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CLAE Perspectives | Brian Bornemann and Leena Culhane


2020 was a year to forget for many, but for Brian Bornemann and Leena Culhane, it was a year of culinary and life adventures that brought them together.


In the latest edition of Perspectives, read about how two Santa Monica staples, Crudo e Nudo and Isla, emerged from a pandemic pop-up, how its founders' determination and creativity enabled them to grow beyond their pop-up origins, and what they believe is the most essential ingredient that makes Crudo e Nudo and Isla truly special.

A Story of Resilience, Creativity, and Culinary Innovation


Tell us about Crudo e Nudo and Isla. It sounds like you two have had quite the culinary adventure since your first meeting in 2020.


Brian Bornemann: We met in 2020 in the toughest and most confusing time in generations. Crudo e Nudo launched more out of necessity than anything else, and, as it would happen, the mother of invention really helped craft something beautiful. 


After 10 months of hustling across town, doing pop-ups in 10 different locations from Echo Park to Venice Beach, necessity again struck, and we had to find a permanent place to store our fish and growing supplies. Taking the smallest space we could find in our neighborhood, we poured ourselves into Crudo, growing from 2 employees to 16 organically in just a year! Leena touched every table, and I sliced every piece of fish. It was a blast. So stoked about the reception and also the talent we could attract, I knew we would have to grow to make the most of what we had just built. We were able to use some of our talents to start pop-ups for our second concept, Isla, while we searched for a brick-and-mortar. 


Crudo was the only restaurant in LA to build new sourcing ecosystems around exclusively local and world-class quality seafood. I knew the next step would be to have a second location with a wood-fired element to do things with local fish and shellfish that Crudo couldn’t. My friend Shane knew about our search, and while he was also a real estate broker, he ran Little Prince, one of our favorite local restaurants, and serendipitously the location of our final Crudo pop-up back during the pandemic. After five years of operating, Shane’s life had shifted and led him to partner with us to open Isla at 2424 Main St., wood-fired oven and all! We now proudly have a beautiful ecosystem between the two locations that highlights the best of what the West Coast has to offer in two beautiful spaces designed by Leena.

Brian's Sneakers

Santa Monica's Fresh Culinary Scene


Locally sourced ingredients are a big part of your dishes. How helpful has it been being in Santa Monica for access to fresh ingredients?

 

Brian Bornemann: Proximity to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market has been huge; it has been my religious ceremony to attend every week for my career. 


Having grown up here, the bounty and variety available to us produce-wise is such a boon. 


However, for local seafood, there is no equivalent, and working directly with local fishermen has taken years of relationship and logistics building to be able to build two restaurant menus entirely out of locally available seafood. Fortunately, Santa Monica is equidistant between Santa Barbara and San Diego, making it a reasonable drive for fishermen from both locations to bring catches directly to us, cutting out the middleman. 


We also are very close to [perishable products transportation company] Commodity Forwarders, Inc., where we receive beautiful products weekly directly from our friends in Baja, California, again giving us a chance to cut out the middle man and the extra hands in the cold chain. 

Crafting Memorable Dining Experiences


Obviously, the food is critical to making a restaurant great, but what are the other key elements to make the experience special beyond the cuisine?


Brian Bornemann: Leena has done a great job with designing Crudo and Isla to each have a unique feel and energy. Playlists by our friend Ned Benson over a beautiful vintage Hi-fi system create a great moody and laidback vibe. The cocktails by our bar director, Kent Thompson, match the food perfectly in their flavor-forward yet simple aesthetic. But at the end of the day, it is the people in our neighborhood and our regulars that make the space feel so warm; people are the most important ingredient.


Leena Culhane: I aim to create spaces that feel sophisticated yet cozy and neighborhood-friendly. I love creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere where people feel relaxed but also get to experience something they wouldn’t normally feel at home. At Crudo, we started with all outdoor seating, so the challenge was to create a place during the peak of the pandemic that still felt like we had third spaces again during so much separation – where people knew your name, your order, and what inspired you to connect with us. In January, I took a quick trip to Tokyo that inspired me to create a small indoor bar to weather this past winter's storm. It reminded me of how much can be done in a small space, and I do think some restraints are always good when tackling a creative project. Traveling always inspires me in huge ways, and I’ve been so lucky to get to travel more as a result of the creative work Brian and I do together. For Isla, it is our dream space and my dream canvas. I warmed it up and used limewash paint, soft lighting, texture, and lots of art to shift the space towards our vision. Beyond the cuisine and the design, we work closely with our teams to ensure that they understand the kind of true hospitality we want to provide to our guests. We do this to connect and expand our community, so we do a lot of work to ensure we are on the same page about the type of care and experience we aim to provide. I think that’s something really special about our business – that we consistently get positive guest feedback about the folks on our team. We are really lucky to have a great crew at both places.


Los Angeles


Now that you both have had a number of restaurant projects under your belt, how do you balance it all, being both a couple and business partners?


Brian Bornemann: It’s a constant balancing act when trying to set up the businesses for consistency and success. Travel, rest, and alone time are hugely important, as well as making time for creativity!


Leena Culhane:  Balance has not been an easy road for us. We opened three places in three years and really committed to the businesses and their success. There have been lots of highs and lows, but the special thing about doing this with someone you love is that the joy experienced is twice as much, and the pain half. I think that’s a good measure of really being on the same team with someone. What Brian and I have been able to do is really special, and I can’t imagine taking on as much as we have with anyone else. Now that Isla has been open for almost six months, we can start to see the clearing again and are excited to bring more focus to the areas of our lives that make us feel whole outside of work and everything they need to keep running.


Last but not least, walk us through your neighborhood in Santa Monica. What are your favorite go-to spots?


Brian Bornemann: I love Gnarwhal for coffee throughout the day. Taco Tuesday at Lula’s by my former sous-chef Ritche Rojas is incredible, and getting a beer at Library Alehouse can definitely ease the day. I love running out to Tower 28 mid-day for a swim and then coming back to work all salty. OK, across the street from Isla, has great gifts and tempting housewares. It’s right next to The Now Massage, which is a great place to relax and get some knots out. For dinner, I like to head to see our friends at Rustic Canyon or Birdie G’s. For late night, it’s Isla for a cocktail or Wallflower on Rose, which also stays open late.


Leena Culhane:  If I have a night off and am staying on the Westside, I’ve recently been going to Cobi’s, Rustic Canyon, Hatchett Hall, or Bar Monette. But honestly, I love walking down to Isla to sit at the bar with my neighbor, and I enjoy getting to experience this labor of love from the other side.