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Chefology: Craig Stoll

Delfinas Decade of Success Continues Today Thanks to Just Go for it! Attitude

Susannah Chen

How did you get into food?

I started cooking when I was in high school in restaurants, but before that I cooked at home, and I had a foodie family. My parents would take me to great restaurants in Manhattan. They’d discover amazing Chinese places; they were taking Szechuan cooking classes in 1973, when nobody had even heard of Szechuan food. I was exposed to a lot and loved it.

When did you know you really wanted to work as a chef?

I was in high school and really dug cooking, and someone in my family said, “Why don’t you be a chef?” In the eleventh grade, I found out about the Culinary Institute of America and I thought, “Maybe I’ll get to go to that.” I told everyone I wanted to be a chef. Then I worked at Pattigeorges in Longboat Key, Florida, first as a dishwasher, then as the prep cook. It was amazing getting treated like a grown-up. I hated being treated like a kid in school, and I was never good with authority to begin. It was a feeling of independence, camaraderie, this instant gratification: you make something, you sell it, and people like it.

You were raised a New Yorker. Are there any culinary rituals there that you find massively underrepresented in the West?

It’s hard for me to enjoy a good toasted bagel with cream cheese, tomato, and lox [out here]. I know that’s changing, though; one of our cooks is opening a bagel place, Beauty’s Bagels, and there’s sort of a renaissance of bagels in San Francisco right now. When I go to New York, it feels like I’m home; at any gathering, they break out the deli stuff.

What inspires you on a culinary level?

Trips to Italy are a huge inspiration; I try to get to Italy once or twice a year, and I always take someone from staff with me. I’m always inspired by Danny Meyer restaurants; they’re excellent through and through. I remember being so impressed when I ate at one of his restaurants years ago. They gave us a different vintage of a wine we ordered, and then they comped it because we pointed out it was the wrong vintage. He and his staff feel they need to live up to a certain standard, and when they don’t, they own that, and they make up for it. That’s something that we try to instill in every manager and every cook in our restaurants.

How do you keep the menu fresh?

Nothing on it is sacred. Our roast chicken has been on the menu for almost 13 years now, and I still look at that and think about it. I still think it could be better; I think about the mashed potatoes that go with it and want to tweak them. There’s nothing too sacred to be changed, improved, or messed with. We are constantly messing with stuff.

How do you foster growth among your kitchen staff?

I’ll bring in new ingredients or articles, or we’ll go out, we’ll talk, and we’ll cook. I also expect them to have enough drive to do that on their own as well. It’s a lot about having the right people; it’s as much about them as it is about us. We give them every opportunity to do their thing. I have a bad smallwares habit: buying pots, pans, containers, whatever – even a new range, a Cryovac machine, a new walk-in. I’m open if they have an idea to change the menu, to change the format, a vendor, the way we cook our carrots; anything is on the table at all times. People who want to come in and do the same job and not think about it – whether it’s management, dishwashers, cooks, or waiters – this is the wrong restaurant for them. Also, I think the most important thing with our staff is respect. We don’t scream at people in the kitchen. If someone screws up, they need to hear about it, and if you’re unhappy with them, you need to express that, but we never belittle somebody.

Have you adopted any new strategies to fit your growing restaurant empire?

It’s all about having enough people, and having enough talent here to do other new things. What we [wife Anne Stoll and I] need right now, in order for our restaurants to thrive and grow, is talent. It’s obvious to anybody in business, but we’ve been so hands-on for so long, but we just can’t be that hands-on at all of our restaurants anymore. We need more individuals to bring more to the table. We have a new general manager at Delfina, Nick Arnerich, from the French Laundry, and he’s the first general manager we’ve had who’s truly excited to bring it!

How do you and Anne make time for one another and family?

The place could go up in flames, but I’ve got to go home. I’m not going to miss my daughter growing up. Michael Bauer could drop us a star, somebody might get a burnt pizza, but it’s going to happen if I’m here or not. I would rather have a restaurant that’s two and a half stars than miss out on my family all the time. Ideally, I wouldn’t have to choose, and the restaurant’s all about passion, love, and commitment, but at the end of the day, it is a business and should allow me a life that I can have outside of it.

Spending time together and talking about things other than the restaurant is a challenge. Anne and I try to get a date night in on a regular basis, even though nine times out of ten, it devolves into a work discussion, because we’re at dinner somewhere, and we start talking to the owner or the chef.

What’s your advice for other chefs?

Go for it! In the nineties, around the time we opened Delfina, no one went for it. We did, but everyone else at the time was saying, “One day I’ll open a restaurant, when I get 27 investors and millions of dollars, and it’s going to have an underwater theme.” We bucked that when we opened Delfina. These past few years, there’s been a movement of young people who are just following their passion and going for it without compromise. I’m so excited to see that.

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Now: Delfina, Pizzeria Delfina (two locations), and Locanda, San Francisco.

Then: Campton Place, Postrio, Splendido, Prego, Tutto Bene, Palio d’Asti, Timo’s, San Francisco; Oliveto, Oakland; The Frog and the Peach, Mill Valley; Da Delfina, Artimino, Tuscany, Italy.

Age: 46

Grew up: New York, New York, and Sarasota, Florida

Education: Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York; Bachelor’s in Hospitality Management, Florida International University, Miami, Florida.

Accolades: 2001 Food & Wine Best New Chef; 2008 James Beard Foundation Award, Best Chef: Pacific; Three stars for Delfina, San Francisco Chronicle.

Often frequents: Mission Chinese Food, Thep Phanom, Lers Ros Thai, San Francisco; Del Posto, New York; any of Danny Meyer’s restaurants.