Naomi Shim’s resume reads like a critic’s list of Los Angeles culinary hot spots. She spent her early days working with high-profile chefs like Claude Segal and Gino Angelini, refined her craft at the haute French restaurant l’Orangerie, and recently garnered praise heading up pastry at Coffee Commissary and Salt’s Cure. But her newest venture, Doubting Thomas, a café in LA’s Historic Filipinotown, is perhaps her most meaningful project yet.
With an ever-changing menu that highlights seasonal produce, Doubting Thomas serves as a love letter to the bounty of Los Angeles. Shim concocts inventive treats—think of passion fruit pie with a crust composed of coconut, macadamia nuts, and house-made graham crackers, or a crisp grapefruit and chocolate morning bun—and serves them alongside exquisite standards like perfectly flaky biscuits and buttery croissants. Entrees are similarly inspired, ranging from dishes like a braised pork shoulder breakfast burrito (a staple of Angeleno cuisine) to a purple rice bowl topped with miso and skirt steak.
We went behind the counter with Shim to discuss the challenges and joys of having her own restaurant and how her goal of being “hyper-local” guides her work.
How did you get your start in the restaurant world?
I was doing graduate work in education at USC and during that time I got a stage, which is like an apprenticeship, with Claude Segal. Back in the ‘90s, celebrity chefs didn’t really exist except for Wolfgang Puck and Claude Segal, and I had a stage with Claude and that’s how I got my foot in the door, and that was my first exposure to a professional kitchen.
And then I got my graduate degree and I taught for four years in the public school system for LAUSD. And then I went back into cooking, That first year was really tough for me. It was one of the most depressing years of my life.
I went from being surrounded by hundreds of 6th graders—surrounded by joyful children—to fine dining service. It’s not like the healthiest lifestyle when you’re the dessert chef. You’re the last one out, you watch people get hammered. It was hard for me. But I stuck it through and I ended up working for the greatest chefs in the world.
Why did you choose the name Doubting Thomas for your restaurant?
I spent the summer in Barcelona, and my favorite patatas bravas bar was called Bar Tomas. I thought, okay, if I ever open a coffee bar locally in LA, I’m going to call it Bar Thomas. But then I thought of the Apostle Thomas and his relationship with Christ. I always found it so intriguing and tender. Then I thought an adverb and a noun would be interesting.
Doubt is something we all relate to, whether it’s self-doubt or other people doubting me, or doubting us. I thought it would provoke conversation—the concept of doubt. There are so many things that you can explore with doubt. I’ve always been touched by how Christ reacted to Thomas’s doubt. Doubt usually provokes negative emotions. With Christ, he leveled the way for his faith. He reached out his hand so Thomas could believe.
What do you think makes Doubting Thomas unique?
It’s constantly changing. When people ask me what type of cuisine or fare it is, I consider it Angeleno fare. You know, Los Angeles is a melting pot and it’s ever-changing. So is our menu.
There’s a big emphasis on seasonality as well. What do people gravitate to on the menu?
Our burrito won’t go away! It’s funny because I never posted about it, but it’s the thing that people post about most. But I knew that it would do well because I’m always looking for a solid breakfast burrito. I’m a lover of culture, and not to sound arrogant, but I’m pretty in tune with Angeleno culture, I’d say. And I know that my friends and I, we’re always looking for a solid breakfast burrito.
What’s your favorite breakfast burrito spot other than Doubting Thomas?
That truck—I really like their tater tots—the Rooster! The Rooster truck. They just signed a lease for a brick and mortar. I like the contrast of the crispy tater tot. It’s a sunny egg so the yolk is there.
Are there any dishes you feel a sentimental attachment to?
The flaky bread that goes with our congee. It was inspired by my college sweetheart’s mother’s green onion biscuit. She would make these amazing Chinese feasts. There were these flaky biscuits involved that were layered with green onion. And so we use our croissant dough. We layer it with garlic and Thai shallots, and we top it with crushed sesame seeds, Maldon, and chives.
Tell me about your customers and what they respond to.
I dreamt of Doubting Thomas being hyper-local, and that’s why our hours are what they are. Opening up at 7, I really wanted to attract the working class. We started off our prices really low, but we needed to keep afloat so we had to raise the prices. But my dream has come true.
Almost every day, we see the firefighters, whether it’s the metro division down the street, or the teachers from Rosemont Elementary School or Camino Nuevo, or even the kids themselves who come in with their parents. It’s just locals.
When we first opened, people were asking me when our grand opening was. It didn’t make sense to me to have a grand opening because it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about the food industry, it was about historic Filipinotown and Coronado and Temple streets. It was about them.
Being in the industry, I’ve attended so many grand openings, and the same people come. It’s food writers and relatives of the chefs, you know, cousins of the owner, and people that travel from all over LA come to these grand openings. It just didn’t make sense to me. I wanted it to be about our local community.
Would you say that that’s one of the biggest inspirations for the restaurant? Are these other inspirations you could cite?
Definitely it’s the people. And California. All the blessings of the Golden State. I feel that in so many ways, California is the promised land, you know?
What is your favorite thing about being a chef and restaurant owner?
The people who come in and become regulars, their support. Our employees. I think it’s a struggle in that relationships are hard. Oftentimes I feel that on top of spreadsheets and balancing the books, I feel like one of my main jobs has been being a psychiatrist, you know, keeping people happy, and motivating them. How do I bring out the excellence of everyone? It’s been a challenge but you know, oftentimes our biggest challenges are our greatest joys.
What would be the one thing that you want your customers to remember about your restaurant?
I think inevitably people remember how they feel as they leave a restaurant. And I would want them to remember just feeling welcomed, and that they were truly cared for—that they were fed.
Address: 2510 W Temple St, Los Angeles, CA 90026