Panoringan: When Is It Time to Move On in the Restaurant Industry?

Photo Illustration by Heide Janssen/VOICE OF OC

From left, Zach Geerson, Mina Sacramento, Jason Montelibano, Jeff Moore, and Ryan Autry

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly On the Line column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

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Until a couple of months ago, restaurant openings were so commonplace the market was pretty inundated. Closures, temporary or permanent, are now dual-edged topics for writers. On the one hand, it’s breaking news to learn about it before the general public. Yet, it’s bittersweet when I stop to think about all the jobs lost in the process.

What readers rarely learn or are privy to is what’s really going on in the mind of a chef (or bartender, or manager) when they depart an establishment on their own terms. We talked to these five industry professionals (originally before the COVID-19 outbreak) to find out what was behind their decisions to make a change in their careers.

Photo courtesy of Marivic Divina/ Zach Geerson

Zach Geerson

Zach GeersonPreviously: Executive chef at Journeyman in Fullerton. Now: Planning his restaurant concept SYLA in Florida which highlights alternative Florida cuisine. SYLA stands for See You Later Alligator. Currently, Geerson is floating between Liberty Ft. Myers in Fort Myers, Florida, as well as conducting private dinners.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Moore

Jeff Moore

Jeff Moore Previously: Executive chef of Eats Kitchen inside Hotel Irvine. Now: Executive chef at Snowpine Lodge at Alta Ski Area, Alta, Utah.

Photo courtesy of Jason Montelibano

Jason Montelibano

Jason MontelibanoPreviously: Executive chef of Chapter One in downtown Santa Ana. He worked his way up from dishwasher at Chapter One when it initially opened, then advanced to lead line cook, sous chef, and finally executive chef in 2013. He left for three years, and then returned in September 2016 as the executive chef. Now: Banquet chef at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Autry

Ryan Autry

Ryan Autry Previously: General manager and bar director for The Blind Pig in Rancho Santa Margarita. Now: Bourbon evangelist for Garrison Bros. Also the bar consultant for The Blind Pig in both RSM and the new location in Yorba Linda.

Photo courtesy of Mina Sacramento

Mina Sacramento

Mina Sacramento Previously: Worked in multiple Orange County kitchens and dining rooms including Marche Moderne (when it was in Costa Mesa), Shuck Oyster Bar in Costa Mesa and Habana in Irvine. Sacramento was also a restaurant consultant and consulting general manager. Now: General manager transitioning to operations manager for Breakfast Republic (locations in Orange and San Diego counties).


Before The Decision To Depart

Geerson: “To really understand why chefs leave certain spots, you have to understand what drives chefs.

“Each chef is driven by something slightly different. For some, it’s the title and recognition. Others, a chance to finally cook what they want to cook. Some chefs leave places because they feel abused by owners; taken advantage of to do tasks that may be outlandish sometimes. Some chefs search for something more fulfilling, like a chance to be more involved in their community, or to connect with who they feel they are to themselves. Some burn out. Some chefs leave because they believe that the grass is greener on the other side.”

Montelibano: “To some people, it might sound odd that I went back to Chapter One. With the history and a place that I truly called home, it was hard to pass up. I was motivated to pick up where I left off. The three years I was back felt so short. I was always trying to be better and reinvent myself.

“I found the true meaning of trusting others, because as a young chef, you have to do everything yourself. I taught young students the joy and hardships of working in the kitchen, because I didn’t think anyone else was going to. It created a workplace that respected each other and put all of the egos aside. I never thought that I would be leaving this place for a while, but reality struck. The cost of living in OC and living without healthcare wasn’t a smart outlook in my future.”

Sacramento: “I left a few places because of management differences. It was tough not being able to make the food I wanted to make because of budgets or clientele. Being on the opposite side of the line now has taught me a lot. One of them being that you can put out great food, but if no one knows about it, or service is terrible, then who’s going to come?”

Moore: “The weather in southern California is expensive. I hadn’t planned on moving back to California ten years ago. It was hard to move away from the mountains and my friends. At the time, it was the right thing to do, so I landed in O.C. and began again. (The rent was) expensive; and it only got worse. I was fortunate enough to be able to work my way back up the culinary ladder, and move into a position with a great company that paid well, and offered the elusive work/life balance we all dream about.

“Even so, I couldn’t afford a house in the area that matched the expectations of our quickly growing family. I was able to purchase an investment property in Salt Lake City for less than half of what it would have cost here. That helped our financial situation, but we were paying $600 more for a 900 square foot house than we charged for rent at a 2,000 square foot house.

“One of the hardest pills to swallow was how far from the mountains O.C. is. My wife and I both grew up in families focused on outdoor activities: skiing, climbing, backpacking, fishing, etc. I have spent half my life trying to ski as much as possible, upwards of 150 days per year in my twenties. Cutting that back to 5-10 days per season wreaked havoc on my soul and sanity. It was quicker and cheaper to hop on a flight to Utah for a few days than to ski locally.

“Then there is climbing. Some of the BEST alpine climbing in the country is in the Eastern Sierras, but about five hours away. I want to provide my kids with more outdoor experience than they could get being in O.C.”

Autry: “I’d been the GM and beverage director for a number of years, and always thought about getting onto the other side of the bar later in life as a distributor or supplier. Later in life came much earlier than expected, and the opportunity to come on board and represent Garrison Brothers presented itself. I was hesitant to take the position, but when the idea of having nights, weekends (mostly), and holidays off was offered, it made the decision-making process a lot easier.”

Reasons for Leaving

Montelibano: “I was offered a job opportunity as a banquet chef at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach by chef David Man. In reality, I probably wouldn’t have accepted this job position from anyone else. I worked under David Man for two years back in 2008 at Fashion Island Hotel (formerly known as The Island Hotel). I’ve always respected chef David, and looked up to him as a mentor. He led with respect and believed in me when others didn’t. We’ve always talked about working together again, and now that opportunity is here.”

Geerson: “I know for myself, leaving Journeyman’s was a difficult thing for me to do. Why leave a restaurant considered to be one of the best with such recognition from all angles? For me, it’s a sense of purpose. I knew in my heart that Journeyman’s was not meant to be the final stop. Journeyman’s was a place for me to figure out where I fit in this game. By a weird chance and circumstance, I came up with See You Later Alligator.

“SYLA is a concept that brings me back to my home, Florida. The connection to where the industry is and where it is going is what SYLA is all about. For me, leaving was about growth and exploration. Leaving also allowed me to refocus on what comes next; and for our family, it means having a baby.”

Moore: “I wasn’t looking for a new job. I loved my time at Hotel Irvine. Chef Michael Beck and the rest of the leadership treated me so well during my time there. But this new opportunity presented itself, and we decided as a family that it was time to turn the page to a new chapter in our lives.”

Autry: “One thing that people don’t realize about service industry professionals is that our profession isn’t beneficial to a healthy work/life balance. We work long, late hours, and have completely opposite schedules from our friends and family. We go to bed late, we wake up late, and we eat inconsistently. Though it is a lifestyle we choose, it’s not always a healthy one. Being on the other side now, I’m seeing my family more, I’ve developed a healthier lifestyle and routine, and I’m even more mindful of my spending habits. Not perfect, but definitely more balanced than I’ve been before.

“Another facet of the industry that’s difficult is the stress. From executing a perfect service, to maintaining manageable food and beverage/labor costs, to becoming an impromptu handyman or plumber, our cup runneth over when it comes to responsibilities. There is very little room for error, let alone patience, when it comes to these matters.”

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Sacramento: “I’ve learned the importance of proper training, marketing, branding, and using social media platforms. It’s allowed me to become more versed in really knowing how to run the business. I’m helping other chef and restaurant owners become more efficient with menu development, budgeting and (front of house (dining room) / back of house (kitchen)) management. My goal is to educate myself and also encourage other chefs and owners to learn more about the business.”

Moore: “I’m sitting here, staring at Alta Ski Area, getting ready to put on a new (chef) coat for my first day at the new job. I’ll always have great memories of the friends I made in and out of the F&B world… and hope that some of those friendships will last the rest of my life.”

Autry: “Honestly, I’m hopeful my days behind the stick haven’t come to a complete close. I absolutely loved my time creating cocktails and enjoying amazing conversations with guests. But life only moves forward. My time at The Blind Pig came to an end simply because of opportunity.

“At the end of the day, most of us have the same goal: to run and operate our own bar/restaurant. This is something that I’ve always wanted, and I was lucky enough to have experienced it to a slight degree while still tending bar occasionally. Now, I am able to represent a brand I thoroughly believe in, and build something beyond the four walls I’d worked in for so long. I don’t believe it’s the end of my bartending career, but hopefully a stepping stone to the next big adventure.”

Geerson: “I cannot speak for other chefs, because each reason for leaving a place can be very different. Getting to know your chef well and having a strong relationship can prevent a chef from leaving. This question can continue to have many answers, so, I am really only speaking from personal experience and observation.”

Montelibano: “I know everyone has their reasons for leaving their old job for a new one. What I learned about myself through all of these changes is that loyalty means everything. When I come to work knowing that the guy beside me has my back, that means everything to me.”

Coping with the Quarantine/COVID-19

Autry: “Through this time, many people are finding ways to give back to those serving on the front lines, taking care of patients affected by COVID-19. Many have also moved to support the hospitality industry and those currently furloughed through financial support, daily meals, and groceries. Garrison Brothers has seen this first hand and pivoted to supporting where we are able.

“In addition to producing hand sanitizer that is being donated to local health care facilities, restaurants operating under the takeout guidelines, and retail stores, we are also shifting our new bourbon release to 100% donation-based sales. Laguna Madre was supposed to be this year’s major hitter in the bourbon world. Aged four years in brand new American oak, and an additional four years in French limousin oak, this was touted as the best bourbon we have ever produced. Operation Crush COVID-19 is aimed at raising $2 million dollars, all donated through our non-profit, Good Bourbon for A Good Cause, and Team Rubicon Disaster Response.”

Moore: “In the two weeks that I was at the new hotel we made some solid changes and further realized that the potential for success was incredible. But it’s a destination resort, and without running a ski area no-one is visiting. Although the summer was looking fantastic for weddings and corporate events, the business has drastically reduced.

“At first I thought I had made a huge mistake. Had I stayed with Irvine Company, I could have kept working. But those ideas fell through when I heard that the entire resorts division closed, laying off some ridiculous percentage of their employees. It sounds like the earliest they are planning to reopen is January. So I didn’t make a mistake! I would have been paying rent out the nose with no job. Instead I’m getting lots of projects done in a house that I own . . .with no job.

“I’m scared for the industry. It’s interesting to hear people speculate on what will happen to life after the pandemic. Everyone will have to adapt to the unknown changes. I’m not that excited to start cooking with a face mask on, but it will probably be mandatory for the foreseeable future. Will people want to gather for events or at the bar? Who knows. One thing I know for sure is that people will always want to go skiing out here.

“Side note: With the health history that we have with Bennett (their son, the second of three children), it’s nice to see people understanding how important it is to wash their hands. We’ve spent the last five years concerned about what we touch and who we’re around. We’ve spent that time living with uncertainty, which is making the current uncertainty a little easier to cope with.”

Geerson: “The impact that this pandemic has had on every facet of our industry is incredible. An unprecedented event that has exposed many weaknesses in the culinary industry. I can’t speak about our leaderships’ individual responses because there are many opinions about the proper response, and we’ve seen different things work for different countries.

“What I can say is that as detrimental as it has been to the hospitality industry, we have responded exactly how I thought we would. The hospitality industry is full of incredibly talented and creative individuals that have proven how resilient people in our profession are. The ability to adapt and overcome adversity is something you will always find within our group. You have seen how restaurants have responded across the world, and you have seen how fast people have attempted to flock back to them. Restaurants provide one of the best things to our community: a sense of community and respite from our normal struggles.

“Although we’ve been hit hard, just see how (incredibly) hard our industry is willing to work to make sure our guests feel taken care of now more than ever. A testament to what you get when you involve the hospitality industry to adversity.”

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.