When the Tjahyadi family arrived in California over a decade ago they were greeted by a familiar sight, palm trees. All else they had left behind. This family of five packed up the entirety of their lives when they were granted asylum from the riots and upheavals that shook Indonesia in 1995, shoving memories, an English dictionary and a few cookbooks into two suitcases as they immigrated to the United States. The fire that had burnt down their family’s farm flickered in the eyes of teen-brothers, Eric and Erwin, at sunset during their first week on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, the brothers were exposed to a melting pot of cultures, each with their own heritage, personalities and palettes. When we spoke with Eric last week , he said that, “the part that connected us back to who we are, was having the relationship with food.” Calling it destiny, in the years that the guys have been in SoCal they’ve opened three restaurants, Komodo in LA and Venice and most recently, Bone Kettle in Pasadena. Upon opening Komodo, they turned food truck fare into the definition of fusion with their Phoritto and other Asian-Mexican dishes. Yet Eric felt that despite Komodo’s success, its options were limiting to Erwin’s culinary abilities as everything had to exist in the parameters of fusion that was quick, easy to execute. Erwin, recently named one of Zagat’s 30 under 30 and a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, needed a passion project and hence Bone Kettle was born.
20+ years later, grown and Americanized, Erwin and their dad made the journey back to Indonesia for the first time since they left. “He really had an epiphany, he really felt like, wow, this is why I fell in love with cooking and making food. It was like a reconnection with his roots and him going back with my dad strengthened their bond. It gave them a full understanding of one another,” said Eric speaking on his brother’s behalf. Bone Kettle was and is a manifestation of this epiphany as things come full circle. It has allowed Chef Erwin to honor his roots while sharing his perspective on growing up in the San Gabriel Valley and being able to call it home. “We envision Bone Kettle as a stand-alone restaurant and not something we’re trying to duplicate in different places. We chose Pasadena because it has an old legacy and historic weight. People live there because they like heirloom qualities of things, they like the fact that they’re connecting with their neighbors, they like the fact that they know who’s operating the business so it’s a great fit for us,” Eric said.
The menu is anchored by their signature, bone broth, a recipe that their grandparents grew up with made by boiling beef in filtered water with onions, garlic, ginger and a specific to Bone Kettle mix of dried spices for 36 hours. “It’s really kind of funny that everyone is talking about it as this new fad or trend. It isn’t a trend for us, it’s something Erwin fell in love with in Indonesia, it was an old recipe that’s been passed on,” said Eric. The atmosphere in Bone Kettle is quaint but refined. Guests sip on spoonfuls of tradition while the boys’ father comes around to ask them how they’re liking the ube gnocchi, or if they need another drink. The smile he flashes towards his sons in passing is genuine, and it feels like you’re walking in on something intimate, something real and familial. “When you put yourself in this situation and working in a business capacity with your family, it tests you from a relationship perspective. You’re forced to look at them in a different light. Yes, we took risks that he [my father] may not have taken but it yields some success. We also found that there are some old age wisdoms that he was able to impart as well. We have a lot of love for one another and that’s why we committed to working towards that relationship,” said Eric.
The risks that Eric spoke of lead the family to a crossroads that put their past, present and future in a crossfire. “We could’ve gone super authentic. We could’ve not tweaked the recipes, not changed anything, reinterpreting nothing,” said Eric before continuing, “especially my dad being an old school person, he didn’t get it in the beginning, he was like, ‘why are you doing it this way? That’s not how it’s done.’” Yet, the family would find that taking a step towards culinary innovation didn’t mean they’d dishonor their heritage.
New life usually rises from old flames. Making tradition contemporary has allowed the Tjahyadi’s story to continue to write itself. Bone Kettle is being embraced by more than just the Indonesian community, “it’s pulling people out of the woodwork,” as Eric phrased it. “We’re trying to do something different and the way that we present our food and our dishes makes it a welcoming, accessible, open-gate to people who are new to our cuisine,” said Eric. Since they’ve been open he’s seen old teachers and childhood friends rolling through to try some of Bone Kettle’s fare. Each friendly or familiar face that comes through their doors is a testament to the fact that the Tjahyadi’s have found home and come home. Simultaneously it’s giving Southeast Asians a dining experience that they can be proud of. Diners have told Eric things like, “I’ve never been to a Southeast Asian restaurant like this, I’ve never enjoyed something that is this elegant that is Southeast Asian.”
While Chinese restaurants are known for their decadence, golden dragons and lavish chandeliers, Indonesians in specific now have a place to go that they can be proud of. Establishments like Bone Kettle reaffirms their place in the modern conversation of what it means to be both an immigrant and an American today, telling their story through the lens of food. “For us to be successful in business, talking about our culture and our cuisine in a positive light, it’s a very important thing for us because it connects us back to our roots. Our parents fought their way to be where we are today. We owe a lot to their resilience and dedication so the fact that we were able to do this [Bone Kettle] with them again and honor a recipe we all share, it’s such a special thing,” said Eric.
*Photo credit: Dez and Tam
** Check Bone Kettle out at our LA Feast, tickets here