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SI restaurateurs help define the city’s food culture

From left: Paolo Lucchesi, Alex Buich, Brian Cassanego, John Duggan, Martino DiGrande, Erica Perry Cooper, Fabio Stefani, Bob Buich, Anno Buich, Steve Grealish, Chris Costello (and his assistant Simone Sugarman) and Josh Harris.

Last Nov. 6, on Election Day, SI hosted a dozen alumni restaurateurs in the Doris Duke Wall Choral Room, who spoke about their personal journey to the world of food service and fine dining.

Before an audience of students and faculty, they answered questions posed of them by Paolo Lucchesi '00, author of The Inside Scoop column that appears regularly in the San Francisco Chronicle. (See more on Paolo in this issue.)

Genesis editor Paul Totah welcomed Bob Buich ’57 formerly of the Tadich Grill; Steve Grealish ’72 of Shanghai Kelley's and The Northstar Café; Chris Costello ’78 of Christopher's fine catering; John Duggan ’92 of Original Joe's; Erica Perry Cooper ’94; Fabio Stefani ’95 of Nob Hill Grille; of Two Jacks Seafood; Brian Cassanego ’96 of Noir Lounge; Anthony Buich ’96 and Alex Buich ’98 of The Mucky Duck American Bar & Restaurant in Monterey; Josh Harris ’00 of Trick Dog; and Martino DiGrande ’02 of Palio d'Asti.

They are among 40 SI-owned and operated restaurants and catering companies in the city and part of a community of SI restaurateurs that span the country.

At the gathering, Totah noted that the appropriateness of gathering on Election Day. “Those who write about food urge us to vote with our fork,” he said. “Our actions speak louder than our words, especially regarding the choices we make when we shop for groceries or choose our restaurants. You, the students gathered here, have the power to shape our Farm Bill and the way agribusiness has drastically affected the way food comes to your plate. But before you can make wise decisions, you need to educate yourself. Fortunately, those sitting before you today do just that in so many ways. They are part of a growing movement to remind us that the health of our planet and the health of our bodies are connected, with food being just one of the ties that bind.”

Following is the edited transcript of the first part of the gathering. To see a videotape of the entire discussion, go to www.siprep.org/networks and click on the Vimeo link.

Paolo Lucchesi: Our goal today is to have a fun discussion that covers the restaurant scene over the past seven to eight years. Even I didn’t know how many SI people are in the San Francisco restaurant industry. We have an amazing food town in the epicenter of new food movement sweeping the country. Food has become real news. Ten years ago, food policy wasn’t on the front page. How many people here watch The Food Network? This  focus brings a whole new awareness of food. Let’s start with our panel. After you left high school, what did you want to be and how did you get to where you got now? 

Brian Cassanego: In High School what I really wanted was to be a professional baseball player. I received a baseball scholarship to Cal Poly SLO, and I was off fulfilling my dream. Then things turned a bit. I got hurt and circumstances changed. Since being a baseball player was more a fantasy at this point, I started on my path towards business and business ownership with a career in sales. Being an outgoing man, I was successful in the sales field. For 10-plus years, I was in sales and financial services. I owned a mortgage business and then transitioned to financial planning. However, my dream was always in retail, specifically in the bar/restaurant industry. In my time in San Francisco, I have been to numerous restaurants and bars and was always intrigued at how they looked and ran. It got to the point of me not being able to enjoy myself when I was out because I would look at bars and restaurants as a businessman rather than a patron. After doing extensive research over the last five years, I found the perfect spot for my first venture. I know, the hours are going to be long and grueling, but when it is your dream, that is something I am prepared to sacrifice. We will open at the end of March, and I hope to see you all there soon at 581 Hayes at Laguna. 

John Duggan: I just had my 20-year reunion 2 weeks ago, so it’s odd to be sitting here. Trust me, the years go by fast. I was just sitting where you are. I wanted to be a professional basketball player after playing at USF and then professionally in Europe for six years. I returned in 2003 to finish my master’s degree in sports business management. At that point, I was on dual track. I had to decide between going into coaching or the restaurant business. My grandfather had opened Original Joe’s in 1957. He was a Croatian immigrant who ran the restaurant for 50 years. My mother then ran it for more than 30 years. It was in my face. That’s what drove me. I was passionate about the business, just as I was passionate about basketball. I could throw my whole self into it. I worked at our former location on Taylor Street and then opened my own restaurant, Fish and Farm, also on Taylor Street. I was the only person dumb enough to have two restaurants in the Tenderloin at the same time. I needed my own experience to develop my skill set to go forward. Then we had a fire at Original Joe’s on Oct. 12, 2007. I had opened Fish and Farm the day before. I tried to sell my restaurant from the first day I opened and looked for a location suitable to reopen Original Joe’s that was true to our concept. We opened 10 months ago, so we’re a 75-year-old restaurant in a brand new location. That brings new challenges, but so far so good. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also a very exciting business.

Steve Grealish: As I went to Cal as an accounting major, which I hated, I worked at a bar to pay my way. I stuck with bartending and had an opportunity go to the Virgin Islands in 1981 with another SI guy, my cousin, Dan Buick, and a friend from SH. We bought a bar there very cheap and had a tremendous time full of great adventures. But it wasn’t a place to live forever, so I moved back and opened a bar on Polk and Broadway in 1985, which we have had ever since. Since then, we opened a live music venue on Van Ness, Mick's Lounge, which we operated from 1992-2000. In 2001, we bought the North Star Café, which has been on Powell Street for 100 years. I made my first visit there 40 years ago. (Yipes!) As we do not serve food in our establishments, the bar business requires a slightly different skill set. Our philosophy is that we are putting on a 'cocktail party' every night. I have the utmost respect for restaurateurs. They face many more food-related issues, such as staffing, equipment, health department and effective advertising. Owning a bar or restaurant has to be in your blood, and you have to sacrifice time with your family. You can tell yourself, “I’ll do this for a couple of years,” and then you’re suddenly 40. If you're not wise, you might end up with very little financial security or it can be lucrative and rewarding. I’ve been doing it for 35 years and still love going to work. 

Josh Harris: What’s most compelling to me is that, despite our differences, our stories are similar in some ways. What was applicable about this business 30 years ago is applicable today. There’s something compelling about this. When I graduated high school and went to USC to run track, I thought I’d become a lawyer just like my dad and stepfather did. After graduating from college, I applied to law school. When I didn’t get into my first choice school, I felt crushed. Through college, I had worked in bars and restaurants and in the front of the house. Flavor and service both interested me and made me feel good about going to work every day. I loved tasting things, whether food or cocktails, which is now my area of expertise. I also loved interacting with people, whether over the bar or at a restaurant. The service piece has gotten lost in the restaurant business, which it is now starting to champion again, particularly with my side of business making fancy cocktails. With food, the focus has become so much about the fancy dish and not so much about service with a smile or having a casual attitude where you can inform people about products or make them laugh or be nimble enough to take care of what they want. That service part is still really exciting for me, as I enjoy that part of customer interaction. It’s important to me to create an environment for unique quality food and cocktails to exist in the same conversation as genuine, knowledgeable and professional service. The two should not be mutually exclusive. 

Bob Buich: In high school, what I wanted to be was an orthodontist. I ended up standing on my feet for 45 years wearing a white coat but not in a dental office. I started in 1956 during my junior year at SI working at Tadich one day a week washing glasses behind the bar and serving as a busboy. I continued working there part time through my years at USF. I really enjoyed the history of the place, the customers and the staff. One of my impetuses senior year was my English professor at USF who said, “Mr. Buich, you owe it to the city of San Francisco to keep that restaurant going.” My parents were immigrants, and I was the first of all my cousins to graduate from college. My dad said, “Now that you have your degree from USF, what do you want to do?” I told him I wanted to stay in the restaurant business. He asked me, “Why did I send you to college?” I told him the education wouldn’t be wasted and that I really liked what was doing. I worked there 45 years and have never regretted a day.

Chris Costello: I thought it would be smarter going into the catering business vs. the restaurant business, due to the fact that with catering you have a much better financial control of the business. Opening the doors every day to a restaurant, is in essence an educated guess and a gamble when it comes to production and staffing.

I came from a family where everyone went to college. When I graduated in 1978, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I remember SI’s Career Day when City College presented its the culinary program. I didn’t know what I really wanted to do with my life. But I also knew that if I were the last to arrive at the table for the nightly family dinner, I could potentially go hungry from my siblings getting a head start, so food seemed like it would be an interesting and fun exploration.

The more I learned about cooking, the more fun I had. My dad worried that I was heading into a career that wasn't really a career in his mind. The thought of me moving from restaurant to restaurant and taking a different position each time made my dad even more worried. I was turning into a gypsy right underneath his nose. Finally, after several years of going rounds and rounds with my dad, I ended up working in some of the best restaurants in the City, including Stars, with Jeremiah Tower.

I loved the excitement of high profile restaurant, but financially you really couldn't make it. I slowly started to put a commercial kitchen together in my parents’ garage out in the Avenues, with my dad’s blessing and over my mom's objections. Several of my SI friends helped make the vision come to life. Dave Rabbitt ’78 sketched out some plans, Kevin McEvoy ’78 constructed the kitchen and Jim Reidy ’79 did the electrical work. All this was done between a lot of eating and drinking, which was the only way I could pay for it. The garage wasn’t zoned for this kitchen, but escaping detection from the City gave me the chance to build a business. Once the foundation was solid, my dad helped me take the next step: building a commercial kitchen out in the Bay View. The same guys mentioned above did that for me as well. Too bad they wouldn't work any more for just beer and a great meal. 

Martino DiGrande: I got started in the restaurant business on Taraval Street. My brother and I were the only ones who would be let into a dance late by Brother Draper because he knew that we had been working bussing tables. I did that all through grade school and high school and then went to City College. At 18, I decided I already knew the restaurant business pretty well. I knew I could do this. I then went to USF for my business degree and worked for Hilton Hotels in the city. I worked through the 2004 hotel strike, which gave me a perspective on overcoming adversity. I also worked for a time at Alioto’s on Fisherman’s Wharf. I settled at Palio d’Asti six years ago. The chef there, Dan, had come into my dad’s restaurant and we got to talking. Six months later, my dad wanted to sell his restaurant. At 65, he felt tired and done with his 12-tables on Taraval. That day, Chef Dan called and asked if I wanted a job. When I said yes, he told me I would start on Monday and to wear a suit. Then the economy crashed in 2008 when I became general manger. Chef Dan had an offer to teach at John O’Connell, and now, after a roundabout way, I own a restaurant. It’s part destiny, part wild ride and a lot of fun. It takes a lot of energy and ages you quickly, but it also gives you amazing perspective on humanity, having to deal with people day to day. I’ve waited on tables since I was 15, and I’ve seen all walks of life. That has made me open to everybody and everything. As Josh mentioned, the service end of the business has to be the focus, not just the cooking. Most people say they won’t go back to a restaurant not because of the food but because of the service. Growing up around old school New York Italian waiters, I’ve heard their mantra of customer first and customer always. Open Table has chipped away at the relationship between the maitre d’ and the guest. I hope to bring back to the business this old school mentality. 

Erica Perry Cooper: I went to Davis, where I majored in French and international relations. I wanted to be an interpreter and, after graduation, worked at an engineering firm translating documents from French to English. I didn’t enjoy working  a 9-to-5 job, where I was told I had to stay until 8 most nights.  Corporate America wasn’t for me. I went into teaching and loved it except for the bureaucracy. My parents had opened their restaurant in 1977, and I started working there when I was 7 and throughout my time at Davis. I loved it. My dad then told me he was going to close our first location. I’m an only child, and something was awakened inside of me. I couldn’t allow this to happen. I took over the business and the location on Haight Street back when the area was infested by drugs and prostitution. I had a big challenge on my hands, but because of the love I have through my family ties with the community I grew up in – I had attended the French American School right down street – something took over. I was in love with the business and with how we were able to affect change in our community. I love and am grateful for the people who save their money all month to buy a fish sandwich from us. That held me in there. I did that for a year and then found out I was pregnant with my son. I worked all nine moths, locked up the restaurant when I went into labor, went up the street to Kaiser and had him. I was back serving two months later. This has been the best experience, and I’m so grateful for the growth I have experienced every day learning patience and being grateful that I can interact with so many people. I feel as if I’m an example of what your life can be when you are blessed enough to be passionate about your job and blessed enough to have good people around you to support you. You can’t do it yourself. You have to have a good cast of people, a higher power and a higher self, all working with you. It’s been a wonderful experience. 

Alex Buich: I started working at the Tadich Grill as a kid, bussing and prep cooking. I always knew I’d get into the restaurant business. I went to the University of Montana for football. Not knowing for sure what I wanted to study, I opted to major in sociology and minor in criminology. It was harder than communications and easier than psychology. Throughout college and my early years in the work force, I always kept in touch with my brother about restaurants for sale or where we should open one. When I decided to return and open a restaurant, what really helped was my understanding, through watching my father work, of the amount of effort that’s involved. I never went into the business saying, “Let’s open a restaurant; it will be fun.” My brother and I knew it would be difficult, but at the end of the day, you never feel you’ve wasted the day or not worked hard enough. You put in a good day’s work and a hard day’s work. With our Monterey restaurant, we took over a business in decline and built it back up. It’s been very rewarding, even though we know there’s more we can do. 

Anno Buich: Growing up in San Francisco and witnessing the experience that my father had at Tadich Grill, the oldest restaurant in California, I saw that his position was like being a quarterback.  He controlled the chaos and was always in the fire. For 45 years, he worked at the job at the same location and touched a number of lives. People appreciated his presence. It was awesome seeing the smile on his face and his discipline going to work every day. That discipline translated into the appreciation his customers felt whenever they saw him. That’s something his father ingrained into him, and he passed that same work ethic on to Alex and me. I always wanted to be a quarterback, and that happened here at SI and in college. On all of those teams, we always had fun. I appreciated the linemen the most, and those are also the guys who eat the most. Every Thursday I’d cook meals for them and all the offensive players. I traveled with a mobile restaurant for away games. Going to school in the Midwest, I had to teach them what a salmon was and how to prepare mussels. It was fun showing them that adding garlic to everything made food taste better. I also taught the players on the pro level about finance, so they would know what do with all the money they were making. Ultimately, I knew that I didn’t want to work for somebody. I wanted to call my own shots and be my own quarterback. The restaurant business allows me to do that. My father helped us with advice as Alex and I began looking for a place of our own in a time of financial chaos, similar to the controlled chaos of football. Now my brother commutes 120 miles round trip each day to go to Monterey, which is a great location and a world-class tourist destination. The diversity of people you meet from around the world is priceless. Everything we’ve done in life has prepared Alex and me for the restaurant business. I wouldn’t want to see myself in anything else.

Fabio Stefani: After high school, I had no real direction. In college I browsed among majors until I landed in theatre. My family wasn’t particularly excited about my majoring in theatre, feeling it would lead to unemployment or a career in the restaurant industry, which they wanted me to avoid. My grandparents had a café in North Beach, and I worked there with my mother for years as a busser, dishwasher and server. I took the train from college in Santa Clara and worked nights and weekends. After spending a few years in Los Angeles pursuing acting, I returned home with 12 years of restaurant experience. I still didn’t know what I want to do with my life, so I took the risk and grabbed the opportunity to buy my own place. I felt that I was still young enough; if it failed, I could still bounce back. I wanted to own something in my 20s. I bought my place, and then the economy crashed. I white-knuckled it for a few years and came out on the other side. To succeed in this business, your brain has to be wired differently. You have to be pretty dumb to get into this business (please note the wistful smile) and you definitely have to be adaptable. If you’re not fluid, you’ll be out of business pretty quickly. That’s been a good lesson for me, both seeing the evolution of my business and the evolution of myself. You don’t know what you’re going to be when you grow up, and that’s OK. Often the most interesting people you meet are those in their 30s and 40s and beyond, still learning new things and still finding their place. This industry is outrageous because you can always branch in so many directions. It works for me. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, and I encourage you to do the same. 

Posted by Mr. Paul J. Totah on Friday March, 15, 2013 at 12:56PM

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