Colburn Café Offers a Taste of Home for Students

General manager Ling Lee strives to create a kitchen that feels like home for students.

Ling Lee, the new general manager of the Colburn Café, has been working diligently over the past few months to serve our students, families, and guests high-quality, customized fare. We sat down with him to discuss his path to Colburn, creating a kitchen that feels like home for students, and where he might want to take the café in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited for style, content, and clarity.

Where are you from, and how did you end up at Colburn?
I grew up in Taiwan. I left Taiwan was 15 years old and went to the UK for my A-level studies, and afterwards, since I love food and traveling, I went to Switzerland for my hospitality degree in Lausanne. After that, I wanted to come see the United States. I was on the East Coast in Massachusetts about 18 months and afterwards I came to LA for a few years and then went back to school in New York for my master’s degree in hospitality.

So I’ve always been very hospitality-centric. When I came back, I was working for Wokcano Restaurant Group, and then afterwards was in Marina Del Rey at an American restaurant with a bigger wine list. I’m a sommelier, so I wanted to get involved with wines and stuff like that.

Afterwards, I opened Herringbone in Santa Monica for Chef Brian Malarkey. However, it didn’t really work out, so I came back to the team and that’s how I got in touch with the business and industry side. I never knew this kind of restaurant style and operation existed before.

How has it been getting to know the Colburn community?
My first impression that is that the students here are very, very nice. The students are very courteous, very driven. You can see that they have goals, it’s not like people are just wandering around, hanging out. These people are serious about their music, their career, and their passion, so the whole environment just feels like it’s very different.

How do you cater to the community’s diverse needs and requests?
I want to be able to help to create a menu that is accommodating and fits all different dietary restrictions. I’ve only been here for like six weeks, so I’m still building momentum. Eventually I want to know all the students by their names, at least before they graduate. I want to recognize them and know their preferences—just like a restaurant, when you’re a regular and people already know you.

There’s one student from Shanghai, he always likes to grab salad and then have it sautéed. That’s very similar to my culture. I never saw raw salads when I grew up, so I totally get what he’s trying to do. That is what we try to create, that bonding.

I would say from observation, maybe 60 percent of people are not from LA. They could be from the East Coast, maybe 30 percent from all over the world. So this is still a foreign country for them, and food is such an important element to make them feel good. It’s kind of lonely, very stressful. We want to make the café more approachable so they feel like, okay I can come in here anytime, I can talk to Ling if I have some kind of new idea, like I tried Hawaiian barbecue from a food truck or some Taiwanese popcorn chicken.

The other day, one of the students told me about a beef dish, like shredded beef with beans and rice, that he wanted to put on the menu. So we spoke to the chef and we changed the menu right away. That is something that we would like to continue to reinforce, so that students, especially students living upstairs, feel like this is their kitchen. We want them to feel like they can come anytime and feel comfortable, order whatever they want, and we’ll make it however they like. This is theirs, so we’re here to support that.

What are some ideas you have in the future for the Café?
As of right now, what I’m focusing on is establishing consistency. Consistency is why there are so many Starbucks and McDonald’s. You cannot change the recipes. So it doesn’t matter where you go, it’s always the same.

So we have to reach that point of consistency, then we can do the fun stuff. We can have the chef from a local restaurant. I’m pretty sure there will be a lot of big chefs coming from maybe Water Grill, or some of the really niche restaurants in West Hollywood. I used to work at Sushi Roku—we can do teppanyaki in the back, or even a do a little farmer’s market. We can invite a couple fruit and vegetable vendors to come here and do displays. The main focus is more for the students, but I think there are a lot of opportunities to work with the local community.

The Colburn Café is open to the public seven days a week. Located in the Colburn School plaza off Grand Avenue, the café offers a wide variety of seasonal fare. Learn more about the Colburn Café.