Q&A with Chef Roland Passot: Staying Relevant, Evolving, & Leadership in the Industry

Q&A with Chef Roland Passot: Staying Relevant, Evolving, & Leadership in the Industry

Roland Passot trained with some of the most famous chefs in France before moving to the U.S.and opening his flagship San Francisco restaurant, La Folie, in 1988. That was almost three decades ago, but Roland hasn’t slowed down. La Folie continues to enjoy esteem among San Francisco’s ever-competitive restaurant scene, Roland is still in the kitchen almost every night, and he has mentored some of the city’s best chefs, including Jason Halverson of Stones Throw, Laurence Jossel of Nopa, and Thomas McNaughton of Flour + Water.

Here, we ask Roland all about the evolution of his career, how to achieve longevity in this industry, and what makes an effective leader.

Was there a point early on when you knew you wanted to be a chef?

Really early on, yes. Around the age of 15. I was very gourmand more than a gourmet. I was coming from school and lifting up pots and pans.

What brought you to San Francisco? What made you want to open your businesses here?

I came to America in 1976, to Chicago. I was shocked by the size of buildings and cars. I went to work in a French restaurant called Le Francais in Wheeling, Illinois, about 40 minutes from downtown Chicago. I was going to come for a year as an experience; I was barely 20 years old.

So you were expecting to return to France?

I was expecting to return to France. I stayed there about three and a half years, and in 1979 I moved to the West coast, first to Los Angeles, then to San Diego, and then to San Francisco in the early ‘80s. I came to be the chef of a restaurant Le Castel on Sacramento Street.

With that came a lot of press. It was my first job as a chef, and I felt that I had wings and could fly as high as I wanted. The cooking I was doing was at the time considered nouvelle cuisine, more contemporary than what was going on here in San Francisco. The owners of the restaurant were two Frenchmen. They decided to sell, and I was really bummed.

Q&A with Chef Roland Passot: Staying Relevant, Evolving, & Leadership in the Industry

Was it a personal decision on their part?

They wanted to sell and do something more casual. And when you’re in your 20s, nothing scares you, especially when you have press behind you. You feel like you can do whatever you want.

So I decided to go on. My ex-boss Jean Marchet was at Le Francais. He called me and said, “I’m going to be a consultant in a restaurant in Dallas, in a hotel called The French Room. I’d like for you to be the chef over there and you can have carte blanche.” So we opened the French Room, and it was a big success. I had a big head; I was very cocky, flying high. I was feeling invincible.

It was not the time of all the social media, so as much press as I got, I thought I was irreplaceable. It was not the social media of today, which I think is more powerful and instant. I was very bad in the kitchen, in the dining room, with the boss, the GM. Tantrums. They gave me a few warnings, but I didn’t hear the warnings. It was my only time I got fired, but it did hurt quite a bit. But it made me think, because it took me a very long time to find another job.

I looked at the Four Seasons in New York, and I was also searching in San Francisco. Chez Michel was looking for a chef. Michel made me an offer I could not refuse. I worked for Michel until Michel decided to close.

He tried to sell me the restaurant but I didn’t have the money – he wanted like $700,000, and I said, no way. Gerald Hirigoyen of Piperade called me and said, “My partner owns a restaurant on Polk Street; you should go look at it. He wants to close it down by January.” It was time for me to jump. I was 32 years old and said, it’s now or never.

Did you have any reservations about being an owner and a chef?

No. It was scary. I had $40,000 in my pocket. He wanted $225,000. He said the bottom price is $150,000.

We did a handshake, and I said, “I have $40,000. I don’t really want to give it to you because this is not the décor that I want.” He said, no problem. Just pay me the rent and the interest, and in five years you’ll pay me back. I didn’t have to go to the bank. That was really cool; without Jean-Baptiste I would not be here today.

He closed New Year’s Eve and I got the building in mid-January. I painted the kitchen myself and hired an interior designer through a friend. It was a shoestring budget.

We opened on March 2nd, 1988. The place was packed; I was so much in the sh*t it was not even funny. Wolfgang Puck was here; he brought me a basket of foods. A lot of the society of San Francisco came in, Herb Cain.

The restaurant evolved. At the time I was trying to find myself; I had spent six years in Texas, so I even had a touch of Southwestern cuisine. Things were changing in the United States to more local purveyors and ingredients, more farm-to-table movements starting. We had growing-up pains; we were not an instant success in the beginning.

In ’89 we had the earthquake, and that was really difficult. It killed business. We started doing a menu called La Petite Folie; it was $25 for three courses and based more on bistro cuisine to try to attract people in the neighborhood, but also to reboost business. Slowly but surely we built back our business.

What about opening your own restaurant in general – what were some of the surprises and challenges you didn’t expect?

I think the biggest surprise was when you’re an owner, you have responsibilities to your purveyors, to your employees, everybody you owe money. It becomes a lot more challenging. You look at things differently. You cannot be the chef who is irresponsible, and I know I was with food cost and cost in general. You become much more aware.

Q&A with Chef Roland Passot: Staying Relevant, Evolving, & Leadership in the Industry

You talked a little bit about the evolution of La Folie. What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the industry as a whole, that you’re excited about or that you wish would go away?

The evolution and revolution started in the early ‘80s, and it was the farming industry and the chefs getting together, and the chefs demanding good local ingredients.

I remember tasting my first strawberry coming from France to the United States, and I was like, this is disgusting – this doesn’t even taste like a strawberry. We were bringing haricots verts, fish, foie gras, fraises des bois – everything was coming from the market in France. The cost was enormous.

The was a click. A lot of young chefs at the time went to Europe and saw what European cuisine and France was all about. They saw the ingredients and said, why not here? All that was the push of chefs like myself, like a lot of American chefs – Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower – and all those connections made the evolutions of what American cuisine is today.

Do you find the guests are different today, in their awareness or education level?

Absolutely. In San Francisco they are very well educated; they travel all over the world. They come back and compare what we have here to what’s in France. People realize that now we have nothing to be ashamed of in the United States.

Local farmers’ markets are everywhere now, local fisheries. It’s amazing how quickly the evolution happened. A hundred years of American cuisine was burgers and barbecue; we still have great burgers and barbecue, but we have a lot more beyond that. The most important thing for me is the quality of the produce you can get here in America – not just for the chef but for the consumer. America has blossomed and is not going to stop.

What’s your take on culinary trends in general?

You have to be careful. You can’t just jump on the wagon and say, I’m going to follow the trend, but neither can you ignore the trend. The trend could be here forever and continue evolving.

We saw in Spain with elBulli, with the molecular gastronomy – maybe this is a trend that’s not going to last forever, but I took classes. It’s very important to continue looking at who’s doing what.

I think we saw a step back from that. We see very few, or less, restaurants doing molecular. I think it’s good, because the people who are doing it well – there are very few of them. Grant Achatz for me is the champion at it, he’s the one who has mastered it, but he’s telling a story with it. It takes a lot of guts, and it makes cuisine and restaurants continue to evolve and to think – what’s next?

It’s a little bit like the stock market: you see peaks of craziness and the valley of going back into more simplicity. Right now we’re in that curve where more restaurants are saying, food should be based on the simplicity of the product. Are we going to see a spike of something else? Probably.

Where we’re getting today with pricing – it’s outrageous. When you spend close to $1,000 per person in a restaurant for me it’s where all those restaurants are going to suffer.

With those peaks and valleys and changes you’re seeing, how do you as a restaurateur remain relevant – not jumping on all the trends but continuing to evolve?

I always hire young people. It’s good, because you let them take more responsibilities and be more a part of the brand. At the beginning it was just me; I was the brand, I was thinking of the dishes. Now I’ve tried to get everybody involved – the chef, the sous chef, but the line cook as well. Even an intern, if he has a good idea. Everybody will come up with new dishes.

Maybe for a while I was afraid of changing certain things, but I took the jump. It pushes you. You cannot stay stagnant and say, what I have done got me my four stars and I should just stay with that. Eventually, it gets dusty. You have to be bold to evolve.

Q&A with Chef Roland Passot: Staying Relevant, Evolving, & Leadership in the Industry

What’s the best advice you received when you were first starting out in the business?

I think it was Pierre Orsi when he sent me to the United States to work for his best friend Jean Banchet. Jean Banchet was a terror in the kitchen, screaming from day to night. The best thing Pierre taught me, when he left, he said, “You’re going to find people who scream. I never scream in the kitchen, but people fear me, just me looking in their eyes.”

He told me something else: “Never give up.” Always continue learning and evolving, and never give up, even when you feel like you’re at the bottom. You can always come back to the top.

Pierre is 75 years old and he’s still running his restaurant, still cooking. That’s something. You don’t give up, you continue, you evolve, you push the envelope, you give the opportunity to the next generation to evolve with you.

What have you learned on the business side, about making a restaurant profitable and feasible?

That took me a long time. My wife could tell you about that. I’m very good at spending, not very good at saving.

In 1988-89 I was looking to open something else, maybe a bistro somewhere. I partnered with Ed Levine and in 1994 we opened our first Left Bank in Larkspur. I realized how important the managing the money and managing the people was. In order to make money you have to spend a lot less than what you’re making. Ed was a good teacher for that.

You need to cut people off, send people home early, and it’s one thing I didn’t do in 1989 after the earthquake. I kept everybody on board because I thought, we’re going to bounce back. You have to make some tough decisions.

Ed and I now have been partners for 23 years, and we have three Left Banks and two steakhouses.

Left Bank is more casual than La Folie. What are some of the rewards and challenges of different business models?

I’m still here [at La Folie] every day and still cooking. With Left Bank, I was there for a short period of time in the kitchen when we opened Larkspur, but I realized I wanted to do La Folie. I wanted to be super precise.

The challenge is to be able to close your eyes to the subtleties and little details, because when you do 400-500 covers a day you have to leave something. You have to be able to let the team that does that everyday, do it. For me, the hardest thing was to give up the control. If you get involved, you have to be involved in the day to day. You can’t walk away and come back a week later.

Here, since I’m involved on a day-to-day basis it’s a lot easier to see certain things. I’m still very much hands on here. I always say I should figure out a way of stepping back. I think my first step is stepping back with the chef and sous chef and letting them lead them menu. But I’m still here because I want to make sure it’s the right direction.

Since you have mentored other chefs, what would be the advice you would share with aspiring restaurateurs?

Keep it simple, but make sure it’s you and not somebody else. It’s a lot better to leave the trend than jumping on it and you don’t do it as well, and it’s not really you.

You have to still keep an eye on your business. You cannot let it be run by employees or managers. You’re the boss. Otherwise you’ll run it to the ground.

You cannot think it’s an instant success. It may feel like that sometimes, but instant success comes and goes very quickly, especially if you don’t pay attention to your business. You have to continue to grow your business slowly and carefully. You see all these restaurants opening, one after the other, and they are instantly in the press because of social media. They will learn. Unfortunately, the economy will guide the learning curve and experience. It doesn’t matter how successful you are; you could be down the trenches soon.

How do you feel like your leadership style has changed over the years?

It has changed completely, to be honest. I compare it to being an abused kid: you become abused, and you become the master at it.

I remember Banchet hitting me with a saddle of lamb coming out the oven, and then we had a fist fight. Can you imagine? Today I would be sued. We were separated by the maître d’. That night, he called me in his office and gave me a handshake and never screamed at me ever again. I gained his respect by screaming louder and by fighting him back. From that day on, I was flying high and man, could I scream. I was a dictator, just like he was.

When I look back at it, when that saddle of lamb came out of the oven, I didn’t know what was right and wrong anymore.Overcooked or undercooked, it doesn’t matter — you were going to be screamed at either way. You’re not learning at that point because you’re too afraid. If you lead by fear everybody is afraid and nobody will progress. How are they going to evolve and get better?