June 2, 2020

Charting a New Path Forward: Top Chef Joe Sasto

Charting a New Path Forward: Top Chef Joe Sasto

We've had months to discuss what we miss about the restaurant industry, what about what we don't miss? What parts of us and this industry should we leave behind? On today's show, we chat with Chef Joe Sasto, a renaissance man charting a new path in the industry through pop-ups, pasta classes & underground events. Together we'll ask the tough questions and try and find the path forward. 

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SHOW NOTES

  • Working at Quince
  • Working at Lazy Bear
  • Work culture translates to your guest experience
  • You can taste bad energy and stress
  • You can still execute Michelin star quality with a happier work environment
  • Greatest mentor was Jason Berthold
  • Worked at The French Laundry
  • Inspired his team by leading by example
  • Extreme passion for his work
  • Commanded level of respect without asking for it
  • Joe thinks back to him when inspiring his own team
  • Being a chef doesn’t automatically demand respect
  • Respect is earned via good leadership
  • Journey to working in Michelin star restaurants
  • Won Aspen Food & Win 2013
  • Worked in an environment that was pushing for higher covers
  • He didn’t find this fulfilling
  • Took 8 weeks backpacking around Europe with his brother
  • Discovered his goals
  • Decided to refine his technique in Michelin star restaurants
  • Working unconventionally
  • Started creating pop-ups across the country
  • Does online and in-person food experiences and classes
  • Pop-ups and events are not easy
  • Less stability
  • Pushes creativity
  • Pushes the boundaries of dining
  • Goals for the future
  • Settle down and open restaurants
  • Has a few concepts in mind
  • Biggest hurdle: finding the right market
  • Finding the right market
  • Neighborhood determines success
  • Concerns as a business owner when considering a city
  • There has been a mass exodus from large cities
  • Joe is considering Portland - likes the culture, people, and opportunity
  • The hospitality industry has razor-thin margins so the location must be chosen wisely
  • The importance of sharing your story
  • Sharing Joe’s story was influential and inspiring to others
  • This was even more important during the pandemic
  • The more he shared, the more he could connect with others through food
  • We can feel better about what we are going through by sharing experiences
  • Work-life balance - a major issue in the industry
  • Realizes the importance of mental health
  • We have an opportunity to rebuild with work-life balance in mind
  • Rebuilding with employees in mind
  • Creating structures that favor employees
  • Giving them a voice
  • Our employees make everything happen
  • Changes he would make for his own restaurants
  • Culture of putting employees first
  • Being adaptable and quick to pivot
  • Fast-casual dining with traditional dine-in models for stability and longevity
Transcript

Josh Kopel:
Today's episode is brought to you by Yelp, whose mission is to connect people with great local businesses. They're also helping me connect with you, which is totally awesome. Now here we go.

Joe Sasto:
And if you wanted to do fine dining and high-level food, it had to be that way. People had to be scared in the kitchen, had to be scared to come to work. I was terrified going to work every day. I would have a knot in the pit of my stomach, not knowing what service was going to be like, what the day was going to be like. Some days I'd be riding my bike to work and be like, "Oh man, wouldn't that be great if I got hit by a car, and I wouldn't have to go to work."

Josh Kopel:
Welcome to Full Comp, a show offering insight into the future of the hospitality industry, featuring restaurant tours, thought leaders, and innovators, served up, on the house.

Josh Kopel:
On today's show we chat with Chef Joe Sasto, a Renaissance man, charting a new path in the industry through pop-ups, pasta classes, and underground events. We've had months to discuss what we miss about working in restaurants. What don't we miss? What parts of us and this industry should we leave behind? Let's begin with a glimpse into how working at the top levels of this industry impacts your mind and your soul.

Josh Kopel:
How many Michelin-rated restaurants have you worked in?

Joe Sasto:
Two, but I mean, that was the majority of my career, between Lazy Bear and Quince. I was at Quince when they had one star. I left, once we had three, so kind of saw that whole progression and the process of gaining. Going from one to two and two to three. And that was, I think, completely shaping kind of my whole viewpoint on cooking and being in the kitchen and my career. And then from there left to go to Lazy Bear right after they got their first star. And then that next year we got our second and I stayed with them through that time until moving down here to L.A.

Josh Kopel:
Well, and I wanted to talk about that specifically because I know it's a big part of your career. How did working in an environment where the execution was at that level influence you both personally and professionally?

Joe Sasto:
I think those two restaurants shaped me in positive ways, but completely differently. So when I was working at Quince was like, what you could imagine a high-stress restaurant kitchen is like. Where there is this high kind of this almost like stress is like, you could cut it with a knife. Just there's so much tension in the air. Everybody's walking on eggshells. No one wants to make a mistake. The stakes are so, so high. And that was my whole introduction cooking in Michelin-starred kitchens. And so I thought that was the way it was that if you want it to do fine dining and high-level food, it had to be that way. People had to be scared in the kitchen, had to be scared to come to work. I was terrified going to work every day. I would have a knot in the pit of my stomach, not knowing what service was going to be like, what the day was going to be like.

Joe Sasto:
Some days I'd be riding my bike to work and be like, "Oh man, wouldn't that be great if I got hit by a car and I wouldn't have to go to work." That's how crazy you think when you're in that environment. And I was like, "That'd be so much better than potentially having a bad service." Which saying it out loud now, looking back at it is like, "What the hell was wrong with me?" But that was kind of the atmosphere and the culture that we had at that time. And that was all I knew and I didn't know any better. And that was, I thought the way it was supposed to be.

Joe Sasto:
And then it was after leaving there and going to Lazy Bear, I saw almost a complete opposite culture and a complete opposite atmosphere. And so that was kind of this turning point in my career and in my leadership style and the way that I kind of approached running a kitchen. Where we were listening to music all day, all night. People were laughing, having a good time, that same level of detail and attention and focus well was still there.

Joe Sasto:
And we're getting recognized for cooking really awesome food and providing a really incredible experience. But there didn't need to be this level of fear and stress associated with work. And with putting out that kind of food. We were doing high-end dinner parties every night and it was kind of a party. We were having a good time doing it, we're enjoying it. And I started to see how that then translated into the food and the experience we were giving where if a cook or a server or a food runner, whoever it is, is having a good time, what they're doing. That goes into the food. You could taste fear, you could taste stress, you can taste happiness. And it's maybe sounds weird to say, but when you've been doing this as long as I have, you could totally taste those things.

Joe Sasto:
And if you're putting love and happiness into the food that you're making, like we were doing there, the guests can feel that, it's palpable. They could eat it, they could taste it. They're just surrounded by this aura of good energy. And I think it was that when I realized you could still execute at a Michelin-starred level and get recognition for it while not running a militaristic-style kitchen.

Josh Kopel:
Well, and to build off that, one of the secret sauces in my own life has been mentorship. Just being able to learn from amazing people. Who have been the mentors in your life? And the lessons learned from that.

Joe Sasto:
I think the first chef then I had was this guy named Jason Berthold. And that was back at RN74. One of the first kitchens I worked at in San Francisco. It was a French brasserie kind of thing. And he worked at the French Laundry. He was really good friends with Corey Lee. And he helped Thomas Keller opening Per Se in New York City. So he came up in the French Laundry school of thought. They're very militaristic-like, super French kitchen. Went to New York City helped Thomas open Per Se, did that with Corey came back to San Francisco and took over RN74 before. And kind of took that approach to not as highly acclaimed of a restaurant, but still ran the kitchen with that same level of love and passion and kind of leading by example. And so here's the first chef I worked for that really, you wanted to work hard and do well.

Joe Sasto:
Not because you're scared of disappointing him or that you'd get in trouble. You wanted to succeed and put your best foot forward because you wanted to make him proud. And it was kind of this level of respect, that he just commanded from everyone in the entire restaurant without even asking for it. And it was just kind of he led by example and it made everyone around him want to be better and be better versions of themselves and come in every day better. And I think that really kind of was ... Still, I think about him when I'm leading a kitchen and when I have a team and I'm trying to motivate and inspire them.

Joe Sasto:
And I think back to him because that was, I think, my first impression of someone leading by example and being that role model in a kitchen that is not always easy to do. A lot of times you'll see chefs, they get the title and they think that comes with respect. But it's kind of the other way around, in my opinion. Chef is just the word. It doesn't really mean anything. The people that call you that because they feel you're a chef is really what kind of gives power to that title. And he was the first example. I think I saw that.

Josh Kopel:
Let's fast forward. It's now June 2016. You just won to Aspen Food and Wine. You had the opportunity to capitalize on that amazing victory. What was the idea there?

Joe Sasto:
So that that's kind of a good transition. So we did push on that was coming ... I was still working at RN74, at that restaurant. We did Aspen Food and Wine. We won that competition and it was great. But at the same time, working at a restaurant like RN was turn and burn. We were looking for numbers. We're trying to push the cover account every night. Trying to do two, three, 400 covers, grind it out. Let's see how much we could do. And I knew there was more to cooking than that. I hadn't experienced it. I had heard of this thing called the Michelin Guide. I was still young and this is before the age of social media. So it wasn't you could go on your phone and look at pictures and menus and experiences of other restaurants. You kind of just hear about it, read about it and you'd get a cookbook and look at it.

Joe Sasto:
And you're like, "Oh my gosh, this is crazy. How do they do that with tweezers?" It was kind of like blowing my mind. And so I wanted to regroup. I took this trip to Europe, spent eight weeks backpacking through Europe with my two brothers. And then coming back, that was kind of like my reset point. I knew I wanted to, to get into Michelin-starred kitchens to see what that's like. I wanted to do to tweezer food. I wanted to do less covers and more focused about the food and really kind of hone in and refine my technique as the chef.

Josh Kopel:
Well, and to build off of that, that kind of illustrates that you have an unconventional mindset towards the industry, right? Let's dig into that and talk about the idea of pop-ups versus a brick and mortar. Lord knows if you wanted to open a brick and mortar, you could get financing tomorrow, but that hasn't been the path that you've chosen for yourself.

Joe Sasto:
Right. I think it's an interesting path that I'm on because I didn't set out to do it this way by any means. And it kind of is just happened and I'm grateful for the opportunities that it keeps happening and these doors keep opening. And it's definitely not easy. I think a lot of people look at doing pop-ups and events and all of that is almost an easier alternative to working in a restaurant, or for having a brick and mortar, and it's definitely not. There's less stability, there's less sureness, and certainty of what the future has. Where if you have a brick and mortar or you're just working in a brick and mortar essentially what every day is going to be like for the next couple of months, for the year, for that matter.

Joe Sasto:
And when you're in this kind of nomadic style of cooking, doing pop-ups and events and traveling, it lends itself to kind of push your creativity and push what you think of dining and cooking. And kind of puts you in this whole new frame of mind. And I think that's kind of where I am and I didn't set out to be in this place, but I'm excited to be here because I think this is a great direction to kind of take myself into the future.

Josh Kopel:
Well, what are you working on now?

Joe Sasto:
Now? Amidst COVID-19 [crosstalk 00:11:21].

Josh Kopel:
... and coming out of that end now.

Joe Sasto:
So I mean, my vision had always been to settle down and open restaurants and I have concepts in mind and I know what I want to do. And it had always been finding the right market. I think that's always been my biggest hurdle because I know what I want to do. I have this goal set of opening a couple of restaurants and different things, but finding the right place to do it, I think is everything because your neighborhood determines your success. If opening something that doesn't belong in that neighborhood, you're going to have a really hard time. And you're going to struggle from the moment you open your doors. Maybe before you open your doors and people don't want you there. And so moving down to L.A., I thought it was going to be LA, it's a great city to visit.

Joe Sasto:
I haven't minded living here for the past three years, but I don't want to plant roots and start a family and a brick and mortar and a business. And that's kind of it's not my scene. And I just don't feel necessarily a home here. I think it's way too much city for me. I'm more of I need to be closer to nature and less of the concrete. But so this whole kind of series of traveling and getting around the country and seeing other places and other things has really kind of enabled, allowed me to grow and think really hard and deeply about what kind of markets I would want to open it, where I would want to settle down. And I think now I have a better vision and understanding of what I want to do, how I want to make it happen. And now it's just a matter of timing and making sure that it makes sense.

Josh Kopel:
You watch on the news and you see that a lot of people are talking about a mass exodus from large cities because it is so expensive to live here. It is so difficult to do business here. Did that play into the decision? And what markets are you thinking about?

Joe Sasto:
Portland actually, I really like the culture, the area, the people. And then when you're thinking about being a business owner and operator, you have to think about all these other things that people often don't, like the consumer. They don't realize the cost of entry and the barriers of entry into some of these other markets. People out there may not realize that the cost of a liquor license in San Francisco can cost up to $750,000. That's three quarters of a million dollars, just on liquor license, to be able to sell booze not anything else to do with the restaurant. And when you kind of break it down like that, that's just insanity. You're almost setting yourself up for failure or a very small margin for success versus you look at another market somewhere like Hartford, Connecticut, or Portland, Oregon, or something. You could get a license for 500 bucks.

Joe Sasto:
And then you started looking at the cost of rent, the cost of goods, the cost of labor and all those things when you're a business owner and you just start to take into consideration. I mean, you know that this business in this industry is designed on razor-thin margins, which is I think coming to light even more so now and more people are realizing. But when you're trying to figure out where you want to settle down, I think all of that plays into a factor. Otherwise, you're not really thinking like a business owner. You're just thinking, "Oh, well, what would I want to do in a dream world?" And you can't operate like that.

Josh Kopel:
Have there been aha moments for you through this pandemic that have affected your trajectory, the way you think about yourself, the way you think about the industry, because Lord knows we're perpetually in hustle mode, and this has been an opportunity to reflect.

Joe Sasto:
I've always realized that sharing my story has been influential and inspiring to more people than I ever could have realized or imagined. I mean, I saw that the first time around when I did Top Chef. The number of people that reached out after I shared my story and my knowing the loss of my mother and kind of how I've gotten to where I am today. So many people can relate with that, or they use that as a point of inspiration or they just ... It was cathartic for them to hear. And now I think, especially being at home and everyone being at home and everyone kind of using social media and food as that medium to connect through, the more and more I share the realized the more and more I can inspire people. And at the end of the day, I think that is one of the most important things.

Joe Sasto:
The fact that I could use a platform to connect with others and use food as that common ground because we come from completely different walks of life potentially. And we both see each other and can feel better about life and the future and where we're going all just by sharing our experiences.

Josh Kopel:
When you look at the industry and you look at the trajectory and the path forward, what positive and negative changes do you see?

Joe Sasto:
The industry itself? I have an opinion on that is kind of like a love, hate thing. It's the only way I've known, it's the only jobs I've known. I've had other small jobs in high school or college, but I've only ever worked the 16-hour-days, seven days a week, always on holidays. I don't know, the nine to five, five-days-a-week lifestyle. So I have no point of comparison. So it's, I know that this is the industry and this is the way that it is, but now it was coming more and more to light and even over the past couple of years, now that I've been out of a traditional restaurant, how important it is to have a work-life balance. How important mental health is, how important physical health is and how there needs to be this balance between the way things were and the way that we rebuild it in the future.

Joe Sasto:
And I think this is a huge opportunity and turning point to not go back to the way it was. I know a lot of restaurants and businesses were already kind of making that transition and they felt the same way. And we're understanding that we can't operate longterm with these kind of structures that we've built that are not in favor of the employees. And really, I think those are the most important people in any operation, whether it be a restaurant or a business in general. The employees are what make it happen regardless of what you're selling. So putting them first and foremost, I think needs to be a priority moving forward, no matter what happens. And I think kind of taking that approach and using this time to reflect on that and how we could make whatever we rebuild better for them will in turn make a better final product and better industry for the consumer, regardless of what or where it is.

Josh Kopel:
When you envision your own restaurant, what are the fundamental changes you would make?

Joe Sasto:
I really want to empower employees. I've worked for enough places where the employees don't necessarily have power, and they're the ones that are dealing with the systems that have been put into place. And they know best if something's not working or not making sense or why are we doing it this way? And I think it's really important to give them a voice and an opportunity to be heard and to make positive changes for the business, to be fluid, to be dynamic. To not be stuck and set in rigid ways of thinking or thought, because that's the way that you've always done it, or that's the way you think it's supposed to be. I think being able to adapt and to quickly pivot is going to be a fundamental part of success in any business. I think having a balance of a fast casual model is part of the future.

Joe Sasto:
I think fast casual will definitely has its pros and cons, and there's always going to be a place for the traditional dining model because people that's what they're used to and that's what they want. And sometimes that's why people go out to eat alone for that experience. But also being able to kind of weave in, whether it be one concept, fast casual, and one concept traditional fine dining or whatever you want to call it. Having that balance and kind of ebb and flow between the two to make your overall business more of a success and more stabilized. I think will be something that I'm looking for when I find out how we make the move to do this.

Josh Kopel:
Everyone's asking how restaurants are going to change. No one's really talking about how the patrons are going to change, right? Because we're working in an untenable situation and historically we as an industry have charged with they're willing to pay, right? And so now we find ourselves in a situation where in order to get back to work, I believe that there has to be a realignment of either the amount of money patrons are willing to pay or their expectations relative to the experience. Otherwise, I really don't know how we're going to make this thing work. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Joe Sasto:
I think my biggest concern right now, because I haven't thought about it the way you just phrased it. What I have thought about is down the road how long ... Not even how long, what is it going to take for people to be comfortable going back to the old way of being in a crowded room, surrounded by people laughing, touching, speaking closely. And it's almost like that conditioning theory of communication. We've been conditioned now for long enough to set a habit based on what science says, that we're not supposed to be near each other. We're not supposed to touch each other. We're not supposed to be around each other. And how long then? And what would it take to get people to kind of unlearn those habits? And be comfortable with going back to the old ways. And I think that is the biggest concern to me.

Joe Sasto:
And then it's, "Okay. So do you start looking at concepts or models that are smaller in scale? Gone are the ways of large restaurants. Or do they need to be large to keep everyone apart?" I think they're just in so many different considerations from that viewpoint alone that makes there so much uncertainty and I don't know what it would say. Is it a vaccine? Is it just time? Is it protocols in place? I don't know, but that's where my head is at looking at it. And I think that in itself starts a bigger conversation for the future of dining.

Josh Kopel:
One of the things you brought up earlier was resilience and I think it's worth going back to. Yes, we're a very resilient industry, but I think now there's an opportunity to tell stories of overcoming huge obstacles in our lives personally and professionally, and the lessons that we learned from that. And I want this to be a platform for that. Do you have any stories that come top of mind?

Joe Sasto:
Yeah, I think any adversary or tragedy can be looked at in two different ways. Well, I think a great example then I kind of think of is when I lost my mother to cancer. So she was always the biggest part of my life. She taught me cooking. She was my best friend. We would talk almost every day. When I left for school, all through high school, I went into college and then it was the summer after freshman year of college, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away in three months. So it was just this tragic moment in my life, completely unexpected. And I didn't know where to move on or how to move on from that. And I almost didn't go back to school. I almost just decided to move home. I didn't really know what to do or what my career path was or how to kind of continue to move on.

Joe Sasto:
And I think I had two choices. I could have done the tragedy route and use that to define me in a very negative way or use that to motivate me to then find my path. Used that to keep me connected to her and food became way and cooking became that way that then I was able to move forward. And I think we could look at any tragedy like this and take that same approach. Food and cooking is going to be something that then we use to move forward from this. And do we want this to define us in a positive light or a bad light? Is this something that ruined the industry? Or is this something that made the industry better and something, it could have never been had this not happened? It seems like such a dark shadow cast over us right now, but this could be the dark before the dawn.

Joe Sasto:
And all of a sudden on the other side of this, we're brighter and stronger and better than ever that we could have couldn't have imagined like we may never have gotten to this point, had this not happened and as tragic and heartbreaking as all these stories and the time is now. How we move forward from this, I think is really going to define the industry as a whole, not what's happening right now.

Josh Kopel:
I love that man. Through the podcast, you have the opportunity to talk to the entire industry. Is there anything you'd like to say specifically?

Joe Sasto:
I wrote something. I feel like if I could read, "Your life, your path, your talent, your voice and your career can never be measured by, nor will ever be measured by one moment. We're here together during this time, if you're hearing this and you are in the restaurant industry, know that this time in history will never erase the amount of time you dedicated to your craft and everything you had sacrificed in the past for your love of cooking. If you're unable to do so right now, know that you will cook again for others. When you cook, you give someone a part of yourself. You'll be able to share that with others, bring joy to others and happiness and love again."

Joe Sasto:
And I think that to me, that gives me goosebumps. That is what people need to hear and know that, that's the case. Well, there's so much sadness and uncertainty out there, but I think hearing that and knowing that this isn't going to define us, we're still going to get back to work and get to do what we love. And that's what the future has in store for us.

Josh Kopel:
That's Chef Joe Sasto. To check out what he's working on next. Go to joesasto.com. If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, check out our video content or read our weekly blog. Go to joshkopel.com. That's J-O-S-H K-O-P-E-L.com.

Josh Kopel:
Thank you so much for listening to the show. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and while you're there, please leave us a review. A special thanks to Yelp for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I'm Josh Kopel. You've been listening to Full Comp.