Pajo Bruich, 34, is one of the most compelling chefs to rise to prominence in Sacramento in recent years. His food was considered inventive, artistic to some, odd and polarizing to others. When he suddenly found himself out of work, he set off on a lengthy exploratory journey that took him to many parts of California. He eventually landed a job as executive chef at Bourbon Steak in the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco.
Following a long shift at the restaurant, Bruich sat down for a phone interview at 11:30 p.m. on a recent weeknight.
Chef, you’ve landed in the big time in San Francisco. What is the difference between cooking there and cooking in Sacramento?
There is a very big difference. There are obviously a lot more people in the city. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of face time with my patrons. There are so many tourists in the city. Whereas Sacramento has a hometown feel, this certainly has a big-city vibe to it.
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Some have said that Sacramento wasn’t ready for your modernist style of cooking. Do you agree?
I am who I am. I’ve cooked differently at every restaurant I’ve worked at. My food here is dictated by the clientele, but I’ve never sacrificed my personality. This is a tricky question. There was a lot of misunderstanding about some of the cuisines I did in the past. While I had a lot of support, I don’t think Sacramento was crying out for a real progressive cuisine. Sacramento is a casual place. Even for myself, I don’t do a lot of fine dining there.
We’ve seen the menu for Bourbon Steak, which has some very pricey beef from Japan you order by the ounce. What’s it like to cook a $300 steak?
(Laughing) I’ve actually cooked some more expensive than that. We have people come in and order a $500 steak. One person ordered a $1,200 steak. I actually think that’s insane. But we’re confident in our abilities. When an order like this comes in, we send a manager over there to make sure that the guest is well aware of what they are getting. If they’re on board, we’re happy to do it.
Chefs are known for eating some crazy things after work. Care to embarrass yourself?
I actually eat here quite a bit. I work really late and have an hour to drive home. I eat through the entire menu to do quality control checks. But I actually really enjoy a burger, so sometimes I’ll go off menu and put together a burger. At home when it’s late, I’ll go through the fridge and make a quesadilla or a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.
What kind of people should consider cooking as a profession, and who should avoid it?
People who are very passionate about food should consider it. You have to love food. If you don’t have that passion, you will not succeed. If you don’t have really good common sense, you shouldn’t be in this industry. You have to be driven and be competitive. If you’re not competitive, you shouldn’t be in this business. It’s not for the lighthearted. You have to be really tough and be willing to sacrifice.
What hours do you keep?
I usually leave my house in the East Bay at 9 or 10 in the morning, and I get home at 2 a.m.
Where will you be in 10 years?
I see myself as a chef/owner, owning something that’s a passion project for me. I want to have multiple restaurants where I do the type of food and hospitality I want to do. I also want to inspire a new generation.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.
Executive chef, Bourbon Steak
Bruich was known for his modernist techniques and artistic approach to food as chef at the former LoungeON20 and then Enotria, where he earned four stars in The Bee and then saw the restaurant close. He decided to leave the Sacramento restaurant scene. In June he took a job with the prestigious Michael Mina restaurant group in San Francisco.