Second part of three parts, please start here with Part 1
After moving to the Los Angeles area, Chef Jason Travi (Executive Chef at littlefork in Hollywood) spent the next five years working for Wolfgang Puck at two locations including the last three of those years at Spago. Spago according to Jason was one of the least corporate places he’s ever worked since being Wolfgang’s flagship location, food and labor costs didn’t matter. The restaurant still made money. For Wolfgang, at that time, it was all about providing guests with a super high level of consistency and the best possible products.
Jason worked his way up from line chef to sous chef in a kitchen with at least forty chefs including his future wife Miho, a pastry assistant. Wolfgang Puck was always there making sure things were done right, but not really Jason’s every day boss. His every day boss was Chef Lee Hefter who oversaw the Chef De Cuisine who oversaw Jason. There were four to five sous chef each with ten or so people working underneath them. Jason was the poissoniere, the fish sous chef where he worked for a while. For Jason this was a great education because not only did he learn about great products, he also learned about consistently doing four hundred covers every day.
Jason emphasized that this education was not so much about learning to manage money, but rather “learning how to treat people, learning how to get the most out of people, and learning how to set up systems to succeed; that’s what you learned there.” Jason’s respect for Wolfgang over the years has gotten bigger and bigger. Wolfgang, though at times tough, was really good to every one.
As an aside, another chef who worked there at this time described Hefter’s approach to management as analogous to that of a trainer breaking a wild horse, with the wild horses being the young chefs working in the kitchen. So it was a difficult environment though one that fostered loyalty since just when like with a horse at the brink of being broken, an apple would be held out for which the animal would be forever grateful. So it’s no surprise that Jason considers Hefter as one of his main mentors who taught him “how to motivate” people.
After leaving Spago to become head chef at Opaline for a short time, Jason then went on to open La Terza with Chef Gino Angelini, his other main mentor who taught Jason “how to teach” people. At that time, ten years ago, before regional Italian concepts were so ubiquitous such restaurants serving this type of cuisine were pretty much those ran by Valentino, Gino and Drago. To learn this cuisine, you had to work with one of those three. Jason chose Gino. As an expert on historic Italian menus, Chef Angelini understands that there are only a certain amount of dishes done in Italy but each town does each dish a little differently. Gino knows all of those differences and that’s a large part of what Jason learned from his time with Gino.
When Jason finished working for Gino, Gino sent him to work for a month in a small town called Bussetto near another small town Zibello famous for making culitelo, a type of salumi. He didn't work in a restaurant. He worked in a salumeria breaking down animals mainly pigs to make this charcuterie. Unlike now, there wasn't much charcuterie on any one’s menus in LA, so this was the primary reason he went to Italy. The Zibello’s salumi recipes though are quite guarded secrets, so Travi was amazed at how friendly and forthcoming the people that he worked with were.
When Jason came back to Los Angeles, he then opened up Fraiche, a mix of French and Italian cooking. One of Jason’s business partners was from the Basque region of France. The Italian dishes were what he learned from Gino and traveling in Italy. All of these dishes were filtered through a Californian lens since they were all made taking advantage of local ingredients like blood oranges for example. But being part Irish, Lebanese, and only a portion fourth generation Italian, despite his love for Italian food, Jason wasn’t trying to be too authentic.
His partners then decided to open a second location, and different concept in Santa Monica – Riva - featuring pizza to appeal to all the tourists in this area. This was right as the pizza boom in LA was taking off, so Riva got a lot of press for its pizza which Jason felt was really good. The problem though with this concept is that almost all they sold was pizza, and with rents what they were and are in this area, it was hard to cover that monthly nut selling only items at a ten dollar price point.
Jason and his wife then had their first child, a girl. During the first six months of his daughter’s life he rarely got to see her since he was working over eighty hour a week. So just before his partners decided to rebrand Riva into a second location of Fraiche, Jason decided to leave that partnership to spend time with his young family and be able to watch his daughter grow up as well as his son who was born two years later.
After leaving Fraiche, Jason consulted developing menus for some projects, but spent more time traveling, for example, to Japan with his wife, so her family could meet their granddaughter as well as to other parts of this country including Boston, New Orleans, and Arizona. His travels where he experienced other cuisines re-inspired him.
However after spending a year and an half every day with his kids, Jason was now ready to get back to work in a restaurant kitchen.
End of Part 2; please click here for Part 3 to continue