A California native, Brian Lea has worked in some of the country’s most exciting restaurants, learning from each of his chef mentors along the way. His passion for cooking began at a young age while watching his father prepare dinner each night for the family. However, it wasn’t until high school, when he got a summer job cooking in the kitchen at a beachfront concession stand in Huntington Beach that he realized he not only enjoyed the process of cooking, but also the camaraderie the kitchen environment provided.
An avid reader of The New York Times Food Section, Lea knew he had to pursue the opportunity to work with renowned Chef Charlie Palmer when a position opened at his new restaurant located at South Coast Plaza in 2008. It was here that Lea was introduced to his first mentor, Douglas Rankin, a chef who played a pivotal role in his career. A year later, Rankin joined the opening team at the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills and Lea followed him, taking his first line cook position at The Bazaar by Jose Andres and Saam, a tasting menu only dining room. From 2009 to 2011, Lea worked every station in the Los Angeles Times rated 4-Star kitchen.
In March 2011, Lea seized an opportunity to stage at Red Medicine in Beverly Hills, a now shuttered but beloved industry restaurant. After a few months, the pastry assistant left, allowing Lea to transition from savory to sweet learning from acclaimed pastry chef Jordan Kahn. A year later, looking to venture outside of California, Lea went to work with James Beard Award-winner Sean Brock at his restaurant Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. Shortly after, Lea was asked to join the opening team of Husk’s second location in Nashville where he obtained his first Sous Chef position. Lea fell in love with Nashville because of the genuine warmth of the local community and quality of life.
In 2014 Lea’s friend Doug Rankin came calling again with an opportunity to return home to California and work at the cutting-edge restaurant Trois Mec. As much as Lea loved Nashville, the chance to work with Ludo Lefebvre was one he could not pass up. Lea began as Sous Chef but quickly rose to Chef de Cuisine. The restaurant sourced most of its produce from the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market therefore Lea developed relationships with the local farmers, connections that became an integral part of his culinary experience. Working with Lefebvre, Lea learned the importance of execution and simplicity in French cooking.
During this time, a fellow chef friend, Adam Cole, was getting ready to open his first restaurant in Los Angeles, Maple Block Meat Co., a concept that pays homage to the art of smoking meats. Lea joined the opening team as Executive Sous Chef and assisted in developing the menu alongside Cole.
While Lea gained great experience in Los Angeles, his love of Nashville never dissipated. Lea returned to Nashville in 2016 to helm the position of Executive Chef at Strategic Hospitality’s French bistro Le Sel, providing him with the perfect opportunity to meld his experience working with both French cuisine and Southern ingredients. At Le Sel, Lea continues to build relationships with local farmers creating bistro classics with a sense of playfulness and simplicity.