Bar’s Phillip Frankland Lee Saved His Michelin Star In Los Angeles, And Now He Needs Two Stars

Pasta | Bar is not a traditional Italian restaurant.

Scratch Restaurants Group

Like many Los Angeles restaurants that debuted during the pandemic, Pasta | Bar in Encino was created out of necessity. Chef Phillip Frankland Lee had his empty Woodley Proper restaurant/bar space with a chef’s counter. And when he heard that indoor dining was being reinstated, he moved almost. On a Sunday in June of 2020, he came up with the idea for a tasting-menu restaurant that riffed on the concept of a pasta bar while showingcasing the flavors of Los Angeles. And then he opened this new restaurant in less than a week.

What happened next was amazing. Reservations sold out quickly. Word spread that something special was happening at Pasta | Bar. And then Lee, his wife/pastry chef, Margarita Kallas-Lee, and executive chef Nate Tauer were rewarded for their efforts with a Michelin Star in 2021. After Tauer was promoted to director of culinary operations for the Lees’ Scratch Restaurants Group , a team led by new executive chef Jordan Rosas kept Pasta | Bar’s Michelin star in 2022.

So now Lee, an unapologetically ambitious chef/restaurateur who’s expanding all over the country and beyond, wants to make it clear that he and his crew are aiming for two Michelin stars at Pasta | Bar. With established kitchen leaders Tauer (who already had cooked Michelin-star food at Petit Crenn and Coi in San Francisco) and Rosas (who already had cooked Michelin-star food at Somni in LA and Barndiva in Healdsburg), Lee feels like this is a viable goal. Especially when he considers the way Pasta | Bar got its first star.

“We got a star, and that was unbelievably amazing,” Lee says. “And we got it, frankly, with … I don’t want to say a half-assed approach, but it wasn’t a full approach. It was out of desperation. It was chutzpah. We got it by fucking hustling. You know we didn’t spend a single dollar. We used plateware we already had.”

Now it’s time to level up.

“We all got together and said, what if we actually tried to build this restaurant and build this menu to be the fucking premier?” Lee says. “Why would we not? We felt we could do better than just cooking in closed-down Woodley Proper, working on some Ikea plates and whatever was left in fucking storage. If we got one star with that, we believe that it’s sort of our duty to give it our all and push for the second. I’m not saying we deserve it. If we don’t get it, we don’t get it. And if we lose our star, it is what is. But in our minds and our hearts, we are continuing to push to be the best version of ourselves that we can.”

Phillip Frankland Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee are building a restaurant empire.

Liam Brown

pasta | Bar now has a remodeled interior, a new chef’s counter and a kitchen with an actual pasta station. There are custom plates (and pasta courses that are designed to resemble the plateware) and a separate bar where guests enjoy welcome cocktails.

“Now we’re running a full team,” Lee says. “We’re running a professional fine dining restaurant.”

That said, Lee grew up in Los Angeles and loves coloring outside the lines. So pasta | Bar is a fine-dining restaurant that uses pasta as a canvas to tell a story about living and dining in LA.

“We’re not trying to be a straight-up Italian restaurant,” Lee says. “LA is the true melting pot of everywhere. You’ve got every ingredient from all over the world in your pantry, and that’s just normal. In other places, it’s fusion cuisine. Here it’s Angeleno.”

Rosas and his cooks are preparing dishes like a ravioli, with Dungeness crab, black garlic, peanut and finger lime, that evokes a Thai curry. A crudo of tai snapper pops with fermented pineapple and green papaya. But also, why not add luxury by shaving white truffle over tagliolini with aged Parmesan and walnut? LA food, after all, is about umami bombs.

Lee also has a Michelin star for Sushi by Scratch Restaurants in Montecito, a restaurant that started as an eight-seat back-room counter hidden inside of Woodley Proper in 2017. With outposts of that sushi restaurant in Encino, Austin, Miami and Seattle, as well as a Chicago location opening in February, Lee is gunning for more accolades. He’s well aware that Miami and Chicago also have Michelin guides. He also knows that it’s rare for Michelin to give stars to restaurants with multiple locations.

“My goal is for sushi to be the most starred concept of all time,” Lee says. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do, because I’m a fucking lunatic, I guess. Will I get that? Probably fucking not? Will I go for it? yes I’m not saying I’m worth it. I’m saying I’m gonna fucking try.”

Beyond pasta, Pasta | Bar has served dishes like grilled lobster with endive, citrus and pine nuts.

Scratch Restaurants Group

One reason that he’s striving for more success is because he wants to create a different kind of hospitality group: one with scalable fine-dining restaurants and systems that allow him to pay his staff a living wage and then some. So Sushi by Scratch Restaurants, which is actively hiring, is paying chefs from $80,000 to $100,000-plus per year while giving them 4 percent 401K matching, health insurance and other benefits. Lee is also looking into college funds for the children of his staff.

“I think it’s bullshit that cooks don’t make money like professionals,” Lee says. “By 2025, I want my head chefs making $250,000 and I want somebody out of culinary school to make $100,000. I do believe we can get there.”

Lee, who relocated to Austin during the pandemic, also has an Austin Pasta | Bar. The next location for Sushi by Scratch Restaurants after Chicago will be in Montreal, and Lee has many other deals in the works. NADC Burgers, a concept that Lee debuted in Austin with professional skateboard Neen Williams, has a Houston location and a forthcoming Chicago outpost.

Lee once said he wants to have 100 “world-class restaurants” by the time he’s 50. He shared this declaration with me not long after his 30th birthday in 2017. Since then, he and Kallas-Lee have become parents, and the priorities have changed a bit. But he still thinks he has a shot of reaching this lofty goal.

“I still have this desire to build this company into something quite extraordinary,” he says. “I think my motivation is different now. I want to make a difference. I want to get other people inspired to say bosses should be driving BMWs and owning their own homes and putting money away. It’s about treating hospitality professionals like professionals and not like the help. You can’t make that big of a difference with one eight-seat restaurant hidden in the back of another fucking restaurant. But you can with a hundred restaurants scattered all over the world. That’s really my driving factor.”

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