The famously mohawked Russell Jackson emerged from the world of underground dining a little over a year ago, with pirate-forward Embarcadero sparkler, Lafitte. At time of opening, Jackson was up-front about having no set plans for his "menu of logic," besides the fact that it would change daily. After a well-publicized scuffle with Bauer and some additions and major changes to the menu, Jackson is the first to admit he's learned a lot in his first year back at the brick-and-mortar.
Many San Francisco diners first knew you through your work at Black Cat in North Beach. Did any lessons from those days play into your work at Lafitte? Black Cat was a fun place. We got a lot of accolades for the work we were doing there. It was a very interesting process for me. I promised myself when I left LA I was moving here to be very serious about my craft.
What came next? I ended up going and working privately for a couple of Fortune 50 CEOs. One of the guys had like six houses when I started working with him and then when I stopped he had about 20.
How did you get involved with the high rollers? I had an agent here. Usually every city I've worked in, I've had an agent. Agencies have their ideas and you're a commodity just like anyone else. You have to have that humility level to go in and sell your services. So I sold my services to the highest bidder. I did it for as long as I could emotionally tolerate it and I woke up one day. You know I mean the money was stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid money. And I was trying to justify it by doing things like mentoring children. But at the end of the day these people with exceeding wealth have no want or care for what you're bringing to the table. At some point it morphs into a corruption of the sprit and I knew I was compromising what I want for my life.
So that prompted your move back to the restaurant world? It was a major choice and a gut decision to say to myself and to the public, I'm going to build another restaurant. I'm going to correct past mistakes and really embrace this again. I had great seed capital because I'd banked it. So I decided to go with it. And I started shopping locations and investors and what I found was I was putting out thousands and thousands to negotiate leases, attorneys, start-up costs. Two months later and $100,000 down the drain, I got a phone call from the LA Times and the writer said, 'Hey, I heard you're trying to start another restaurant. We remember when you closed in LA you said, 'never again, I'm not doing it,' so we want to investigate why now."
So you did the interview. Now I can barely stomach visiting LA for more than eight hours let alone, you know, starting a restaurant there. One of the things the writer asked about was the resurgence of underground restaurants happening at that time, around 2003 or 2004. Seattle Times, New York Times had done stories. Undergrounds were popping up all over the country, but just on a very sort of entry level. When they asked my opinion I remembered some of my favorite restaurants growing up in LA were underground restaurants, total celebrity hangouts. I mean, I remember going to dinner with my dad one night for underground bbq and fried chicken in this woman's back yard and Henry Winkler and his entire family were in the living room. As you crossed through the hallway to go to the bathroom, Rod Stewart was sitting in the hallway. That was a huge, impactful night of my life.
So the article started you thinking about a different track. I had so little return on what I'd put out for bricks and mortar so I decided to do an underground restaurant.
Did you always think of it as a dry run for the restaurant you wanted to create? It was a survival tool. It was the ability to have a place to entertain potential landlords, investors, to train staff, to start to build a philosophy around what I wanted. It was an opportunity to showcase my work. This is San Francisco, food changes every day here. And if you're not cooking every day, every week, you're standing still, you're moving backwards. And it just started building from there. I remember the first 12-top with five courses I did. I figured, I'll do it for six months and I'll find a landlord, I'll be able to lock in investors. But four years later it was its own behemoth. There's nothing I could do to stop it now. I have not touched it in a year, and it still breathes. It's the sleeping giant that's preparing to wake.
That's good to know. There are many many many imitators. And many wannabes. There are so many that thought they could do it bigger, better and badder. When I sort of abdicated the throne there was this reverberation. Other people tried to get there, but they just weren't capable.
How many people did you have on your team when you tied things up to open Lafitte? The final ceremony, final night, in December of the year before last, we had a formal sort of giving everyone their real names back. I think there were about 22 employees or people we introduced that night. There were almost as many diners as people standing in the wings saying goodbye.
What finally sparked the switch to brick-and-mortar? The mandate was always with that as the goal. It was a series of things coming together. Location, finance, economy, timing. All of these things have to hit for it to push over. It was a 365 day job for me. It's frightening what we were capable of doing with a clandestine operation and how much money we were able to generate.
Do you miss those days? It's more trading one set of problems and work and hours for another set. What I've learned in the last year is that I didn't really understand morphing from underground to brick-and-mortar at the beginning. And the realities of who I am as the dissident chef and what power I hold with respect to the dynamic of service to client vs. who I am as chef Russel Jackson. There's definitively a very wide gap that cannot be bridged.
Tell me what's different. What I've learned to do now is embrace the difference. In an underground business model, there are no rules, you're only boxed in by your own limitations. If you want to serve monkey and have live sex acts and cigar-smoking dinners, whatever it is you want to do, you can do it with an underground platform. With underground, our diners have no say. With this, with Lafitte, we're here to be of service. That has no ego. We serve as many as we can, to the best of our ability, with what we're capable of offering. There are limitations of who we can pretend to be. I mean we're not Burger King, like "have it your way." But if someone comes in and says I want cream with my coffee. And I went out and hand-picked the coffee from Seattle and someone puts too much sugar and cream in it, I have to smile and move on. Here I want to have that opportunity to ask you questions. People talk to me at the chef counter, and yeah, I'm a little bit smart Alecky because I have to answer the same questions over and over again. And I'm a bit of a douche so I can't help but be a little douchey and it's going to come out naturally.
What happened at the beginning with Lafitte? I knew that we were being really overly hyped. You know, you guys, the blogs, didn't help my cause. And then I made some mistakes. As humble as I was trying to be, I know it didn't come across very well. I was trying to be guarded about what we were about to do. There was this fervor about what was going on. Here was that opportunity to see what we were doing and there was my following that knew me and what they saw at Lafitte was not what it was there. They couldn't conceptualize this drastic pendulum swing. The hardcore group threw their hands up and were like, "I don't get it."
Where do you think it went wrong? I can go and eat at Delfina, and it doesn't matter what they do. I have a trust level with him to know that no matter what they put in front of me, I'm going to enjoy it. And we're this shadow that existed. We didn't have the trust yet. As much as I wanted to really control the execution of how we did things the first few weeks, we failed miserably. I didn't have the right people in place to execute the vision that I had. I was spread so thin in trying to train my own staff and change the menu every day. We were going so fast. A lot of other restaurants have 30 day warmups and we didn't have that. We had three days. The first night we did 130; the second night it was like 250. Third night was like 325 people. And I had food for like 70, so I was slicing stuff down to widgets.
What should you have done differently? I would have managed the door a lot better. If you don't have a res, you're not coming in. The investors had their first night to come in and then they showed up the next night with like three more people. And every manager in here was calling all their friends. People that should've been sat weren't seated. And we lost control. It was murderous.
When did things stabilize? [Laughs] Like anything, we've gone through a series of evolutions. I don't want to be stagnant. I like to think of myself as one of the main Iberico pork guys here in town. I've been waiting to get my order in and I put it in last week only to find out that 80% of what I want does not exist this year. Somebody else has it. We're using the main importer in the country.
What about Bauer? How did that factor in? My response back to Bauer. He's allowed his opinion, like anyone is. Do I feel like we were fairly treated? No.
Why not? I feel like he came in exceedingly early. He didn't give us three months. I don't think we were four months in before he showed up the first time. Everyone knew he was here. I told my crew, I'm cooking for this man because if there's a problem, I want it to fall on my shoulders, not yours. To bash my staff and their haircuts. These guys come in here work long hours, make little money, they dedicate their lives to their crafts. To straight out piss on it, they don't deserve that. You can dump on me all you want, how I cook things. I'll take it like a man, but to piss on my crew, that's where I draw the line.
What have you figured out over the past year? A lot. Someone once said I'm a little ahead of my time. I'm the guy that stood out in the field and called the shot because this is what makes sense to me. And I got beaten for it. Maybe my timing sucked with the economy. But people are looking forward to things that are comfortable and they can understand. I think I asked too much for people to trust me to give me that opportunity to showcase my work. Failure is one of the greatest ways to learn. I felt like I'd covered the bases and corrected what I did wrong the first time, and there was a lot more that I missed. Everyone talks about how tough San Francisco is, and it's true.
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