Taking a lap around the dining room at his Aji Japanese Bistro in El Dorado Hills, Nick Dedier is searching for clues about his customers.
A phone on the table means a diner is probably in a hurry. A smiling couple with their bodies angled toward passing servers means they’re ready for drinks. Someone sitting solo with slouched shoulders – the universal body language for “it’s been a rough day” – perhaps calls for a complimentary plate of shishito peppers as a pick-me-up.
“Service is a craft, just like being in the kitchen is a craft,” Dedier said. “Knowing how to serve tables, read people’s posture, the language you use – it’s all the little things you focus on. We’re so focused on chefs and the farm-to-fork thing, but if you don’t have the right person to connect the guest with that message, the whole message is lost.”
Dedier, 34, honed this intuition by serving some of the country’s most discriminating diners. He’s the former general manager of Ad Hoc in Yountville, the ode to quality, comfort and family-style foods by Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame; he also managed Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco. The rest of Dedier’s résumé resembles a Zagat guide of fine American restaurants: Daniel Boulud Brasserie, Jean-Georges Prime Steakhouse, Bouchon Bistro, Auberge Resorts.
Now Dedier, an Elk Grove native, has returned to the Sacramento area, launching Aji Japanese Bistro in December, his first ownership project. He’s joined by Russell Okubo, former executive chef of Fat’s Family Restaurants and The Firehouse. Their relationship goes back two decades, when Dedier was a high school kid earning his first paychecks. They’re banking on Aji’s menu of Asian street foods, sushi and Japanese-inspired dishes to connect with diners in an increasingly competitive culinary scene.
Dedier hopes to instill some Thomas Keller-isms of high attention to detail and grace under the pressure of nightly service. He knows Sacramento doesn’t yet have the same kind of service talent pool as the Napa Valley or other food-centric cities. But as Aji’s tables continue to fill with diners on this recent night, Dedier remains undeterred.
“We’re not trying to do anything precious,” Dedier said. “It’s about the entire production: good food, friendly people, a great beverage selection. I wanted to build a place that I’d like to eat in.”
New site has links to past
With Aji, Dedier’s career has essentially come full circle – in more ways than one.
The sleek, 4,200-square-foot restaurant is housed in the Campanile building at El Dorado Hills Town Center, a massive shopping center with more than 750,000 square feet of retail space, swanky European architecture and a man-made lake.
Aji combines two spaces that were once a Quiznos sandwich shop and a Strings Italian Cafe, a Sacramento-area chain that specializes in pasta and Italian comfort foods. Aji, with its rustic wood furnishings and copy of “A Day in the Life of The French Laundry” as reading material in the lounge, has shed the space’s remnants of fast-casual dining.
Dedier can’t help but notice the irony of setting up his first restaurant at a former Strings, where he started his restaurant career as a dishwasher decades ago. Through Aji, Dedier also has been reunited with Okubo, who gave Dedier his first job as a server at Sumo Sushi in Elk Grove.
Dedier’s family members were regulars at Sumo Sushi, to the point Okubo cooked pot pies and pot roast for the family as a way of switching up their menu options. Okubo and Dedier’s dad became fishing buddies. At 17, Nick was hired as a server, showing an acumen for service almost immediately.
“He was always very confident in himself and the way he handled customer relations,” Okubo said. “Some people aren’t meant to be servers, but he was comfortable talking to people and (was) really good at that.”
Dedier was raised near Elk Grove High School, where he was an honoree of the school’s Academic Awards program and played on its tennis team. Like many young people growing up in the greater Sacramento region, Dedier thought of pursing a career in state government, lured by the promise of steady paychecks and health benefits. Dedier’s father, Nick Sr., had served as chief information officer for the California Department of Justice.
He studied government and religious studies at California State University, Sacramento. But Dedier was always drawn to the rush of restaurant work, whether it was serving tables around Sacramento at Applebee’s or Elephant Bar. He eventually enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., to study culinary arts.
“That’s where I let my hair down,” Dedier said. “I’m a restaurant lifer.”
Team concept stressed
Back at Aji, a sound jolts Dedier to attention, the way an early morning alarm clock shocks someone from sleep.
Dedier perks up, furls his brow and rises suddenly from a table where he’s watching the night’s service unfold. A server has dropped a knife onto the concrete floor.
That clank! shouldn’t happen. The server, while earnest in her attempt to clear a table of four, is overwhelmed by the amount of plates and silverware on her tray. It’s a signal that the floor staff aren’t watching out for one another. Dedier follows the server back to the kitchen.
“Nobody should have to clear a table of four by themselves,” Dedier said later. “At the end of the day, you should never be afraid to ask for help. Don’t try and do it on your own, even if it looks like you could. Remember, you have a team to support you, and to welcome that support.”
Dedier learned these service principles working in top-rated eateries. He spent his Culinary Institute of America externship at Jean-Georges Prime Steakhouse in Las Vegas, a veritable temple of fine meats at the Bellagio Hotel overseen by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. There, Dedier connected with the pageantry of dinner service while cultivating the interpersonal skills used by high-end servers. Returning to school after his externship, Dedier served as a maitre d’ in the class dining room.
“My externship was the first time I’d seen that servers could be professionals,” said Dedier. “It was a professional dining room team, not just the middle management Applebee’s guy. There were suits and ties, and wine, and sommeliers – and it was pretty fabulous.”
‘Sense of Urgency’
A sign declaring one of Keller’s mottos is posted in Aji’s kitchen: “Sense of Urgency.”
You’ll find a similar sign placed under a clock in The French Laundry’s kitchen and other Keller establishments. It’s become a mantra for those who work for Keller, the only American chef to hold three Michelin stars at two different restaurants. Dedier hopes to instill this same principle of focus and thriving in high-pressure situations with his Aji staff. Dedier operated under this “sense of urgency” during his management stints at Keller’s Ad Hoc and Bouchon Bistro. He still does.
“It’s something we live by,” said Dedier. “It’s multitasking, knowing the product, communication, confidence – and staying calm. Those who stay calm in this business tend to thrive.”
Dedier had applied these ideals around the country, but ultimately, he craved a taste of home. Like many restaurant industry veterans, no matter how good your boss might be, owning an eatery is usually the goal.
Dedier had been away from Sacramento for the better part of a decade, apart from a short stint as director of operations during the 2012 remodel of Piatti Ristorante on Fair Oaks Boulevard. He’d seen Sacramento’s restaurant scene bloom from a few key spots to a full-blown food movement. The time was ripe to return.
“In the food and beverage industry, you’re either a nomad, or you can put down roots,” Dedier said. “I was a nomad, working for group after group, and trying to figure out where I fit in. In order to have a restaurant, you have to settle down. My family is here, and that was a driving force.”
Dedier had stayed in touch over the years with Okubo, who remained a fishing buddy with his father. Okubo had been consulting for the food and beverage program at Casino Royale in North Sacramento, and was looking for a new project. Okubo was also friendly with one of Nick’s uncles, who owned Early Toast Restaurant & Mimosa House, which previously operated a location in the El Dorado Hills Town Center.
Okubo learned of some available space in the high-end shopping center, and thought of his former Sumo Sushi server becoming his business partner.
“I had been watching his travels and kept in touch,” Okubo said. “I needed someone with his experience to handle the front of house. I asked if he had any interest and it just fell on a plate for us. ... It’s one of those things that happens for a reason.”
Aji means “taste” in Japanese, but the menu also includes nods to Chinese, Korean and other Asian foods. The sushi bar is tucked into the back of the restaurant and lists a fairly streamlined menu of rolls and sashimi. You won’t find much at Aji in the way of deep-fried and mayonnaise-loaded rolls, which has come to define much of the sushi experience around Sacramento. Ramen, pork-belly buns and other Asian street foods also figure prominently on the Aji menu.
Dedier and Okubo take a kind of tag-team approach. Dedier focuses on keeping service smooth in the dining room, while Okubo oversees the kitchen and its creations. They both take time to stop by tables to chat up customers, knowing a personal connection can go a long ways for repeat business.
“The food has to be good, but the service has to be as good as the food,” Okubo said. “He’s good at remembering names and I’m not. He’s way more artistic than I am. But we both have the same vision of what a dish or flavor should be. Partnerships are tough, but the way it works with us is a very good and strange thing.”
Recruiting a staff able to reliably execute the high level of service was no easy task.
Instead of relying on experience alone, Dedier sought out specific personality types. He said he waded through about 300 applications and selected 75 for interviews.
Enthusiasm won the day
“During the interviews I’d ask a couple of questions about their experience and then put the résumé aside,” said Dedier. “I’d say, ‘You worked at Blue Nami or Olive Garden for three years. What was your favorite thing on the menu?’ I’d (say), ‘Tell me what you did this last weekend.’ Those who told me something like they went hiking, and they had a great day, and had all this enthusiasm – those were the people I hired.”
Dedier now oversees a staff of 50, including hosts, bartenders and servers. He started training the staff about five weeks before Aji’s opening in early December, emphasizing customer service, knowledge of the menu and the protocol he expected.
“I said, ‘This is who I am, this is who we’re going to be, and are you on board?’ ” Dedier said. “We’re aiming for comfortable service – not casual, but very confident. Confidence is fun, and confidence breeds fun.”
Dedier sees his role as something similar to the conductor of a symphony. And every night is different, so his symphony often has to sight-read new material in front of an audience.
As a new restaurant owner, Dedier is getting a new perspective on the business, whether it’s cutting $20,000 payroll checks (“For a big restaurant group, that’s nothing, but when it’s yours, ahh!”) or feeling just how intensely personal the operation has become to him (“I’d done this for other people, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional reaction you have to the nuts and bolts of it”).
But now, another table for two needs to be seated. Dedier’s Spidey-sense of service starts to kick in: Does their body language make it look like a first date? Might this be an anniversary dinner?
Dedier knows that filling a belly doesn’t mean much without a personal touch.
“You shouldn’t have to pay for hospitality,” Dedier said. “It doesn’t cost anything.”