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Sunday, Aug 14, 2022

Food With a Focus: Toast Duo Build Community Ties

A culinary alliance between Ed Lee and Chef John Park, forged five years ago, created one of Orange County’s most beloved comfort food restaurants: Toast Kitchen & Bakery in Costa Mesa.

It’s an unlikely alliance. Lee is the co-founder of Tustin-based Wahoo’s Fish Taco, long one of OC’s larger and better-known restaurant chains, along with his brothers Wing Lam and Mingo Lee.

Park’s culinary heritage skews higher-end, and includes stints at LA restaurants Providence and Water Grill as both a chef and pastry chef.

Together, they opened Toast Kitchen in July 2018, finding a wildly successful middle ground between their prior ventures.

After riding out the pandemic, the duo has begun expanding their presence in OC.

Lee and Park opened Tableau Kitchen Bar in South Coast Plaza in January. A second Toast Kitchen is getting ready to open in Tustin, near the city’s historic blimp hangars.

There’s more to this partnership than culinary prowess and business acumen, as a charity aspect looms large with both Park and Lee.

Toast and Tableau more than gives back to the community, from donating a percent of proceeds to charity to hiring homeless individuals, vets, and others in need of a job.

The duo’s business prowess, and their ongoing philanthropic focus, helped Lee and Park earn the Business Journal’s nod as Restaurateurs of the Year for 2022.

Truffle Reinvention

Five years ago, Park and his wife sold their businesses and moved from Los Angeles to Orange County.

“We were looking to open something in Orange County,” Park said. “We kept looking and looking, but nothing would materialize. I was getting bored at home, so I started doing pie pop-ups and going to places like Tackle Box and Burnt Crumbs, somewhere that didn’t have a dessert menu.

“The Packing District in Anaheim had a jazz night every other Thursday, so I would go there and sell pies by the slice. The profits went to different nonprofits, mainly Bracken’s Kitchen.”

At the same time, Lee was considering taking over the old Golden Truffle space along Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa, which Chef Alan Greeley had operated for nearly four decades before retiring.

“Ed did not have a chef in mind, or a concept, so he started asking around saying ‘what should I do there, who should I talk to,’” recalled Park. “Every person mentioned my name—‘talk to John, he’s not doing anything, he might be a good fit.’ That’s how we got introduced. He called me out of the blue and said ‘let’s meet up and talk about the space.’”

Park knew nothing about the Golden Truffle legacy and how iconic the location was to many loyal patrons.

“Chefs don’t like to go to old restaurants,” confided Park.

“But I thought it would be a good fit and Ed would be a good person to work with, so that’s how it all happened.”

Given the restaurant’s age, they gutted the space and made it their own.

They opened in the summer of 2018 and quickly became a darling of the local restaurant scene. Lines were (and still are) common at Toast, which is only open for breakfast and lunch.

Giving Forward

Park has noted that he and his family previously faced housing insecurity after facing difficult times in LA, and has vowed to pay others’ giving forward in his new ventures.

His generosity has drawn attention and acclaim.

During the pandemic, the community rallied around Toast by getting food to go and leaving a nice tip. Park bought eggs, toilet paper, milk and other staples and gave it away to those in need.

“People started hearing about it, so they would come by and drop off a $100 tip,” Lee said. “Buy a pie and leave a tip. That’s what helped us survive.”

Says Lee of his business partner: “I am surprised John has not won some sort of Humanitarian of the Year award. He deserves it.”

SCP Expansion

Drive by Toast most mornings and you’ll see people waiting to get in, but the restaurant’s popularity is not what compelled Lee and Park to expand their concept to the decidedly upscale environment of South Coast Plaza.

“I am at Wahoo’s in South Coast Plaza [in the Macy’s Home store wing] and kept walking downstairs wondering, ‘What are they going to do with the old Seabird space?” said Lee.

“So, I reached out to them, and asked what were their plans. They wanted something casual, something for mall employees, something easy. What would fit in here that they don’t have? I said ‘can I take a crack at it?’ They said not another Wahoo’s, but I said I happen to own Toast. Check it out.”

The South Coast Plaza execs went to Toast, loved it, and bought a lot of Park’s famous pies.

“That’s how the conversation began,” recalls Lee. “They did not want something that casual, so I talked to John and we walked through the space, John said this place is amazing, but we did not have a lot of budget.”

Seafood, Salads

“Initially they wanted us to open a Toast here, but this was too close to the original Toast so we would have been competing with ourselves,” Park said. “Toast has become known for big portions, breakfast burritos, chicken and biscuits. We didn’t feel that food fit at South Coast Plaza, so they said what can you do? That’s when the idea for Tableau was born. It’s more elevated, more seafood, salads.”

Park said that when they first opened Toast, Park had nine salads on the menu, and 30% of the menu was vegan.

“None of it sold,” he stated. “We had tuna poke, so much lighter food, more healthy food, but the big burritos and fried chicken were our top sellers and still are to this day, so it’s fun to go back to the original intent of what Toast was—the lighter food, the salads and sandwiches and seafood. It’s not like we are trying to be different, it’s food that I like to eat.”

The 5,000-square-foot Tableau restaurant itself has an understated charm that offers plenty of indoor and patio seating plus a full bar with craft cocktails, beer and a curated wine list. Inspired by modern farmhouse decor, the space features a neutral color scheme of black, white and gray that adds a contemporary flair to the comfortable, relaxed aesthetic.

The Menu

Toast regulars have been pleasantly surprised with the Tableau menu, which is decidedly different than the Toast menu. Tableau lists such dishes as Uni Bucatini (uni creme aiche, jumbo lump crab, lardons, lemon vinaigrette, and shiso), Grilled Chicken Banh Mi (lemongrass marinated chicken, buttered baguette, pickled daikon & carrot, cucumber, cilantro, spicy mayo, pho-tato chips), and Shrimp & Grits (cajun shrimp, parmesan grits, lap cheong, crispy tater tots, jumbo lump crab, cumin coriander vinaigrette, poached egg).

Among the desserts is a delicious Avocado Mousse (lychee granita, blackberries, raspberries, sorrel) and a Goat Cheese Cheesecake (strawberries, passion fruit puree, graham cracker ice cream).

The restaurant’s best seller is a Fried Burrata sandwich with roasted bell pepper aioli, pumpkin seed pesto and arugula, on sourdough bread.

Legacy Location

Now that Tableau is up and running, Lee and Park are turning their attention to the newest Toast location at The Village at Tustin Legacy shopping center, just off Tustin Ranch Road and Edinger Avenue.

“This will have the same hours as Toast, and the same breakfast and lunch menu as Toast,” Lee said. “We took over the old Pier 76 restaurant. We are in a residential area, there is a charter school [Legacy Magnet Academy] there, and every morning parents drop off their kids and then they meet in the parking lot at 2:30, so maybe we can offer them some specials, healthy sandwiches, keep it reasonably priced.

“We also have a yoga studio next door. It’s a busy area—this is going to be a phenomenal location.”

“The Tustin location came before Tableau—we heard about it a year ago,” Park said. “One of the brokers knew about that space and was a regular at Toast and thought it would be a perfect fit.”

Park and Lee agreed, but while they were working on that project, the offer from South Coast Plaza came in, and they jumped on that opportunity.

That’s one of the fastest things I have seen as far as putting a restaurant together,” Lee said. “We didn’t have a concept or a name. It’s not common to open two restaurants at once, but sometimes these things happen and you have to go with it.”

Next Steps?

When you dine at Tableau, you may not see Park because he’ll be in the kitchen cooking—or maybe washing dishes if needed.

Lee will be everywhere, running food and greeting guests.

Park and Lee say they have a good staff, many of whom work at Toast in the morning and then come to Tableau in the evening.

“We have been very fortunate to have great people on staff who want to be with the company and see it grow,” Lee said.

And growth may be in their future, but for now Lee and Park say they are focused on Tableau and the new Toast.

Tableau: 3333 Bear St., Ste., 119, Costa Mesa, (714) 872-8054, tableaukitchenandbar.com

Toast: 1767 Newport Blvd, Costa Mesa, (949) 873-5057, toastkitchenbakery.com 

The Giving Table

Tableau Kitchen & Bar’s concept at South Coast Plaza revolves around a large Giving Table.

The concept, says Ed Lee, is simple.

“We will do dinner events, and charge $150 a person, but $100 of that will be donated to a charity. Bring 12 people for your birthday, create a menu with Chef [John] Park, bring your own wine, and we’ll donate the proceeds to your favorite charity.”

Lee is also planning winemaker dinners and other ideas the revolve around the Giving Table, but the charity aspect doesn’t stop there.

“John continues to work in the kitchen with the homeless, a special needs kid, at-risk kids. Our hope is that if you become a chef, great, but this is a place you can earn money and be anything you want,” Lee said.

“We want someone to come back in 10 years and tell us ‘I am a surgeon.’ That’s what we want. They need that stepping-stone. Someone has to give these kids a chance, and that’s what John wants to do.”

“I have been doing that since day one at Toast, and I continue to do that,” Park said. “It’s always a struggle to find good help, and this population is often overlooked. They tend to be very thankful for the opportunity.”

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