From the CoHo kitchen to the Final 3 of Top Chef, the hit Bravo TV cooking competition — that’s our Aggie alumnus Joe Sasto!
“People always ask restaurant people where they got their start, and I say, ‘The Coffee House,’ and they don’t get it,” Sasto said in a phone interview with Dateline UC Davis today (Feb. 27). “It’s one of those things that’s so hard to describe unless you’ve been there.”
If you are staff or faculty, you’ve most likely been to this campus institution nearly 50 years old, operated by the Associated Students of UC Davis and mostly run by students.
Sasto worked there for two years, from 2008 until his graduation in 2010, the last year and a quarter as a kitchen supervisor. “There’s so much cooking, so much restaurant work going on. ... It’s really a unique, special place.”
Among his favorite CoHo foods — to make and eat — he recalled the meat loaf (especially with extra glaze from squirt bottles) and the nachos (“my go-to snack”), and, of course, the CoHo’s iconic chicken tetrazzini (“I don’t think I’ve ever had chicken tet as good as that”).
“It was fun and I learned so much there,” he said. “It was carefree, with all of us students, but we cooked some really awesome food.
“The CoHo crew comes in so young and inexperienced, and, yet, they end up contributing to a successful, well-organized operation — really esteemed.”
Sasto himself was held in high esteem at his fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, where he cooked “family” meals on Sundays, and for special occasions such as when parents visited on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
He’s a family-style-meal kind of guy and a passionate cook — learning from his mother, Claudette, whom he called his biggest influence in cooking and in life. “She’s the one who taught me the power of food and family ... the power that food has to bring people together,” he said.
Sasto said he had wanted to work in restaurants since he was young, and thought about going straight from high school to culinary school. But his mother wanted him to go to college, to earn a degree, to have something to fall back on. And so he did, enrolling at UC Davis as a freshman. His mother died the summer after his first year.
Despite that devastating blow, Sasto honored his mother’s memory by staying in school and receiving a Bachelor of Arts in communication. “I don’t regret anything at all,” he said. “I appreciate everything I learned at UC Davis.”
From Mendocino County to LA
His Top Chef biography picks up from there: He opened a restaurant in Ukiah (Mendocino County), earning a swift education in the business (and its pitfalls); took a break to travel through Europe; then brought his newfound international inspiration to San Francisco’s Cotogna and then its sister restaurant, Quince.
He spent three years at the three-Michelin-starred Quince, learning the ropes and roots from one of America’s most celebrated Italian-influenced chefs, Michael Tusk, who ultimately entrusted Sasto to manage the restaurant’s handmade pasta.
Chef Joe moved on to become executive sous chef at Lazy Bear, bringing his pasta prowess and attention to detail, and working with Bay Area products and producers with great reverence.
Sasto recently moved to Los Angeles, where he is executive chef at Michael Mina and Adam Sobel’s new restaurant, Cal Mare, specializing in coastal Italian fare.
As you can see, his star is definitely on the rise, with or without winning Top Chef. He’s already outcooked 12 other “cheftestants” in Season 15 of the Emmy and James Beard Award-winning show.
Cooking in Colorado
Two episodes remain: This Thursday (March 1), when one more chef will be cut, and Thursday (March 8) when the Final 2 will square off in the season finale. Each episode premieres at 9 p.m.
Season 15 is a one-state edition, “Carving Up Colorado,” filmed last summer. Weekly competitions were held around the state, in a variety of settings — restaurant, campsite, food truck, farm, theme park, beer garden — before the show landed in Aspen for the last two episodes.
Sasto’s favorite competition so far: the Olympic challenge, in front of an audience, stadium-style. He won the contest with his Carrot and Beef Casoncelli, a stuffed pasta — with pasta being one of his specialties.
The show can be crazy, he said. “You have to be able to think on your feet, which is something we did at the CoHo. Anyone can point out the problems, but the successful cooks and chefs will figure out how to make it work.”
Creative hair styling
Darin Schluep ’06, a Coffee House manager at the time, and who has since moved up to director, described Sasto as “a good-natured, hard-working kitchen employee who evolved into a leader among the kitchen crew.”
Schluep said Sasto didn’t have a handlebar mustache like the one he wears on Top Chef, “but I definitely remember him ‘experimenting’ with various facial hair layouts.”
Indeed, Woods said Sasto once shaved and cut his hair into a Friar Tuck look, and another time sported an “infinity” beard” — that is, he shaved his head except for a thin strip around the front, connecting to his sideburns, which connected with his beard, creating a circle of hair around his face.
“That was my thing in college,” Sasto laughed.
And on Top Chef, where he has the nickname “Mustache Joe,” in part to differentiate him from the another Joe in the competition, who also made it to the Final 3.
So, will it be “Mustache Joe,” “Cleanshaven Joe” or Adrienne who wins?
Joe Sasto knows, but he can’t say. Tune in: 9 p.m. Thursday!