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Lessons from a celebrity chef on focus, leadership, and balance

APL Restaurant on Yelp

The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t care if you’re a Michelin-starred restaurant or a hole-in-the-wall bagel shop—no restaurateur can escape the fact that the hospitality business has changed. Will kitchens return to the typical 80-100 hours a week, or will there be a new normal with a better work-life balance? The pandemic has given chefs and restaurant owners a chance to reconsider some priorities and rebalance their kitchens and personal lives.  

Adam Perry LangIn this episode of the Full Comp podcast, Josh Kopel chats with Hollywood-based celebrity chef Adam Perry Lang of APL Restaurant, known for his hyper-seasonal dishes featuring some of the best dry-aged beef in California.

Lang talks about moving from a refined dining experience to more comforting dishes and making people feel warm and cozy in this time of uncertainty. He also talks finances, including how to partner with your purveyors to help each other stay afloat, and maintaining your focus on what’s important—keeping the doors open for employees and the neighborhood.

Kopel and Lang also discuss what leadership in a kitchen looks like now compared to pre-pandemic times and what it means to show up for your staff and patrons.

Listen or subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Photos from Adam Perry Lang and APL Restaurant on Yelp


Ready for more? Check out more episodes of Full Comp:

Episode 1: Building a Restaurant Empire in a Recession: Tender Greens’ Erik Oberholtzer

Episode 2: Creating Opportunity from Tragedy: Serial Restaurateur Darin Rubell

Episode 3: Redefining Cocktail Culture: Death & Co’s Alex Day

Episode 4: The Art of the Pivot: Iron Chef Eric Greenfield

Episode 14: The Benefits of Community Building: Chef Nina Compton, Chef/Owner of Compère Lapin

Episode 22: The Art of the Pivot: Mark Canlis, owner/operator of Canlis

Episode 26: The Future of Restaurants: Dean Alex Susskind, Cornell University


Full Comp episode 28 transcript
The Road Back: Adam Perry Lang, Celebrity Chef & Restaurateur 

[Josh Kopel]

Today’s episode is brought to you by Yelp, whose mission is to connect people with great local businesses. They’re also helping me connect with you, which is totally awesome. Now, here we go.

[Adam Perry Lang]

We donate a meal for every meal that we produce and it goes to those in need and in particular, the less fortunate and the homebound elderly. So that has just been kind of like the backbone.

[Josh Kopel]

Welcome to Full Comp the show, offering insight into the future of the hospitality industry featuring restaurateurs, thought leaders, and innovators served up on the house.

[Josh Kopel]

If hosting the show has made one thing incredibly clear, it’s that teamwork, data and resources will be what help us thrive post pandemic. Understanding that, Yelp and I have created a cheat sheet offering insight into consumer behavior, popular trends and free tools and resources to help you get open and stay open. You can download that guide at joshkopel.com/resources. Didn’t write that down? There’s a link in the show notes as well.

[Josh Kopel]

The pandemic did not pick favorites. No business owner was immune from the debilitating effects of the quarantine. Big restaurateurs with big restaurants and big rents need big plans to weather this storm. On today’s episode, we chat with celebrity chef Adam Perry Lang, who shares how he’s been affected and his strategy for rebounding.

[Adam Perry Lang]

Work-life balance, it’s always been a tremendous challenge for me in particular, most chefs in general, because to really just delve in and to do what we do, but do it well, it’s a constant craft that requires constant honing through repetition. The only thing to get through it is the time, is putting in the time. If you’re passionate like me like so many people are, that’s when you’re wishing that there was 48 hours in a day. Unfortunately, the way our hours are constantly structured is that every time the rest of the world has a loss, those are our peak times where we’re working. So particularly with my kids, it can be very challenging. My kids are very resilient, I think, but I hope sometimes because it requires a lot of patience, a lot of times not being there. If it was just as easy as cooking, then it would be no problem, but it’s all the other things that are popping in.

[Adam Perry Lang]

Oftentimes, most of those things really don’t have boundaries. So we have so many of these things that pop into our life that are like suckers of our energy, of our passion, of what we were put on this earth to do as chefs and as parents. The big challenge and one thing that I continuously try to work on is just trying to shut off and just kind of block that stuff out, but it just always seems like there’s just something right there like, “Well, we’ve got to fix the hood,” or, “Someone hasn’t been showing up,” or, “What do we do?” There’s always typically just some type of thing that creeps into our personal space that we have to address right then and there.

[Adam Perry Lang]

Then it’s just the realization that, “Wow, this is just not going to end.” You’re just going to have to deal with it. So in terms of how I deal with these types of things, I try to be pretty structured and disciplined by compartmentalizing. It doesn’t mean that I don’t address these things, but even just the ways to manage it, it really comes down to compartmentalizing tasks and trying to do a priority list and understand that just 50% that you’re just not going to see coming, but you really have to compartmentalize and that’s how I deal with it.

[Josh Kopel]

Are you going to go back to the hundred hour work weeks?

[Adam Perry Lang]

Right now just the way it feels, everybody is hurting. Okay? But what’s really needed in this whole situation is leadership. That’s unfortunately something that I cannot delegate at this time. I think now speaking particularly of my team or my teams, I have to be present. I have to be there just to kind of lead and try to just like… Well, I don’t have the answers, just show that, “Hey, it’s one foot in front of the other. We’re going to get through this the best that we can.” It’s not going to be perfect, but just by showing up is… I’ve always said in my kitchens, just like, “Hey, showing up is 90% of it,” but just really just try to show everybody showing up, being there on time, being there a little bit earlier than everybody else and then oftentimes requires being a bit later too.

[Adam Perry Lang]

That’s what the time right now is dictating. So in terms of going back to a hundred hour work weeks, whether it’s a hundred or it’s 60, or it’s 50, whatever it is, I just have to be present. So I’m prepared for it. I’ve been working ridiculous hours as it is just trying just to keep the machine moving ahead. So yeah. If that’s what’s necessary, then I’m prepared to do a hundred hour work weeks. I’m not sure if I answered your question, but-

[Josh Kopel]

The root of the question is in going from working, let’s say 60 to a hundred hours a week prior to the pandemic and then there was a pause, was there an “aha!” moment in that relative to work life balance where you said, “I spend more time with…” For me, at least I spent more time with my kid in the last two months than I did in the last two years.

[Adam Perry Lang]

Yeah. No, that’s great.

[Josh Kopel]

I value that. It informed what my life is going to look like when I go back to work. There are certain compromises that I made that I don’t think I’m willing to make again, and not because my kids suffer for it, but because I suffer for it. I miss out on that. I’m not willing to do that because the floor drain’s backed up into the dining room.

[Adam Perry Lang]

Yeah, I hear you. It’s funny. I’m all for that. I think that what you’re saying is totally, this is a moment where we get just to look within and we try to prioritize what’s important. So it’s going to be interesting. I think that that floor drain that’s backed up is still going to be there and all these things are going to be there. So it’s just a question of whether or not we’re going to have to just adjust how we work, I suppose. It’s tough for me to imagine though because so many of the variables that we’re dealing with right now, we’re factoring in if customers’ behavior is going to just be the same the minute that we decide to get back to work. The fact of the matter, it’s not.

[Adam Perry Lang]

Until we have a full-on vaccine that’s tried and proven, people are going to be skittish and people want to socialize and be out there. But the whole concept of restaurants is kind of on the block. Restaurants to me have always been from the root of restoration, a place to restore yourself. They’ve always been the cornerstone of just socialization and meeting up and doing all these different things. I’m wondering if this anxiety that people have in terms of being constantly on guard being out there is not going to ruin the equation to the point where people are just like, “You know what? I’m okay. Food’s good, but it’s not that important to me right now. So I’m just going to either order in or I’m going to be cooking more at home.”

[Adam Perry Lang]

That’s not that dimension we’re saddled with the same variables. The rent’s still the same. Most of us were trying to renegotiate, but we’re dealing with an equation of 50% occupancy. Real estate market, the only thing, if only restaurants were competitive for spaces, restaurant spaces, well, then, okay then. It would kind of balance and adjust, but the fact of the matter is that a shopping store or some type of other venue can fill the space, establishment doesn’t necessarily have to cater to the sales volume projections of a restaurant what the demands are. So it’s a tough moment to just see where we’re going to be, where we land with this thing.

[Josh Kopel]

Are you fearful? And if so, how do you manage that fear in relation to being a leader?

[Adam Perry Lang]

I’m not going to say fearful. I have concerns. My way of dealing with it is like I had said before, it’s really just maintaining momentum. It really just comes down to showing up and doing what you can do and putting one foot in front of the other and taking it… Us, as chefs, we try to organize and we try to control as much as we can because there’s so much that we are not in control of and there is no possible way to be in control of. So how we schedule on how we plan, that really is just kind of gone out the window. I’m not fearful because at the end of the day, I believe that everybody has to eat. So it’s one of those things where it’s not like a widget where you put on the market and it’s just basically rendered useless.

[Adam Perry Lang]

So the one thing that we have on our side is that people have to eat. It’s just the question of whether or not, as chefs, we’re going to be as adaptable as it’s required to deliver that, not only food, but as you know as food’s kind of moved on, it’s people want an experience. So how do we now adapt to new experiences? I’m not going to put in fear because at the end of the day, I’m doing what I love to do and I still love to do it. It’s concerning because I know that there are a lot of great places, which are often not on the kind of the front page map of where a lot of the media kind of focuses on, that has such unbelievable, mom and pop shops that have just such unbelievable food.

[Adam Perry Lang]

Just knowing what I deal with on the phone, I put my chef coat on my apron every day and I fight for about an hour, an hour and a half just to get up out of the booth to then actually go in and cook because I’m fielding so many things, whether or not it’s dealing with the shifting laws and rules that are happening or understanding what is the pre-opening checklist of what to do and weeding through the conflicting things we have to do. So in terms of fear, I have concerns, but I don’t want to say fear. I have concerns.

[Josh Kopel]

Right on. You’re a celebrity chef that anyone can look at from the outside and say is hugely successful, but I’m sure talent and hard work played a role in your success, but more than anything, I’m sure it was resilient because Lord knows it’s one of the hardest industries in the world. Can you talk to me about what you would perceive is your greatest professional failure, the lessons learned from it and how you rebounded?

[Adam Perry Lang]

I don’t think it’s ever culminated as one failure, so to speak. I think that it’s just constantly… You do something, you step back, evaluate and you adjust. I can’t put it on one thing. I think if you look at one thing that was given to me a long time ago from my mom during one of my graduations, I think it was from high school or from college, and it was this thing that you hung on the wall. It’s like, “crisis equals opportunities.” The concept is that (under) every crisis lies a unique opportunity. I don’t really dwell on it as, “failures.” I just kind of look at it as just opportunities. I know it’s kind of weird and annoying to kind of like say, “Oh, yeah. Well, how could this terrible thing that happened be an opportunity?” But these are the things that really caused us to look within and make adjustments and to say like, “Hey, that was right. Okay. That felt good. That wasn’t right,” and then how do we move? So I can’t really put it on one thing.

[Josh Kopel]

That makes sense. Again, it speaks to your resilient nature, the fact that you see that the obstacle is the path.

[Adam Perry Lang]

I chose very early on to focus on my passion, which is food and cooking. I realized that it was a story book I would never fully comprehend and realize, but I was just going to… And still to this day, I go to the farmer’s market and I see vegetables I’ve never even thought or conceived of happening out there. Still after 30 years of being in the business, I’m still amazed. I still am constantly learning. So for me, that’s really the big drive. That’s really the big gift.

[Josh Kopel]

How did you define success January 2020, and how do you define success today? How has that changed?

[Adam Perry Lang]

Well, January 2020, really, specifically, we were anticipating the opening of “Hamilton” at the Pantages, the theater right next to us. We were gearing up or really excited because people are going to be out there and then just the rug was pulled out. So success really was wrapped around constantly motivating and driving the team, and I guess just feeling good at the end of the day. It shifted a bit when COVID showed its face. I think that for me, my focus was just to try to be grateful for things, grateful for certain opportunities for us to be able to really getting involved, for example, in St. Joseph’s Center or being able to feed people, be of service. I think that for me, was a real… I always embraced it, but for me, it was almost like a calling because what do you do as a chef? You’re feeding somebody, but ultimately it’s not about how beautiful something would be. It’s just, how do you make people feel?

[Adam Perry Lang]

Besides before, it was just like, “Hey, what new inventive dish can I do? What are people going to really appreciate too? How can we help people? How can we help people in need while we try to figure this whole thing out?” So getting involved with the St. Joseph’s Center for organizations like the Kneel Bridge, or Frontline Foods where we have the opportunity to feed the frontline hospital workers, or with St. Joseph now, which we’re doing a meal for meal program where every meal that we produce, I’m doing this in conjunction with Jimmy Kimmel, we donate a meal for every meal that we produce, and it goes to those in need and in particular, the less fortunate and the home bound elderly.

[Adam Perry Lang]

So that has just been kind of like the backbone, I suppose, of, “Okay. Who are we feeding?” and trying to not only just like bang out meals, but really just like, “Hey, this could be one meal for the entire day for somebody.” How do we put our polish on it? How do we make it really extra special and fighting for the little details on the dish, as opposed to trying to think about like, “Oh, we’re just feeding people,” and we’re just trying to make it special.

[Josh Kopel]

The charitable functions, that all came on the back of you pivoting to delivery and takeout. What was that experience like? How has it worked out? Are you guys making any money doing it? Is it keeping you afloat?

[Adam Perry Lang]

Well, a couple of questions in there. So how did we make the shift? We had no choice. Bear in mind, it’s just first and foremost, just spoke to my staff and just being upfront and honest with them and I said to everybody, I said, “Look, I’d love to see this thing going so that when we do get through this, everybody has places or job to come back to. So I want to go for it, but I don’t want anybody to be doing anything that they feel unsafe or they don’t feel comfortable with.” I just basically explained that I’ve shrinked to the lowest common denominator of one person if we’re a group of five or 50, or if one person had the greatest fear of saying, “Hey, you know what? I’d like to see everybody wearing gloves,” even though everybody wears gloves in my place. I’m just using examples like, “Hey, you know what? I’s not ‘required,’ but everybody’s going to wear gloves.”

[Adam Perry Lang]

So just try first and foremost to make everybody internally feel comfortable, safe and… In the beginning, a lot of information that was out there was really not a hundred percent accurate. So I was just combing the internet. I was combing sources, listening to doctors speak online just to kind of say, “Hey, what is this thing and how can we do it safely to the best of our ability?” So we basically, we jumped right into it, but my model in Hollywood is really a steakhouse. So my attitude was people need comfort food right now and I want to price it accordingly, so everybody can afford it. So doing dishes that are typically anywhere from $12 to, I think the highest we went was like $20 that are kind of like blue plate specials or things that are really more comfort driven, things that I’m excited about, things that I’d like to eat or just really just go off the handle with matzah ball soup. A comforting dish makes people feel warm inside and trying to leave a lot of the greater superficial creativity at the door. So we shifted like that.

[Adam Perry Lang]

There was another part of your question, which you had mentioned-

[Josh Kopel]

Is it keeping you afloat? Are you guys-

[Adam Perry Lang]

It really just depends on how you look at it. Right now, it’s just inconceivable to be able to have to pay the rent that we do. So right now, so many things are at bay. We have purveyors that are working with us to get us through, but our payables of before, a lot of it’s on hold. A lot of purveyors will do COD just to get us to the door and keep it going. We’re staying afloat. That’s the goal, which is to survive. In terms of making money, there’s no making money right now. There’s always still the same old fixes, air conditioning, “Oh, someone forgot to do this,” so now we have to get it done. That’s two grand or, “Oh, wait. We need to snake out the grease trap,” and that’s another $300.

[Adam Perry Lang]

So you have all these things that are kind of sucking onto you, but yet our sales volume is five to 10% of what it was before. But look, I don’t want to paint this gloom picture here. Right now, everything a hundred percent is about survival. We just want to keep the doors open so that when we break through this thing, we have a business to come home to and be there for not only the employees, but be there for our customers as well and our neighborhood, and as well as the charitable things, which we love being part of. It’s just reinvigorated us well.

[Josh Kopel]

How pliable are you in the future? Right now, you’re in comfort food. As soon as dine-in is back up to a hundred percent, there’s a vaccine, are you going right back to the swanky steakhouse with the high end offering?

[Adam Perry Lang]

Well, that’s a great question. Right now, I’m shifting more to barbecue. It’s my core. It’s my love. It’s definitely, it’s more communal. It’s a lower check average, but most importantly, I’m passionate about it. I’m not going to exclude the steaks. I’m still going to have that component, but again, it’s not like, hey, if you’ve walked through the door, if you’re not getting a steak, you feel less than as a customer from whatever direction you get it. So we’re shifting the model. We’re figuring that out right now. I have meetings later today about it, of when we’re opening, “Okay, so what does the dining room look like? What’s the sound level going to be look like? How are we communicating to the customer? How are we making them feel safe? How are we making our employees feel safe going through this?” This whole thing, it’s just a big unknown. So we wash our hands. We are constantly wearing gloves, face masks, changing, just everybody taking temperatures when people walk through the door. So yeah.

[Josh Kopel]

Those are all the questions of the day. You and I are in the same tier of dining and we think the same thing. How far apart are the tables? What’s it look like when somebody with a HAZMAT suit comes up to take your order?

[Adam Perry Lang]

It’s exactly the right. I have my contractor coming in and he gave me a quote for, I think, like 17 grand to put glass partitions that kind of shootout in between the booths, but then you turn around and you’re like, “Okay, so we do this,” and then all of a sudden, CDC or somebody comes out and they say it was unnecessary. What do I have to do to earn 17 grand to just to put those partitions in? And then at that point- [crosstalk 00:24:00]

[Josh Kopel]

You got to make $170,000 top line.

[Adam Perry Lang]

It’s crazy. On top of that, even if I put that in, is that what the public is looking for in terms of it makes them feel comfortable in my place? So, yeah. These are the decisions that we’re going through right now. Right now, the plan is to keep people socially distance. We’re going to be opening up, I believe this next week, this week here, but we’re going to have the takeout menu that we’ve been doing, still have the steaks, but what we’re really looking to get into, and I don’t want to just jump into it, is really more focused on the barbecue aspect and have traditional things, things that I’m known for, but also I’ve been enjoying, going to the farmer’s market on Wednesdays when this was happening. Now, Sundays in Hollywood as well.

[Josh Kopel]

It’s an industry podcast. So at the end of every episode, I like to give the guest an opportunity to speak directly to the industry. Is there anything you would like to share?

[Adam Perry Lang]

Keep going. Just try to… Look, I just imagine it as if I’m done… You know that classic example of digging all these tunnels and five inches before, you kind of strike oil or strike gold. You turn around and you go the other direction. Try to stay positive. Try to stay charitable. Just most importantly, just keep moving. I don’t know what the future holds. Nobody does and whatever I say, I might have to be adapt and change. So I’d say keep moving, be incredibly adaptable, focus on your passion, your love, why you got into this in the first place and just I wish everybody good luck.

[Josh Kopel]

That’s celebrity chef Adam Perry Lang. To check out what the chef is working on, visit him on Instagram using the handle @AdamPerryLang. If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, check out our video content or read our weekly blog. Go to joshkopel.com. That’s J-O-S-H-K-O-P-E-L.com. Thank you so much for listening to the show. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and while you’re there, please leave us a review. Special thanks to Yelp for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I’m Josh Kopel. You’ve been listening to Full Comp.

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