When Neal Fraser first met his now wife, Amy Knoll Fraser, he was a nondescript chef, working at Rix in Santa Monica. Knoll Fraser was the restaurant’s assistant general manager. The year was 1997. “We began as coworkers and fell in love shortly thereafter,” Fraser recalls.
Some twenty years later the two are also business partners (along with Mike Glick of Sprout Los Angeles). They, along with Glick, own and operate Redbird–unquestionably one of Los Angeles’ finest restaurants–and the adjacent Vibiana–an event space that can hold up to 1,000 guests. In addition to their cathedral-sized event space and restaurant, Redbird has five private dining rooms tucked within the old cathedral that can seat as few as 16 and as many as 120.
How do they manage it all? “It’s been hard work but we’ve managed to get the three ring circus to really work … we can have four or five private parties upstairs, a full dining room, and a big party at Vibiana and satisfy them all,” Fraser says. Knoll Fraser adds fondly, “The first night we had a Vibiana event and Redbird was full, it was an odd out-of-body experience.”
Getting Here From There
Fraser grew up off Mulholland, wedged between the Valley and the City where he notes he split time during his schooling. He jokes that he and his parents were all terrible cooks which may explain his fondest memory of food–as more than pure sustenance–growing up being attributable to his godfather, with whom he shared a birthday. “I remember the first time I had Lobster Americaine … it was served in this great creamy sauce … for the first time it wasn’t a burger and fries. I saw art on a plate for the first time that night,” he remembers.
A semi-professional cyclist, he would move to San Francisco after high school before returning home to Los Angeles for personal reasons. With no culinary training under his belt, he knocked on the door of the closest restaurant to his parent’s home, Caioti in Laurel Canyon. He asked for a job and they gave him one.
He would then cook at Eureka, a Wolfgang Puck property in Santa Monica, before going to the Culinary School of America. From there he did what many prodigal chefs do early in their careers: he cooked everywhere. Along the way he cooked in the kitchens of Joachim Splichal, Thomas Keller, and David Burke. Fraser credits the late Chef Marc Valiani as a true mentor, someone who “spent more time mentoring me as a human being than as a chef … he was really hard on me and I learned a lot.”
Knoll Fraser, meanwhile, grew up in East Tennessee and admits to being unsure where her love of food came from. She does, however, credit her grandmother who, she notes, “fancied herself as an aristocrat who had an appreciation for the finer things and was a stickler for etiquette … she had a tremendous influence on me.”
The Early Days
The duo opened their first restaurant together in the early aughts after Fraser was unexpectedly let go following the sale of Jimmy’s. They found out just after the New Year upon their return from a camping trip that did not come with cell service. Knoll Fraser remembers a “big speech” her now husband gave that day, encouraging them to raise money and make their dream come true.
Raising money in the restaurant industry is far from a sure thing as investments in a restaurant are investments in a person, a chef, and not a brand or product. Luckily, Knoll Fraser is patient and Fraser is persistent and tenacious, a powerful one-two punch that worked and helped them open Grace, which closed in 2010.
While Grace and a second, since closed, restaurant–BLD–were up and running, Knoll Fraser discovered the Vibiana space by happenstance, invited to view the space as part of an event walkthrough. Knoll Fraser felt immediately how most people who see the space for the first time feel, floored. “The space is so gorgeous and I didn’t even know it was here,” she thought, adding, “there is nothing else like this in Los Angeles.”
Though they immediately wanted to call the space their own, it would be an immensely tedious process. Originally discovering the space in 2008, they first attempted to secure a loan or raise money before bringing on partner Mike Glick. Since coming on as partner, Glick has worked his magic and played his part, supporting their vision. “Mike is super supportive, totally gets it, and has been a dream partner,” Fraser says.
Though they first discovered the space in 2008, Redbird would not open until 2015 (see immensely tedious process referenced above) but when it did, the duo and Glick (who owns the property along with CSQ Visionary Tom Gilmore) would be on the same page and seemingly nothing would be able to stop them.
They have not come close to showing signs of slowing since opening in 2015, and as Fraser explains, “we’ve been working on this project for nine years now and we’re still not done … we’re always working … it always feels like we’re physically changing constantly.” These additions and expansions are evident even as I sit with them on a late summer afternoon. Fraser notes that one of their newest additions, a project that has taken just under 90 days, is a garden out back in what used to be a parking lot.
I ask to see it, and Fraser agrees. The garden is masterfully planned, inviting, and a joy to walk through. Home to tomatoes, olives, grapes, herbs, and–most exciting to Fraser–a hydroponic trout farm.
With the trout farm up and running and plans to host events in the garden, I ask the couple about that out-of-body feeling Fraser described. On a full night, they are serving 1,200 customers and have 175 people working across the properties. Fraser’s best feelings vary. “Sometimes my best feeling is leaving at night and having it run on its own … sometimes it is a great service,” he says proudly.
Pride is something that we harken back to often during our time together. When asked about the Los Angeles food renaissance the city is undergoing, Knoll Fraser discounts it. She aptly points out how New York City centric media is, especially food media–including the Michelin Guide and James Beard Awards.
“This is not like what has happened in London,” she says. London wasn’t putting out good food and now they are. Los Angeles has always been putting out good food (especially of the ethnic variety, they would remind you) and, in many cases, it has been cooked by the same people–Fraser included.
So while Los Angeles continues to enjoy its moment in the culinary spotlight, as the NoMad Group, the team behind Cosme, and Daniel Patterson head west, Knoll Fraser and Fraser will keep adding and expanding on what very well could be the biggest, busiest, and best restaurant in Los Angeles.