There’s a Name For Your Obsessive Love of Right Angles
Knolling, as explained by Chef Joe Sasto.
October 26, 2018 ● 3 min read
By Priya Krishna | Illustration by Zoe Van Dijk
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Joseph Sasto grew up in a big Italian family — so cooking obsessively, and frequently, comes naturally.
The 30-year-old Californian chef, known for his whimsical, ambitious style and impressive kitchen credentials (Quince, Lazy Bear, and most recently, the buzzy coastal Italian spot, Cal Mare), knew he wanted to work in professional kitchens at a very early age, so he did just that. After college, Sasto got his foot in the door by working at the massive (and now shuttered) Branches Wood Fired Chop House in Ukiah, in Mendocino County, before a friend told him he needed to set his sights on San Francisco if he wanted to be taken seriously in the culinary world.
That led him to RN74, where he started as a line cook in 2011, but within six months was promoted to sous chef, thanks to his intense work ethic and natural ease in the kitchen. There, he also gained a mentor in RN74 chef Jason Berthold, who went on to open Monsieur Benjamin with Corey Lee. “He was that epitome of the perfectly groomed French chef,” Sasto says. “He was very nurturing and loving and treated us like family. You wanted to do well to make him proud.”
At RN74, Sasto was cranking through 200 to 300 covers a night — but he was interested in doing the kind of food that landed a restaurant in the Michelin guide (“tweezer food,” as he lovingly refers to it). That’s how he ended up at the California fine dining institution, Quince, where he was hastily hired in 2013 as a cook after another was literally thrown out of the kitchen. “It was this moment filled with emotion,” he says. “You want to throw up. You are excited and terrified at the same time.”
The experience at Quince shaped Sasto more than any other gig in his career. With the grueling hours and constant detail work, “It was the hardest thing I have ever done,” he says. “But we were all in it to win it.” And the work paid off: during Sasto’s tenure, the restaurant went from one to three Michelin stars. “I learned discipline, dedication, and perseverance,” he says. “Those skills don’t come easily. You can’t learn unless you are put in that position."
If Quince taught him how to be a fine dining chef, Lazy Bear, where he landed in 2016, taught him how to be a leader. He had been brought up largely in shout-y, militaristic kitchens, where chefs instilled fear in their cooks. At Lazy Bear, chef and co-owner David Barzelay didn’t have traditional restaurant experience due to his past life as a lawyer. “He didn’t have preconceived notions of the way the kitchen had to be in order to be successful,” says Sasto. Barzelay didn’t yell; he kept his cool, and he built a culture that was fun and social. “We listened to music, we laughed, we had a good time,” Sasto continues, “but we took what we did seriously and put in just as much work and attention to detail.” Once again, Sasto helped to provide that magic touch, and Lazy Bear — with its unconventional but highly polished take on modern American cuisine — earned two Michelin stars while he was there.
Nowadays, Sasto is coming off of competing on Top Chef, an opportunity he almost passed up (he’s glad he didn’t: “I was so blown away by how serious a cooking competition it was, and how much I learned about myself,"); and a stint as the executive chef of Cal Mare in Los Angeles, where he learned how to build a successful restaurant from ground zero.
But the goal has always been to open his own restaurant — so he left Cal Mare earlier this year to build up his network at pop-up dinners and food festivals, with the idea of starting a pasta restaurant that’ll blend his Italian roots with his California surroundings. “Italy has different regions and different cuisines for each region, and I’m doing that through the lens of California,” he says. Treating California as its own region, with modern reinterpretations of classic pasta.
But more important than inventing his own genre of pasta, Sasto wants his restaurant to be a place of mentorship — where he can hone the next generation, just like his former bosses did. “I can teach anyone how to dice an onion, but I can’t teach someone passion,” he says. “That happens by inspiring them.” And that’s precisely what he plans to do.
Speaking of dicing onions, take a look at Sasto's organizational ritual of choice.