A good restaurant is about the overall experience. It’s not just about the food. As a chef, I only cared about the food for a long time. But as I grew as a chef my thought process has changed. People want to feel welcome, comfortable and to be pampered while enjoying great food and beverage. You can have an average food and beverage experience, but if the service is great people will return. Of course, the goal is to have all aspects hitting the mark at the same time. Sometimes this is very challenging.
As part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rob Wilson.
Rob Wilson is the executive chef/owner of Glasspar in Dana Point, California. He draws upon decades of elite culinary and operational experience and childhood inspiration to present Glasspar’s menu of thoughtfully sourced, respectfully prepared, and creatively presented American seafood. His creative vision and knowledge of superior seafood have propelled him to lead the kitchens of some of California’s most prestigious hotels and resorts.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?
In my 36 years of being a chef, my goal has always been to have my own restaurant. Today, Glasspar is a reflection of who I am and what I love to do. It’s been inspiring to see other chefs and chef-driven concepts do so well. I’ve always been excited by the ability to express creativity through all aspects of the restaurant including cuisine, cocktails, branding, events, private labels and packaging. They all tie back into the greater WHY. One of my goals is to begin bottling our Glasspar cocktail sauce.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
My father had a Glasspar boat (our restaurant was named after this type of boat) and I grew up fishing with him in the Dana Point Harbor. After a day at sea, I’d come home and would cook the fish with my dad. But the passion for cooking had been there for as long as I can remember. When I was 4, I went to an Easter brunch with my grandparents at the Annendale Country Club. I was so excited about the scrambled eggs, that I walked right up to the chef and asked why they were so good. He took be back into the kitchen and shared with me his secret recipe for perfect scrambled eggs. I still remember his tricks, and prepare scrambled eggs using his method today.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
In 1992, I owned my first restaurant in Mammoth, California. I was 22 years old and was being interviewed by the local paper. During the interview process, I left a roasting pan on the stove with red wine reduction. It over-reduced and caught fire, causing the ANSUL system to discharge during my interview. It had to end rather abruptly, and I had to spend the rest of the day cleaning the entire kitchen and working with the fire department to reset our ANSUL system.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
My journey in the kitchen began when I was 15 years old. I worked a lot of long hours, weekends, and holidays, People with regular jobs don’t have to sacrifice that kind of time; it’s brutal. Restaurateurs and culinary professionals are working during the times when people are out having fun, and our weekends are when everyone else is at work. At some point, you learn to navigate around the insane schedule and you just make it work.
We opened our restaurant and then just three months later, we were forced to close due to COVID. Without knowing how long the mandated closures would last, we did what we could in the moment to pivot. In California, we were able to reopen only to be forced to close again. Despite the ever-changing landscape we continued to find ways to serve our community. We’ve fought tooth and nail since the day we were forced ro close — all without qualifying for PPP. As a brand new restaurant, there just wasn’t enough support to qualify. Despite constant setbacks and challenges, we’ve kept our head down and continued fighting.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
It has to be fresh; it has to be in season; and it needs to have a balance of flavor and the harmony of salt, fat, acid, and heat/sweet. One of our most popular menu items, Andy’s Egg, is a perfect example of this balance. It has with savory dashi shoju, earthy umami mushroom, piquant toasted garlic, creamy rich egg yolk, and briny caviar. It just sings.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
The perfect meal is the one I didn’t have to make myself. My go-to would be tacos on the beach with a cold beer after surfing.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My creativity comes from the changing of the seasons. What’s harvested? What’s fresh? What’s the local catch? What’s being brought in off the dock? What ever is coming through the backdoor my restaurant is what inspires me. For example, I just got 50 local Santa Barbara sea urchins — we used them to make an uni pasta with shaved bottarga (smoked tuna roe), and caviar.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Right now, we’re in the process of launching a spring menu. Before the pandemic hit, we had just begun building an incredible clientele. With eased dining restrictions and the introduction of something new, we’ll be able to reinvigorate the community again.
What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Surround yourself with great people, and you’ll be able to do great things.
Also, make sure you have another hobby or passion that you can plug into to recharge.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. When you own a restaurant it’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Restaurants are living, breathing machines. If the HVAC system goes down or there’s a plumbing issue, it needs to be dealt with immediately.
2. Preventative maintenance is key. I wish someone would have told me I would need to be a handy man, I would have taken that class in college.
3. Invest in your retirement at a very young age. When you’re 18, begin bye putting 100 dollars or 200 dollars away each month. That small investment will compound and will be a large part of your security and financial freedom in the future.
4. A good restaurant is about the overall experience. It’s not just about the food. As a chef, I only cared about the food for a long time. But as I grew as a chef my thought process has changed. People want to feel welcome, comfortable and to be pampered while enjoying great food and beverage. You can have an average food and beverage experience, but if the service is great people will return. Of course, the goal is to have all aspects hitting the mark at the same time. Sometimes this is very challenging.
5. Go to school for business and business accounting. I am blessed to have partners that did so in college. Fortunately for me, they get to deal with our CPAs, lawyers, and so on, while I get to concentrate on the food and the operations. I have learned a lot about business over the years, but it would have been an advantage to have an understanding of this as a chef/owner in the early stages of opening the restaurant.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
Andy’s Egg — a ponzu-dashi poached egg topped with with Santa Barbara Uni, caviar, shimeji mushrooms, purple dragoon, and toasted garlic served with a ponzu-dashi broth table side. It started out as just something fun we prepared for one of our regulars on a whim and it has since found its way to our menu.
Also, ask what the my special is that night — I always have something!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’m on the board of directors of Golden Rule Charity, an organization that provides grants and resources to hospitality industry workers who are facing an unexpected hardship. So often, the hospitality industry is called upon to support other (well-deserving) causes, There hasn’t been a charity that takes care of the restaurant industry when we need help. I love Golden Rule Charity because it allows us to take care of our own.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!