Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch co-own Rioja, Bistro Vendome, and Euclid Hall, three successful restaurants that set the standard for dining high in Denver. They have published a cookbook, The Perfect Bite, won numerous awards, and snagged a James Beard award nomination for Best Chef of the Southwest for Chef Jasinski in 2012. Eater sat down with them to talk about the making of a successful restaurant group, what keeps them going, being a woman in the business, and not being everything to everyone.
The two of you met working together at Panzano. What drew the two of you together as business partners? JJ: We had a great working relationship at Panzano. We just really clicked well. We had opposite strengths but the same vision and we both wanted the same thing and she has everything I don't have. I respect her greatly.
Who has influenced you along the way? BG: Everybody did. Every guest did and still does. Niki Leondakis, the president of Kimpton, was a huge influence on my career. You never stop learning. JJ: The list is long. Obviously Wolfgang Puck who I worked with for years, to dining in many restaurants, or reading David Burke's cookbooks. My husband, Max Mackissock has been a big influence too. John Imbergamo influences me every day. My dishwasher can influence me by showing me a trick. If you pay attention, you can learn something from anybody.
Being a woman in this industry, do you find there is an advantage or disadvantage? JJ: Nowadays people judge people on their results. I don't feel any negative bias. It's changed a lot. It used to be more of a disadvantage, a little more of a struggle. A long time ago in the 80's, working my way through the kitchens, I had to be a little tougher. If I couldn't reach something, I wouldn't ask anyone for help. I know for Beth, when someone walks in they are looking for the man in a suit they are not looking for Beth. BG: I think there is still a little of the old school, some of the older generation still thinks that way a little bit. In general, that perception has changed.
Tell me about your leadership approach? JJ: I'm extremely direct, very honest. I try not to take myself outside of cooking too seriously. I try to keeps the egos in the kitchen to a minimum. Not that I don't have a big ego but I try to keep it realistic. Beth is just brilliant and smart. She's mama bear and no one wants to disappoint her. BG: You lead by example, you're in the kitchen with these guys and you're showing them and developing them. I think you're serious when it needs to be serious but you also like to have fun. I am pretty fair but I'm definitely firm. I like to keep things orderly and organized and everybody hopefully knows what to expect as far as the standards go. Where Jen is always striving to better than the day before, she has a constant drive.
When you hire people what do you look for? JJ: They have to want to do that job, even if it's dishwasher, if they're resenting having a dishwashing job they are not going to do it well. I want them to know what Rioja is about. If you're applying for a line-cook job, I don't want you come in just because you need a job, I want you to know where you're coming. The same goes for Beth-if you're applying for a server job here you need to know what we're about, because we think it's a great job. Our family, the folks that have been here for seven or eight years, they think it's a great job too. They are probably harder on the people that get hired than I am. BG: It becomes very evident when it's just a job. You know when they don't have any passion for the food, the wine, or taking care of the guest. They kind of weed themselves out if they've fooled us during the interview process.
Who are the people that thrive in your company? JJ: The people that get it. The people that understand without always needing an extra explanation. This business is actually very common sense oriented, but not everybody has common sense. If you can't extrapolate - oh someone got a piece of metal scrubby in their food-what do I do - I mean, you probably don't get it. You're out of something in the kitchen and don't say anything, you don't get it. People who understand always take the next step. The people who understand know that when I'm giving them feedback it's because it's impacting the customer, not because I think they're a bad person. You have to have a bit of thick skin in this industry. There's lots of stuff coming at you at all times and I feel like the people who take it personally are the people who don't make it.
Are you working on anything new right now? BG: We are constantly looking at what we have and where we're going to take it next, always thinking forward. Just because we've always done something a certain way doesn't mean it's right for today. We constantly want to look at what we're doing and how we're doing it. We try not to get too comfortable. JJ: As Beth has said, you have to stay ahead, otherwise you'll get left behind. Beth and I keep our managers and chefs focused on that thought. It's almost always the same thing, are we good enough, how do we get better, how do we offer better service, better food.
What do you think is in store for the future of this industry? BG: It's amazing in the time we've had Rioja how much things have changed. It gets better and better. I think the accommodation of the guest is certainly a focal point, you used to hear no we can't do that, no ,no, and now it's like there's so many dietary restrictions and things like that I think the restaurant scene has become more accommodating in that sense. JJ: I think the fine dining culture is going to lose some of the stuffiness of the past. That's what we always strove for at Rioja-to have fine dining service and food but not in a stuffy atmosphere. I think we are evolving. Some people, especially in the big corporate world, try to be everything to everyone and this kind of homogenization happens and I just don't like that. I'm going to focus on what we are.
How do you stay focused on your concept? JJ: We always go back to the questions: what is our concept, what is our vision for Rioja, for Euclid Hall, For Bistro Vendome? I'm not going to be everything to everyone, but I'm going to show you what I do very well. So Beth is going to have the best French wine list at Bistro Vendome. We're going to have the best beer program at Euclid Hall. More chefs and restaurateurs are doing that and they are able to because there are more savvy customers, which is great. There's more people wanting to try and experience new things. They are willing to go to some place that's very focused. Like Euclid Hall's menu is not for everybody-it's a little funky and eclectic and if you like weird cuts of meat and super funky beer then you're going to love it. We've gotten a couple of Yelp's, "It's loud, they play loud music there". That's what we do at Euclid Hall, if you don't like it I get it. But don't go there, it's not for you. I just want to be true to what we do. If someone says to Beth, You don't have any Barolos at Bistro Vendome, it's because it is not part of that concept. Hopefully when the waiter comes over they are not saying no and being snobby, they are saying, "oh my gosh have you tried this, it's similar stylistically". We try to draw people into what we do.
Has service changed in your opinion? BG: Yes. The server has become much more a part of the experience. I think before when people went out to dinner it was we're just going to talk to each other and the server is just going to do what they do and not be seen or heard. Now, across the board service has become much more personalized. JJ: I know for me, if I get bad service at a restaurant I never go back. Where if I get great service and medium food sometimes I'll try it again. It's really weird for me to say that as a chef but service is that important. They create that experience and guide me through it.
How do you find balance in this high-stress business? BG: Wine, lots of it. Enjoying the time off that you have. Live life on those days. JJ: Sleep, exercise. Trying to make each day fun. We take what we do seriously, but we're not saving lives. I'm not giving you a heart transplant. If I take a step back and have a little more fun with it sometimes my stuff comes even better.