Joe Dobias, chef-owner of East Village restaurants JoeDoe and JoeDough, is a talker. We sat down with the Cornell Hospitality School graduate to talk sandwiches, Passover, and future projects and found out that it only takes one question to get the chef to tell us how he really feels about fellow chefs like Scott Conant and Mario Batali, his concerns over selling his name, and how much it cost to open each of his restaurants.
You have two different restaurants — how do you switch between doing sandwiches to plated dishes and go back and forth?
It’s seamless because of the cooking style. There’s no less emphasis put on the cooking style when it’s sandwiches. The sandwich shop is run very much like the restaurant. Most of the people who work there now work for me at the restaurant. Sort of one of those things where there’s a total cohesiveness within the two places, with the exception, obviously, of price point.
For me, I did sandwiches first. Growing up, I was a Subway sandwich artist. I think that, this may sound ridiculous, but watching a franchise like Subway has really helped. We have nine different sandwiches, everything is made in-house, and so much goes into what we do, but it’s not like we have 20 minutes to get a sandwich out. Everything has to be really fast. But these days I think there are two schools of thought on that: Some people want fast food, and some people want quick casual. It’s a hybrid, I think, between a restaurant and a downscale place because people want a really nice sandwich. We’re not having a problem selling a $9 sandwich. You have a lot of people in the East Village, the older half, and a lot of people don’t understand and say, “Oh, I can go to the deli and get a $7.50 sandwich.” But there’s a lot more care and a lot more thought put into what I’m doing. I’m not slicing Boar’s Head two days before or using the same gloves I used at 8 o’clock in the morning. There’s a lot more care that goes into what we’re doing, and a lot more thought.
There are some differences between the restaurant and the sandwich shop. It’s not really a brand thing; it’s more of an identity. We’re here all the time. At the restaurant. I’m in the kitchen every day, not just five days a week. But I think that’s the expectation of my situation as opposed to most of the restaurants that open these days. Someone will be in their kitchen and do three tasks then be on to their East Side branch or their West Side branch, or the L.A. one, and while that’s all good, it’s not really the type of chef-ing I want to do. I like to influence the food, and I think the only way to do that is to actually be there in the kitchen. The camaraderie (you’ve worked in restaurants, so you understand), the camaraderie in the kitchen can’t be dialed in on Skype. I mean no one gives a shit about what Scott Conant has to say about food, honestly. It’s the chef de cuisine who’s there. Obviously he has influence [Chef Conant], but as it trickles down, it dilutes and dilutes and dilutes.
Take line cooks. Guys my age, 33, who are working in the nicest restaurants do maybe three things a day, probably. At best. Six months later maybe they’ll do three more things. But they’ll eliminate the first three things they did from their minds, and from their being, and from their daily work. So it’s sort of a different theory for me. I like to hire cooks here where everyone knows everything. Everyone can prep everything from the appetizer all the way to the dessert. I think that’s where Mario Batali was in the ’90s before the Food Network scooped him up. Mario Batali, I think he would have been happy working at Po for the rest of his life. Not for his whole life, but he would have been just fine. I think that’s the type of chef that I want to be. Somebody who cares much more about what they’re putting out as opposed to how many restaurants they can have.
The partnerships are something that I don’t have, where money guys step in and, à la BLT, they own your fucking name. You know, that’s a scary proposition for a guy. I named my own place after me; it’s my nickname. I don’t want even the idea to cross my mind that someone is able to take that from me one day just because it means money. Restaurants, unfortunately, are not only about money. I have a real passion and desire to be here. As you know, if you’re very popular, you’ll only be here for three years, four years. A lot of people, even the friends that I went to school with, mock how big or not big our places are. “Oh, you’ll never make money, you’ll never make money,” but my ideal is that once I pay back my debt (which is about one-tenth of what anyone else who starts a place has, I guarantee) … I mean, we started the sandwich shop for like $80,000, we started this restaurant [JoeDoe] for $90,000. No one’s told that story about this people. They only talk about bullshit or whatever they want to see.
Like everything else they put a nice smooth spin on how they’re going to perceive you long before they try the food or experience the service. The basic ideals of why we open restaurants has to be food first, and I think that at some point everyone will get sick and tired of eating comfort food and burgers and meatballs and chicken wings, and all the other bullshit that people are slinging right now. People are putting out the most ridiculous menus, and people are just gobbling it up. If it’s under $20, people think they’re getting a great deal, but then the server says you’ve gotta order three dishes, then you’re up to $45. That’s more than I’m going to get for an appetizer and entrée. And I’m giving you a complete, well-thought-out plate of food with a starch, a vegetable, a sauce, and a protein all in a commonsense dish, not just a piece of meat with broccoli rabe and then you’re going to order a side of fries or whatever you think you should have. That’s a steakhouse. I think that at some point people will go back to doing what I do. Because what I’ve found is that no matter how much we get put down, we’re super super super popular with industry folk. Every time they come in here this is the ideal picture in the mind of the person who’s working their BlackBerrys 24/7 and not cooking anymore, and they’re like, “Wow, couldn’t I go back and work one stove in one kitchen in one restaurant and serve whatever I want and not take anybody’s crap.” We opened the restaurant because I couldn’t work for someone else; I wasn’t wired that way. I never was. Even when I was very young I got lucky, I got a job here [New York City], as a chef, at 23. But I worked hard and that was the only reason I was given the keys and the control and the ordering. You can’t be 23 and go to Le Bernardin and be in charge of anything. You’ll be lucky if you’re in charge of a station. Or a fish. You’re not even allowed to touch fish, you can’t even look at it. You’re not allowed on that floor. Again, I’m not knocking that kind of cuisine, but I think that the bigger the heads get of some of the larger chefs, the less talent there is that’s actually working with their talent. They’re simply trading on the idea that making a minimum wage is the restaurant’s burden.
It’s like choosing dancing or choosing painting, not in the artistic approach, that’s not what I’m saying; I’m saying you have to sell out purely because of the love of it. It has nothing to do with money because then at the end of the day you’re not going to be happy. You’ll end up working at the Marriott or with a name tag on, and you’ll get your benefits, and you’ll get some scaled raises, but you’re gonna be opening bags of frozen vegetables. It’s all what you want out of it, you know? I believe that in this day and age, if you take someone like myself just doing what I want to do, it’s going to be successful. I haven’t gone away. I’ve seen many places get stars and get blown up to unbelievable proportions and now they’re out of business already. All of the places that we opened, almost every single place that was in the [New York Times Diner’s Journal] roundup when we opened this restaurant in 2008 is closed. So I don’t really think that I’m doing something wrong.