The restaurant environment is often described as a family, but, in the case of Valette, it’s particularly true. The establishment is a family business run by brothers and co-owners Dustin Valette and Aaron Garzini. Chef Valette has worked at revered restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Aqua in San Francisco and Bouchon Bistro and Dry Creek Kitchen in California’s wine country, while Garzini, who is the general manager, has experience as a wine director and managing front of the house at restaurants including John Ash & Co., Betelnut in San Francisco, and Rustic in Geyserville. Here they discuss the nuances of their partnership and how communication is the bedrock of their working relationship.
This is your first time working together at a restaurant. What are the advantages to being siblings running a business?
Dustin Valette: We know each other’s strengths. We understand our roles — and there’s crossover. A lot of times, there’s animosity between the front of the house and the back of the house, but at Valette, we’re all here for the same reason. We need everyone to be excited about the food, drinks, and hospitality. We didn’t design the restaurant to be a business but, rather, a canvas for artisans to showcase their craft. It’s not about us but about showcasing their talents.
Aaron Garzini: I focus on the front of the house, but there is a lot of overlap. One of our strengths is thorough communication. Sometimes restaurants can feel like two different departments, but we don’t approach it that way. Dustin runs the most accommodating kitchen, he’s great about giving constructive feedback, and he knows how to pick the right times to share it. It’s great in that aspect. We are always trying to fine tune.
DV: You pick up on the cues with each other. You don’t push on an open wound. Maybe it’s about how to put the forks on the table or the size of the salad — you don’t bring it up in the middle of a busy Friday night service! People often forget they are in the hospitality business. It’s something we don’t forget.
Having known Aaron my entire life, I can pick up on what’s important. It’s about finding common ground. The biggest advantage is that we’re in the hospitality business. We both got in the business to make people happy. We gave up our nights, weekends, and holidays. I have the utmost respect for my brother as a person and as a manager. My brother isn’t going to yell at me — most businesses don’t have that luxury. It’s like a marriage.
AG: Obviously, I knew my brother was going to put out amazing food, but he’s creative in other ways. When people see the environment, they ask, ‘How did you come up with it?’ A lot of the ideas were Dustin’s. We are very hands on owner operators, whether it’s an idea for a drink or new wine service.
How do you deal with conflict?
DV: Anytime you have any relationship there will be differences of opinion. It’s to our advantage to sit down and decide analytically who’s correct. Should we serve a cold soup on the menu in the summer? Yes or no? It fits with the season but not the style of dining. There are some grey areas. We can sit down and see what’s important to each other. If one of us is passionate about something, we go with it. Ultimately, it’s about what’s the best choice for the guest. It’s about being in synch; for me to do it all by myself it would be too much. We are dedicated to each other’s vision.
I was stubborn and hard headed. Working with my brother has helped me see the other side of the coin. I admire him and it’s changed my demeanor. It makes me push myself higher. My job is to live up to his energy.
What is your approach to communication?
AG: It’s not always easy, but honest conversation is key. Growing up as brothers, we had bruises and scratches, but, at the end of the day, it’s just about finding what’s best. It applies to everything we do — even the steaks we buy. It’s our philosophy.
I think that because of Dustin there’s a trickle down from the top of the restaurant. That friction is almost non-existent and that stems from the top.
DV: More than meeting face to face — we email, we try to keep each other in the loop as much as we can with thorough communication. My weakness is impatience; Aaron has helped me with that. Aaron is the king of getting things done; he helps me focus.
AG: We’re taking it to a new level. As siblings, we’ve always been close, but moving into ownership, it’s an expanded role and we’ve both grown and we communicate much more.
DV: There’s a common goal. Once you see the bigger picture, the minutiae fall by the wayside.
What is the front of the house/back of the house relationship like?
AG: It works well with us — I don’t mind if the spotlight is sometimes more on Dustin as the chef. It’s a good dynamic. It’s a family business, so we both shine. We have a lot of connections in this town and a lot of people know both of us.
DV: Things have changed since restaurants just talked about being ‘chef driven.’ Service can make or break the restaurant experience. People are more aware that a good restaurant can’t just rely on the food. So much of a great restaurant is the ambiance. At the end of the day, the food is just a part of it. If you feel good because of the way the staff treated you, it’s going to be a great meal.
AG: The technical aspects of service should be seamless. However, we stress making a personal connection with the guest — it’s noticed and appreciated. We have a lot of server requests. The majority of service issues come from when people don’t feel like the staff cares.
Any advice for siblings looking to open and run a restaurant together?
DV: I’d give the same advice to someone getting married: it’s about choosing the right person, having the same goals, and knowing each other’s differences, strengths, and weaknesses. Just make sure you’re in it for the long haul. There are going to be differences and challenges, but I wouldn’t want to be in business with anyone else.
Photo credits: Gretchen Gause Photography (top image); Chris Hardy (middle and bottom images).