Masters of Taste

Resilient Michael and Kwini Reed host food fest at Rose Bowl

By Frier McCollister

In the depths of the pandemic lockdown, Downtown LA restaurants suffered more acutely than those in other parts of town. 

While other spots shut down cold, the popular breakfast and lunch bistro Poppy + Rose were used as a hub of community activism and support for their neighbors. 

Its resilient owners, Michael and Kwini Reed, will impart their knowledge as hosts of Masters of Taste from 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The event benefits Union Station Homeless Services. 

Celebrating its 50th year, the Pasadena-based nonprofit is regarded as one of the most effective homeless service organizations engaged in the San Gabriel Valley. 

“This is their 50th year of operations for Union Station, which is amazing,” Michael says. 

“That’s 50 years of serving the community. Let’s reflect that in kind. All of these restaurants are donating time. Let’s go out and really show them that the community loves them.”

The festival features over 100 participating restaurants, breweries, wineries and individual chefs all offering enticing samples of their work, divided into three categories: culinary, sweet and beverage masters. 

The latter group will pour cocktails, beers, wines, cold brew coffee and pressed juices from the 50-Yard Line Cocktail Bar. Live entertainment is part of the fun.

That said, as hosts, the Reeds are empowered to create a motif for the festival this year. 

“Every year the host gets to come up with a theme for what they want to do,” Kwini says. “Ours is basically a backyard picnic kickback.” 

Michael elaborates, “So this year we switched it up. We’re not going to do chef demos this year. We’re going to host a mixology competition. We’ll have some of the best bartenders from Los Angeles and Orange County come in and create some beautiful cocktails with some beautiful liquor, sponsored by these reps and have a competition with bartenders this year and really showcase what they can do. 

“Then we let the chefs duke it out for ‘best of show’ and have the patrons this year actually vote. So, we’re making it a friendly, fun competition for the vendors, really letting them show what they do best in a friendly competition.”

An Oxnard native, Michael grew up in a family centered around the kitchen, the backyard barbecue and fresh produce from the garden. 

He attended UC Santa Barbara, pursuing a different path. When he was injured as a member of the track team, he changed course. 

He was accepted at the venerable Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Before graduating in 2008, he served in the kitchen at The Modern, the noted eatery at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. 

He returned to Southern California, where at the age of 26, he worked at the Michelin-starred kitchen at David Myer’s Sona and Xiomara, benefiting from a recommendation by acclaimed chef and restaurateur Nancy Silverton.

The Reeds met in 2011, when Michael served as executive chef at West Hollywood’s The Standard, where Kwini worked as senior accounting manager. 

Kwini also grew up in Southern California and attended Cal State Fullerton, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing. 

The couple’s chemistry led to a successful marriage and catering operation, Root of All Food, which specializes in “high-end boutique catering, as well as in-home cooking and private events.” It provided the springboard for the 2014 establishment of Poppy + Rose in the Flower District, which needed a breakfast and lunch stop. 

When their reliable daily business evaporated overnight with the onset of the pandemic lockdown, Kwini realized Poppy + Rose could answer a higher calling. 

The nearby border of Skid Row expanded onto their street, as the newly unhoused pitched tents on their curb. She initiated daily food donations to their new neighbors, using the used stock and leftovers from the day’s service. 

A regular customer offered to underwrite a larger donation effort, which helped to keep the restaurant’s kitchen staff activated and employed. 

The effort began with 150 meals prepped for Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital and then expanded to the Drew Medical testing program. Under Kwini’s initiative and guidance, Poppy + Rose also partnered with noted local nonprofit Brown Bag Lady to provide meals for DTLA’s growing homeless population. 

In the last two years, Poppy + Rose became an exemplar of how a local restaurant can make the crucial and positive difference in an extended moment of local crisis.

The Reeds’ community-engaged pandemic experience also successfully sustained their business and staff. Ultimately, they opened Poppy + Seed in Anaheim in 2021, bringing with them their charitable endeavors. 

“We have kept it going at Poppy + Rose,” she says. 

“Orange County is a little bit more difficult, only because the homeless population isn’t as visible. So, it’s hard to figure out but now we’re getting leads to organizations that we can team with. I know last year we did an initiative with Green Bird Cleanup. So, we’re still keeping up our monthly donations with Brown Bag Lady. Poppy + Rose still gives out food on a nightly basis at 3 p.m. It’s become very, very ingrained into our brand. So, it’s going to translate to any other restaurant that we open or any other venture that we do.”

The Reeds’ latest community venture is the nonprofit the U-N-I Coalition, which is set to launch by the end of summer. Designed as a training and job placement program, Poppy + Rose will transform in the evenings to a training kitchen, with guest chefs and industry professionals donating their time to train the disadvantaged and jobless into the culinary industry.

“The whole basis is that we are in this together and the transfer of knowledge is free,” Kwini says.

“It takes nothing from us. We don’t have to look at each other as competitors. We need to look at each other as collaborators. And we can share information with each other in order to make the world a better place.” 

A new venture is in the works, as the couple hopes to open a restaurant in San Pedro. 

“We have signed the lease to open in West Harbor, which will be our third location,” Michael says. 

“It will be a mash between what we do for dinner at Poppy + Seed and our traditional brunch at Poppy + Rose so you have the best of both worlds coming together. We’re super excited about that project.” Expect an opening at the new location by the beginning of next year.

Masters of Taste LA

WHEN: 3 p.m. (VIP), 4 p.m. (general admission) Sunday, April 2

WHERE: Rose Bowl, 1001 Rose Bowl Drive, Pasadena

COST: $155 general admission; $225 VIP admission. Both tiers allow unlimited tastings of food, wine, craft beer and cocktails