Dave Beran Is Keeping His Head Above Water
The Pasjoli chef talks about reopening (three times), reassessing what matters, and relinquishing control.
Dave Beran is trying not to be weird about it, but he's staring across the dining room at your empty water glass and probably wishing he could fill it with his mind. So many things—cosmic, personal, and every shade in between—have been knocked askew by the pandemic, but this one is just scratching at his soul. Beran (F&W Best New Chef '14) has worked in restaurants since his teens, when he was "toast boy" at a diner, through tenures as executive chef at swankity joints like Alinea and Next, and now his own restaurant Pasjoli in Los Angeles, and certain things are just muscle memory for him. You cut the onions for the soup just so. You plate the pressed duck down to the millimeter. You make elegant conversation sussing out how much people actually want to spend on wine. And, perhaps most core to his vision of hospitality, you keep your guests' water glasses filled.
Safety protocols vary city to city, if not hour by hour, so circumstances may have changed as you read this, but as of a Friday morning phone call in mid-April, L.A. County was not allowing servers and sommeliers to pour water or wine beyond the first glass or do anything tableside for restaurant guests—which was a hallmark of Pasjoli from its inception. As all the adaptations, pivots, accommodations, and (often expensive) points of hygiene theater washed over Beran and his team over the course of the last year-plus, they bobbed, weaved, and generally sailed ahead with grace. But this particular wave caught him square in the chest. He's not letting it knock him down.
Constant change is core to Beran's cooking ethos. Like most chefs who work in tune with the seasons, he and the team at Pasjoli had been in a permanent state of menu assessment and adjustment since long before the restaurant opened as an "elevated neighborhood bistro" in September 2019, but he's always taken it to an extreme. As executive chef at Next in Chicago, Beran was tasked with wholly reinventing the restaurant's concept each "season," shifting from themes of "Childhood" to the food of elBulli to Sicilian then kaiseki cuisine in a single calendar year. At Dialogue, his recently-shuttered 18-seat Michelin-starred solo venture also in Santa Monica, Beran and team were driven by a desire to continually interrogate everything they'd come to understand about fine dining, and remain in endless dialogue with nature (and presumably vendors of the bounty thereof). But this was all change by choice, proactive reinvention as praxis, with every single new element considered, reconsidered, and eternally evaluated. That didn't mean he wanted to close and reopen Pasjoli three times over the course of a year and a half, but he's embraced the opportunities it's presented.
"We always try to look at the positive side of everything, because it's easy to look at all the negative stuff. But it's almost like in being forced to rethink and open the restaurant three times, the restaurant gets substantially better each time," Beran says. "You have all these ideas of what your restaurant wants to be. But usually when you go into a restaurant the first time, it's in its infancy. It takes two or three years for a restaurant to really understand what it wants to be. I wanted everyone to order their own food, and not share. I wanted to branch away from the idea that we're going to get all this for the table, and we need this and that. Obviously within a month, I realized it didn't matter how hard I fought, it was never going to change. I feel like the best version of a restaurant is towards the end of its second year, when you have the confidence to just be what you want it to be without feeling like you have to uphold these obligations to your diners."
He continues, "Each time we reopened, it was like, 'Well, we can't pour water tableside, or pour wine at the table for that matter. Let's just stop being frustrated about it, and let's figure out what else we can do instead for a guest experience.' We had to shrink the menu. Then, you start finding the importance in what you really want to keep on the menu, because there's four of us who work the line instead of the seven originally, plus two chefs on the outside of the line."
Financially, he says, "It sucked," but the enforced strictures brought some clarity. "It's really forced us to rethink the importance of the restaurant, and how it connects. Not from me feeling like my ego's fulfilled, but rather how it connects with diners and the neighborhood. Because when we first opened, it didn't connect with the neighborhood at all."
That started with the price point, which Beran says is still not inexpensive by any means, but there were other barriers. "Initially, we didn't have any patio out front. Our host stand was inside. The front door was always closed. It's a pretty aesthetic on the outside of the restaurant, but nothing about a restaurant like that makes you want to peek your head in and just see what it looks like. It just wasn't a community-feeling restaurant in Santa Monica initially; it was definitely a destination," Beran says.
He took the note, and as COVID-19 regulations came into play, Pasjoli adapted to be the restaurant the neighborhood needed. "Once we had the patio and moved the host stand outside—with dog treats in the host stand—all the neighbors got to know us. We started opening for lunch on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at a much lower price point. Now we have regulars who come twice a week for lunch that live down the street who never would've come for dinner, or never would've come had we not been outside."
That takes physical and financial readjustment, sure, but also a nudging aside of ego—often a tall order for a chef-owner who's spent their whole career and countless cash to finally be the one to call the shots. "I think the first time we opened, it was such a push to prove to the world that this was a French restaurant, to the point where we're doing things like, 'Here's your main dish. Every main dish comes with a side dish,' and they're all like, 'Here's a byaldi that is the style of this, and an Escoffier dish of this.' It was awesome, but it was our version of other people's established French food," Beran says.
He used the pause to ground himself and look around. This restaurant was in California, not Chicago or Provence, and he needed to embrace that, starting with the produce. "I had this whole epiphany before we reopened the second time where I was looking at the French food that I love, and some of my favorite French chefs. You start looking at the stuff that they talk about, or you look through their books, or even Alain Passard's Instagram for that matter. He's glazing turnips in an apple cider reduction. That's not in the Escoffier book; that's just his food, and it happens to be French,"
He started to ask himself, "Why aren't we just cooking our food? Our food is French at this restaurant. Now, we have a beurre blanc that has miso in it. Because of my time at Next, for example, I had so many different influences. Why weren't we using all of that as our own influence, but treating it as our version of the French food?"
This was all freeing for Beran in a way, allowing himself and the team to scrutinize practices in a way they might not have while things were in full swing. "When you move into a new house, you're less likely to redecorate your current house, and rethink what you have on the walls than if you move into a new one. Obviously, everything builds upon what you've done previously. But fortunately, as a by-product of having to close, we could really assess the value of what worked and what didn't so that we didn't waste time when we reopened."
Beran closed his other restaurant, Dialogue—a plan already in the works—brought everyone who wanted to over to Pasjoli, and with the full input of the team, developed a compensation model that allows more hours and greater pay for everyone on staff (minus himself). "I've pretty much been working six days a week since the pandemic started. Because as an owner, you have to start looking at things and saying 'I'm almost like free labor,'" he says.
"We've really prioritized the employees in giving more hours. We collectively as a team opted to shift our labor a certain way, so rather than hiring more people, the management, as a collective decision, opted to work a little more. I'm the only one who works six days. Everyone else is still five days," Beran says. "If you could hire 12 people, and give them all three days a week, inevitably they're going to look somewhere else for two to three days a week. Or if you can look at all of them and say, 'I can give you five days a week with eight to nine hour shifts, so you can a little bit of overtime,' then you have a full time job with healthcare that you can always come to, and you don't have to split your time." It's better for their mental health, he says, because they have a sole job they can rely on without having to worry about stitching together hours, possibly at a place where they're reliant on tips, or in a non-tipped position.
"During the pandemic, diners were like, 'Why don't you have a tip line? We want to leave …' We're like, 'Service is included,' but they wanted to leave more. We have an optional tip line. We printed very clearly on the bottom of the menu that service is included, and it's completely optional. And we made stamps that we stamp right over the top with red ink that says, 'This is optional. Service is included in the price.' And on average, people leave five to ten percent for the staff," Beran says.
Additionally, California recently passed a law saying that the back of the house can be included in the tip pool with no stipulations. "We talked to everyone on staff, and we have a whole structure system that includes the back of the house, and isn't an 80/20. It's a very fair split. Everyone agreed in silent or private vote. It wasn't like anyone was pressured into it. And because of that, everyone on the staff is seeing extra money."
Beran was adamant that care of the staff be the responsibility of the restaurant, rather than a pressure on the diners. "If we're going to progress as an industry that's a professional industry, I think we have to act as other professional industries do. And that included health care, that included our responsibility to our employees, not the guest's responsibility." And that model will stay in place even after the pandemic is (touch wood, cross fingers) a distant memory.
But back to the water. This change in staffing has forced the Pasjoli team to reassess how that precious labor is allocated. This doesn't mean cutting corners or dropping standards—something that is anathema to Beran, who'd probably rather forgo sleep entirely than serve a dish he deemed subpar—but rather doubling down on the things that are within the restaurant's control, and skimming off some things he'd always taken as rote. The meal kit version of the pressed duck for which the restaurant is famous included components for the sauce, and copious cooking instructions (including videos), but the sauce was curdling when people attempted to make it at home. Now the team focuses on making the best possible version of the sauce, and it's sent along fully made. The finished dish might not be as pretty as at the restaurant, but that's OK.
"We relinquished control, and this became a blanket thing for all the food that we're serving currently. I think our food is still pretty for what it is, but this is less drive into the aesthetic, and more to do with foundation, flavor, and depth, so that even if you shake the entire to-go container, and make a bowl of chili out of it, it's still going to taste awesome," Beran says.
Rather than julienning a 75 pound sack of onions for French onion soup, which would take a team of two three hours to do, he looked over at an attachment on the Robo Coupe. "It cuts them, and it does 65 to70 percent as good of a job. The cut is not perfectly uniform every time, but we're going to cook this soup for eight hours. It's not that I don't want to adhere to that fine dining mentality, and I'm getting lazy," Beran says. "It's that same assessment now I freed up essentially six hours of labor. What else can that six hours of labor do?"
So while it's driving him up a wall to see a bottle on the table, or a semi-filled glass, Beran knows that he doesn't have any say over the matter, that there are perhaps are more pressing tasks at hand (he notes that previously, there was a person in each section whose time was primarily taken up with pouring water), and that he has to just deal with it. The diners are given a list of regulations when they make their reservation, and honestly, as long as he doesn't point out the elephant in the room, they may not even notice.
"I think as soon as we don't make it weird that we don't pour your water," Beran says. "I don't think guests are like, 'Wait, why didn't you pour this?' If I made it awkward, if I was like, 'Uh, I can't do this, but I'm sorry,' then guests are like, 'Oh, that's weird.' So I just need to not be weird about it."