A dope interview.
By Michael Lee
I grew up in Central Texas and I started my first job at age 15, making this my 17th year working in the restaurant industry.
In high school my father passed away. My mom was devastated. I dropped out of high school and homeschooled myself through high school. I felt that I had to grow up fast.
I needed a break from the chaos that was my teenage years and I moved to Mexico. This is when my love affair with Mexican food started. It made the opening of the restaurant (Californios) more appealing. The concept was Val’s, but the concept wasn’t pushed on me. My love for Mexican cuisine was already there.
I drove my car from Texas, planning to live in Mexico for the rest of my life, I drove through every state in Mexico, except for two states: Baja Sur and Oaxaca. I saved the best two for last! My Great Uncle settled in Central Mexico in the 40s and I was always curious to meet him, so I made it happen.
I moved to San Francisco a year after Val (business partner) and Carolyn (my sister). She came here to pursue interior design and he came to pursue his culinary career. I was working in restaurants, and from Mexico I moved to Colorado and worked in the restaurant industry.
I then moved to San Francisco and I slept on their sofa until I found my own place. I worked at Cafe Claude. We decided to do popups together since he was experimenting with his own cuisine and I wanted to see a fine dining Mexican menu.
At the time you had Rick Bayless, a famous chef in Chicago as the only chef in the states doing fine dining Mexican cuisine, tasting menu style, Michelin style. We did popups and I went to work at the French Laundry during the middle of that. During that year Val was still looking for spaces. We found a space in the Mission with no investors. We looked for a space we could afford.
Not necessarily, I think we wake up every day to try to improve on what we need to improve on. If the space was the only thing stopping us from getting 3 stars I would be lying. Well funded spaces, with less limitations on hiring are set up much better than we are. Owning and operating and being the financial source of the restaurant is a limitation. Stop blaming the space, look inside, this is the only thing you can do.
There were a lot more International diners. We got a good SF Chronicle review that helped. The Michelin stars bring in an international scene we had not seen before. It’s a great guide, we are glad to be looped in. It’s impossible to cover everything in every city.
Hiring was easier and due to international PR, the free PR, the reservations stayed fuller more consistently.
It was easier to get wine, allocations started to open up all of a sudden. Wines I begged for in the past. Overall, it was much easier for hiring and an easier life for me personally.
To be honest, it was a necessity to have a sommelier to go for 1 Michelin star service, so I was the cheapest person to push through it.
We have 700 selections on the list now. We started with 14, the inventory is mine, not an investor's, every dime I have is in that restaurant.
Don’t do it lol.
I feel like all the advice is out there already. It’s not easy, you should know that. Don’t point your finger at anyone else but you, not the community, not the rent (it is but) for the most part, make sure you are looking inwards as you are blaming outwards. I feel like that happens a lot in our community.
I think a lot on where restaurants fail is miscommunication through partnerships. Open up a restaurant with someone you can’t dispose of hahah.
If Val and I were business partners where we met through the industry, it would not have worked out.
Everyone has great ideas but at the end of the day we need to come together and work on the same goal, make sure it's with someone you trust.
I would start off by saying, it's a little strange for people to hear since he is my brother in law, but he is my business partner and he is married to my sister and I appreciate everything he does for my family. I appreciate the way he communicates with his staff, my family and I. He inspires me. I hope I do the same for my family.
I had a 1925 Marques de Murrieta, a Rioja we opened about a month ago that was not complete vinegar, and I was impressed. I was expecting it to be vinegar at that point.
I see special bottles being opened every night but the most special bottle I have ever seen opened is a $3 Menage a Trois that cost them $60 corkage to drink.
It’s what the local people called themselves in the Colonial era.
I have learned so much about pairing food and wine.
So much fun, it's like a fake job.
So, I think there are obvious points, about the wine list, supporting family owned and operated wineries, wineries that practice organic farming, sensitive to the Earth, aware of the footprint on the Earth. I feel like a lot of the upper scale restaurants, that’s their minimum as well for all of SF, doing due diligence of climate change.
If I see a bottle on the wine list for 5 years, I will remember what I paired it with, memories, focusing on a cellar that eventually can get the best of Wine Spectator. I have 2 cups which is pretty good, but 3 cups is like 3 Michelin stars.
I am working towards the world classics, but also maintaining a fun and funky small production and small winery list as well.
All the people I witnessed becoming a sommelier, all the people becoming a certified sommelier. There has been at least 10, through our program. Obviously Michelin stars are great but personally I love to see that because it changes their life and to become a certified sommelier, to me more impact than just working at a 2 star restaurant as the employee. A lot of female sommeliers have gotten further certified with us.
I run with a close group of friends that are restaurateurs and business owners. We are active in the community. You can guess all our own specific issues if you lived here, I don’t need to bore with you it.
For me it comes down to at the basic level, what can I help with restaurateurs, get BART the eff out of here, get some real transportation, we have housing issues. We need more housing around the bay and better transportation. It is shameful my employees have to say to catch the train like Cinderella with all the taxes I pay. Get BART out of here.
I want to fix the housing crisis, the cleanliness, but what it comes down to, I can’t ever be able for them to afford in the city, it's currently tapped out. They can’t afford a studio here either, they have to live in Oakland, can they get there with dignity no? BART is embarrassing.