We’ve all heard the stories about people struggling in their careers due to the pandemic, now it’s time for one about landing in a dream job thanks to COVID turmoil. But for Angie Lee, it wasn’t a straight shot landing herself as the Chef de Cuisine at Playa Del Rey’s breezy lifestyle property, Hotel June. Even through college and her early twenties, Lee was working in finance even though she knew deep down it wasn’t the path she wanted to be on.
“I did it because I felt like that was the path I was supposed to go on,” she remembered, when we spoke over the phone late last fall. “I was in finance for like five years and decided that wasn’t what I wanted, sitting in an office. My parents are Korean, and Korean parents always expect you to do something more business-oriented, or go the doctor route or lawyer route, so I just thought finance was the way to go. After doing it for a while, I realized it doesn’t make me happy or giving me any drive.”
As the child of a single, working mother, Lee recalls cooking for her brothers while her mom was busy working, and basking in the compliments they showered her with for her food. Growing up, her parents had a booth at the LA swap meet, and the plethora of simple Latin snacks sold at the meet by fellow street vendors had a deep, indelible impact on the flavors Lee has been drawn to ever since.
“I grew up, like going running around with all the kids and then they’d be selling the cucumber with the lime squeeze and chili and limon — that was something that I grew up with. All the Mexican candies, and those flavors like the tamarind, and the tajin, those are the flavors that I grew up with, and they remind me of my childhood. So when I taste these flavors, I’m like, ‘oh, I need that in my food!’ because that’s the Baja cuisine I’m always thinking about.”
Feeding people became the thing Lee did for fun, and even her college roommates benefited from her knack in the kitchen, though she still never considered it as a potential career path. Until one night she was throwing a dinner party at her aunt’s house, and something shifted. This time, the guests were insistent — Lee was too good at preparing food and hosting not to pursue this hobby for real.
“I was hosting a dinner at my aunt’s house, barbecuing and making a whole dinner, and her guests were like ‘you’re so good at this, why don’t you do this as a career?’ And I’d just never thought of it. My aunt was being really supportive and telling me that she would support me to change my career at that age — in my late twenties — and that I could stay with her and go to culinary school and she would support me. So I figured, well, why not then?”
She considered studying at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena to be “fun” instead of being a chore, like her economics degree at UCSD had been, and the culinary school experience she began in 2008 was marked by a final externship in Spain at a San Sebastian restaurant with three Michelin stars: The peak of fine dining. From there, she began pursuing jobs in fine dining at hotels, spurred on because of culinary school’s emphasis on that format.
“The foods that I’m doing right now — Korean food and Baja cuisine — have always been a passion of mine,” she said, citing her family background and growing up in LA as major influences on her personal palate. “ I love the flavors, but it’s not something I cooked throughout my culinary career. Because of going to culinary school, I was influenced into thinking fine dining was the way to go. So I worked in all of these hotels in Beverly Hills because that was the direction I was going in. Then I figured out that cooking can be passionate: The food that you want to make, the food that you want to show people.”
That shift began during a stint as the sous chef at The London Hotel in West Hollywood for several years , and continued when she was hired as the Chef de Cuisine for Palma, the lobby bar downstairs in the Santa Monica Proper, in February of 2020. Initially, the hotel didn’t realize how popular Palma would be with guests, so they’d launched the bar without a formal concept, but once demand began to build in that location, they tapped Lee to create a concept. And even if her love for Baja cuisine was the first idea to come to mind, the presence of Gabriela Cámara and Jessica Koslow’s joint project, Onda, made Lee’s version of Mexican/Los Angeles fusion a no-go.
Instead, Lee came up with a menu that focused on farm-fresh ingredients with a seasonal ethos that was friendly to all variations of sensitive eating — keto, paleo, vegan, vegetarian and the like — but her concept never materialized. The day it was supposed to launch, Los Angeles shut down due to the pandemic, for what everyone thought would be a few weeks, which turned into a few months, which turned into a new way of looking at dining. The shift toward more space, everything outdoor, and a lack of formality all culminated in what Proper’s newer brand, Hotel June, had already been planning for their restaurant concept.
Lee’s interest was piqued by June’s dining experience, Caravan Swim Club, and visited the property to meet with the site’s restaurant partner, Steve Livigni, of the award-winning Scopa and plenty of other projects, including his own latest taco joint, Flaco. As Steve laid out his vision for ceviche, oysters, and a raw bar, Lee saw her own style of cooking was materializing in this menu.
“Steve gave me the rundown of Caravan Swim Club’s concept, which is the road trip from Santa Barbara to Ensanada, and just doing all those nice coastal foods you would encounter as you go on that road trip,” she explained. “I loved the whole concept, and it’s been a really good partnership. It’s funny how things work, after the pandemic I thought all hope was lost and my brand new menu was gone, but it ended up being for the better because I came to June and I get to make food that I really like making and the food I really like working with.”
The more price-conscious sister hotel to the Proper opened in June (of course) of last year, betting on staycationers, careful travelers, and the general stir-craziness that had settled over LA after three months in strict lockdown, and with a pool area and a massive outdoor restaurant where extra spacing was more than possible, they’ve been going strong ever since. Now a year into the advent of Caravan Swim Club, Lee is still helming the ship, and earning recent attention for her clever brunch combinations like guacamole deviled eggs and horchata French toast.
Since they have the space to safely throw events, June has also been regularly hosting a bi-weekly Wednesday Supper Series, where they provide a several course dinner with drink pairings and spotlight a collaborative partner in the process, letting people come together to break bread and raise a glass during a time when community was suddenly more important than ever. They’ll host their 63 installment of the dinner party a week from today, June 2, in partnership with the Bolivian spirit company, Singani63.
And even during the more concerning times of the pandemic, when even outdoor dining was considered to be too great a risk for some, Lee said she’s been happy to be in the kitchen and working throughout it all. “At the end of the day, for me, it’s nice to see people dining in the restaurant,” she said. “Seeing the people enjoying their time to get out of the house, it’s nice. And to have that option is great.”
If you’re considering swinging by Caravan for a quick pre- or post- airport dinner, a stay at the hotel itself, or just a west side night out, the cauliflower nachos are still one of the most unique and delicious takes on the concept I’ve ever had — right down to the you-can’t-tell-it’s-vegan coconut turmeric cashew cheese. Lee laces all her dishes with a hint of spice, a signature of the Mexican-Asian fusion she’s wielding so expertly, and nothing illustrates that better than this dish. Other standouts include the pozole verde chicken soup, squash blossom quesadilla (this one is decidedly not vegan), and the rockfish and shrimp ceviche.
“I want people to come in and have the Caravan experience,” Lee said. “I want people to come in and feel like they’re escaping being trapped at home. When I hear people come here and say ‘wow this feels like a little escape,’ that makes me so happy because that’s the concept we’re trying to create.”
Check out more about Caravan Swim Club right here.