Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
[Photos: Patricia Chang]
Manny Torres Gimenez might just be the hardest-working chef in San Francisco. After earning his culinary stripes at Quince, Coi, and SPQR, the Venezuelan native took over the kitchen at itty-bitty Mission spot Mr. Pollo, where he served professional-quality tasting menus at staggeringly low prices. He then jumped ship to another hermit-crab operation, Roxy's Cafe, earning more plaudits before joining forces with wife Katerina de Torres to take over ailing 40-year-old Mission steakhouse The Palace. With a shoestring budget (and none for redecorating), almost no staff, and a steal of a $50 tasting menu, The Palace still managed to thrive, earning "deal of the year" status from Michael Bauer and building a loyal neighborhood clientele. For a special Five Days of Meat edition of One Year In, we talked to the couple about upcoming menu and decor shifts, the secrets behind their beef, and the pleasures of doing it yourself.
How did you come to purchase The Palace?
Manny Torres Gimenez: Well, my first restaurant was Mr. Pollo, on 24th Street. It was extremely small, and I didn't own it—it was a sublease situation. When I moved to the Mission seven years ago, I'd always walk by The Palace, which was often closed, and I'd think, "Wow, what a great location." But I didn't have the money. After we opened, some of my friends came and said, "Remember when you used to say, 'Someday I'm going to own that place?'" I used to dream of moving to a bigger place. Mr. Pollo was only 10 seats, and then Roxy's didn't have a hood—only Cryovac machines and induction burners.
At Roxy's, since I had no hood, the people at Baby Blues BBQ would let me use their smokers to cook my meat. I'd always see The Palace, walking to and from, and then one day, the owner put a sign in the window saying it was for rent. I immediately walked in and said, "I want it." I didn't know how much it was. All I knew was that this was the place I'd been waiting for. A week later, we sat down and signed the papers, and now we have a 20-year-lease. It was right there, it was an opportunity. So I just took it.
You kept it pretty much the same, at least at first.
MTG: That's what I've done with all my restaurants. Leave the name, leave the concept, leave the space—but make it more San Francisco. Go to the farmer's market, make everything in the restaurant, but don't change what its essence was. So we did the steakhouse thing.
But you've decided to shake it up.
MTG: I didn't feel like we were cooking for the neighborhood. So last week, we decided to do a new menu. It's small-plates, kind of tasting-menu size; the menu is 10 plates for $10 each. The crowd that lives in the Mission usually has a budget around $10 to eat out, but that really limits what they can get. It's either Mexican or a slice of pizza. I wanted to give them a whole, complete dish, with vegetables and proteins, for that price. Our prix-fixe menu is five courses, and it takes two hours, which a lot of people don't want to spend; they just want to go to the bars and hop around. So now people can choose one, or a couple of them, and they can come in, eat something, and go.
Is it a challenge to serve that kind of food and still keep the price point at $10?
MTG: Sure. But a lot of people buy things that are pre-made, whereas we buy whole animals. I buy whole animals and use every part of them. I can make sausages with the lesser parts, and use the prime cuts for the tasting menu. I don't buy cases of vegetables; I buy what I need for a day. I'll talk to people at the farmer's market, and negotiate to get the three carrots or the two onions I need, instead of 30 carrots or 20 onions. We don't throw anything away.
Katerina, at what point did you and Manny become business partners, as well as a couple?
Katerina de Torres: Roxy's was our first project together. But I still had a day job, I was working at Luce at the InterContinental. Now this is our baby.
And you're still the only front-of-house person?
Isn't that difficult to juggle, with so many tables?
KDT: When you truly care, it's not hard. It's the same as having people over to your house, where you make sure each one gets attention. They may not get 100 percent of me, but they'll all get what they need to make the experience better.
How many staff do you have total?
MTG: The two of us, and my sous chef Wes.
MTG: We also have some interns. On the busiest nights, we might have two of them in the kitchen. But Katerina is the face of the restaurant. She handles the tables and she takes all the reservations. And she spaces out the reservations so that not everyone comes at once, so we're not overwhelmed. In the kitchen, everything has a rhythm. It's like a symphony, you know? The trumpets start, then the drums, and then everything comes together. It's beautiful when we have a full dining room. Each table feeds off each other. It's something that we developed at Roxy's, when we were doing 10-course menus. It was a smaller space than this, but we were doing more volume. It was a 30-seat restaurant, and we'd do 90 covers with 10 courses each in the course of a night.
Hasn't that been challenging for you both, to have to handle that level of work? Even by chef standards, you're really hustling.
MTG: It's definitely intense. When we get a day off, we pretty much just rest. I'm not going to go jogging or rock-climbing. We sleep as much as we can, we maybe go to a restaurant. It's like, "Let's do any activity that involves not moving." But working here is sort of like being an athlete. We've stressed those muscles for so many years that we're used to that level of intensity. And we try not to overbook the place. We aim less for volume, more for quality. Because we really overwhelmed ourselves at Roxy's.
MTG: We had such a great staff at the other restaurant, so it wasn't necessarily that it was hard on me, but I just felt like I wasn't enough of a part of it. I wasn't in that restaurant enough, because I was here too often. The two Shawns, I wanted them to be able to do their own thing. I wanted to give them a gift, because they helped me so much. So they thought about it, and they decided to go for it. And now it's Prubechu. If they hadn't wanted to do it, I would have kept Roxy's, because it was working. But it ended up being the best thing for all of us.
You guys were on a micro-budget when you opened The Palace, and now you're finally starting to make changes to the decor. What's your dream for what you want it to look like?
MTG: It's always been my style to forget about looks and invest in the food and the product, because diners in the Mission don't really care what a place looks like. But after a year, we were finally ready to change some things. We have tablecloths now, we have better silverware. It's not that we want to be nicer, but we want it to be more artistic and fun. We want it to feel like you're in an artist's house. [Designer] Michael [Clarke] is going to put in a skylight, he's going to lift the ceiling in the back, maybe change the awning. But we didn't sign a contract, so he's just doing it as he goes. He works by himself, he doesn't have helpers. We just told him, "Treat it as a blank canvas, and do what you want to do."
If you could describe the past year in one word, what would it be?
KDT: Party! [Laughs.]
Usually, people say things like "stressful" or "crazy."
MTG: Party is the right word, though! We throw a party every day, and people come to our party. We're not just working. We enjoy what we're doing, and we're having fun. We don't have corporate rules or certain ways of doing things. We just adapt to the situation, and enjoy the variety. Our regulars are like friends who come to visit. We know them by name, they know us.
When you first opened, you guys sold yourself as a steakhouse, but the menu has taken an increasingly Venezuelan turn. What do you want to be known as, or how do you want to be perceived, as a restaurant?
MTG: I definitely do want it to be more Venezuelan. But it's not traditional Venezuelan, it has other influences. Every technique that I've learned through my career, I'm trying to execute with Venezuelan thoughts. How we use corn—it's the main ingredient in our cuisine. And the two sides of Venezuela: the north eats a lot of seafood, the south eats a lot of pork, goat, beef...it's like Texas, with lots of cattle. And then there's the Amazon, with yucca and tropical fruit. It's sort of like a trip through Venezuelan experiences.
So steak is off the table?
MTG: Well, we don't do a New York steak or a rib-eye anymore, but steak is still on the tasting menu. I get two specific cuts of Wagyu beef from Snake River Farms, that they do just for me. One is the culotte steak, and the other is the teres major, the shoulder muscle. It's a lot like tenderloin, it tastes and looks like a filet mignon, but it costs a lot less. The marbling is better, too, and the flavor is better. The culotte steak looks like a New York steak, but it's got more fat than the New York, better marbling. You can also get a petite filet on the $10 menu, two ounces, or a few slices of the culotte steak. On the tasting menu, you usually get the petite filet, and you can upgrade to include the culotte as well for an extra $20. Which is still a good deal. If you go to anywhere else in SF and order two ounces of Wagyu, it'll cost you $50. Here, you get a five-course tasting menu, plus the Wagyu. And I wouldn't have found these tastes, these cuts, if I hadn't been doing the butchery myself.
It seems like everything here is done the hard way—the sourcing, the staffing, the cooking, the decor, even the prices. Does it all get to be too much? Do you sometimes think, "This is crazy, I should go work for someone else?"
KDT: No, never.
What do you love about working for yourself?
KDT: When you're a perfectionist and a hard worker at the same time, working for someone else is hard. You don't get to enjoy the results. But when you work for yourself, you put in all the effort, and you know there's no one else who can do a better job than you. There are lots of great professionals out there, but there's no one who can do the job the way I do it, because this is my home. I treat every guest like they're a guest in my home. I truly care about every single detail. It might not be perfect, because of budget and other limitations, but it's never because I don't want it to be. It's challenging to have so many restrictions, but when you're able to work around them and pull it off, I think the satisfaction is bigger, in a way.
MTG: I've worked for one-, two-, and three-Michelin-star restaurants. And it was great: we had unlimited budgets, which meant we had unlimited room for creativity. So when I opened my own restaurant, I wanted to challenge myself, to use all the creativity that I learned with no budget. That's what gets me going: to know that I can get the same results, without the money. It all comes from my hands, and my creativity. There's so much satisfaction in going out to another restaurant and seeing them get the same results that I do, even though they have so much more money, so many more staff members. I do the same number of covers, the same level of quality, and even with 30 staff members, they'll sometimes take longer than me to put the food out, or it's not as perfect as they want it to be.
We believe in our restaurant, and we believe that what we do is what's supposed to be done. And nobody else believed for a long time. They told me, "You're crazy, it's not going to happen. It's impossible." And the two of us were like, "Yeah, we know. But we're still going to do it." [Both laugh.] If it works, great. If it doesn't, we'll go do something else. I'm not taking out a loan on my house for this, I'm not putting my life savings into this. If it doesn't work out, I'll just do another one. But it's always worked out. It's like knitting a sweater. We did it little by little, and now we have a sweater worth wearing.
Five years down the line, what do you want that sweater to be like? What do you want The Palace to be?
MTG: I feel like it was too easy, you know?
I'm pretty sure no one would say that.
MTG: [Laughs.] But really, I'd like to see what it's like for us to have that unlimited budget, unlimited creativity kind of place. If even on this budget, I can do whatever I want, what would it mean to have an unlimited budget?
Are you on the hunt for someone to provide you with that unlimited budget?
MTG: If the right investor comes in. But I'm thankful to God that I've never needed money, and I don't need it now. I believe that when you don't think about money, you're a happier person. When you need money, it's one of the most stressful times of anyone's life. But if someone who respects the way we do things, who agreed on our ways, was interested, then sure, unlimited investment! [Both laugh.]
Katerina, where would you like the restaurant to be in five years?
KDT: Manny and I think the same way. We think, "What's next?" I don't think in terms of "It's going to be like this, this, and this."
MTG: So many opportunities have been given to us. What was the chance that I'd be bringing meat from one restaurant to another at the exact second the guy put up the sign in the window? That it would be the perfect place, the perfect price, at the perfect time?
KDT: It would be interesting to see this place, or the next place, do what we do with unlimited resources.
MTG: Can we take this place to a Michelin-star level? We've both worked in Michelin-starred restaurants, and we know you need a lot of things to make that happen. But we're always thinking about how we can make it better, we just don't know how far we can take it yet. I know what great restaurants are supposed to be like. Little by little, we're going to build it.