A Conversation with Ten 01’s Chef Jack Yoss and Owner Adam Berger.
[Ten 01 was my pick for Restaurant of the Year for 2008]
Timing–like many things in life–is everything. The timing of this interview happened less than a day after Portland Food and Drink named Ten 01, Restaurant of the Year. The two important forces of Ten 01, Jack Yoss and Adam Berger, were pleased with the announcement and graciously spent some time talking about how they’ve gotten so good at what they do, not to mention what may be ahead for the restaurant, the chef, and the owner.
So how did you guys meet? Adam, did you go to LA?
Adam: No, I called a recruiter in San Francisco. Jack’s name came up really fast. We got in touch and hit if off immediately. We had an hour and a half conversation the first time we talked. We’ve had a lot of similar experiences.
Jack: He’s worked in Alaska; I’ve worked in Alaska. I was getting ready to be a guest chef in Italy; he’s worked as a chef in Italy too. We got along really well from the start.
You get a lot of the credit for turning this place around. Talk a little bit about your approach.
Jack: I walked into it really positively. It’s a beautiful restaurant. I met and talked with Adam quite a bit; he had a lot of faith in me coming out here. The restaurant as a whole had a really good support staff. Erica’s done a fantastic job; Kelly’s been here since day one. People, even through the bad times, stayed on. There weren’t people jumping ship. Every single person here believed in this restaurant. When you have people who have so much pride in where they work, it’s pretty easy to go in somewhere.
Adam: Jack, besides his pedigree, and his professionalism, his work ethic is out of control. His style fit what we wanted to do here – something new. His strength, which is what got us here today, is consistency. Everything that comes out of that kitchen is exactly the same. And if it’s not, it doesn’t cross that window.
Do you taste everything?
Jack: Pretty much – well, not every single plate that goes out, I’d weigh 600 pounds, but, I mean, I go up and down the line and taste all the vinaigrettes. You have to adjust vinaigrettes every day, a little salt, little acid, little bit more oil, especially wine sauces – every day it’ll lose a little more acidity.
When did you start cooking for money?
Jack: Cooking for money… I was about 15 years old. I started washing dishes at a crappy hotel casino in Henderson, Nevada; it’s kind of like the armpit of Vegas. I was 15, it was a union property; I was making like eight bucks an hour; I thought it was like all the money in the world. It was an egg house. Every day for my hour-union-break, instead of taking it, I’d go on the line. I’d pester the cooks… learn how to flip eggs. They started me out flipping toast in a sauté pan. I’d learn how to use my left wrist; I was using my right. If you’re right-handed, sauté with your left – it’s what you have to do in a kitchen. You pick things up with your right hand.
So they taught me how to flip toast… over and over and over again. Then I got to start tossing rice… in a sauté pan, to see if I could keep it all in there. Then they’d let me start flippin’ eggs. Not the most glamorous story of how to become a cook, but the next time a position came open, I was 16, and they gave it to me. I did that for a little over a year. I was 17 and already in the union, so I went down to the strip at Caesars Palace and applied for a job. I was definitely the least qualified one in there. It was for their high-end steak house, so there’s like 12 different kinds of fish – grilled, and 12 different kinds of meat, ostrich and squab and quail, fish and meat that I’d never heard about. So I applied there with a room of about 40 cooks, and my name’s ‘Yoss’ so my name was the last one to get called, and they actually forgot about me. Everyone got called and I was sittin’ in there, for, like, hours. Finally I went to the executive chef’s office at the hotel, and we hit it off really well. He’s like, ‘Oh, you’re persistent. You’ve been waiting out there for two hours?’ We got along really well so he hired me. So I walked in there, saw the menu and was like, ‘Crap. What’s a scallop?! What’s caviar? What’s foie gras? What is this stuff?’ It was a huge learning experience.
A couple months into that the executive chef came through and fired our chef, then walked out. We’re like, ‘Crap. What just happened?’ It was me, two other guys, and her. I followed the executive chef out and was like, ‘Chef, you know, she does, you know, quite a bit of stuff for us… Are you gonna authorize the overtime or, what are we gonna do?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah. You know how to do it. Get it done.’ All of a sudden we’re working 12-14 hour (in a) union, so we’re makin’ really good money as an hourly cook.
One of my first mistakes was when I started having to do my own meat and fish ordering. I hadn’t done so much fish breaking down, because she had done a lot of it, so I went through the sheets, and ordered – what was it – rouget. Rougets are really small fish… I didn’t really see the sizing or anything, so I ordered 40 pounds of rouget. Rougets are about four ounces each (!)
Oh my… that’s a lot of rouget
Jack: It took me days.
Jack: I came in and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God; what’d I order?!’ So that was a lot of fun. I worked there for about four years… went through all the stations. Then I went to Chinois, and opened Chinois, which is a Wolf Gang Puck restaurant. That was really exciting for me because I went in there and didn’t know anything… black soy vinegar… Schezwan peppercorns… everything in there was new to me again.
Did you ever meet him?
Jack: Yeah, I was the chef at one of his restaurants and worked for him for eight years. He’s a really nice guy. Smart business man.
So how did you get to LA?
Jack: When I had a week vacation I said, ‘I wanna go to Postrio’ (in San Francisco). So I took my week vacation and went to San Francisco and staged there for 12-hour shifts and fell in love with the food and the city. It was very serious. The young cooks there are head-down focused. There’s no bullshit going on. There’s no laughing or joking. So I came back from my vacation and gave my notice.
Showed up in San Francisco a couple months later and started at Daytime Pantry. I did a couple months at every station and was made sous chef after about a year and a half. Then I was there for about four years and this job in Alaska came up and I kind of wanted to travel, and do what I’m gonna do now. Then I was out there for about a month… then they called me from Postrio and asked me to be the chef of cuisine. I was 26 at that point and I’m like, ‘I can’t turn this down.’ And from there I went to LA.
And you were there for how long?
Jack: Two years.
What about bad kitchen stories… any serious injuries?
Jack: A bad one would be when a guy – when I was at Caesars Palace – came by and knocked over boiling honey over my entire arm. So boiling honey landed on me, rolled down and took all my skin with it. That was pretty rough.
Whoa. That’s a good one.
Jack: Yeah, it was a good one. I cried tears for about an hour. I ran to a bathroom and just got on my knees and stuck my hand under the cold water. Skin was just rolling off my hand. Then I went to the hospital and they pulled it, cut it, scrapped it and scrubbed it.
The general question that I have to ask… why do it? Why cook?
Jack: For me… in my own thought… I think most of the world out there is very unhappy with their jobs. There are a lot of people who sit behind a desk eight hours a day with not a lot of creative freedom… There’s a culture working in a kitchen. It’s a lot of fun. Everyone ends up being like a brother because you’re with them more than you are with your family. My dad got into it; he was always the cook. He was always making chicken ‘n’ dumplings, chili in the old school Crock Pots; he’d always have that thing going with something. That got me interested in cooking. Cooking’s fun ya know. It’s fun.
And why be a restaurateur?
Adam: Because it’s fun. It’s probably some of the hardest work you can do. It satisfies everything. It’s creative; it’s different every day; it’s organic just like the food; you’re nourishing people. You’re teaching constantly. You work with really interesting people from all walks of life. And that’s just the kitchen. The front of the house is a whole other story.
About the hard part… how do you watch the bottom line? How do you keep costs low without compromising on quality?
Jack: It’s all about knowing your purveyors – constantly checking prices on who’s selling what. Out here it’s a little limited in purveyors. In Los Angeles, there’s 20 people going to sell you out here what two people are. So it’s not as much freedom, but the products out here are all amazing. Especially during the summertime. What the farmers bring here is better than you’re gonna get anywhere. I don’t care how much money you have in Los Angeles, you will not get the product that you do here for half the price of what you’re getting out there. So that’s a big one.
Comparing here with your time in LA, what do you miss about running a kitchen in a huge hotel? What are some differences between the two?
Jack: Well, here my hand gets to be in every single thing, which is what I like. There’s not much I miss in the differences between running the two kitchens. Here, it’s smaller, it’s tighter. The amount of numbers we do in here would be equivalent to the numbers we were doing in our fine dining restaurant, but we were doing two other restaurants, ran 24-hour room service, banquets from 300 to 1000 people. You get to be a little limited on every single thing you can touch and see… you can’t evaluate every single thing that comes out of your kitchen. What’s great about here is, the kitchen’s so small, if I’m standing almost anywhere in the kitchen, you can see everything around you. That goes back to consistency, being able to do and see that. My eyes are trained, from past restaurants, on a much bigger scope, so coming in here I can almost see what’s going on behind me.
What’s a common mistake you see chefs make?
Jack: Don’t be in a hurry to be a chef so quick. I think that kids these days are way too in a hurry to be a chef. I saw you have culinary school on there (my list of questions); I didn’t go to culinary school. I actually got a scholarship through Caesars Palace to go, and at that point I had been cooking for a few years. I went to two classes and the second one was eight hours talking about chicken stock. I’m like, ‘Ya, okay; I know how to make chicken stock.’ I’m sure I could have gotten a lot out of going to school, but the path I was on was going to get me where I wanted to go a lot quicker. The schools these days really put into you that you’re gonna come out and you’re gonna be a chef. You’re being trained to be a chef; your skills are in demand all over the world; they have clips of Emeril or Wolfgang, and everyone comes out thinking they’re going to be a celebrity chef. In San Francisco I had a huge extern program. The kids would come through and say, ‘I’m ready to be your sous chef.’ And I’m like, ‘Ok. Where have you cooked? “The Carême Room,” which was the school dining at CCA.’ They were very confident. And they don’t get that from themselves. They get that from school.
Do you have experience with that?
Adam: Yes. If I could ever get to them before they reach Jack, I would just tell them to go away, because I know he wouldn’t have anything positive to say.
Jack: It’s over $30,000. They don’t realize that when they get out of school they’ll be making maybe $10 an hour peeling vegetables. My advice to them would be: take your time. Pick your restaurants wisely. Go work for free for a week or two. You know, I’m getting ready to do that where I’m at in my career. Don’t be afraid to put in extra hours off the clock. If you’re scheduled at 3pm, don’t come in at 3 o’clock.
What are some of your favorite things to eat? Who cooks at home?
Jack: My wife’s a very good home cook. She has some of my favorite meals. One of ’em is a bacon, shallot, Gruyere, double-stuffed potato with all this sour cream. Taco night is one of my favorite things. Cook a lot of Asian food at home.
Adam: Very typical of a chef. It’s almost like the higher up and sophisticated the cuisine is, it’s these really great home meals…
Jack: Simple and quick. Quick is key. I don’t like to have five pans going and mixing bowls and stuff when I have my day off.
What are your favorite spots in town?
Jack: I have a few favorite spots. Toro Bravo, Pigeon, Sel Gris. Those are my definite top favorite spots.
Adam: Tabla (smiles).
(Laughs) That’s predictable.
Adam: I like the bar at Ten 01, the dining room at Ten 01… Pok Pok. I don’t go out that much.
Is going out ever hard, or work in a way?
(both shake their heads)
So what’s happening? Where’s this trip coming from? Are you coming back? What’s the plan?
Jack: The first couple months is going to be Phuket. I’ve been lining up different stages and a couple guest-chef things while I’m out there. The most important part of this trip for me is to see food from the source. We plan on going to Italy and visiting the Parmesan plant where they make all the Parmesan and seeing a thousand wheels of Parmesan lined up and tasting it right there. Tasting prosciutto right there. Seeing where the cuisine comes from is really important to me.
How long are you going to be gone?
Jack: As far as the timeline goes, I want it to be two years. We just got married in June and went to Malaysia for our honeymoon and we’re like, ‘Wow. We need to do this more. We need to travel while we’re still young.’ Her clock’s ticking as she reminds me often, in a couple years we wanna have kids, so that’s the plan. A couple years – come back broke (he pats Adam’s back). It’s the perfect time in our lives too. She was the bar manager at Postrio, that’s how we met, then she went to W Hotel with me, then she came here. We’ve always worked and lived together. She’s as excited, if not more, as me, about taking cooking classes in Thailand. We’re gonna have a Web site and videos of her cooking on a wok.
What are you gonna miss about Portland?
Adam: The weather.
Jack: No, I am definitely not going to miss the weather. Portland’s a special place for young chefs to be right now. Portland’s gone through the stages over the years. The Wildwood, the Higgins, The Heathman. Then it kind of stopped. Then you have Park Kitchen, Tabla, Blue Hour… There’s definitely generations of chefs out here. You can pretty easily pinpoint those generations. All those restaurants are pretty much still open, which is definitely a testament to the Portland food scene. I’ll miss the people out here. When I first came out here there were people talking smack on the blogs. ‘Oh, give him six months.’ But the guests of Ten 01 really embraced me coming into the kitchen here and so did the local chefs. Gabriel Rucker has been a very big fan of here as well as I’m a great fan of his restaurant. He’s sent a lot of customers here. He’d be full and we’d get a phone call from his cell, ‘Hey, I’m sending in a four top your way; we’re full.’ And he’d always talk about it in his small open kitchen. And Daniel Mondok of Sel Gris — same kind of thing. Troy from Lovely Hula Hands comes in all the time. His staff actually comes in once a week. The Portland chefs really embraced the change. We hang out together and party together. We go to each other’s restaurants, and that’s a lot of fun. You don’t find that in LA. You don’t really find that in San Francisco. Maybe with the really old guard in San Francisco. Like the old French chefs, they’ll sit and hang together, but they’re boring. Who wants to hang with them? There’s a huge feeling of restaurant community out here.
Adam: It’s exactly how he said. All the guys that Jack mentioned, these guys are chef chefs. More so than in the past. Marco and Scott, Leather and I, we all have families, it’s just a little bit different. These guys are hard-core. They’re bringing something that’s new to Portland.
Well I want to know whenever you guys get the next one worked out
Adam: We’re really aggressively looking. I got 300 resumes in 72 hours from all over the United States. It’s gonna take a lot to find someone as good as Jack. It’s actually a really good time because there’s a lot of good people looking for work. We have a sense of urgency, but we’re also going to take our time. Jack has his crew so dialed.
Jack: They care about what they do. They were very excited about the whole, Restaurant of the Year thing too. So many people here put a lot of effort into it.
Adam: It’s well deserved for Jack and for the staff. I think Ten 01 is definitely on top of its game. It’s definitely bittersweet to be named Restaurant of the Year upon leaving. But I think a lot of things in life are about timing. We’ve done it and there’s no way in hell we’re going to let it slip.
[Catherine Cole’s writing has appeared in The Portland Mercury, VenusZine and PortlandPicks.com. She’s also been a copywriter for various businesses, and has a blog at: ccole.info/aflyonthewall.]