Insider Insights with Melissa Perello
We had a chance to sit down with award-winning chef and owner of Frances and Octavia in San Francisco. Frances received it’s first Michelin star in 2011. Octavia received it’s first Michelin star in 2016. Melissa has been a chef in San Francisco for over two decades and worked with iconic chefs of the city like Michael Mina and Ron Siegel before becoming an icon chef herself. We talked to her about her path to becoming a chef and restaurateur, changes in the industry, hiring and how she values Pared as an operator.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to opening two critically-acclaimed restaurants in San Francisco.
I’m Melissa Perello in San Francisco. I have two restaurants. The first is Frances in the Castro area of San Francisco and the second is Octavia in Pacific Heights. I got an early start in cooking when I was young. Not that my family was necessarily in the restaurant industry, I was just very taken to food at an early age, very passionate about cooking. I spent a lot of summers cooped up in my grandparents home up in North Texas watching cooking programs on PBS and just became very intrigued with food at an early age. I decided to enroll in culinary school right after high school. I wanted to escape Texas as soon as possible, so I went to culinary school at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, New York in 1994.
I had an opportunity to do an externship at Aqua with Michael Mina in 1995 and decided to stay in San Francisco after graduation. And it was very fortuitous I think. I had some great opportunities and stuck with that company for a very long time and eventually ended up working with Ron Siegel, whom I would call one of my biggest mentors. So I worked with Ron at Charles Nob Hill, during that time he did that Iron Chef cooking program which was really exciting. I spent a lot of time at Charles Nob Hill and was fortunate to get to take over that restaurant after Ron decided to move on to Masa’s. I was put into an interesting position at a very early age to take over Charles Nob Hill and I was only 24 at the time. That was an interesting experience, kind of a fast forward to Restaurant Management 101. From there, the ball just kept rolling really quickly. It was a lot to hold on to, but it worked out well. I was nominated for Best Chef of Food & Wine for 2004, that was exciting. And also some nominations from the [SF] Chronicle and Bon Appetit. But things were winding down at that restaurant and I had an opportunity to move on to The Fifth Floor, also in San Francisco. Laurent Gras was moving on from The Fifth Floor, so I shifted over to that restaurant. We got our first Michelin star, it was one of the first years that Michelin came to San Francisco.
I was there for a few years and started to feel like I was spinning my wheels a little bit. I didn’t feel like I was completely intrigued with fine dining and wanted to try something new. I wanted to get a little bit closer to something that sang to my heart. I decided that I ultimately wanted to open my own restaurant, but at the same time I wanted to take a step back and take break and see where I was at. I ended up taking a year away, spent some time with my family and did some traveling. Ultimately I decided I wanted to open a more of a casual space in San Francisco. It took me a while to find the right spot, but I finally found Frances which is in the Castro, a super adorable corner spot. It’s very unique in that it’s very cozy and small, it’s a shoebox. That took me probably two years to open and that was in 2009. We operated Frances for about 7 years before we decided to open up a second spot. We had the opportunity to take over this space in Pacific Heights, which is now Octavia, which was formerly the original space of Quince which was kind of exciting. It’s a beautiful, little, unique, also a corner spot. Quaint, casual and cozy.
What’s it like going from one restaurants to two restaurants?
I think coming from one restaurant to two restaurants, you have these expectations like, hey it’s going to be really easy, we know what we’re doing and now we just need to multiply by two. And it just doesn’t work that way.
For us we had thought it was going to be easy for us to facilitate a lot of things for our other restaurant really easily, utilizing the space that we have here at Octavia. But there’s a lot of infrastructure that you don’t think about ahead of time that you need to take into account. So it’s taken us probably about two years to really facilitate that infrastructure. But we’re finally getting to the point where we think that we have all the kinks worked out.
What’s the best part about owning your own restaurant?
I would say I think the best part about owning my own restaurants is honestly the family that we’ve curated. This group of amazing people that we work with every day that we’re surrounded by. I’m amazed by their tenacity and inspiration and eagerness. Just always working so hard. It’s such a cool feeling to work with these people constantly.
What’s the worst part about owning your own restaurant?
Obviously there’s a lot of amazing parts of owning a restaurant, but a lot of challenging parts of owning a restaurant. There’s the lack of sleep. You stay up at night quite a bit worrying about what’s going to happen the next day. One of things is like, are your employees going to show up the next day and what’s going to happen. So that’s probably one of the most challenging parts.
It’s challenging to rely on people all the time. Making sure that they are going to be where they say they are going to be at a certain time. Making sure that they’re going to put forward a product that you feel confident in or that they understand what your ultimate goal is. What you are trying to portray. What your product is. What your ethos is. What ultimately your end goal is at your restaurant.
At both of our restaurants we’ve been very, very fortunate to have teams that have spent a significant time with us. At Frances, for instance, we’ve been open for almost nine years and I would say 85% of our staff has been there since day one. It’s awesome. It’s great. But it’s not exactly realistic in most restaurant scenarios. At Octavia, we’ve been open for three years and 75% of our staff has been here since day one. But they’re all here for the same reason, because we’re all trying to reach the same one particular end goal that we’re excited about what we do every day. We’re excited about the people that we work with. We’re happy to work together. We enjoy our working environment. So it’s important to us that the people that come in and work with us on a daily basis collaborate well. That they get where we’re coming from and that everything clicks.
How has the industry changed?
I would say that over my time in the industry, in the past 25 years, growing up in this industry, I’ve been previously accustomed to a nature of: People are eager, excited, really motivated. They like to spend time in the kitchen and just want to be sponges and absorb all of the information and learn everything that they possibly can and put themselves into an environment where they are positioned to gather all this information and learn as much as they can. And lately I’d say probably the last eight years, there’s definitely been a shift in this dynamic. It’s been a challenge for us as restaurant operators to adjust to that. And also trying to figure out a different way to motivate our employees and motivate new people to come into the fold and get energized and get acclimated, just kind of get them psyched to be here. I think that’s probably the biggest shift that I’ve seen.
How do you currently hire for your restaurants?
We currently post on several online channels for employees when we’re looking to fill positions. We interview regularly. We bring people in for stages. I think it’s important for people to come in and experience a day in the life in our restaurants and get a real good feel for what it’s like to operate here.
How’s hiring changed in San Francisco?
I would say that hiring has changed significantly in the past, even just four years. There’s just not quite an influx of people who are looking for positions as much anymore. I think obviously it’s a lot more difficult to live here in San Francisco than it was four years ago, six years ago, eight years ago. Especially for our industry. I think it’s definitely a more difficult position to hire for. I think that for us at least, we try to look for people that are really eager and looking for the right thing. They’re excited about the position that they’re applying for. Not that they’re ambivalent. We want people that are excited and ask questions like “Tell me what’s special about your restaurant.” We’re stoked about our restaurant, you should be stoked to work at our restaurant. So I think that’s one factor that’s an easy way for us to negate certain applicants. But also peer-to-peer recommendations are also a really great way to fill positions and we’ve had the most success with. We consistently are reviewing applications and interviewing people to bring in for stages.
How did you hear about Pared?
Gosh, I don’t know how I heard about Pared. I think it could have been through the internet or through a peer or colleague in the industry. I was a little ambivalent about it at first, because I don’t what to expect from these people. How can I assume that I can click on a button on my computer and anticipate that an applicable person is going to walk through the door and fill this position. But hey, we had a couple situations where we really needed some bodies, so I said, “Hey, fuck it, I’m going to try this.” So we gave it a try and it was perfect.
Why do you use Pared?
What I find about valuable for us in Pared is that our dishwashing needs are variable based on our cover counts. And our cover counts vary quite a bit, fluctuating from day to day. We might be be really busy on a Wednesday one week, but we might be really slammed on Wednesday the following week. And we never know until about maybe ten hours before. So here’s where Pared comes in really valuable for us. I can look at our schedule or I can look at our books a day out and I can see that we’re going to be fucking crazy tomorrow and we need an extra dishwasher. However I can’t staff a third dishwasher five nights a week, because I just can’t afford it. Because sometimes he’s going to be dead weight. And also if I consistently cut that dishwasher on a regular basis, he’s not going to continue to show up. This is where I find Pared very valuable for us: I can look at our books a night out and I can say, “Hey we need an extra dishwasher tomorrow night.” Boom. Sign up for a dishwasher and he shows up at five o’clock when we need him and he works maybe four hours, maybe he works six hours, maybe he works eight hours. And it’s perfect for us. That’s where I find this service to be really invaluable for us.
I think that when any employee, you find out last-minute that they’re not going to show up, it’s extremely stressful and can throw you for a loop. It’s a nice sense of security that you actually have a platform you can rely on that you can reach out to and have a set of hands that can show up at a last-minute request and really hook you up in a really shitty situation. I think that we feel confident that we can rely on Pared to send us a set of hands or a person that’s going to take care of us for the evening, that we don’t have to worry about it.
It’s a relief for us that we know that Pared has done this vetting ahead of time and has reviewed all these applicants and is sending us people that we know are solid.