Looking at your restaurants, how do they all fit together
in terms of your cuisine and your personal style? What
is the common thread?
Denton: The way that it all
fits together is that I have a lot of different passions.
There are a lot of chefs who are extremely passionate about
a cuisine. A lot of chefs are very passionate about Italian
food. A lot of the French guys are very passionate about
French food. There are people who are very passionate about
Asian food. Im really passionate about a whole lot
of food. Im passionate about pizza. Im passionate
about Latin cuisines. Im passionate about Asian cuisine.
I really love all the different cuisines and cultures.
So with Lulu weve got the south of France, with Zibibbo
weve broadened it, but its still focused on
the Mediterranean. In that restaurant [Zibibbo], we lean
towards the eastern and southern Mediterranean countries
because I happen to be a spice head. Its Middle Eastern,
all the North African countries. And Spanish,
Greek and Arab cuisines and all that type of thing. I love
that stuff. And then at Azie, its all got some semblance
of Asian influence. Its exciting for me to focus my
energy in one area. And I think that is the common thread
now. I have plans to do more restaurants in the city here
OL: Is it fair to say the mold is
set in terms of your artistry and your business plans?
JD: Its fair to say that the
plan is not to open a bunch of restaurants that are all
really similar, so that I can exercise my various food passions
in different venues.
OL: Given this eclectic range of interest
or passion as you put it how would you explain
your personality? How did you get to be who you are?
JD: Oh boy! Thats a good question.
Nobodys ever asked me that one. Ive had the
good fortune in my life of having a father who was an airline
pilot. We traveled a lot growing up, and thats something
Ive always enjoyed. I have continued to travel
even more so in the last several years. Traveling got me
interested in different foods and different cuisines. It
got me into trying new and different things. I was pretty
finicky as a kid and getting into the chef world slowly
but surely broadened my chef horizons and that translated
into having more interest in trying different ethnic cuisines
in different restaurants and reading cookbooks. It just
developed over a long period of time. And then there are
the people Ive worked with over the years. Ive
been lucky to work with some people for example I
worked with a guy from India for a couple of years who got
me very enthusiastic about Indian food. Now, Im not
convinced that thats a commercially viable thing at
this point, at least in San Francisco. I know Tabla has
made a good run of it in New York. But he got me interested
in that. Then I worked with a guy from Thailand for a while.
Ive worked with guys from Italy, and French guys,
different people who got me interested in different cuisines
over the years.
OL: Are there any individuals who
youd definitely count as mentors over the years?
JD: I definitely count Dean Fearing
at The Mansion on Turtle Creek as a mentor. He got me excited
about a lot of different cuisines. That was where my interest
in Latin cuisine started to get refined. I was always interested
in it, but I started to get a good handle on those flavors
working with him. And obviously Wolfgang Puck was a big
OL: Would you consider yourself in
some sense a very American kind of chef insofar as you are
open to the rest of the world - the opposite of the French
stereotype of being inward looking?
JD: Oh absolutely. I think people
from France and people from Italy and from many places really
do tend to get kind of hyper-focused on their piece of the
culinary puzzle. And I think that there are a lot of American
chefs who are extremely open.
OL: Are there any particular ingredients
that you come back to again and again, that find their way
into dishes at the different restaurants.
JD: Well you can never have too much
garlic! That finds its way into all three restaurants. There
are also a few herbs that are common to all the restaurants
such as mint, basil and thyme.
OL: Are there ingredients you really
love to work with?
JD: I love all ingredients! (Laughs).
OL: Do you have a routine that stimulates
your creative process? Does a recipe come to you while jogging
or when you are cooking?
JD: Eating out is a very big source
of inspiration. Its not like Ill be having a
meal and Ill have a dish that Ive got to go
put on the menu. But there will be a component or an ingredient
used in a certain way, or a technique or a combination of
flavors. Therell be something that is just very inspiring
in a meal. Sometimes therell be several things in
a meal and sometimes only one thing over the course of the
whole meal that sort of perks up my eyebrow and makes me
say: I kind of like that.
I try to go with my partner and sometimes with one of the
chefs from one of the restaurants on a trip. Like the chef
from Lulu, he and I went a little over a year ago to Provence
in the south of France. Were going again in October.
Those trips are very, very productive. Theyre also
very productive on my waistline! (Laughs). We eat way too
much. Well just go, and the whole focus of 10 days
of traveling through that small area of France will be eating
lunch and dinner; sometimes early lunch, early dinner, late
Its seeing whats going on over there and how
we can use that in the restaurant. That helps me out. We
go to Provence and the chef from Lulu gets all these ideas
for Lulu and meanwhile Im getting all these ideas
for all three restaurants.
OL: Id like to hear about your
JD: We started doing the products
at the San Francisco Ferry Landing Farmers Market
about four and a half years ago. We did a couple of things
- the thick balsamic vinegar and the white truffle honey
and a couple of seasoning salts. But it started to get big
enough that it was a real big pain in the butt and we had
to hire one person part time just to do the products. Then
we did the math on it, and we were just losing money like
crazy. So we decided about three years ago that it was time
to either do it for real or drop it.
We decided that we were going to produce products that used
the same quality of ingredients, the same kind of techniques
that we use in the kitchen; that we werent going to
go down the road of most commercially manufactured products.
So Ive got a guy who grows heirloom tomatoes for me.
Ive got like four acres of heirloom tomatoes growing
for one of our sauces. Then Ive got another guy who
takes those tomatoes once theyre grown and roasts
those heirloom tomatoes for me, freezes them and then sends
them to me. Ive got all my little sources of high-quality
stuff. Ive got a guy making balsamic vinegar in Sonoma
to my specifications.
We started out with seven products at the Fancy Food Show
in San Francisco a year after that and have been slowly
growing the line and attending the different trade shows.
It started out with half an employee. We had somebody who
did packing, shipping, order taking and accounting, and
it was only half a job. And now we have five employees in
the company, our sales are going through the roof and weve
gotten a couple of awards.
OL: In the kitchen, when youre
cooking, are there any tools or any kinds of equipment that
you enjoy working with?
JD: Well I can hardly live without
my Japanese mandoline. Im not really hooked on equipment,
but I love Japanese knives when Im working at Azie.
But I sometimes feel I cant afford it. Since Im
not in the kitchen everyday the way I used to be
Im definitely more businessman than chef a lot of
days I have a strong tendency to forget that Ive
left my Japanese knife laying on the table and go back three
hours later and its gone.
OL: Do you miss the kitchen now that
youre on a more managerial level?
JD: I get enough cooking so that thats
not really a problem. My work life is very well rounded
and fulfilling. I have enough cooking to keep me feeling
like Im still a chef and do enough talking about cooking
with my chefs de cuisine at the different restaurants to
exercise my creative level. And the rest is kind of a big
puzzle of making all these businesses run well and getting
the right kind of critical acclaim.
OL: Do you find that youre applying
more attention to one segment of the business at this juncture?
For example, the catering business, since its relatively
JD: The catering got a lot of attention
until this last month. I feel like everybodys somewhat
in place. I am still peripherally involved in that, but
not as directly involved as I was for a while. Im
really involved in all of the businesses at the same level.
I have a lot of conversations with the people who are in
charge of running those businesses. Theyre responsible
for making sure that I have all the information so that
I know that things are running properly. And when theyre
not running properly, thats when I start to focus
harder on one place or another. But right now theyre
all running pretty damn well.
That might make me bored. I might have to open another restaurant.
Because, you know, the funs all building the tree
house. When the tree house is built, youve got to
start looking for another tree. (Laughs).
OL: As a manager and as a businessman,
are you feeling the labor crunch at this time?
JD: Theres a huge labor crunch.
In San Francisco its horrible. Oh! Were having
a hell of a time. I mean were staffed, but its
much harder to stay that way than it ever used to be.
OL: Does it ever pull you into the kitchen on an
JD: On rare occasions. But, you know,
Im very fortunate. Ive got some very talented
people running the kitchens and front of the house at these
restaurants. And they really dont create a lot of
emergency situations that I have to bail them out of.
OL: Do you see any kind of solution on the horizon?
Any sign that cooking schools are cranking out more graduates?
JD: Well cooking schools are cranking
out more graduates. But more of them are going into different
parts of the business. Especially in this area with
all the dot-com companies a lot of the graduates
are becoming private chefs.
OL: In your spare time, where do you
go to eat, and where do you dream of eating?
JD: Well, when it comes to eating
good food, the first piece of the puzzle is finding the
babysitter. (Laughs). Which is just a big old pain. (Laughs).
My wife and I have a 20-month old, and before the baby we
were a go-out-all-the-time couple. Then we had
the baby. Life changed very dramatically. Now going out
and getting good food is a lot of delivery and a lot of
take out. When we do get the chance to go out, our No. 1
favorite is sushi. Love sushi. She and I are big sushi fanatics.
OL: San Francisco has really transformed
in terms of restaurants
JD: Yeah, and it continues to transform.
OL: Does it ever have a hope of competing with New
JD: Well pound for pound, we kick
their ass! (Laughs).
OL: Are you saying that jokingly or
with some seriousness?
JD: Im serious!!! If we had
the population of New York, that would be a different story.
But if you talk about the number of quality restaurants
per capita, youre very likely to have a good meal
going into an average place in this city. I think that this
town has some amazing restaurants. New York has completely
different kinds of concepts; its got a much larger
population to support that type of thing. And San Francisco
is growing, and the restaurant clientele is changing. Its
becoming even more diverse. For a long time it was only
French and Italian places and Mediterranean-based type cuisine.
I think Caroline Bates in her recent review of Azie said
that Mediterranean specifically French or Italian
was the unofficial cuisine of the city. Its
nice to see a lot of people doing something a little different