What do you look for in a chef for a Culinary Master series?
Well they just have to be what I consider a master chef. If you look at the lineup, I’ve hit it on all accounts, from Nancy Silverton, Matt Molina, [Jonathan] Waxman, Josiah [Citrin], Jose Garces, just all my favorite chefs from around the country. It just keeps getting better, and better and better and better. I say that because yesterday we had Timothy Hollingsworth, and that’s a meal I’ll never forget. Ever forget. And you were there for Douglas Keane, that was incredible. And the next one is Rick Tramonto from Chicago, one of my favorite chefs, and R’evolution…This guy’s phenomenal. So it’s a treat for me to have these guys come in. Not everyone is able to travel around the country and eat at these kind of restaurants, so to be able to bring it to Manhattan Beach—and again, I think the reason I get these great chefs is not only the support from all of my chefs from my restaurants that come in and help that day, but I think to come to Manhattan Beachm, it’s the best place in the world. It really is. They get to stay here at Shade Hotel, they walk down the street, they get to take all their family to my restaurants to drink and eat, complimentary. It’s a very tight-knit community, these chefs, and they all talk to each other and say, “You’ve got to Zislis’s Master Chef service at the Strand House.” That just keeps getting me more and more. So right now, I was in a meeting, I think yesterday, I was in a meeting where we’re trying to limit the number, because more people call us to do it, than we actually have spots. Its 8 spots a year.
What would it take for you to consider the series a success, if it isn’t already?
Oh, I think the series has outperformed anything I had hoped. When I have people like Douglas Keane and Timothy Hollingsworth write me a thank you letter and say that was the best, and they enjoyed it, truly enjoyed it—you know, a lot of events they go to they’ve got to schlep coolers in, and they’ve got to prep in the sun, you know if you do Pebble Beach, or do these other events, they’re schlepping and hauling from the airport, all this crap. Here, they come in a couple days early, they go to the farmers market with the chef, and we do the schlepping. They sit around and prep with us, show everyone their techniques. Its almost like a training session for all of our chefs, because they all get to work with them. It’s a win-win for everybody.
What are your goals in hiring Timothy Hollingsworth?
You know, I’ve hired some great people along the way. Michael Cimarusti worked for me after he left Water Grill, before he opened Providence, so anytime somebody has a little bit of time in their schedule and I can hire temporarily, its great for me. Keeps the company culture fresh, keeps everybody learning and keeps everybody excited. Do you really want to go to a job with the same-old, same-old everyday? That’s what we all don’t like, I think. All the chefs really respect Timothy, and they’re all very excited to work with him, and I hope it lasts forever but its only going to last a while, you know?
Is there anything you don’t enjoy eating?
Just bourbon. I’m just not a bourbon guy. You know, I don’t like bourbon. I like every kind of food. Every kind of food. Last night, that uni and caviar, those were my favorite things. The first course was the challenge course, and then it got to all the greats, scallops with winter truffle on top, prime rib cap beef, and then duck, I mean, all the greats. But the first one was a bit challenging for some people that weren’t “foodies” but I loved it.
What was the last meal that you cooked?
I cook breakfast every day for my children, on Sundays I cook something called palachinka, which is a Croatian crepe, and I’m really good at them because its hard to make crepes. That’s mostly what I cook. And then I’ll barbeque, but that’s it. You know, you’ve got to remember that I have 5 restaurants within a half a mile of my house, so if we want fish, we go to Rock’n Fish. If we want tacos we go to Circa. If we want breakfast we go to Shade. So we have a demographic where we can hit a lot of our restaurants, and my wife’s gluten-free so all my restaurants tend to have a big focus on gluten-free, so we can eat all over. Even Rock & Brews has gluten-free. Gluten-free pizza, gluten-free beer, so we don’t cook a lot. I’d like to tell you we cook a lot at home, but we don’t cook a lot. I grow a lot at home, I’m a gardener, I have my own chickens. I think this year we have 21 different species of tomatoes in my yard, so I grow a lot of plants, that’s what I do on the weekends. But cooking, I can cook but I’m not a good cook.
What steps do you take to achieve balance in your life, if that’s even possible?
I always like to say its smoke and mirrors. I have a lot of balance in my life. I never go to work before 9, so I get up at 7 am and I change the babies’ diapers, the twins that are still in a crib, and then I take all the kids to the living room and let my wife try to sleep in an hour or two in the morning, I cook breakfast, pack their lunches and take the older ones to school, and then I start my first meeting. I leave everyday at 3:30, and I go on my one hour exercise routine, and then I’m at home with my family until 7. At 7 I come back to the restaurants, and then I shake hands and kiss babies all night. I try to get home about 9 o’clock during the week, 10 on Fridays and Saturdays. I traditionally take Saturdays and Sundays off, which is a luxury in this business. So I don’t work too many Saturdays. Because of the kids.
Who else in the restaurant industry or restaurant and hospitality industry do you look to for inspiration or advice or guidance?
You know, I probably look at a lot of restaurants just to see what they’re doing. There’s no one person that I look up to. People always said, Gee, how did you come up for the idea for Shade, and its so great, who’d you copy. And I said, Nobody. Because I didn’t. I just put into a hotel what I wanted. What do I want in a room? I want a martini shaker, I’d like a little bottle of vodka. I put all these things in—I want stemware, I want crystal—so I made the rooms kind of hipper. Blenders—I want to blend a margarita in my room. So I did things like that that were just different than anybody else. I kind of always tried to go by that, to just always be a little bit different. I look at my sales report every Monday. Every Monday, I know my items sale in every company. I know how many burrata salads I sold at Strand House this week. So I look at that and then, if I see something wrong, that tells me whats wrong. Then I’ll meet with the chefs and I’ll say—I’ll tell you one. We had a run on French fries at the Strand House. I don’t know if you’ve had the fries there, but they’re cooked in, they’re handmade fries that take us a day or two to make, cooked in tallow, they are phenomenal. And they were running out of space to make fries. So they’re coming to me and saying we need extra space to make more fries. And I said, “What are you talking about?” So I looked through the numbers, and I looked at the menu and I said, “Well, with a sandwich, your options were garden salad, or French Fries. I don’t know about you, but I would get the French fries every time over a garden salad.” So then I added a kale salad, or Brussels sprouts, or French fries. Now the French fries have been cut down by a third, so we have room to make them all. So its just little things like that, that by being in touch with the sales and the items, it tells you what a winner is.
Some things that I love, don’t sell, or maybe they’ll have a bad name. One of my favorite things at Circa is what I call poisson cru, which is like a Polynesian ceviche. Didn’t sell that well. One of my favorite things. Lime, coconut milk, ahi and Hamachi, just great. Served with taro chips. Doesn’t sell that well. I thought, Damn, I thought I had it, this is one of my favorites. So I keep watching it week after week, and then I said damn it, I’m going to call it Tahitian Ceviche. We changed the name from Poisson Cru to Tahitian Ceviche—number one selling item. So its things like that you have to look at. You put the word beef cheeks on, for ravioli, or if you put veal ravioli, if you put veal you’re going to sell it.
What do you want people to think of when they hear the name Michael Zislis?
I don’t want them to think of me. Just quality. Great service, and quality. I have a brand standard, and people talk to that already, so you know, “You wouldn’t see this happen in a Zislis restaurant,” I’ve heard that before, you know what I mean? Our staff is well-trained, well-educated, friendly, to me its always about your staff. A lot of restauranteurs like to talk down to their staff. I lead by example. I’ll be the first one with the plunger to fix the toilet. I’ll be the first one to pick up a broken glass. My staff knows that, and when they see that I do that, I get more out of that. I think more people should manage that way. I’ve been to a lot of places where I see restaurant owners (snapping) “Get my friend a wine!” Its like, holy shit, I don’t want to be that guy. I truly believe my staff likes me. I think if you asked everybody, they enjoy working for me. And that, to me, is a great environment, when you can have people that love to work for you.