COVID pivots helped put 2 LA eateries on James Beard radar

By Giuliana Mayo

Black eyed peas, collard greens, and sweet potatoes are just some of the comfort food on offer at Dulan’s Soul Food, an LA institution. Photo courtesy of Greg Dulan.

The James Beard Award finalists came in last week and along with the usual fine dining suspects like Republique and N/Naka, there are two nominees from outside that pricey space. One is a pop-up from Downtown LA’s Arts District, Bridgetown Roti, helmed by Chef Rashida Holmes, who is up for “Emerging Chef,” and the other is Dulan’s Soul Food, whose owner Greg Dulan is nominated for “Best Restaurateur.”

Holmes, who has been cooking for years in some of LA’s most high-profile kitchens, is a first time nominee and finalist. “Bridgetown is my first venture as the head chef and owner, so I'm totally cool with being in the ‘emerging’ category. I like that they have expanded the options to include some of us older folks who've been around,” she notes.

Rashida Holmes is up for “Emerging Chef” at the James Beard Awards. Photo courtesy of Rashida Holmes.

Dulan has been nominated before, but this is his first time as a finalist. He noted that “survival skills” play a key part in being a restaurant owner these days.

Both nominees required those survival skills to get their businesses through the pandemic. Holmes says it spurred her restaurant into being. “The pandemic really allowed my business to thrive. Before the pandemic, it was just an idea, we thought we might do catering. I wasn't really sure what direction I was going to go in. And then the pandemic hit, and I was forced to sell food from my home because that was all I had available.” 

The cultural impact of the early pandemic also played a role for Holmes. 

“The protests in 2020 really put a spotlight on Black-owned businesses,” she notes. “And suddenly, I was in the LA Times for cooking food out of my house as a Black-owned business in Los Angeles. So I just don't know if those things hadn't happened to kickstart what I was trying to do, if I would be a James Beard nominee today.”

Pop-up Bridgetown Roti’s Caribbean fare took off during the pandemic. Their chef, Rashida Holmes, is an “Emerging Chef” nominee this year at the James Beard Awards. Photo courtesy Rashida Holmes.

Dulan’s restaurant also made a big pivot to stay in the game, opening a to-go window and nixing his previous cafeteria-style setup. And then the massive catering orders started coming in.

“We were tapped on the shoulder by Chef Andrés from World Central Kitchen. And throughout the pandemic, we did 800 meals a week for him,” Dulan shares. He also was asked by then Mayor Eric Garcetti to help with meals. “We did 1000 meals a week for the mayor's senior meal program to help feed the seniors who could not go to the senior centers to receive their daily meals. And that was very gratifying, I really felt like I was making a contribution to my city.”

Greg Dulan is a “Best Restaurateur” finalist in this year’s James Beard Awards for his family restaurant Dulan’s Soul Food. Photo courtesy of Greg Dulan.

Following the uprisings of 2020, The James Beard Awards made a very public push towards inclusivity. This is only the second year since the overhaul, but Dulan believes those changes have made a big difference.

“My dad was in the restaurant business for nearly 40 years, and I don't think he knew what the James Beard Awards were,” shares Dulan. “They switched their criteria and categories after the pandemic and they became much more inclusive. It gives America a better look at what we actually have to offer. And it adds a lot more flavor to the offerings, so I think it's a wonderful change. I probably would not be a finalist, had they not made the change. So I'm grateful.”