the island did not have access to television until the mid-1990s, he said.
“There was no TV, no nothing like that, so food was the real center of entertainment, eating, communicating and being a family,” Tikaram said. “It was all around the dinner table.”
Since 2015, the 31-year-old has brought that multicultural, family-style philosophy to Los Angeles as executive chef of E.P. & L.P. The multilevel restaurant’s name stands for “extended play” and “long play,” as in records.
Items on the made-to-share menu read like inflections from Tikaram’s personal career, such as the Nama sea pearls, a “vegetarian ceviche” made with fresh coconut cream, lime, and chili and the first dish he ever learned to make with his grandmother (who is still alive). Then there’s the “Check Yo Neck” wood-grilled lamb neck, a nod to the Aussie tradition of grilling meats with fresh herbs.
They’re also snapshots of his own culinary history. The khao soi, a Thai chicken curry harkens back to his extensive travels across Southeast Asia — and to his first restaurant job, which he took at 16 to make some money to buy a car.
"The closest place to where we lived [on a 110-acre cattle farm in Byron Bay] was this mom-and-pop-style Thai restaurant. I went in and asked if there were any work,” he said. “They said, ‘Yeah, you can wash dishes.’ So, every day after school, I went, and I washed dishes.”
He would eventually work his way up to skewering chicken for satay and making curry puffs.
That same work ethic came into play when he landed his first big restaurant position at Sydney-based Longrain, where he was tasked with hand-making curry paste every night. He still does that at E.P. & L.P.
But while Tikaram's cuisine blends Asian, Australian, and American flavors, he doesn't call it “Asian fusion.”
“It’s modern Asian,” said Tikaram, referring to the use of contemporary methods for classic dishes, such as sous-vide cooking for duck breast, instead of stir-frying. “The misconception about Asian food is that it has to be kind of a hole-in-the-wall-sitting-on-a-milk-crate deal if you want to get the true flavors of Asia,” he said.
After years working in the Sydney food scene, Tikaram was named the 2014 Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year by the Sydney Morning Herald.
At the urging of E.P. & L.P.’s Australian founders, he made his way to the L.A. later that year, excited by both the prospect of the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene and of bringing upscale Aussie-style Asian cuisine stateside.
“In Australia, Asian food or Southeast Asian is held right up on a pedestal among French, Italian, modern European food. Asian restaurants can be as good as the rest of them with a sommelier, a beverage program, really great service, and that’s kind of what we thought L.A. was missing,” he said.
Rounding out the menu are dessert options helmed by sous chef, Zen Ong, with items like Chengdu churros, a play on the Mexican treat made with star anise sugar and Sichuan chocolate. The drinks menu is equally quirky, including cocktails with boba and something called Rock N Roll Mouthwash (bourbon, lemongrass, palm sugar, kaffir lime).
Tikaram’s focus on using sustainable ingredients also has its roots in Fiji, specifically from when he visited his grandmother’s village on the island of Vennilavu as a kid. “I think seeing a pig being hunted in a village and strung up, killed, prepared and then eaten, you have to really respect the produce and the ingredients, where they’re from. And really do justice to it,” he said.
This has meant forming relationships with local farmers in and around Southern California, where the climate is particularly suited for growing produce used in Southeast Asian cooking like lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, and kaffir lime.
“I need my Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, and cilantro perfect because I’m literally taking it from the farm and putting it on a plate. That’s how I want it. I’m not chopping it up or cooking it down,” Tikaram said.
Being in L.A. has other advantages, too. Celebrities like rapper A$AP Rocky and athletes like LA Clippers center DeAndre Jordan have stopped by, Tikaram said.
Tikaram grew up skateboarding and recalls starstruck moments meeting top athletes in the action sport, including Tony Hawk and Aarto Saari, in his restaurant.
“It’s kind of surreal to look out from the open kitchen and see a crazy busy restaurant and celebrities and A-listers sitting down and enjoying this food that I stumbled across and fell in love with at a young age,” he said.
Tikaram’s love of food was cultivated from always having it as the center of the home although home has been a fluid term for the multi-ethnic chef. He recalls undergoing a “soil-to-sand” ceremony with his brother in Vennilavu when they were children.
“They say our soul is soil because we were born in Australia and that’s where our spirit and our bodies would lay. But soil turns into sand, and sand can come and go with the ocean as it pleases. So we can always come to Fiji and come to the village whenever we like,” he said.
For the restaurant’s two-year anniversary in May, he brought more of Fiji to LA with a “greatest hits” menu, on which he included a version of his grandmother’s curry.
The dish is part of a three-way tie for his ideal last meal. “It would be her congee, her steamed fish with ginger and shallot, and her chicken curry,” he said. “That would be it.”