Interview with Chef John Toulze of the girl & the fig, fig café, and Estate - Napa Sonoma

June, 2009

Baylee Simon: How did you develop an interest in cooking professionally?
John Toulze: I grew up in a family that cooked. My father comes from a French family and originally his dream was for me to go to culinary school. I rebelled because that was more his dream than mine, but as I found myself going to college, I ended up working in restaurants to support myself and it just happened. Originally I was going to go to culinary school, but I just decided that I didn’t want to. It just kind of evolved that way and I never ended up going.

BS: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire chefs with and without culinary school backgrounds?
JT: It depends on the person. My feeling on [school] is I would recommend it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to folks who have no experience in the industry. What I normally tell people is to go work in a restaurant for a little while and make sure this what you want to do, because school is not going to really show you want [the industry] is about. You couldn’t teach me to paint if you sent me to any school in the world; I don’t have that ability. That’s why I tell people to work in the industry a little bit. [Cooking] may not be what you’re talented at, even if you love to cook. A lot of people don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. There is something innate, you either have that ability or you don’t. But yes, I do recommend culinary school if it’s what you want to do and the timing is right.

[A culinary degree] is not a prerequisite. And we don’t hold it against anyone, but when we hire, we look at experience, etc. But if they did go to culinary school, the school they went to has a lot to do with [hiring] as well, along with when they went there.

BS: When did you open your first restaurant? How did you know you were ready to own and not just work for someone else?
JT: Sondra Bernstein and I opened the girl & the fig in 1997. Sondra is my partner; nothing I’ve ever done has been without her. So I’ve been very lucky to work with her. And we have a unique partnership, and that’s why it works. Originally I didn’t plan on owning my own restaurant. I went in [the girl & the fig] as an employee, and I wasn’t ready to own my restaurant; I didn’t have the money to own my own restaurant. The opportunity I had with Sondra was to work into an equity position, and as we went forward, we worked more so on a partnership level.

We’ve opened six restaurants together now. And with the first one I thought, “I want to try this and be an integral part of opening a restaurant.” Since then my cover has grown and my equity and everything has grown each time we open something new. It wasn’t a simple epiphany that, Oh, I’m ready. We just opened another restaurant six months ago, and I still don’t feel ready when we do it. I’ve always cautioned myself and everyone else that if in this business you ever think you’ve got it down, then you’re going to fail. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel that I’m ready to open my own restaurant.

BS: What is the deal? How do you get the money? Partners?
JT: We have partners and the money comes from those partners. We have one company that owns a good portion of the girl & fig, the fig café and the catering business, and I have an equity stake in that. We have another business that has our Estate restaurant in it, and I am an equity owner in that; we sought partners for the money. So we structure each deal differently, it just depends on where we are and what we’re doing. We don’t speak a lot about [the partners]. But at the end of the day, the decisions are made in-house. We structure the equity so that Sondra or I make the decisions.

BS: Who are your mentors?
JT: This is always a hard question to answer because I think people really, really want me to have an answer for it, and I don’t. And I look to so many people, you can name anyone. I’m going to Vegas later this week, and I’m looking at all of these restaurants and saying, “Oh my God, Daniel is great.” Even looking at Charlie Palmer and what he’s doing there. I admire each one of those guys because they are what I’ve always wanted to be: a chef and a successful business person. And I think those are the folks I admire—Thomas Keller, how can you not admire a guy like that? I tend to admire chefs who are chefs first but business people equally; chefs who understand they don’t want to open a restaurant because it’s just about making money or because they want to get their names on the wall. But at the same time, they know how to do both. There are a lot of talented chefs out there right now who are atrocious business people.

Also Sondra has been my number one mentor in just so many ways. From the business side and the restaurant side, she’s been my guiding force, without a doubt. I’m lucky that my mentor is still my partner. In this business, people always seem to be running away for the next best opportunity. I caution against that. Look at who you’re working with now, you may have everything you need right there.

BS: How would you define the girl & the fig brand?
JT: Our brand is really about integrity and authenticity. That is our brand—quality, quantity and consistency. If you’re in this business and you can do those things, and you have a concept that people like, you can be successful. We are building [our brand] in a way so that when people hear the girl & the fig, they immediately think of those things: the quality, the consistency and the quantity. And I don’t mean quantity as in portion size, but the quantity of the experience. It’s a sensory overload from the design of the restaurant to how it fits into its environment. You couldn’t take the girl & the fig and put it in New York City. We are constantly thinking about how we can maximize your experience and make it great. And then there’s uniqueness. We don’t want to do things that are unique just to do things that are unique, we want to make the experience unique so that we don’t just fit into that mold of 800,000 other restaurants you’ve been to. It’s just simple common sense and basic ethics.

The other driving factor for us is honesty and integrity. We don’t do a lot of promotion that we use this type of ingredient or that type, or we recycle. You don’t read our menu and say, “Oh, that’s from County Line Farms.” But we do use the best quality products. We don’t have to tell you that because you know us, and you know we’re doing that anyway. That’s the brand—a brand meant to be associated with a very singular experience that is Sonoma County. We always wanted the girl & the fig to be synonymous with Sonoma County. We’ve always wanted to be that one Sonoma restaurant that everyone who passes through the area wants to go to. And that is kind of what we’ve tried to build.

BS: You just opened Estate, which serves regional Italian food. Why the switch from French-American?
JT: the girl &the fig’s motto is“Country food with French passion.” We’ve gotten tagged as a French bistro, but we also think of our food as country food. So it’s Sonoma County country food, but with French technique. I look at our food as, you may come to America and you may act as an American does, but you speak with a French accent. We still cook California food and country food, but with a French accent. With Estate we do the same thing but with an Italian accent. When you think of what fits well with Sonoma, it’s Provence and a French bistro, but also Italy. Sonoma is probably more aligned with Italy than with France. Look at the climate and seasonality of Sonoma County, it looks a lot like Tuscany’s. So Estate just always made sense to us. For me, with regards to salumi making, I’ve made it for years. French American cuisine doesn’t present the same opportunity for salumi as regional Italian. So it just made sense for the space.

BS: What are three tips for running a successful restaurant?
JT: I think the biggest tip is pick good people. We’re in an industry that needs more labor hours per dollar of sales than almost any out there. So the number one tip I give to restaurant owners is pick good people. [Diners] may get to see you once or for only five minutes, but they’ll see your staff the entire time they’re at your restaurant.

The number two tip is know what everything costs. I have a friend who I’m trying to help with his restaurant, and I went in and asked him simple questions: What is your lunch average versus your dinner average? And he couldn’t answer the questions accurately. His food is phenomenal, his sales are pretty good, but he’s not making any money and he doesn’t know why. And too often we think, I put good food on the table and lots of people come in, so I’m going to be successful. But the difference between an 8 percent and 2 percent margin will put you out of business. You’ve got to know where your money is coming in from before it goes out. And that goes back to people—if you can’t do it yourself, you need someone in the business who can help you do it. There are some amazingly successful chefs who go out on their own and fall flat on their face. They didn’t know how to change roles and make sure the bills are paid on time—that’s what keeps you in business. Set [your restaurant] up like a business and run it like a business, and set it up with the best people.

My last tip is do what you’re good at. If you’re a great chef, be a great chef, don’t try to be a great accountant. Even if it costs you more to hire someone to process your pay roll, it actually makes up for the lost value of you not being in the kitchen [if you’re processing payroll, yourself]. If you don’t know how to market, don’t try to be a marketer. If it were left up to my own devices to market, we’d be screwed. Our marketer is amazing. Do what you’re good at, and if you do that, you have a good chance to be successful.

BS: What is your five year plan? Expand? Maintain current empire?
JT: The plan is to get better and better and better, to be focused on sales and see where we can do better. The other thing we talk about with our staff is, if it’s not better tomorrow, it’s not as good as it was today. As a diner, you don’t sit on one experience of dining out and expect the same one the next time you return; you remember your experience fondly, and [the memory] gets better and better over time. So if you come back to the same restaurant the next time and the experience isn’t better, then it wasn’t as good as it was the first time.

In the next five years, I would hope that all of our businesses are thriving and are more efficient than they are now. We have more in us, and we’re not going to be satisfied with just three restaurants. We tend to take on one big project per year. I would love to have eight big projects at the end of five years. We’ve learned from our experiences, and we’ve gotten to the point where we know ourselves well enough to just sit back and see what happens next. We don’t want to grow for growth’s sake, but grow in a way that is sustainable for our business, ourselves and our staffs. The next five years will bring a lot.