Heritage on the Menu
“We’d get struck by a lightning bolt from Grandma if we did,” says Craig Ghio, looking up from his chair at the ceiling. He and cousins Rick Ghio and Beverly Mascari represent the third generation of the family to operate the Anthony’s restaurant chain, founded in 1946 by San Diego culinary legend Catherine Ghio.
“Grandma’s always in this room with us,” he continues. “That’s how we maintain our heritage.”
It’s never lonely at the top for children who assume management of their family’s restaurants, because someone always is looking over their shoulder. Like Dad. Or Mom. Or in the case of the Ghio clan, the memory of their grandmother as well as the active presence of her son, retired restaurateur Anthony Ghio, who still comes to the office four mornings a week and is paid as a consultant.
Several prominent area restaurants are managed by two or more generations of founding families with roots in places far from San Diego: Italy, France, Sicily, Thailand and Taiwan. In early 2005, celebrity host Bertrand Hug handed management of Mille Fleurs, the Rancho Santa Fe landmark, to his son, Julien (but he still checks in nightly after supervising Bertrand at Mister A’s). A few months earlier, Joey Busalacchi commenced managing Joe and Lisa Busalacchi’s flagship restaurant in Hillcrest, allowing his parents to concentrate on their quintet of India Street establishments. And at two leading Thai restaurants, Rama and Celadon, 24-yearold Alex Thao runs the dining rooms while mama Joanne Thao unyieldingly rules the kitchens. In each case, it’s working out just fine.
At present, none of the Ghio cousins’ children have agitated to become fourthgeneration restaurateurs, but if they do, they can’t simply walk straight in the door and demand a job.
“We have a rule that if our kids go to college and want to go into our restaurants, they first have to work somewhere else for five years,” says Beverly Mascari. “They know how we do things at Anthony’s, so they need a fresh view of the business.”
Rather surprisingly, none of the three was urged into the business themselves. “My dad wanted me to be a lawyer, because I could argue my way out of anything,” said Beverly, co-owner and manager of guest relations, who is described by Craig as “the new face of Mama Ghio in the restaurants.”
“It was a free choice,” adds Rick, whose business card, like Craig’s, lists him simply as “owner.” “But I had no desire to do anything else, because I enjoyed working in the restaurants while I attended school.”
“I wasn’t pushed either,” says Craig. But he concedes that once the younger generation assumed control, “There was a lot of rubbernecking over our shoulders.
The cousins stressed that taking over was not a challenge, although adapting to changes on the restaurant scene very definitely is.
“If you don’t keep adapting to your guests’ desires, they won’t come back,” says Beverly.
Adaptation, yes, but not revolution in the case of a restaurant with 60-year-old recipes that are precious family heirlooms. “The core products stay the same,” says Rick, counting off “the two chowders, fish and chips, the seafood Louie and avocado salads.” By guarding these dishes, the cousins honor the family heritage.
“It’s wonderful that we’re able to continue the San Diego memories that started with our parents and grandmother.”
RELAXING at a sunny corner table at Bertrand at Mister A’s, Julien Hug says, “My friends call me Jules; my dad does, too. But when he’s mad, it’s ‘Julien!’ ”
Now 31, Julien was 15 when he commenced washing dishes at Mille Fleurs. “I never have cooked in the restaurant, but I learned there what I cook at home,” he says. Maybe, maybe not. When he cooks for girlfriends, he composes a turkey, rice and brocco-flower dish he calls “The Bachelor’s Delight.”
“We made it official that Julien would manage Mille Fleurs on the restaurant’s 20th anniversary, January 3, 2005,” says Bertrand Hug, who is famed for his unvarying ability to recall anyone’s name after a single meeting. “He was pretty reticent at first, because he knows what a slave driver I am, but he’s always earned his keep.”
Does Papa peer over his son’s shoulder? He says otherwise, but if Julien tried to install “The Bachelor’s Delight” on chef Martin Woesle’s menu, it would have a remarkably short shelf life.
“I run everything by my dad,” says Julien. “I still don’t feel comfortable treating Mille Fleurs like it’s mine exclusively; I didn’t lay the groundwork for it.”
“I am very comfortable with Julien in charge,” says Bertrand. “I know he can run the place. I’m not good at giving people compliments, so leaving Julien in peace is my compliment. And Julien knows everybody —we’re friends with most of our customers, and it’s like an extended family at Mille Fleurs.”
Many of the merely rich and ultra-rich of Rancho Santa Fe do regard Mille Fleurs as an extension of their homes, and several years ago, a few agitated for Julien to take his good looks to Hollywood. He preferred the restaurant.
“Getting the respect of the staff and the customers was the biggest challenge of taking over from Dad,” says Julien, provoking Bertrand to respond, “I think my being on his case every day when he started was his biggest challenge. But the staff says he handles crises better than me.”
IN THE DIM BAR of their Busalacchi’s Ristorante one June-gloomy Saturday morning, Lisa and Joe Busalacchi spread cream cheese on sesame bagels and raise their voices over a televised World Cup soccer match from Germany. Joe, born in Sicily and a true fan, keeps one eye trained on the set.
“Hopefully, he won’t want to go in the business,” says Lisa of their youngest son, P.J., who is 16; his brother, Michael, soon will graduate from film school. But big brother Joey, who turns 23 in September and is recently married, seems to have the restaurant business indelibly in his blood.
“I didn’t want him to come in this field, and I fought him,” says Joe. “When he said he might want to be a doctor, I supported him completely.” But when a homesick Joey came home from the University of Arizona to attend college locally, he asked his dad for a job and got a curt, firm “No.”
I told him to get a job on his own, and he said he’d fight me,” says Joe. “So he went to Trattoria Fantastica [one of the Busalacchis’ India Street restaurants] and got the manager there to hire him. He started out at $6.75 an hour and was treated just like another employee. But Joey set out to prove to me that he belonged in the restaurant business.”
He succeeded in doing so, but his parents regret the lifestyle he will lead. “I said to Joey, ‘We’re never home,’ ” says Lisa. “I know what the future holds for him, with kids and responsibilities and not being able to be home.”
“He always said, ‘I grew up in the restaurant, and that’s where I want to be,’” says Joe, recalling setting up a playpen for Joey behind the kitchen at Busalacchi’s. “Now, I think he’s capable of running all the restaurants.”
“We call him the new and improved version of Joe,” teases Lisa, adding, “Hopefully, they got all the bugs out.”
There have been a few disagreements since Joey took the reins.
“He thought he could do things differently from me, but he found out the old-school way—my way—is what works,” says Joe. “Now, I actually see him achieving a lot more than me because he’s got the drive, the goals and the passion. Right now, I would say he understands a lot more than most 22- year-olds.”
Interviewed later in the day, Joey Busalacchi brought up the same points his parents did.
“Basically, I’ve wanted to be in the restaurant business my whole life,” he says convincingly. “When I had my first opportunity to work, I started in the kitchen and worked my way up. I just loved it.”
Managing has its challenges, but Joey seems an eager learner.
“My parents pretty much let me run the place,” he says. “They do check in all the time, but if I make a mistake it’s my mistake, and they let me learn on my own. Hands down, the biggest challenge was following in their footsteps.
“And in the restaurant business, you work 24/seven. But I have a great opportunity, following such good people in such a good restaurant. Not many people have an opportunity like mine.”
JOANNE THAO WAS BORN in Taiwan, married Oui Thao of Thailand and gave San Diego Alex Thao, a compact dynamo who opened and operated Hillcrest’s Celadon restaurant a couple of years before he was old enough to legally drink to his own success.
“I was a kid then, and now I have a kid,” laughs Alex, seated by his mother on a window-side banquet at this immensely popular restaurant. “It is a challenge to work with my mom. We have two different visions—mine is on a larger scale; hers is more mom ’n’ pop. It can cause conflicts, but after a week of conversations and explanations, she sees my point of view.”
“He’s very good; he’s very warm with customers,” says his mother. “He builds good relationships with customers, and they always walk out with smiles, saying, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ ”
He also is good at building empires. The Thaos’ second restaurant, Rama, is a leading establishment in San Diego’s booming Gaslamp Quarter, and there are plans for a second location in Hillcrest—plus others. When they open, Joanne will be in charge of the kitchens.
“I cook,” she says. “I am the overall controller; I have to make sure the food is beautiful and has the right taste. But Alex is my boss; I just help to manage, to watch his accounts and make sure the food is good,” Joanne says with a twinkle in her eye.
There are at least two bosses in the Thao restaurant group, it seems, and Alex would add a third: his father. “Dad is the one with the money; Mom is the one watching to make sure I don’t spend too much,” he says.“One of the things my father has said is that he has liked watching me grow, as a son and as a businessman. He wants me to be focused on the right path, and he’s shown me that it isn’t what you wear or drive but who you are. After Grace [his infant daughter, Grace Alexandra] came along, I realized what really counts.”