By all accounts, Joseph Geiskopf was a rising star in the Los Angeles culinary scene. After spending years working his way up through Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe (Noma) and the Bay Area (Californios, Sons & Daughters, Benu), the 31-year-old chef landed in LA to become Jordan Kahn’s right-hand man — first at Red Medicine, then at Destroyer.
Finally, in 2017, Geiskopf stepped out to make his own food when he helped open Triniti in Echo Park, then Kensho in Hollywood earlier this year, which he left after two weeks. Triniti was on the LA Times’s 101 list within months of its opening, and the Eater LA Heatmap. So, it was something of a surprise when Geiskopf hung up his apron, stopped hosting pop-up dinners and events, and began working as a private chef to a single family in the Los Angeles area.
Eater sits down with Geiskopf to discuss his decision, and covered issues from pay disparities in the kitchen, to the city’s talent drain, and the struggles of opening a restaurant in Los Angeles.
On leaving Triniti and Kensho: “I think I just got a bad deal at Triniti. I was paid an under-the-minimum-wage salary, but I was being furnished with tips, which is illegal. I was making like six bucks, $6.80 an hour. In my personal life, I was completely unhappy. In my professional life, I was completely unhappy. It was really bad. I was really depressed. I would leave Triniti to go to therapy in Pasadena. I would do that in the middle of the day so that I could get through the rest of the day.”
On pay disparity between front and back of house: “Tipping is kind of murky, and it’s always been a murky situation. These kids [in the kitchen] are busting their ass. He’s breaking down five, six fish. There’s technique I have to teach that these kids have to learn, and it [can be] dangerous. There’s so much technique and creative artistry that goes into [cooking], and yet they’re still being paid less than people that work the front of the house.
I don’t get that. I felt it first in San Francisco. Cooks, for the most part, were paid fairly good money as San Francisco’s minimum wage was much higher because the cost of living was much higher. Once Silicon Valley came in, there was a lot more money, but it didn’t really trickle down to the cooks and the chefs.”
On free labor and undocumented workers: “If there were no stagiaires (or interns), if there was no free labor, or undocumented labor, the whole restaurant industry would crash. There’s not a lot of people that are willing to work that hard. A lot of these guys were doing it just so they could send money back home, because the exchange rate was so good. Now the exchange rate is terrible.”
On sexism in the kitchen: “Yeah, I’ve seen [women] paid less—deliberately paid less. It’s just because of chefs would say something like, ‘You can’t carry 60 pounds.’ Really? It comes from the profession being a very masculine, aggressive profession. I’ve worked with chefs and heard sous chefs say, ‘if you can’t hack it here, you go over to pastry land with the girls.’”
On LA’s talent drain in the kitchen: “It’s a pay issue, and I think it’s just that there’s not a lot of interesting things right now as a cook to go to learn at. There’s maybe five kitchens doing interesting things. When the Michelin guide left [after 2010] everyone was like, ‘fuck the guide.’ But it did affect chefs. You saw a lot of chefs leave. They had esteem in the number of Michelin stars they earned. I’m sure these guys that had one, two stars—they had them, but then the guide left. So, I think it’s going to take some time to bring some of that talent back out to LA.”
On the difference of vision between investors and chefs when opening a restaurant: “I think finding investors that you share a vision with is very difficult. They kind of look at you as a one trick pony: you do the food, we build the restaurants. I sat in a meeting with an investor who pulled up the Eater Essential 38, and he goes, ‘Can you do any one of these?’ and asked if I could do a Nashville hot chicken concept. So, I asked him what he did to be so successful, and he said he was in real estate. He had been in real estate for 15 years. I said, I’ve been a chef for 16 years, so I’m one year your senior. You don’t respect my ideas or what I’m trying to do. So, he got up and walked out. Some of these people, they look at it like it’s real estate. You’re the chef, but you’ll never own the building. They own the building. You’re just there to pay rent. The minute you stop making money, you’re cut.”
On his reluctance to open a restaurant on a handshake: “There was a restaurant that I would have loved to have done: a great neighborhood and a partner who built great restaurants. Unfortunately, I had to pass on it. There wasn’t a clear number [for my salary], and I didn’t ever want to put myself into a situation where it was kind of a handshake agreement. I wanted to see terms. I wanted to see: this is what you’re getting, this is what I’m getting. Let’s get that out of the way, and then let’s be creative and have fun. You can have people capitalize on your creativity and pay you shit, or you can go mainstream and make generic food that isn’t forward-thinking and be paid a little more. Or you can go on your own way and settle on what you think you’re worth.”
On the reality of profit-share deals for a chef: “Investors will say, I’ll give you whatever base salary and a profit-share. Running the numbers, that’s a big number. That’s a great number to look at, but the reality is the restaurant’s not going to be full, plus you’re already going to take on your shoulders the labor costs — whether or not people show up. Here, the traditional model is labor costs are 40%, food costs are 20%. Now, based on whatever else, you chop that profit-share number up, and it actually gets cut much smaller. The take-home isn’t much. Especially when you’re expecting me to pay you rent on a building that you own.”
On why Geiskopf ultimately stepped away from restaurants: “It’s not about the money, but it is about the money sometimes. My personal life has shifted — when you have a kid on the way, and a lady that you are crazy about, suddenly you’ll do whatever needs to be done. I make about three times the amount as a personal chef than I would make if I was an executive chef [at a restaurant]. I make more money as a personal chef than I made when I was working at Apple. I can do large scale hotel stuff, I can do it small personal tasting dinners, I can do it all, you know, so I feel guilty a little bit. [But I have] flexibility, and an actual set schedule.”
On his ideal labor model: “The restaurant is only open four days a week, and the fifth day is either a prep day or educational day. The staff should do whatever they want with it. If you want to go to therapy, go to therapy. I’m going to build it into the structure. The salary is clear, we’re gonna have nice shit, and we’re all going to rotate through every station, just like you would do as a chef. It’s going to be a learning kitchen—we’re going to learn from each other. Also, everybody has to volunteer [outside the restaurant]. Doesn’t even have to be food-related, but you have to do it, because you need polish yourself a little bit more.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.