'Top Chef's' Joe Sasto on Focused Cooking and Mustache Maintenance
The executive chef at L.A.'s Cal Mare also reveals what he would have cooked in a marijuana-themed challenge.
This season on Top Chef there were a lot of personalities bubbling under the surface of the competitors, but one chef proudly wore his on his face. "Mustache Joe" Sasto made an impression on viewers and the judges with his technique-forward modern Italian cuisine and willingness to take creative risks in the kitchen, earning him a spot in the final three.
Before Top Chef the man behind the mustache started his career as a line cook while attending the University of California at Davis before traveling through Europe to receive a culinary education. Upon returning to the U.S., Sasto started work at San Francisco's Cotogna, Quince’s sister-restaurant with a more rustic take on Italian cuisine. After Cotogna, Joe moved to Quince where he mastered his pasta (of which we saw plenty on the show) under the tutelage of Michelin-starred Michael Tusk. He then became the executive sous chef at Lazy Bear under David Barzelay, also in the Bay Area. Since Top Chef has aired, Sasto moved down to Los Angeles to open and serve as executive chef at Michael Mina and Adam Sobel’s new restaurant Cal Mare in the Beverly Center. We talked to Joe about making it to the final three, cooking on the show and what else but his infamous mustache.
Food & Wine: How did it feel to make the final three?
Mustache Joe Sasto: It was awesome. You know, it was a great feeling that I made it so far and did so well. I hoped that I would at least make it past Restaurant Wars and close to the finals. As we got closer and closer I found myself kind of anticipating what to do and where I kind of wanted to be, at that point I thought I had a good chance of winning. Perhaps I just got too far ahead and dropped the ball, right? The last couple yards.
F&W: If you were to have made it to the finale, what would you have made?
JS: Oh boy. I definitely would have made pasta without a doubt, and a combination of vegetable-focused dishes and do my thing. Through that whole competition, it’s just an eye-opening experience as to what I cared about with food, what mattered to me, the kinds of things I want to do on a plate to best represent myself. Utilizing the whole vegetable in a bunch of different ways, paying full respect to something as humble as the carrot doing, some combination of that. I know Joe and Adrienne put a lot more thought, Adrienne especially, into her menu almost from the get-go down to the finals in the last couple weeks. So, you know, it was something I was waiting until I got there to put that much thought into it.
F&W: How did the actual competition compare to your expectations of what Top Chef was going to be like?
JS: Oh God. Well, I had never seen the show before so I knew of Top Chef but in my head I was like “Oh it’s on Bravo” and the only thing I thought of was Desperate Housewives so I thought it was going to be about the drama and us all living in a house together, I didn’t think it was going to be about cooking. So that was like why I never really watched it or something I was crazy about. So I got there and started to do it and I couldn’t tap in more wrong. Like it was so not about drama ever and it’s such a serious cooking competition with such serious talent. Incredible chefs from around the country, there was such a huge eye-opening it was like "oh man, this is serious, this is legit this is about the cooking" from the moment I got there.
F&W: What inspired you to apply to the show?
JS: Some casting producers came [to my old job] and were like "you know, you should apply, you and your mustache should apply." And I was like, "oh I don’t know I don’t know," you know I still had this preconceived notion about what the show was like and like, silly me. The tipping point was definitely my girlfriend; she was like "you have this huge opportunity, we’re about to move down to L.A. together, you have a new restaurant opening, why would you not do this?" Everything happens for a reason and the timing, leaving our jobs in San Francisco, moving to L.A., it gave us enough time in the middle to go do the show. We both believe everything happens for a reason and it just made sense.
F&W: That last elimination challenge seemed like a pretty close call, do you feel like you deserved to go home? If not, who should have gone?
JS: You know, it was a rough day, I wasn’t happy with my dish the entire day. I knew, from the moment I ate it: oh, this wasn’t what I pictured in my head at all, I’ve just got to stand behind it now, there’s nothing I can do to change it really. That day went by so fast. The amount of prep I tried to accomplish in that time frame on that small kitchen in the field was not as planned out as it could have been. I think I got in my head at that point and I think I was ready to go home before we finished cooking, especially after I tasted Joe’s dish. After I tasted Joe’s dish I remember thinking "oh shit, this is what they were looking for from the challenge. This is really good, this is exactly what they wanted." And then I tried Adrienne’s, she wasn’t so happy with her’s either and I thought maybe there’s a chance that the judges see something in my dish that I didn’t and then maybe she made some fatal flaw, so I think that if it wasn’t me it would have been Adrienne. But at that point, I was at peace with going home.
F&W: What was your favorite moment or challenge of this season?
JS: Definitely the Olympics challenge, and not just because I won that one [laughs]. That was just like a fun day, I got to work with two of my best friends so that made it great. You always think back to like growing up in school, team projects, those were the worst nobody liked those. But then like to do a group project like this, where you get the two teammates you would have chosen if you got to choose, it was such an awesome experience. And then we got to the point where you were cooking in the kitchen, and it’s usually kind of quiet, kind of empty, just you and the cameras. So when we walked in, they had transformed the kitchen into a stadium, there were people cheering in the crowd with signs—it was a whole new cooking experience. There was so much energy in the room that made it really fun day.
F&W: Given the Colorado location this season, did you think there’d be a marijuana-infused challenge?
F&W: What would you have made!?
JS: Oh man, I would have crushed it! I’ve been cooking with that stuff since back in college! It was the kind of thing where we were all kind of waiting for it and then it got like “oh I don’t know, is it gonna happen?” And you know, considering we weren’t partaking in the recreational scene when we got there, unfortunately, we kind of got the hint that there probably wouldn’t be a challenge incorporating that. We thought that we might be cooking like for a munchies competition, some sort of snack attack or something or even cooking for the growers. I mean, driving around the city it was like warehouses with fences around it, it’s a huge part of the city there. Had we, I probably would have done something similar along the lines of the food truck challenge you know sticky licky delicious filling food. I’ve always wanted to do something with pasta, you know not necessarily in the dough but in maybe some kind of broth or scented or infused. I’ve never used it in a pasta, it’s definitely on my to-do list.
F&W: If you could redo a dish which one would you do and why?
JS: Definitely redo the dish that got me eliminated because the other ones it wasn’t really necessary since it didn’t get me canned. I would have rethought it out and made sure that it was a little more focused and came together. I think that having all of those things in front of me on the table, my brain went too many places. I think I’m the kind of person who works better under restraints rather than just having the ability to do anything. My girlfriend and I run into that problem a lot when I’m making dinner. We can literally make anything in the world, "well what do we want?" I have no idea. Give me restraints and I have more focus around what I can make. That helps dictate what I’m doing.
F&W: What have you been up to since the show wrapped?
JS: Opening Cal Mare in Los Angeles. It’s been nonstop since October, we opened in November and I’ve been living, breathing, eating, sleeping the restaurant. Pushing the team, making the food, shaking hands and kissing babies now that the show has aired.
F&W: We’ve got to ask about the mustache but we have too many questions about it! Could you just take us through the maintenance required to get the handlebars just right?
JS: I spend more time on it than my girlfriend does getting ready most days. It’s a couple step process: it needs to be out of the shower and I have a timeline that’s just—if it dries too much by the time I get out of the shower my hair gets too frizzy and there’s nothing I can do at that point. It’s got to be semi-wet and then it’s a couple different products that go into it—one for shaping and one for holding. Lots of maintenance required, it’s not as easy as it looks, I didn’t just wake up like this.
F&W: Would you ever come back for another season of Top Chef?
JS: I would love to come back and judge another season of Top Chef, absolutely!
The finale of season 15 of Top Chef in Colorado airs this Thursday at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on Bravo.