Italian Stallion: Jason Denton, co-owner of Italian eateries ‘ino, Lupa Osteria Romana, Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, ‘inoteca and Bar Milano, speaks on still being giddy after 20 years in the game, getting deported to New York, living off canned fish, growing up in a culinary wasteland, and being Italian at heart.
Are you Italian? At heart I am.
Really? Nobody in your family? You co-own five Italian restaurants. No. Actually my family really didn’t cook that much Italian where I grew up in Idaho. Just the staple Ragu and overcooked steaks. It was OK growing up because we always had a meal in front of us, but it was never in pursuit of gourmet. Monday was the same dinner for like 20 years, really.
How did your restaurant business start? When I was 18, my parents and I moved to Seattle where I started college. I was also washing dishes at this little steak and rib house called Billy McAl’s, and I kind of fell in love with the restaurant business the first time I stepped into the place. I loved everything about it. Whenever I walked, in people were always happy and energetic. It seemed like a real camaraderie, and it was something I really enjoyed. And I enjoyed it enough to drop out of college to become a dishwasher. I knew at 18 that I wanted to be in the restaurant business.
You knew at 18? You don’t understand. I still get goose bumps when people come into my restaurants and have smiles on their faces. I think probably the spark before that was because of my uncle, who was in the restaurant and nightclub business in San Francisco. He always had these crazy parties. When I was 14, we were going to Disneyland, and we drove up through San Francisco to see him and he was this flamboyant, crazy entertainer who everyone loved. He took us straight to his bar, which was one of the hottest spots in San Francisco. And there were gorgeous women all over the place, and they’re like, “Oh Mr. Denton, right this way,” and I was like, “Oooooh.” When I turned 21, my uncle was getting ready to open up a new place in San Francisco called Harry Denton’s, and he asked me to come and help. It was so grand, people in tuxedos, lines around the block; it was the hottest place in San Francisco.
For my first job, he put me at the door, so I was 21, at the door in a tux, and people would be doling out cash, and then some night the mayor would be coming, or some other socialite — there was all this excitement. I kept working with him for a while, and one day he just pulled me aside and asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I told him I wanted to open my own restaurant. He said the only way to do that was to learn how to cook. From 6 a.m. the next morning I started working in the kitchen, making sauces, washing vegetables and fruits. It was all bottom-rung, entry-level work. I did that for about three years and kind of hit a point where I felt I needed to grow a little more before I packed my stuff up and went to Europe for around seven months just traveling.
What did that bring to your restaurateur experience? Did you have great food and get inspired? No, actually we were on a really super-tight budget, so we just ate cans of sardines and drank cheap bottles of wine every day, all day long.
When did you come back? I ran out of money, so I decided to work in London and got a job as a chef at this place for a bit. I had a girlfriend in Paris, who I kind of met along the way on the trip, and I would make money during the week and use it up on the weekends to visit her. Eventually I had too many trips back and forth from London to Paris, and then I got deported back here.
So when did you move to New York? Well actually when they were deporting me they said it was either San Francisco, Seattle or New York and I had lived in San Francisco and my parents lived in Seattle so I told them to send me to New York, and I arrived here with ten bucks in my pocket 15 years ago.
When did you finally start working on your new restaurant idea? I got a job waiting tables at this place called Po. One of the owners there used to work at my uncle’s restaurant as a waiter, and he was partners with Mario Batali. He had a couple of shifts available so I was worked there as a waiter for some years. Then at some point I realized that I can never work for anyone else again, because I had worked for the best bosses, like Mario, who is a tireless worker and a really good guy. That was when I had the idea about opening up ‘ino with my wife, and then we opened the little bruscheterria which has been around for ten years. It was before anyone here really knew about paninis. It’s like my baby.
The idea of Bar Milano just came about over the course of the last few years, wanting to do something a little different. I wanted to step it up a little bit, and try to find a new neighborhood. We also loved the combination of Milan to New York. I think they’re very parallel. They’re very sexy and very financial, and there’s a good mix of a lot of different foods around. We wanted to stay focused on northern Italian food and style wise make it very Milanese. We felt like this could be a New York restaurant as well as a restaurant in Milan.
Do you ever want to start something on your own? I love having partners because it allows me to do a lot of things that I really love to do. I have two kids, I don’t work on the weekends, and it’s very important that I hang out with my family. Also, I just finished my second cookbook. So it’s important for me to get time to do that kind of stuff. I’m not that guy who’s going to be here every night till two in the morning and come home late. I always try to get home at 5 o’clock to have dinner with the family and then leave after the kids go to sleep. It’s a good balance to have great partners because it allows you to have some sort of normalcy.
What’s a regular day for you? I get up every morning at 6 a.m., hang out with the kids in the morning, make breakfast, take them to school with my wife. Then my day starts at one of the restaurants. I’m at ‘ino by 8:45-9 o’clock every day, and I’m there for a couple of hours. And I’ll go check out some of the other restaurants for lunch, maybe Lupa or ‘inoteca to see if they need anything. The hardest part is when I open up new restaurants; they take so much of my time that sometimes I have to neglect the others for a little while.
I love the way you talk about your restaurants like your children. Other than my family, I live and breathe the restaurants, and like I said before, there’s nothing that makes me happier then seeing a smile on a person’s face, because I know that they’re going to come back. That’s probably why I moved out of the kitchen. I love to cook, and I’m probably pretty good, but if I did the same dishes a hundred times over in one night and wouldn’t be able to see the reaction on someone’s face, I wouldn’t get the same satisfaction as I now get by shaking hands and working the tables. We always kind of joke and call it spreading our fairy dust.
How is the current economic state affecting everything? It’s a new challenge that we haven’t really had in the last ten years, and probably Bar Milano is feeling it more than the other places that aren’t as expensive and very established.
Which restaurant is your favorite? Well, my baby is ‘ino. It was kind of where we started the whole panini craze. That was the first one we came up with. It’s kind of magic for us. I love all of them. It’s like my children. They all have such a special spot for so many different reasons, I don’t think I can necessarily love one more than the other. But if I had to pick one it would be ‘ino because it’s my menu, and a lot of my boys have been there for years. It’s like a family.