Chef Govind Armstrong and Restaurateur Brad Johnson are bringing farm-to-table dining to the black middle class enclave of Baldwin Hills, California.
Looking at its mid-century modern architecture, open kitchen with wood-burning oven and stylish outdoor patio and garden, it may be hard to believe that the two-year-old Post & Beam restaurant used to be the site of a fried chicken spot. Situated at the end of a newly revamped mall and across the parking lot from Debbie Allen's dance studio, the restaurant and the men behind it are bringing seasonal ingredients and bistro style to an area of Los Angeles that had seen little of either. Run by restaurateur Brad Johnson and chef Govind Armstrong, Post & Beam has managed to embrace community members and attract people unfamiliar with Baldwin Hills. "At brunch our patio fills up, and we have live jazz out there on Fridays. There's a fire pit and just a really cool atmosphere," says Armstrong. "When I'm cooking on the line, every now and then I look out into the dining room and see a good mix of people, culture and history. It's a beautiful thing." When Johnson was approached about opening a new restaurant at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, he knew it would be a challenge, but he leaped at the opportunity. "You look at Baldwin Hills and areas like Harlem and Oakland that have a rich history of Black-owned businesses," says Johnson. "As the children of the fifties and sixties grew up and became successful, they moved on and left. It would be wonderful if Black folks with means supported these businesses and recycled some of that disposable income back into the community."
Armstrong was born in Inglewood, California, and spent much of his childhood in Costa Rica. When he was 13, he began working under renowned chef Wolfgang Puck. He spent time overseas developing his craft, including being a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain. He continued to grow his skills stateside, opening several restaurants before teaming up with Johnson. "Brad was someone I'd known for some time here in Los Angeles," says Armstrong. "We would talk about the industry as a whole and that evolved into possibly collaborating."
The duo launched Post & Beam, which was immediately successful. That led to the formation of Post & Beam hospitality group and their second restaurant, Willie Jane, in Venice Beach, California. Armstrong is executive chef for both establishments.
When foodies talk about Armstrong, the Golden State is always referenced. His use of fresh, local, sustainable ingredients has made him one of the well-known faces of California cuisine. It's no surprise when you consider that the West Coast native grew up cooking with ingredients from his childhood garden and came of age when the importance of fresh food became a huge movement.
"It's not the easiest way to cook, because you're relying on ingredients and trying not to muddle them or overdo them. It's just a delicate balance," says Armstrong. "But it's always something I've enjoyed. It's just my natural go-to when cooking."
Before Johnson made a name for himself for trendy eateries in Los Angeles, he worked his way up in his father's Manhattan restaurant, Cellar. He went from washing dishes to managing, but didn't think the food industry was his calling. He dreamed of the NBA, but still majored in hospitality. "When I got out of school and did not get drafted, I was fortunate to have my dad's business to look toward," Johnson says. "I decided that since I had the background I might as well see if it was something I could make a living doing." Having a Black dad from Georgia and an Italian mother has given Johnson eclectic tastes, which he has infused into the food business.
Open Space, Open Kitchen
It's hard for Johnson and Armstrong to pick a favorite aspect of the space. They both love the garden. The wood-burning stove and high ceilings also make it special. And then there's the wall of album covers from Johnson's collection.
"It's just a nice throwback piece," says Johnson. "A couple of times I've had songwriters in the room, and they will tell me, 'Oh, yeah, I wrote two or three songs on that Ashford and Simpson album.' "
"It's an exposed and very open kitchen," says Armstrong, who enjoys seeing the diverse dining room as he works. "There's always people who know each other getting up and moving from one table to the next."
This article was originally published in the October issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.