“The View From Here” is a feature on The Rancho La Puerta blog that will give you the chance to reflect and learn about our guest presenters.
Joey Altman is a San Francisco based Chef and James Beard Award winner for his regional television show Bay Café. In 2016 he helped launch the award-winning restaurant, China Live, and this summer will launch his own restaurant. He recently spent a week with us sharing his cooking expertise while teaching at our cooking school, La Cocina Que Canta.
Do you remember one of the first meals where you felt loved and cared for?
When I was about four or five, my brother and I would go to my grandma Ester’s house. She lived in a small home in Woodridge, NY. When we showed up, she would get really excited. She was very Jewish and came from modest means. We’re 100% Ashkenazi Jewish. She moved to the states as a teenager.
When we’d go to her house, this spread of food would show up out of her tiny refrigerator that looked like it had nothing in it. She made split pea soup, braised meat with caramelized onions, lots of matzo with butter, and snacks. It was obviously the highlight of her day to feed us. It was very delicious and felt like we were celebrities being fed. She would cook for us from a place of pure love.
Do you remember one of the first things you ate that really got you excited about food?
My parents separated when I was eight, so I don’t remember many home meals, but we’d go out to dinner. My dad was a gourmand, he loved restaurants. We’d go to Zanzibar in Manhattan. That was the first place I ate something I’d never heard of, crème brûlée. The first time I had that, my mind was blown. I wondered how food gets to taste like that? The service was over the top, and they treated us like we were related. It was so good. I felt totally cared for.
What was the first thing you cooked for someone?
I had a sweet tooth as a kid. One day I asked my mom for Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies, and she said “No.” Then, she went out and left us with the babysitter. I went rummaging through our pantry, looking for a treat. I saw a bag of chocolate chips with the recipe on the side for cookies. I didn’t know people could make their own cookies and realized then that I didn’t have to have anyone buy them for me. I can make them myself.
I started baking brownies and blondies. Making sweets became a hobby of mine. On weekends my brother and I would have a competition of who could make the best rocky mountain toast: basically, fried eggs in a hole in a piece of toast without breaking the yoke.
In this polarized climate we live in, what can we learn from a restaurant team?
Teamwork makes the dream work. As trite as that sounds, it’s really true. People are so much more the same than different. People spend a lot of time looking for the differences but really, we’re all so similar. It’s important to have a common goal if you want to successfully work in a kitchen with a very diverse staff and creative team.
It’s important to sit and eat and work with each other. When we get up in the morning, if we’re lucky, we go do something we like, and that also makes someone else happy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor or a seamstress, whatever you’re doing if it’s of service that will benefit someone else down the road that it will give you secondhand joy. At the end of the day, we want to know other people are getting pleasure from what we do.
What have you done lately to have a positive impact in your own life?
I decided to open my own restaurant. For the last five years, I’ve been working for other people. I helped open a restaurant, China Live, and worked as the Chef at Pier 23. I realized I need to cut my own path and do something for myself.
No one’s going to give us anything for nothing. I was avoiding it since 2002 when I closed my restaurant Wild Hare when the dot com economy went bust. Luckily, I was able to leverage my experience and celebrity into consulting and helping others. I got to the point, though, where I realized I needed to stop being afraid. I realized the only way I was going to get what I really wanted was to go back and do what I originally wanted to do. I wanted to have my own restaurant which will open this summer.
What’s the difference between opening your own restaurant rather than opening one for someone else?
At the end of the day, I’m responsible for everything. There’s no place to shift the blame. It’s me carrying the weight of the success of the restaurant and the happiness of my staff. It’s a challenge I’m really looking forward to meeting. I get to create a happy work environment.
I know what It’s like to be disrespected on a lot of levels, from subtle to micro kinds of aggressions. I get it. In San Francisco, with its high cost of living and shortage of restaurant workers, you don’ t need to coddle the staff or overcompensate. You need to create an environment where people feel respected and cared for. At the end of the day, I know how to help people feel better about themselves than when the day started.
The most significant shift in restaurants now is empathy. If my staff doesn’t feel like they’re respected and being cared for, the guests won’t feel it either. The staff are the most important people. I don’t spoil my guests at the cost of my staff. Also, I don’t spoil my staff at the cost of my guests. If the team isn’t treated with courtesy, they won’t treat our guests with courtesy. It’s all one organism. It has to be honest and come from a place of respect. I’m not Pollyanna about it or have delusions that it’s easy- it’s work.
How do you find work-life balance?
The balance comes from being present wherever I am. Present but distracted isn’t healthy.
I play guitar in a couple of bands with chefs and musicians. The Soul Peppers and The Back Burner Blues Band. We have a good time and that helps with life balance.
Best advice someone gave you?
Be present and listen, just listen. Wait before acting. Take it all in, whatever it is, think about it, then act in a way that addresses things in the way they need.
The most significant changes that helped me go from a man-child to more of a functioning adult all had to do with listening and not just reacting. Sometimes it’s not about fixing it now but about being more mindful, thinking, and listening. Give things a chance to be internalized before acting. That goes to all levels in an organization, from the top managers and stakeholders to the dishwashers, and includes customers and vendors. Stop talking and listen with purpose.
Do you have a quote or motto?