For as long as she can remember, Erica Daking was always drawn to food and serving others. While it would take her several years to embark on her culinary journey professionally, she has since made a name for herself in the Los Angeles food scene with her vegetarian and vegan restaurant, Kitchen Mouse.
Long before her days as a restauranteur, Daking was the co-vocalist and guitarist for the acclaimed Southern California punk group F-Minus. The band released several beloved albums for the legendary Hellcat Records, which was founded by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong. From the time Daking joined the band at the age of 17, she was a force to be reckoned with, thanks to her visceral vocal style and transparent lyrics. During the band’s career, spanning the mid-‘90s to the early 2000s, she toured the world alongside classic punk acts including AFI, H2O, Tiger Army and Strike Anywhere. When the group disbanded in 2004, Daking knew it was time to make the pivot from punk rocker to chef extraordinaire.
Opening in 2014 in the eccentric neighborhood of Highland Park, Kitchen Mouse has become a flagship staple on the iconic stretch of Figueroa Street that draws a diverse crowd from local Angelinos to musicians and creatives, with a robust celebrity presence in the entertainment industry. It’s no coincidence that fellow vegan and music superstar Billie Eilish is known to frequent the chic and minimalistic cafe regularly.
Offering an abundance of vegetarian and vegan-friendly food items, ranging from snickerdoodle pancakes to chilaquiles, Kitchen Mouse shows that health-conscious food can be delicious and accessible to people of all diets. While Daking has since hung up her guitar and left the stage, she’s certainly still immersed in the scene she came from, albeit through a different avenue. Daking has created a friendly and inviting atmosphere with her restaurant, which has allowed Kitchen Mouse to curate meaningful experiences and shape the community around it.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but did Kitchen Mouse initially start out as a catering operation?
Yeah, it all happened really fast for me. I decided to go to culinary school when I was playing in bands at the time. I had just started bouncing around working at different restaurants, doing private chef work and really just figuring out where I wanted to land. However, I was almost certain that I didn’t want to have a restaurant. My husband was on tour at the time and met someone backstage who was a producer, and she ended up calling me to cater a photoshoot. I didn’t know how to do that, but I figured it out, and it went really well. I specifically started catering photo shoots, and it took off so quickly that it became very clear that I needed to get out of my house and into a kitchen.
At what point did you end up in the building Kitchen Mouse currently occupies in Highland Park?
The space was an empty, old check-cashing space. I went to look at the space, and it was so cheap at the time, but the landlord said, “I do nothing, and you have to pay for everything,” so I came in and did a bare-bones buildout on the kitchen. This was initially just to get the catering out of my house, but I learned that when you rent a storefront with a kitchen, you actually have to open the front of the house with a retail food permit. I had a set designer from one of the photo shoots I was on give me advice on how to do the tables, and when we opened, it took off. It was a wild time, and I had my first kid three weeks after we opened.
[Photo by Chelsea Rose]
With Kitchen Mouse opening in 2014, I feel like you were super early on the Highland Park hype train that has now exploded with so many amazing restaurants and small businesses popping up.
Back then, it was really possible for independent business owners to rent a space. Now, you can’t come to Figueroa Street without money to pay for the rent as it’s a totally different game now. I already lived in the neighborhood, so it didn’t feel unfamiliar to me.
What do you think makes Highland Park such a special community?
I love that it feels like a small town. I grew up in New York, and all of the neighborhoods are just like this. There’s a train that runs through town, a main street and a lot of independently run businesses. There are not many chain stores here, and this neighborhood just has so much heart and soul. There are so many communities and experiences to have right here.
[Photo by Chelsea Rose]
Switching gears, I want to go back in time and discuss your stint as one of the guitarists and vocalists of F-Minus. Obviously, the band are beloved within the punk and hardcore communities. With you being from New York and the band being based in Southern California, how did you end up joining?
I moved to Boston when I was 17 years old because I skipped a year of high school to go to college there. I met the other singer of F-Minus, Brad Logan, outside of CBGB in New York, and I played him the demo of my band at the time. He called me one day after that and asked me if I wanted to move to California and join his band, so I flew from Boston to Los Angeles at 17 years old to meet up with him. He was living with Tim Armstrong and Brody Dalle [The Distillers] at the time, and I moved into their house for two weeks which was when we made that first record. It was such a crazy and surreal experience. It’s funny because when we went to our first practice before going into the studio, I had never actually played with him before — it was just a really big leap of faith on his part. I got along really well with everyone, and we ended up doing the band for six years together.
Even while touring extensively with the band, did you always have a love for food and cooking?
I’ve always been really into food and cooking. My parents were both musicians who were also really into cooking. Growing up in New York, they were really into going to restaurants and trying new food, and we always had professional cooking equipment in our kitchen at home. My mom had a bakery at one point. My mom catered parties, and at one point my parents owned a recording studio where they would cook for all of the bands who came in. One of my first jobs out of culinary school was actually at a recording studio, as well as cooking food for the bands. It was at Shangri-La out in Malibu at Rick Rubin’s studio. It was a wonderful experience.
Have you noticed any correlation between touring in a band and running a restaurant?
Absolutely, it’s a bunch of people being shoved into tight quarters working together. Not to mention the fact that so many of the people who work here are ex-musicians or current musicians who have a job. When you’re in a band, so little of it is actually about the music, and when you own a restaurant, so little of it is about the food. There are so many other things going on.
There seems to be a really strong musician clientele that supports the restaurant as well. Is there anyone you would like to shout out?
Kate Nash comes all the time. Billie Eilish is a regular and still gives us so much love and support with our catering as well. Lots of punk bands come through and just so many interesting people come through the doors, which excites us all.
[Photo by Chelsea Rose]
With Kitchen Mouse being a vegetarian and primarily vegan-leaning restaurant, what went into developing the menu? Are you a vegetarian yourself?
I am actually not anything. I don’t limit myself in any way, but I do mostly eat vegetarian. On my first tour at 18 with H2O, I always remember Toby Morse opening his suitcase that was filled with vegan hot dogs. I was a vegetarian all throughout my 20s. We toured with AFI and all of these bands who were vegan, so I was always going to vegan restaurants. I have always wanted to go against the grain and cater to an underserved market that needs more options. Once I got into the food industry and saw the volume of food, I knew I would rather keep it as plant-based as possible for my own conscience. It’s such a fun opportunity to expose so many different people to delicious vegetarian and vegan food. I like the challenge and creativity that comes with making really delicious food without dairy or meat and minimizing our impact on those areas.
What are some of your favorite items on the menu?
I go through phases where I come up with something and eat it a lot, but then I get totally burnt out on it, just like a song. Every now and then I go back and eat things I haven’t tried in years like the original Moros Cakes, Gomasio Cakes and the TLT [tempeh, lettuce, tomato].
[Photo by Chelsea Rose]
What does the future hold for Kitchen Mouse?
We’re doing a walk-up window location in Mount Washington. It’s going to be a mini version of Kitchen Mouse with coffee, baked goods, breakfast items and to-go foods. It’s all about being easy, quick, small and cute, all while servicing a different community. We’re really excited about it. If we’re able to succeed in these little spaces, we’re definitely looking to expand into more micro-retail spots around town.
F-Minus disbanded 18 years ago. Obviously, you have taken a considerable amount of time off from performing, but have you wanted to dive back into music again?
I haven’t begun to dive back into it again, but I will say that I think about it more. If and when I decide to do it again, and the further I get away from it where it’s just this distant memory, I’m more and more grateful that I even had the opportunity to travel and make music. Getting to do the band was such a special opportunity, and I still have so many friends from those days.