For chef Adam Perry Lang it began in 1996 in Alsace, France, when Olivier Nasti was showing the young American around the kitchen of Nasti's restaurant Le Caveau d'Eguisheim.
"He had a deaf person working there," Perry Lang says. "And I was blown away, because this kid was jamming. [Nasti] really didn't do sign language, but he was explaining, and the kid's nodding. This kid is having this opportunity to work with this top chef." The image planted a seed in his mind: a vision of a kitchen that was inclusive to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. "I said, 'I want to do this one day.' "
It's taken more than two decades, but when Perry Lang on Thursday opens APL, his old-school Hollywood steakhouse, a hard-of-hearing employee will be helping run the restaurant's takeout counter.
Her name is Zia Hughes, and she'll be crammed into 62 square feet of space with Marcus Lewis, who has worked with Perry Lang for the last five years. Together, Hughes and Lewis will be responsible for turning out a three-item menu: a Texas toast taco; a limited-edition high-stacked beef sandwich, which Perry Lang describes as "expensive but worth it"; and "the perfect chili dog," an homage to Lang's obsession with hot dogs and his teenage years working the night shift at a Long Island 7-Eleven.
Lewis was the final piece in a puzzle that has been 20-some years in the making. Though he and Perry Lang had been working together since 2012, it was only when they were headed to Austin, Texas, for the 2017 Hot Luck festival that Perry Lang discovered that Lewis could sign. Lewis was on his iPad, chatting with his aunt, whose deaf twins had taught his extended family how to communicate with them.
Perry Lang realized that Lewis could be "the glue," as he puts it, that would make his longstanding dream come true — someone familiar with kitchen operations in one of Perry Lang's restaurants, who could communicate with a deaf employee and integrate her into them. (Lewis is "probably one of the only people," says Perry Lang, whose competence with and instinct for barbecue allows the chef to take a few hours off to nap during an overnight cooking session.)
Asking her to pilot a brand-new program is a lot of pressure to put on one person, Perry Lang knows, and he wanted to set her up for success as much as possible.
Perry Lang was particularly determined to make sure that APL — his first solo restaurant since the rib shack Daisy May's, which opened in Manhattan in 2003 — had some social consciousness to it.
"To have that privilege to [open a restaurant], you search yourself in terms of what's important to you," he says. "So I sat down with Sarah Kim, my director of operations, and I said, 'I want to have a firm commitment. Not just like, we give 10%, or I'll go donate myself to a dinner. How do we integrate a program that is meaningful to our staff and employees? What type of positivity does it radiate to the rest of the community?"
Kim reached out to the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD), which helped put her in touch with Hughes, who already had a background in the culinary world.
"I've been in the food industry for a long time, actually," Hughes says through interpreter Monique Johnson. "I really just love cooking all my life, you know? So that's kind of how I got into it."
In her previous jobs, there was no Lewis in the kitchen with his sign language knowledge, no Perry Lang trying to figure out how best to integrate a hard-of-hearing employee (which is how Hughes identifies) into the kitchen, so she had to fend for herself.
Work as a prep cook is "very stressful," Hughes says, regardless of whether or not you can hear. When she took jobs in other organizations, "I pretty much told them from the beginning that I was hard of hearing. I tried to teach them some signs, some hand gestures and pointing. That's how we got around it, teaching signs and hand gestures. But sometimes they forget I'm hard of hearing so it's a little bit frustrating."
Hughes and Lewis are already working on teaching the APL crew some basic restaurant signs: meat, stew, fish.
"I don't want to be your stereotype young person," Lewis says. Because of Perry Lang and APL and the work that they're creating together — making opportunities for people not traditionally welcomed into the food world — "I have something and someone to fight for until my hands say different."
1680 Vine St., Los Angeles, (323) 416-1280, www.aplrestaurant.com.