Whiffs of roasted cauliflower, fresh basil and pumpkin spice fill the dimly lit room as a warm buzz of conversation flows around the cozy yet modern nook on Westwood Boulevard.
At the back of the restaurant, longtime friends Woogene Lee and Jeff Faust later sit with their legs kicked back during a bustling Friday night. With a shared laugh, the co-founders of fundamental LA begin to share the story behind their restaurant’s success.
“The idea behind fundamental was to take our love for hospitality and good food, technique and seasonality, and be our own destination among the many chain stores in Westwood,” Lee said.
Southern California natives Lee and Faust first met in the second grade. After working in business management for three years, the UC Berkeley graduates decided it was time for a change. A few post-work drinks at The Surly Goat bar later, the concept of fundamental LA was born.
Initially reluctant about the cramped storefront on the corner of Westwood Boulevard and Wellworth Avenue, Lee and Faust said they saw a certain potential in the restaurant. Together, the team redesigned the tight space to fit fundamental’s intimate, contemporary aesthetic.
When bar stools were out of their price range, Lee and Faust improvised. What started out as a series of sketches is now a fully upholstered series of bar stools made of plywood. A closer look reveals a vibrant red found on the underside of the seats; a secret touch that mimics the bottom of a Louis Vuitton shoe.
“It was a labor of love. It was frustrating and extremely time-consuming, but we saved money, and now there’s a cooler story to tell,” Faust said.
Fundamental LA opened its doors on June 13, 2011, and sits a few blocks away from the chain restaurants in Westwood Village.
“There are a lot of cheap, fast eats but not a lot of made-from-scratch cooking in sort of an upscale environment, which is what we are,” Lee said.
To this day, Lee and Faust said they feel that the need for wholesome food is still extremely apparent in Westwood. A plethora of fresh herbs and seasonal vegetables appear on the menu, but they saidit’s the farmer-chef relationships that make each meal at fundamental stand out.
“We go to the Santa Monica Farmers Market and forge these incredible conversations with some of the best food producers in the country. It’s an opportunity to connect with the people who are growing the food, and it’s a privilege to get to use their food,” Faust said.
“There’s a friendly food vendor there named Barbara who always remembers my name! And I have a (hard)name to remember,” Lee said with a laugh.
It is this connection to the origins of their produce that fundamental LA thrives upon and hopes to show in their dishes. The restaurant also gives customers the chance to provide their own fresh ingredients.
“Neighbors even bring in huge bags of limes, fresh figs and avocados from their gardens, and have it cooked in the restaurant,” Faust said.
Fundamental’s sandwiches are what started it all, and the duo said choices like the albacore tuna sandwich remain a huge hit with customers.
“We use sashimi grade, fresh albacore that comes in daily. There’s no mayo in the sandwich – we just toss it with olive oil and capers vend, avocado, sundried tomato, olives – and it’s fresh and delicious,” Lee said.
For dinner, Lee and Faust suggest the simple purity of the carrot risotto. The brussels sprouts drizzled with tom yum glaze are a popular dish that they saidadds an Asian influence to the menu.
The duo also recommends fundamental’s freshly made vanilla cream soda, which they both said students especially will love.
“It’s a house-made vanilla ice cream mixed with soda water and heavy cream, stirred up as a legitimate light, fluffy milkshake. Also the churros. You can’t go wrong with the churros,” Faust said.
As the business partners rapidly share items from their menu in bursts of passion, the topic shifts to what’s in store for the future of fundamental LA.
“We’re actually opening another fundamental, so that’s top of the line for us right now. It’s basically like what we do at lunch, but it won’t be in Westwood, it will be further east,” Lee said.
With abundant energy and an armful of seasonal produce, the duo anticipate a new chapter for fundamental LA will begin no later than mid-2014.