What’s the biggest challenge about operating more than one restaurant?
I think it’s always training and staff. I have a lot of good guys in the kitchen, but we really didn’t realize that we did double our size in a sense. It’s funny. It’s funny. You’ll be yelling out, “Tagine, duck, burger, burger.” Some of the fun things, like when we did the hot dog, I was playing around with my pastry chef, [Jonna Jensen]. She does a lot of the breads, she does the focaccia and she does the crackers that go on the tagine. She’s really versatile, so we started playing with the hot dog and burger bun ideas. She was testing and we started numbering them on the menu, because we had like the milk based one and it just got so complicated, we started numbering them. The burger bun is completely different than the hot dog bun, and the hot dog bun was so special. We loved it. Then it became, “Where are we going to get the meat? Are we going to make hot dogs and do stuff?” It’s just kind of been fun stuff to experiment with. The real difficult part has been always training and getting – because it’s your own place and you want everything to be perfect all the time, so you want to make sure the consistency is there, and having the same people do the same thing – going back to your staff question – I always have the strength of the guys who have my back, and the new blood coming in, and people that want to create. Same way on the grill, because I think if you come in, you want that steak to be the same. Even if I cook it, it’s going to be different than the guy. I laugh at people who go, “That steak was so great because I cooked it.” Yeah, you can cook a great steak, but he’s going to cook it because he cooks it every day. In order for him to not have boredom and actually participate in the butchering or the specials that we do. Everybody can contribute something, so that they have relief and can exercise. And some guys don’t want to.
This side’s a little freer. We don’t have to rein it back. It’s more, “What ingredients can we use, and what can we put on the plate together?” The other side, people are more free to experiment with more high-end stuff that we do.
What’s your favorite part of owning restaurants?
I love to cook. On my really bad days – my other chef who used to work with me, Jill, we talk to each other a lot – she’s like, “Remember, this is your idea.” It’s like our joke. Or another one, “If my family had money, I could have gone to college.” Or “I could have had 20 kids and be yelling at them on the beach.” That’s my new one. I just love to cook. The guys make fun of me because I’m still working on the line with them, or butchering and sharing with some of the kids now, because of the whole animal thing. We’ve always been doing that. To be able to share some of that with people that really want to know, that education part of it and teaching. I start thinking how my daughter’s not in this business, and it’s almost how the craft of say butchering, it’s back and I think it’s fabulous, but I get whole venison and I want to show it to somebody. It is such an art just to be able to do some of that stuff. I enjoy that.
Is there a chef you’ve never cooked with before that you’d most like to cook with?
Alive, past or present?
Let’s go with alive so it’s an actual possibility.
I think I would like to cook with Daniel [Boulud]. I’ve done some events with him, like I’ve been invited to his, or he’s been invited to mine, but I’ve never cooked with him.
Is there another restaurant, if you could pull a guest shift?
And be a fly on a wall?
No, cook in the kitchen at another restaurant.
Probably someplace in Europe, if I wanted to go do something like that. I’d have to think about it. I’m sure there are many. I always tell the kids who work for me, it’s funny, I had someone who gave his notice about two months ago. He was moonlighting, and it was obvious. You’d show up exhausted and were just doing charcuterie here. It’s hard to move up because I have good people and opportunities don’t necessarily open up. It was another restaurant and somebody that I know. Small town. I kind of knew and they were afraid to say something. I’ve had two different chefs say to me, and Wolfgang was one of them – I worked with him when I was very young and had an opportunity to go work with Jean Bertranou at L’Ermitage, and I was afraid. I was 17 or 18. He said, “I would never stop somebody from wanting an opportunity to grow, to do something different.” I’m always saddened, obviously, when I spend a lot of time training somebody. For certain positions, I ask for the commitment of time, but at the same time, if you’ve got an opportunity, I want to be a mentor to the people that work for me. I want to be able to say, “Go,” and if you leave correctly, my door’s always open. Jami’s that perfect example. I’ve had guys that have left and come back. I’ve had guys that have left and come back in the interim and have helped me in a time of need. I think that’s a really profound thing to have, to be able to say that people will work with you again, for the most part. I totally forgot the question.
If you could have a guest shift at any restaurant…
That’s what I always tell ‘em. I can’t be a fly on a wall anymore, so go be a fly on a wall someplace. I’d love see – I’m trying to think of places doing huge volume. I’ve done some big volume. Like Saddle Peak had three floors and 100 seats just outside. We were always trying to do high-end food. What Suzanne Goin is doing just over in Brentwood, she’s got pastry going, she’s got dinner, that’s the craziness of the fun of what we do, especially if it’s somebody else’s thing and I can just knock. I don’t want the headache.
If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, primarily to eat, what city would it be?
I think I’d like to go to Tel Aviv and eat.
I consulted on a Mediterranean style restaurant a couple years ago, and we were doing everything from Greece over, Turkey. I’d love to go to Turkey. But I’ve had some friends that have moved from Sinai now into Tel Aviv and have always been enamored with the food and were always talking about it. A great friend for like 20 years, and she’s just moved there, and I think it would be a frenzy. I like those flavors. I like those tastes. Maybe Turkey, maybe Egypt. No, I think I’d like to go to Tel Aviv.