Introducing "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.
The future of Phoenix food might just be a tall, lanky white kid named Travis Tolmachoff. Many people have dreams of making it big as a restaurateur, but Travis is pursuing his vision quietly and methodically, in stark contrast to the sleazy myth of easy stardom as portrayed on the Food Network.
The story goes something like this:
Born and raised in Glendale, Travis took a job at In-N-Out Burger at age 16, as soon as he could drive. He didn't do it for the love of the business or even his love of In-N-Out, although he'll now admit to loving a Double Double. Rather, the pay was good and the hours worked. It was a good job for a teenager. But like many people in the food business, he came to realize that he may have found his "thing" -- something that resonated on a deeper level. He started as a cashier and wiping down tables, and he moved through the ranks to be a cook. No glamour; lots of hard work but fun.
And he didn't just quit when other opportunities arose. He stuck around for five years, honing his skills and learning on a micro-level exactly how a restaurant can be successful by operating as a finely tuned machine. Anyone who has been to In-N-Out can attest to the fact that the standards are high, the food consistent, and the operation works flawlessly.
Having accumulated a bit of money in his pocket (no one gets rich working at a burger joint), Travis started going out to eat, exploring "finer dining." As his palate expanded, so did his dream. A meal at Gilbert's Liberty Market, owned by East Valley food magnate Joe Johnston, made a considerable impression on him, and he and Johnston struck up a friendship founded in their mutual ideals of hard work, quality, and community. While finishing his degree at ASU, Travis was encouraged by Johnston to interview for a position in the kitchen. One thing led to another, and Travis started cooking pizzas in the wood-fired oven at Liberty Market.
Several years ago, Johnston, a friend of mine, suggested that Travis and I get together. There was no real motive, except Travis had talked of opening his own place one day and Joe wanted him to talk to someone who came from the business world, rather than the restaurant world. I was writing a food blog at the time and had strong opinions about the industry. I still recall the day Travis showed up at my office in a decrepit, worn-out pickup truck. Shy, soft-spoken, but smart as hell, Travis and I talked about food for the better part of an hour. We shook hands, not knowing what was next, and he left. I would occasionally see him at Liberty Market, focused on his job but always taking the time to say "hello."
When I asked Johnston about Travis, he said, "If you're going to go into business you better be upbeat and positive and he is unfailingly positive. He is focused on learning, wisely moving from time to time to learn the areas where he feels weakest." Travis hung around at Liberty Market for more than three years and, about six months ago, took at job at FnB, the de facto darling of the Phoenix food scene. With some decent cooking chops already under his belt, Travis worked the front of the house as a server. It wasn't by accident. He knew that he needed to improve his knowledge of food and wine, and what better teacher was there from which to learn the art hospitality than FnB's Pavle Milic?
Behind Travis' youthful eyes (he looks like he could still be in high school), there lies a brooding wisdom, as if he's constantly taking mental notes of all that he sees.
I dined at FnB several times while Travis was there, although he was never my server. But I watched him closely and with interest, and he was hard to miss. He was the one quietly doing his job, as if he was soaking up every situation and logging it into his memory bank for future use. He appeared not to just do his job, but to do it deliberately and with focus.
Recently married, and with a baby on the way, Travis is now back at Liberty Market. He's cooking again but also focusing on taking what he has learned and applying it at Liberty to raise the bar.
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There is a theme here that's hard to miss: Align yourself with smart, successful, best-in-class operations. Throw yourself into it, head first. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. View even the least prestigious assignment as an opportunity. And then move on to something else without having burned any bridges, learning a new skill that will be essential somewhere down the road. Travis didn't come from adversity; in fact, he had an upbringing full of opportunity. It's hard not to think that he chose a path that is harder than it had to be but one that, ultimately, will serve him better.
I have the distinct sense that we haven't seen the last of Travis Tolmachoff, and that his dedication to the craft of food and beverage ultimately will result in a place of his own. In fact, I'd bet on it and I'll gladly be his first customer. He could have done anything, but he's choosing to do what he loves, even if it means lower pay and less glamour.
If you see him working the pizza oven or wiping down tables or diligently doing whatever is asked of him, be sure to say "hello." You'll likely be eating at his place one day.