This was supposed to be the year that Nhan Le stepped away from the kitchen and focused on growing the mini dining empire that he and partner, chef Angus Brown, were building. Unfortunately for Le—and for this city—Brown was found dead on January 4. He was 35 years old.
Brown and Le earned national attention for their late-night East Atlanta Village restaurant Octopus Bar, and for their seafood restaurant, Lusca, in south Buckhead. The latter closed in late 2015, less than two years after opening, but with the closure came the announcement of the pair’s next venture: a seafood grill named AMA, located across from Ponce City Market, and an adjoining coffee shop, 8ARM.
8ARM came first, officially opening on September 1, 2016, and offering much more than coffee and breakfast bites. At dinnertime, it served as a kind of way station for Brown and his whimsical cooking, and made such a buzz that it was chosen to be the subject of Atlanta magazine’s February-issue restaurant review. Brown passed away on the day that issue was supposed to ship to the printer, and we made the decision to pull the story. Critic Jennifer Zyman had written, “In the literal shadow of PCM, 8ARM is the kind of restaurant I’d hoped to see in that massive development, but so far haven’t. Brown and Le are truly moving the dining needle.”
I hadn’t lived in Atlanta long when the news of Brown’s death hit. That day, I not only sensed local chefs and food writers smarting, but I also became aware of Brown’s national reach. Chefs from Houston to Los Angeles asked me “What happened with Angus?” on Facebook messenger, and editors of national food magazines in New York sent me concerned text messages. No one knows exactly what happened with Angus. The cause of death is, as of yet, unconfirmed, but officials who responded to the scene said it seemed consistent with the signs of a drug overdose. What is clear is that Brown was well-known, and he was loved.
Octopus Bar and 8ARM will now go on. Le will go on. In fact, as he continues to build out AMA, which he hopes to open for business at 712 Ponce De Leon Place this summer, Le is back in the kitchen, pinch-hitting until the staff finds the right chef. “It’s been keeping my mind off the mess,” he says. “I like being on the line.” Le shared his plans and talked about his friendship and creative collaboration with Brown.
Octopus Bar and 8ARM were serving food just days after Angus died. How are you doing that?
We have a big team. Angus called out the plates and tasted the dishes—it was his vision and his menu—but we still have the guys who were doing the cooking. And we have tons and tons of [new] menu items that Angus had planned way ahead.
You haven’t hired more help?
I’m helping out now, and eventually we’ll hire someone new, but we’ll promote from within. So one of the current sous chefs would become an expediter and oversee things, we’d shift a line cook up to sous chef, and we’d find someone else to replace that open role. You wouldn’t believe how many people have called trying to work for us, but I want to keep it within the family. We know how to do it, we know our system. We’re pretty confident with what we have.
Will 8ARM’s menu still be Angus’s, essentially, or will you allow this new chef to tweak it?
I really want to keep it like it is. Once we do a late-night menu—we plan to have a smaller menu for the crew that comes in from 10:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.—that will allow [the new] chef to be more flexible. Across the street [at Ponce City Market], you’ve got all those employees that have to close at 11, so they have no place to go to eat besides the Majestic, you know? It’s a good bar crowd; we want to serve them. We planned to do this for a while, but I held back in the beginning because I wanted to get 8ARM open, and I have to pay the bills before we try to experiment.
When will you open AMA?
I’m shooting for the summer. We’re waiting on the permits and talking to lawyers, but once we get the paperwork approved, it will go fast. The structure is there, so it won’t take us long to build. Our storefront will face the BeltLine, so there will be a view and a patio.
What will the menu be like?
We’ll be open for lunch and dinner, but we won’t be open late like at 8ARM. I want to separate the two identities. The menu will have grilled seafood—we bought all the equipment, including a great wood-fired grill—and we’ll have a small oyster bar. Angus and I love seafood. I’m a west coast guy—I lived out there all my life, and I was a trained sushi chef. Angus worked a lot in Portland, Maine, and then Florida. We just like good, simple seafood, which no one’s really doing. Everything’s fried or has so much butter on it. We just like it grilled, with some olive oil and a little lemon juice, maybe a nice sauce, but that’s it.
Who will run the kitchen at AMA?
One of Angus’s best friends, Matt Blackburn, will be the chef. We’ve had that plan for a long time. He grew up with Angus, and he used to come through and do events with us. He’s currently the executive chef of a catering company in Florida.
What made your partnership with Angus so successful?
I met him six years ago; he was walking by my sushi restaurant, Wasabi, in Castleberry Hill, and saw me sitting in there late one night, and he just came in. I sat down with him, served him some scrap fish, and we drank some sake, and we just understood each other well. We cooked together the next week, then we did a pop-up at my restaurant a week later. People liked it a lot, so we started thinking about what was missing [in Atlanta’s dining scene] and what we could do together. Over the years, he taught me a lot of things that I didn’t know, because I had mainly worked a lot of Asian restaurants. He knew a lot of Italian, a lot of rustic things. And anything I showed that guy, he could pick it up and learn it. He wouldn’t write it down, he would just watch me do it and he could do it just the way I did it next time. I’ve never seen anyone like that.
Did you observe anything in Angus that alarmed you?
All these guys are all pretty much the same in this industry: They’re all going 110 miles an hour at all times. That’s just how it is. I’m a little bit older than Angus, and I have three kids and a wife, so he was usually the one out there being a rockstar, and I like to lay low. When we all got together, it was the worst thing on Earth. No one was ever gonna go, “Hey, slow down. We gotta work tomorrow.” Or, “We partied last night. Let’s take it easy.” It’s just such a destructive industry that we work in. That why I try to stay away from it, and why my goal was to focus more on the daytime operations work this year.
Did you and Angus ever talk about it?
Yeah, we talked a lot. He was my best friend in the world, so I talked to him a lot. We all go through our binges and we slow down, and we straighten up for a while. Then you get back on it again. It’s up and down. I think it’s the stress. We work a lot of hours, so when we do play, we play hard. We let it out, you know?
How will Angus’s spirit live on in the restaurants?
It’s always gonna be his vision. From our head baker, to our sous chef, everyone’s been yelled at by him many times for doing stupid things, so they know what he wanted. I ask, What would he say if he saw that? And they’re like, You’re right. I’ll fix it. He hated all that trendy stuff. You know, the froufrou stuff: gelatin, molecular gastronomy. Food was food to Angus. He cooked simply, and that’s why I liked his work. That’s how we’ll keep cooking. But I’m not trying to make this place a shrine to Angus Brown. We all talked about it, and we don’t want to do that. It’s a restaurant. It’s a place where people are coming to be happy and enjoy themselves. His memory will live on, but there aren’t going to be portraits of him all around.
Is there anything else you want to say?
I’ve been in Atlanta for 12 years. Angus was here for six, and he knew more people than I do. It’s crazy how many people he touched in that short amount of time and how much of an influence he’s had on the whole food community. The party after his memorial service went from four in the afternoon until two in the morning. We had over 1,300 people attend.