I've loved getting to know Sarah, Mindy, and Ron during the making of the Toro Bravo cookbook. All three of them are integral to Team Toro, and they all have loads of good stories about the restaurant and John. I put these profiles together from interviews I did with them in the summer of 2012.
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Sarah Scofield, Floor Manager
Started working at Toro: August 2009
Favorite album to listen to while at Toro: I always work the weekends, and a couple songs that are always played on the weekends are R. Kelly's "Remix to Ignition" about the weekend starting. John likes to play that on Friday nights at or just after 8 o'clock after the older people have left. That's when we usually switch to hip hop. There's also T.I.'s "Live Your Life" with Rihanna. That's the Toro song. John and Renee love that song and it sounds great in here. After hours we play a lot of Rihanna and Justin Timberlake and sometimes 'N Sync while we're sweeping. Sometimes we get crazy with some Bon Jovi — whatever the kitchen and front can agree on. Whatever we choose, we play it loud so we can get through the cleanup.
Favorite Toro recipe: My all-time favorite is the brussels sprouts. I eat so many of them in the winter and order them almost every night. They're so rich but I love them. By the end of the night I'm starving, so I usually just go with my cravings. I get things like the brussels, lamb chops, and coppa. I always work it off, but now I'm 30 and everything could change. Sarah G. wore a pedometer at work one day and she was at 7 miles. I'm guessing most servers and managers at Toro are at around 7-10 miles a shift. I don't work out on my weekend at all. I just let my body rest.
Memorable Toro story you think should make it into the book: On Saturday nights there's often a line outdoors before 5 o'clock, and sometimes it goes around the block since we don't take reservations. After 5:00, it's usually an hour or more wait. It was a really busy Saturday and Amber had the night off, so I was the only manager. The kitchen was ready for tickets to start flying through, and usually 5 or so minutes after 5:00 orders start coming in for food. It had been 20 minutes, and Kasey asked me if anyone had fired food yet. I hadn't because I was just seating and watering people, but Mindy was getting all sorts of bar tickets. We quickly realized that the kitchen printer had gone kaput and by that point there were hundreds of dishes to be fired in that first turn. It was crazy and we immediately went into emergency mode.
Kasey devised a plan for how to handwrite tickets. Our tech came in by 6:00 and worked on the printer, but it wasn't until 8:00 that he fixed it. When he plugged it back in and the printer started printing, it printed all of those unprinted tickets — an entire roll of them. The fact that we were still able to maintain throughout all of that was a really great feeling. We just took deep breaths and carried on. John said to pour shots for everyone at the end.
It's always something. It's a wild ride here. Anything can happen on any given night. You just have to be ready to adjust and come up with quick solutions. That's a great approach for life anyway — to be ready for anything. We really want the right fit for servers here, and other restaurant skills don't always apply. Toro is all about teamwork — all kinds of silent communication goes on. I felt like a seasoned server when I got the job, but it took me six months to feel comfortable. I honestly felt like I'd never master it.
Mindy Cook, Bar Manager
Started working at Toro: September 2008
Favorite Toro recipe: I love our paella so much. Our harira, spicy octopus, and asparagus too (all in the book!). I get that question every day, but I'd say my all-time favorite is the late-spring/early-summer fava bean and cured meat salad with Manchego cheese.
Biggest Toro fuck up to date: When I was doing John and Renee's wedding, I premade all of these cocktails to make out there, and I was also responsible for getting all champagne and sparkling wine into the U-Haul to go to Viridian Farms. The one thing that didn't make it in was John and Renee's special champagne for their table, and it was a two-hour drive out there. In the end someone was able to bring it. That's the most mad John has ever been with me.
Memorable Toro story: Mike and Jo are regulars, and they've followed John since Viande. They're an older couple in their 70s — big foodies who've lived in San Francisco, Japan, and all over. They are the only people at Toro that have a standing reservation, and they come in every Thursday night at 8:15 and have a reservation at the bar. That's been going on for years. Their 50th wedding anniversary is coming up, and I bought them a really special bottle of wine that they love. They love PX wines and they bring me presents all the time. I got them one that they haven't had before. I won't lie; some people think they're a pain in the ass because they're extremely picky, but they're awesome. They bring in their own wine, and we don't charge them a corkage fee. When they started coming in, they brought crappy wines, and now they bring great ones. A while back, they brought me an antique sommelier cup they found in their house when they were moving. Now they always bring in really expensive wines and they'll each have a glass and give the rest of the bottle to me at end of their meal to take home and have with my boyfriend. He's bar manager at Interurban.
When I went to Nicaragua recently for a couple weeks, Mike and Jo took a vacation from Toro too. They are totally a part of the restaurant. They don't want anything with cream or with cheese, and they don't like olives or bacon. Every week I tell them what's on the menu that they'll like and what they won't like. Jo has a beer of some sort — a small one to start — and they always get sherry over ice cream for dessert, but they get vanilla rather than the hazelnut and they switch to a different sherry from the one that we serve. They've been dining out at restaurants regularly for years, and I hope that someone will take care of me at that age too like we do. They have seats at the bar they like to sit at, and sometimes they get them, sometimes they don't. The kitchen always sends out flatbread for free with no toppings, and that comes out when they order. They arrive at 8:08 usually and they're usually out by 9:30. They're really respectful of time because they hate it when they can't get seated right away. Since they only like French and California wine and we don't have that, they bring their own.
Something at Toro that you've had a direct part in shaping: When I started there were seven cocktails on the menu, and we have 14 now. I completely changed that. We probably have 30 or so total recipes, and I make more all the time. The Bartender's Mood is our daily cocktail and I really like coming up with those. It's so easy for me now. I know what works well together just like a chef gains that knowledge over time.
Ron Avni, Investor and Partner
Have you always had a passion for food? I was in the computer industry for years and sold that business in 1999, but I've always loved food going back to my childhood growing up in Israel. And my dad loved food even though we had no money for it. With the computer company I was able to incorporate good food into our culture there. We had a tradition that every Friday a different employee would go and pick up to-go food for everyone from his favorite restaurant in the area, and then we'd eat and have our Friday meeting. And this was the only way I could talk to my employees without being interrupted, since their mouths were filled with food.
When did you start cooking? Once I sold the software company and didn't have to work 80 hours a week anymore, I took it easy for a while and started a bucket list of things that I'd always wanted to do. One of the things on my list was cooking school. I thought I'd do a few weeks of culinary school, but that wasn't available. The program was a year and a half, but I didn't think I'd last that long, so I had them modify the agreement so I could take whatever classes I wanted and prorate them. I had such a blast, though, that I did the entire program.
And after culinary school? After I finished the program in 2006, I didn't want to commit to anything full-time because cooking was really a hobby for me. I loved Simpatica as a diner, and I loved the vibe there, so I stopped in and talked to them. I asked if I could work there one day a week for free. One of the owners said, "That's not up to me. You should talk to John." I didn't know John and had never met him, so I came in one day and asked him. John seemed a little reluctant. This crazy old man wants to work for free, so he must be a nut kind of thing. But I kept bugging him. One of the things he said was, "I'd love to have you, but just because you work for free, I don't want to take work from regular, paid staff." I liked that very much. In the back of my mind he got a check mark for that because I liked his ethics even though, in that case, it worked against me.
Eventually there was an opening at Simpatica, so I started working there part-time. Culinary school is very different from working in a real kitchen. It doesn't really prepare you for it, so I was a serious novice. I did whatever John wanted, though, and I probably asked more questions than he could stand.
How did you get involved with Toro Bravo? John called and asked me to have a cup of coffee. He said he wanted to talk to me about something. I'd already given a loan to him and Simpatica for their HVAC and was impressed by how quickly John paid it back. I give a lot of loans for different reasons, and I never had to remind him about payment. I saw that he doesn't like to owe money, that as soon as he makes it, he likes to pay the whole thing off. That was another check mark in John's favor.
We had a cup of coffee, and through the grapevine he told me that he knew that I was looking to do something with someone else. He had two partners at the time — Ben and Jason — and they are both as strong-headed as John, so he wanted to do something where he could call the shots. After he told me about everything that he envisioned for Toro Bravo, I took out my business plan that I already had for another guy and said, "You want about 80 percent overlap with what I already have written here." Early on, I liked the fact that John succumbed to the influence of his Jewish grandfather — he can be just as miserly as I am. I knew he wasn't going to throw away money. Everything sounded good, so we modified the agreement and set to it.
During the lease negotiations and all of the other legal processes for Toro, I was really impressed by what a good businessperson John was. I was afraid that I'd have to be the business person, and I really didn't want to. I just wanted to play in the kitchen, so it was a relief. I warned John that I didn't want to do the books and all of the other business items. He twisted my arm a few times, but not too much.
What's your role at Toro these days? Right now I've kind of pulled back from day-to-day at Toro, but early on I wanted to try my hand at everything. When I told John I wanted to learn from the bottom up before Toro opened, he had a big grin on his face. He said, "Are you sure you want to learn from the bottom up?" I said, "Yep." He said, "Great, I'll let you be our first dishwasher." Believe it or not, it was a great experience being a dishwasher. I loved it. I moved into prep after a couple of months when the hired dishwasher arrived, but I still said I'd be the second dishwasher whenever needed. I did it on and off for half a year. I was a full-time employee at that time, and I made it very clear to Kasey and everyone else that when I worked in the kitchen I wasn't an owner, I was an employee. I was pretty much the lowest-ranked employee in the kitchen, and I wanted to be treated that way. It took them a while to realize I was serious about that, but finally Kasey learned to snap at me and give me a hard time just like everyone else.
I was considering doing some line cooking then too — I'd done it at another restaurant as part of my stage for culinary school — but in the end, I decided I was too old for that at Toro. It's too fast-paced and John is too picky. My hearing and eyes are not as good; I sweat and my glasses fog. I said, "No thanks," when he offered me a line position, and to be honest I think he was relieved. Shortly after, I went for a long trip overseas, and when I came back, I said, "I think that's good enough for me. If there's an emergency, call me, but I don't want a regular schedule at Toro anymore," and the cooking kind of faded away.
How would you describe your relationship with John? The way we work, well, we talk, I talk, he listens, and then he does whatever he wants. But I found out that even if John doesn't seem to listen immediately, it often sinks in. Over the years we've gotten better and better at working together. I like to be honest, and sometimes honest doesn't sound good, but I still speak my mind. I would say things like, "I don't really like that dish or this dish," and John would be very defensive and say, "What do you know? You're new in the kitchen." We had a real row one day when I told him that I really didn't like this red onion salsa and something else. He got angry and wouldn't budge. He said, "That's the recipe, so that's the way you make it." So I made it, and usually when I prep something, I like the chef to taste it when I'm done. So I made the salsa and made sure to give it to John, not Kasey to try. He tasted it, turned to the trash, and spit it out. I said, "See, I told you we need to change it."
Later that day John took me outside and said, "You know, you have to realize, Ron, that you might be right at times, but chefs — myself included — we have big egos, and you have to learn how to stroke our egos. When you have criticism, you have to learn how to give it so we don't want to slam you in your face." It was a good tip for me, and it made me realize not to get too bent out of shape when I tell John something he doesn't like. In most cases now, though, we see eye to eye.
Anything else about John? When John does something, he does it all the way. He really is like a bull, and he charges whether he's opening a restaurant or losing weight. I remember when John first told me that he'd had his first adult annual and that his doctor told him he needed to lose weight. He was really upset. I think it was only two months later, and that crazy guy had lost about 80 pounds. He started swimming, biking; he changed his eating habits. I was amazed by how quickly he took it off and kept it off, and he's kept it off to this day. It's just how he approaches things. I really like working with John — we've built a good mutual respect. He's a very honest guy and shoots straight. Sometimes I find that if I'm in the middle of the charge, I can get hit, but over the years I've learned how to duck.
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Liz Crain is the author of Food Lovers Guide to Portland and Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull. A longtime writer on Pacific Northwest food and drink, her writing has appeared in Cooking Light, Budget Travel, VIA magazine, The Sun magazine, The Progressive, The Guardian, and The Oregonian. She is also an editor and publicity director at Hawthorne Books, as well as co-organizer of the annual Portland Fermentation Festival.
Books mentioned in this post
Liz Crain is the author of Food Lover's Guide to Portland (2nd edition)