A Great Restaurant Is Only as Good as Its Staff
Fotos von Michael Graydon und Nikole Herriott

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A Great Restaurant Is Only as Good as Its Staff

People used to text me and ask, “Are you going to be there tonight?” And I would respond, “It doesn’t matter. My staff will be there.”

When I first opened Gjelina, people would text me and ask, "Are you going to be there tonight?" And I would respond, "It doesn't matter. You don't have to worry whether I will be there or not because my staff will be there."

The staff—not the chef—are the real heroes of a restaurant.

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Gjelina employee

This reality of the American restaurant industry goes with another fact that a lot of chefs don't realize until later on in life: Chefs don't have to be martyrs. Sure, I think there is a certain romantic undertone in thinking that way, and every chef who owns a restaurant has to be one at one point or another, but I don't like the belief that I have to be in my restaurant 18 hours a day in order for it to function at the best level. That's why my crew is there.

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My restaurant is not really about me, and I've empowered my staff to do everything that I can do. Even then, when people are eating at my restaurant, they shouldn't be thinking, Wow, the chef is a clever motherfucker. They should be thinking, Wow, these ingredients are stunning.

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Ducks before they are processed for Gjelina

When Gjelina was in its construction phase, people would often ask me what the "concept" was for the new restaurant, which is a question I generally try to avoid. I would reply somewhat sheepishly that I wanted to focus primarily on seasonal vegetable dishes, and more often than not people would look at me with a "good-luck-with-that" kind of expression and walk off. Admittedly, paying top-dollar Los Angeles rents and selling $8 vegetable sides did seem a little off. But almost a decade later I have stuck to my guns and I think it is paying off. People vote with their money and they have bought in to Gjelina and Gjusta, our philosophy, and everything we stand for.

Photo by Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Amberjack Kanpachi with Sesame and Chile Oil

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Yes, the cost of my dishes can be perceived as expensive, but that is the cost of running a restaurant with a menu that relies almost completely on locally sourced, organic vegetables and flour—down to the onions and carrots used for stocks and nuts for our homemade nut milks for coffee. That also pays a better wage to my back-of-the-house employees. When I wrote my cookbook, I dedicated several pages just to my staff.

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Photos by Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

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I'm really close to my employees; it's been a blessed experienced to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them every day. Over 75 percent of them are from Oaxaca's countryside, and without them my restaurant wouldn't be here. They are extremely hard-working and the simple fact is that there are not a lot of American-born cooks who are willing to work that much, nonstop, day in and day out. Zapoteco is the first language for a lot of them, and on any given morning they will take over Gjusta's background music and play cumbia as loud as they want.

They are some of the best cooks that I've ever met simply because they come from beautiful, wild regions in Mexico where they ate off the land just a few years ago. How can you not cook amazing food and have a naturally good palate when you grow up eating these kind of wild foods?

I've known a lot of the cooks in my restaurants for over ten years now. I met them when I worked at other kitchens and brought them with me when I opened up my own place, so I've become really good friends with a lot of them. They are some of the best cooks that I've ever met simply because they come from beautiful, wild regions in Mexico where they ate off the land just a few years ago. A lot of them share stories about these experiences while we are on the line; they talk about how their parents would kill chickens and harvest plants to eat every morning, and how American convenience food is such a strange concept to them.

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How can you not cook amazing food and have a naturally good palate when you grow up eating these kind of wild foods? These skill sets are very suitable for cooking high-quality food.

When I opened Gjusta, I didn't put up any walls between my cooks and the customers, and put windows instead—all to celebrate them. Rockstar chef guys that you see on TV and read about in glossy magazines are cool and all, but in my world, I want to point out the real force behind restaurants.

Photo by Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

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I don't claim to be an expert in immigration, but it seems strange to me that this country does not embrace immigrants. Every single person I hire is an American—it's just that simple. Immigrants of all backgrounds are critical to how this society functions. The saddest part of all of this, though, is that they come here to make this country a much better place. They could never see their family again, not even when their loved ones are in their deathbeds. Just think about that. Most Americans would find that incredibly unacceptable, to work that long and hard without seeing their families.

What can I really do about that? Not much, unfortunately. Aside from treating them as fairly and humanly as possible, and pay them the fairest wage that I can. I'm not claiming to be some Peter Pan character, but I just want them to be treated fairly—and the more awareness, the better. There is a double standard that is being played out here, and if you're even a semi-conscientious person, the way they are being treated is going to bother you sooner or later. I'd like to participate in shifting that, but I can only play a really small role in it.

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Gjelina staff during lunch rush (photo by Javier Cabral)As told to Javier Cabral

I guess you can say that I'm in love with my staff. I just want all of my employees, regardless of their titles and their prestige or their backgrounds, to be on one plane and not really draw any lines between them. They are the fabric of my life and they inspire every single day.