Inside Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff’s L.A.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff wave and walk down a sidewalk.
Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff walk through their neighborhood in Los Angeles on Nov. 21.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The headaches begin the moment Air Force Two touches down at LAX. A trail of black SUVs exits the Los Angeles airport and snakes along the 405 Freeway, choking traffic with rolling road closures across West Los Angeles as it makes its way to the tony neighborhood of Brentwood. Inside the quiet enclave, the motorcade rolls to a stop in front of the home of one of the country’s most famous political couples.

In a city full of celebrities and A-listers, Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff’s presence is hard to escape.

On a mid-October weekend, the couple came to town to celebrate the marriage of Emhoff’s 29-year-old son, Cole Emhoff, to his longtime girlfriend, Greenley Littlejohn, 28. Two days after the wedding, the pair was snacking on guacamole, salsa and chips in a dimly lighted vinyl booth upstairs at one of their favorite Mexican haunts, El Cholo in Santa Monica, when Emhoff received a text message from a friend.

The second gentleman’s buddy was just saying hello: He knew Emhoff was in town because he’d seen the motorcade speed by. (So much for sneaking into town).


“It’s just really an amazing thing for this town to have a vice president based here,” Emhoff told The Times in the couple’s first joint interview since taking office. “It’s intense. I’m from this area and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ This is incredible for our neighborhood.”

 Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff sit on a couch with reddish-orange drapes on either side.
Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff are photographed in Los Angeles in November.
(Photography; Christina House / Los Angeles Times, Stylist: Leslie Fremar with Alexandra Imgrüth, Hair; Irinel De Leon, Makeup: Kristine Studden)

For Harris, the impulse to escape Washington — where she faces Republican scorn and criticism within her own party — for downtime at home has been difficult to satisfy over the last few years. While President Biden has made a near weekly habit of returning home to neighboring Delaware, the taxpayer-funded, cross-country flight to L.A. is harder to justify unless it includes official business. Harris’ trips home to L.A. are often camouflaged with an event to celebrate a local small business or a stop to raise awareness about one of her policy focuses such as Black maternal healthcare or reproductive rights. The vice president was also anchored to Washington during the first half of her term to cast tiebreaking votes in an evenly divided Senate.

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But the Brentwood home, largely concealed by its verdant surroundings, has become a sanctuary for one of the world’s most visible figures. The four-bedroom, 3,500-square-foot house, less than a mile from Sunset Boulevard and roughly a 10-minute drive from the Will Rogers State Historic Park, is off-limits to reporters. In October, a group of protesters pulled up in cars outside to call for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, though Harris wasn’t there to hear their pleas.

As vice president, Harris is briefed multiple times a day, and reporters often follow her from event to event. But at home, Harris can avoid the scrutiny to recharge, cooking and chatting with her family as they watch from the kitchen table.

“Ask anybody who has ever worked in D.C. — in Congress or the Senate or at the White House — the trip from California, it’s not easy. It doesn’t matter if you’re on Air Force Two or on a United flight,” said Brian Brokaw, a former advisor to Harris. “When she’s home, she wants to enjoy that comfort and to the extent that she sees a very small and tight circle.”

Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff order food from waitstaff while seated in a restaurant booth.
Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff order food at El Cholo Mexican restaurant in Santa Monica in October.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The Vice President’s Residence at the Naval Observatory, where she and Emhoff reside in Washington, provides some respite from the well-trodden White House complex where she keeps an office, but friends and aides say she considers it the people’s house — not home. In keeping with tradition of her predecessors, she redecorated the Victorian mansion — adding her own Californian touches — but the residence is on “borrowed time,” said Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.), a close friend and former advisor to Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign.

“At the end of day, home is home. The mattress that hugs just right is a different kind of rest,” Butler told The Times in an interview last summer. “The community that embraced you and trusted you to serve them as the first Black woman as attorney general, then as a U.S. senator and then as their vice president — that is meaningful. To know that you will get that kind of support and kindness and welcome is a place that, you know, if I were her I would run to every chance I got.”

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Visits home frequently center on one of Harris’ most sacred traditions: Sunday family dinner. Harris begins planning the meal midweek, staging a choreographed spread in which everyone has a role.

Emhoff is in charge of cocktails, his son, Cole, curates the music playlist and his 24-year-old daughter, Ella, is tasked with making her signature guacamole. Cole’s new wife, Greenley, has taken on responsibility for dessert. While the couple host a regular rotation of foreign dignitaries, lawmakers, reporters and administration officials at the Vice President’s Residence (they hosted thousands of people at nearly two dozen holiday parties this year), Sunday dinner is strictly a private affair for Harris, who’s had the same core group of friends for decades. When Harris is in town, Sunday is off-limits for travel, according to an aide.

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“It’s just a way to stay connected, reconnect and have some sense of normalcy in a world that sometimes isn’t,” Emhoff said. “We’re back in our city, back in our home. And then of course you go outside, and there’s all the Secret Service and everything that reminds you that it’s still a little bit different.”


The guest list is a regular rotation of family — Emhoff’s parents and Harris’ nieces are frequent guests — and close friends who live nearby or are in town for the weekend. The group cleans up while cooking, using “Uncle Freddy” as a shorthand for the process that Harris said she picked up as a child when visiting her parents’ close friend at his basement apartment in Harlem. Inside Uncle Freddy’s tiny kitchen, which “was the size of this table,” he would clean any utensil as soon as he finished using it, an efficiency she has encouraged Cole and Ella to incorporate into their blended family’s own elaborate meals.

Kamala Harris stands outside while Doug Emhoff stands behind her and rests his chin on her shoulder.
Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff are photographed in Los Angeles in November.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The menu often features a dish that takes at least five hours to prepare, Harris said, which varies from a simmering Bolognese to a roast chicken using herbs from her backyard garden.

She’s also tried to incorporate her international travel into the end-of-week ritual, making time to speak to hotel chefs about local recipes and where to stop to find ingredients on the way to the airport. The day before our interview, Harris selected a recipe she picked up during a November 2022 visit to Bangkok for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit: a pork dish marinated in coriander root and served with lemongrass over coconut rice.

“I freaked the Secret Service out because they’re kind of used to going to, like, golf courses with their principal,” she said, laughing at the memory of directing her motorcade to a Bangkok market. “With me, they’re going to the fish market.”

If the schedule allows, Harris will stop for ingredients, whether that’s detouring to a market in Kauai, Hawaii, for a certain type of fish or finding the right spices in Bangkok, according to a former Secret Service agent on her detail who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive security information.

“We’ve got a whole motorcade, we’ve got a whole American delegation and we’ve got all this Thai security and she’s rolling through this market to find these particular spices,” he recalled of Bangkok.

But she tries to return the favor by inviting the Secret Service agents tasked with protecting her inside the Brentwood home, the only outsiders seemingly allowed to puncture the sanctuary. On the Fourth of July, Harris and Emhoff grill in the backyard for the agents forced to spend the holiday in L.A., handing out plates of hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, baked beans and other barbecue favorites. Unlike previous White House protectees, Harris not only cooks the food but serves it, the agent said.


Before Secret Service sweeps, security detail and motorcades, Harris and Emhoff had a routine, as much as a politician and an entertainment lawyer could. Harris, a proud Bay Area native, permanently relocated to L.A. in 2014 after marrying Emhoff. She was closing out her reelection bid for attorney general, a statewide campaign that entailed an exhaustive travel schedule outside of L.A. But L.A. was a “second city” to Harris, according to her close friend Chrisette Hudlin, an Angeleno who introduced her to Emhoff. Though Harris was firmly rooted in San Francisco, as attorney general she spent considerable time in L.A., where she had another office. As godmother to Hudlin’s children, she attended soccer games and debates and even once stood in for Hudlin at her son’s school birthday party.

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“That made the transition rather seamless,” Hudlin said of Harris’ move to L.A. “That was a big decision for her because she loves San Francisco so much. That’s where she began her career. [The Bay] is where she grew up.”

Harris’ political identity is tied to the Bay Area, where she forged a career as San Francisco’s first Black and South Asian female district attorney and first woman of color elected as California’s attorney general. Though she was living in Brentwood, when she launched her U.S. Senate and presidential bids, she rarely spoke of L.A., instead emphasizing her Oakland roots on the campaign trail.

Harris is still fiercely loyal to the Bay Area, but she insists she loves L.A. One of the biggest adjustments she had to make was “that it is normal in L.A. to drive within the same city for an hour to go to a restaurant,” she said.

“I had to wrap my head around that,” she said. “It took a little adjustment.”

“But then what happened, you turned the corner,” Emhoff interrupted.

“I turned the corner,” Harris agreed. “I do love it here.”

Harris has internalized local frustration with her long tail of security, often choosing to limit travel around L.A. while she’s in town to spare drivers waiting for her motorcade to pass by. In grappling with her California split personality, Harris said she coined a term to describe herself: “Sangeleno,” a hybrid identifier combining San Francisco and Los Angeles that does not appear destined to catch on.


For the record:

8:01 a.m. Jan. 7, 2024An earlier version of this article reported that Harris purchases produce at the Brentwood Country Mart. She buys her produce at a nearby farmers market. It also said California Sen. Alex Padilla’s staff ordered 250 candles. The order was for 125 candles. The article also misidentified Bundy Drive as Bundy Street.

The pair are wistful about their life before the national stage, recalling shows at the Hollywood Bowl or seeing movies at the now shuttered Cinerama Dome on a Sunday afternoon. The couple would slowly make their way back west, stopping at Huntington Meats next to the Grove or the Brentwood farmers market to pick up provisions for dinner, or strolling through the Brentwood Country Mart. Harris likes to go to Gearys, the luxury homeware and jewelry store in Beverly Hills, for special occasion gifts (she bought Cole and Greenley’s wedding gift there). Zankou Chicken holds a special place in Emhoff’s heart, while Harris speaks fondly of going to Guelaguetza for mole near her office in Koreatown when she was attorney general. As a Westside entertainment lawyer, Emhoff enjoyed dinner at Toscana and Craig’s, where he took Harris on their first date. He is a former member of Hillcrest, a historically Jewish country club.

Vice President Kamala Harris stands outside a black SUV with a door opened by a man. Another black SUV is in the background.
Vice President Kamala Harris arrives at Los Angeles International Airport for a flight back to Washington, D.C., with Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, not pictured.
Two people in dark uniforms stand in the foreground while black SUVs travel in the background.
SUVs arrive at Los Angeles International Airport with Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff in November.

Emhoff has tried to replicate some of his routine in Washington, trading in the Santa Monica stairs for the steps near Georgetown University made famous by “The Exorcist.” On visits home, Harris stuffs bags full of herbs from her garden, doling them out to staff members and military aides on Air Force Two on the five-hour ride back to Washington. She also brings kumquats from two trees in her backyard.

Harris and Emhoff agreed that Mexican food is required eating while they’re home, whether that’s ordering takeout from Frida’s or sneaking away to El Cholo (Washington’s Mexican food scene “is just different,” Harris politely declares). Although Emhoff used to eat at the original El Cholo on Western Avenue as a lawyer and USC law student, he said the couple have grown accustomed to going to the Santa Monica location because of its proximity to the house.

Music is their other passion. But while Emhoff and Harris are only a week apart in age (Emhoff’s birthday is Oct. 13 and Harris’ birthday is Oct. 20), they have vastly different tastes.

“I’m hip-hop, he’s Depeche Mode,” Harris said as the two laughed.

The two have compromised on “chill hotel lobby music” such as the English trip-hop duo Zero 7. On the April evening of Prince’s death in 2016, the two huddled together on the couch on their back patio, dancing and talking for three hours as twilight faded into the evening.

Although they compromised on music, they haven’t on sports. She’s held onto the Golden State Warriors, while he’s passionate about the Lakers.


“There’s a lot of s— talking and gloating,” Harris said.

Some of that has carried over to social media, where they playfully bet on who has to wear the other team’s jersey.

Emhoff once made the mistake of donning Harris’ San Francisco Giants hat while he was in town visiting her. The pair snapped a photo while at a Giants game that circulated online, a fleeting decision that Emhoff said his L.A. friends refuse to let him forget.

“It turned out to be forever like the one picture of us as a couple that was used,” he said.

Harris has an acute understanding of what it’s like to live in L.A. even when she’s 2,600 miles away. During the Getty fire of 2019, Harris and Emhoff had to twice evacuate their Brentwood home. (That’s L.A. living: In 1961, future President Nixon was renting a house on Bundy Drive when a devastating fire swept through the Bel-Air and Brentwood neighborhoods. Nixon leapt onto the roof of his house and was photographed watering down the shingles with a garden hose.)

During the Getty fire, Harris was sitting in a Senate committee meeting on natural disasters when she learned of one of the evacuations through a passed note. She left the meeting, called Cole, and asked him to go to the house and collect their personal belongings. Harris and the younger Emhoff had very different perspectives on what is considered valuable, she said as she laughed (Emhoff didn’t seem to treasure photographs the way she did). Three weeks after the scare, she introduced a bill in the Senate to set aside $1 billion in annual funding to help communities with wildfire preparedness.


“It’s such a gut-wrenching feeling,” Emhoff recalled of seeing images of the inferno burning behind the Sunset sign along the 405 Freeway while he was away in Washington. “That’s our exit. And you’re looking at it in flames.”

Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff board Air Force Two as two military members salute.
Vice President Kamala Harris, top right, and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff board Air Force Two at Los Angeles International Airport in November.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Emhoff’s brother, who recently retired as a firefighter in Santa Cruz, was always on his mind.

“It’s a hard feeling because when you’re not there, you just want to be there,” he added.

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In Washington, Harris has tried to bring the comforts of home to her sprawling residence at the Naval Observatory. She created a signature candle, scented with notes of jasmine, with Melanie Apple Fields, a candlemaker who owns Studio City-based Voyage et Cie.

Harris gives the candles as gifts, emblazoned with the vice president’s seal in gold, to dinner party guests and to dignitaries, including the president of El Salvador and King Abdullah II of Jordan, Apple Fields said. Each candle is accompanied with a short description of the business.

“She always says to me, ‘I just want you to be successful,’” Apple Fields said of her phone conversations with the vice president.


Harris first encountered Apple Fields’ candles at the Peninsula before she sought out the candlemaker at her Studio City storefront. The two bonded over the scent both their mothers wore, Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps, and Harris began placing orders for batches of Apple Fields’ candles. Two weeks after the 2020 presidential election was called for Biden, Harris phoned Apple Fields to ask her to scent the Vice President’s Residence.

She has since made thousands of candles for Harris, along with lotions, soaps and bubble baths that are displayed in rooms throughout the Vice President’s Residence and for Harris to take on the road. Apple Fields produces candles for First Lady Jill Biden, who prefers the scent of gardenia, and Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), whose staff called and asked her to produce 125 candles using Harris’ scent for an event he was hosting. Harris’ office gave Padilla permission to produce a similar candle but asked that he use a different scent. Padilla settled for one of the brand’s signature scents.

When the motorcade arrives in Brentwood next time Harris is in town, she and Emhoff will probably have some homeowner issue to deal with: no running hot water, no heat or a broken stove, all of which happened on recent trips home. Once she’s dealt with that, she’ll relax — maybe pour a glass of wine, or draw a bath — and begin planning her next Sunday dinner.

VIDEO | 05:52
LA Times Today: Inside Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff’s L.A.

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