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Bruins’ ‘bootleg’ dining experience brings haute cuisine feel to apartment scale

Albert Acosta, Brandon Avila and Emmanuel Demian have created a fine dining experience out of their apartment. Inspired by the prospect of someday owning a restaurant, Avila said he opened bootleg as an intimate and exclusive trial-run. (Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)

By Samuel Sullivan

Feb. 24, 2022 3:26 p.m.

Dim the lights, cue the music and enjoy a distinguished evening at bootleg.

With professional experience in food service and a propensity for cooking, third-year applied mathematics student Brandon Avila said he is offering an intimate, exclusive dining experience called bootleg. Starting January, Avila said he and his business partners have been offering weekly dinners, complete with gourmet food and a carefully curated ambience, out of their Westwood apartments. Avila said the small-scale operation enables him to hone in on the details of food service and provide greater personalization.

“I get to be very hands on and express more of my creative side,” Avila said. “It’s more relaxed in here, and we have a lot of fun.”

Prior to launching bootleg, Avila said he gained both front-of-house and kitchen experience in restaurants around Westwood. In the summer of 2021, he began working in the kitchen of the Hammer Museum’s Lulu, where he said he grew his knowledge of and passion for cooking. Lulu’s selections came predominantly from daily markets, Avila said, and he applied the culinary techniques he learned in Lulu’s kitchen to his work at bootleg.

(Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)
Incorporating his experience from working at the Hammer Museum's Lulu, Avila said bootleg's menu draws inspiration from sources such as family recipes and his patrons' favorite dishes. (Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)

[Related: UCLA student cooks up traditional recipes with vegan spin]

As for bootleg’s recipes, Avila said he draws from a multitude of places, including cookbooks, Instagram and family recipes. Another common source of inspiration is the patrons’ preferences, as bootleg customizes each dinner to guests on a weekly basis, he said. Consistently curating a new concept each week is not easy, Avila said, and he is constantly writing down ideas or preparing for customers in his free time.

In personalizing the menu for guests, third-year economics student and fellow bootleg team member Emmanuel Demian said he experiments with some of his own family recipes. When a group of four Middle Eastern customers dined at bootleg, Demian and Avila cooked a family-style Middle Eastern dinner for which Demian said he pulled from his own cultural background.

In other cases, he said bootleg serves an elevated version of its guests’ favorite dishes, such as cacio e pepe in lieu of macaroni and cheese.

In addition to bootleg’s menu, the atmosphere holds just as much importance. To create a romantic feel, Avila and Demian experiment with different combinations of lighting, table settings and music, Demian said. A chandelier, in addition to candles and a fireplace, all contribute to bootleg’s mood, he said.

One bootleg patron, third-year music performance student Arya Shapouri, said he found out about bootleg through his longtime friendship with Avila. Shapouri said his dinner consisted of oysters, citrus salad, salmon, mussels escabeche and lemon ice cream.

“The music was curated, (and) the lamps and lighting were set perfectly,” Shapouri said. “(There were) intricately prepared and beautifully plated appetizers, entrees and desserts that all had a central theme.”

Much of this ambience is constructed by third-year cognitive science student Albert Acosta, vibe director of bootleg. Like Avila, Acosta said he comes from a food service background, but he also brings his interests in art and advertisement to bootleg. While a private Instagram account helps to promote exclusivity, Acosta said he still works to advertise bootleg by photographing and posting each plated dish.

Adding to bootleg’s upmarket feel, the reservation process is not so much a reservation as it is a waitlist, Acosta said. Using the link on bootleg’s Instagram page, anyone can sign up with a group of up to four people, he said, which helps maintain an intimate setting. After entering dietary restrictions and preferences, those who have signed up are offered the earliest date available for their dinner, Acosta said.

(Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)
In addition to the food, the atmosphere of bootleg is essential to the experience. Experimenting with lighting and decoration, Avila said he draws inspiration from dimly lit, romantic restaurants such as Gigi's in Hollywood's Sycamore District. (Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)

[Related: UCLA student channels passion for cooking into apartment pop-up restaurant]

In order to meet increasing demand, bootleg has considered further extending its services, Acosta said. Rather than expanding the space or personnel, which would subvert bootleg’s goal of intimacy, Acosta said an after-hours dining experience is in the works.

“It stemmed from us wanting to include more people,” Acosta said. “We don’t want to become a club, but we want to be there for people who want a snack late at night or who want to just come and chill.”

While bootleg may grow, its future rests solely in the small, Avila said. Without the same havoc as a large restaurant, Avila said bootleg feels comparatively relaxed. Amid expansion, advertisement will continue primarily through word-of-mouth, and dining group size will remain limited, which Avila said permits more creativity.

“It might be kind of pretentious, but I feel like exclusivity makes the experience better,” Avila said. “When people know that they’ve waited this long and there’s a line for this – and they’re in.”

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Samuel Sullivan
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