This feature is part of a regular series called “How I Got Promoted,” spotlighting the stories of how top hospitality professionals took their careers to the next level. Today we hear from director of hospitality Stephen Lee of Perbacco and Barbacco, the hit Italian spots in San Francisco — who got to where he is by being the true embodiment of the word “hospitality.”
I was born and raised in Hawaii, and at first, I was interested in doing something in the medical field. I went to school in Hawaii, but I wasn’t really getting anywhere. And then, during a trip to Canada, I had a layover in San Francisco and fell in love with the city. Six months later, I moved here.
In Hawaii, I had always worked in the food and beverage industry on the side. I was a server at the Sheraton Waikiki hotel and a busboy at The Cheesecake Factory. When I moved to San Francisco, I was able to keep my job at Cheesecake Factory and transfer to a new location, and I also landed a hosting position at Perbacco right when it opened. But I was still going to school and trying to get into the medical field.
I realized at a certain point that I had no interest in what I was studying in school; on the other hand, I had been in food and beverage since I was a teen and I had always been surrounded by it. I was more interested in going to work than I was in going to school, and I had really grown with Perbacco since it opened. So I decided to do a complete career change — I dropped everything and applied to the hospitality program at City College of San Francisco.
This wasn’t easy on my parents. Growing up first-generation in the U.S., my parents’ vision of working in restaurants was not great — they just thought I wanted to be a waiter. But I had aspirations of becoming a manager, owner, and really excelling in the business.
I got into City College and started attending classes. I was never into academics until I started this program. At City College, I didn’t miss a beat — I loved learning about creating an experience for a guest or the composition of a dish. It was fascinating to me. Eventually, I decided to drop The Cheesecake Factory and focus just on Perbacco, so I was doing full time at the restaurant along with full-time at school. I was intertwining my education at the program and applying it at Perbacco and using my experience at the restaurant to mentor my classmates and share knowledge. Eventually, I was leading by example. I think it gave me an edge.
After I graduated from school, I thought about whether or not I wanted to stay at Perbacco or go somewhere else. I decided that I wanted to try to grow with the restaurant and see how far I could take it, whereas if I applied somewhere else, I would be starting from ground zero and not knowing which direction I was going to go. At Perbacco, I had a path.
Soon, I was promoted to maître d’ at Perbacco. I had more responsibilities, I was overseeing reservations, and I was working with the owner, Umberto Gibin, essentially becoming his right hand. I was very ambitious. I was always following Umberto, asking a lot of questions, and seeing what he was doing to be successful.
I followed through on what I said I would do and did more. I tried to be three steps ahead of everyone else.
I worked as maître d’ for a few years. I loved interacting with guests and making people feel welcome — really creating that extra touch in finding out details about them. I started to mentor the other hostesses, and Umberto saw that, so he offered me the position that I have now, as director of hospitality.
I think I was very well mentored and still am today — that is part of the motivation that keeps me going: I want to share the knowledge with new employees that come into this business. The biggest challenge is trying to live up to my own expectations of myself — you don’t want to let your guard down.
I would tell others in the industry to be engaged, follow through, and don’t be afraid to take the leap on opportunities that come. Maybe I should be taking my own advice, but I do really, really enjoy working at this restaurant! I think there is a lot more to come after twelve years.
Photo credit: Erin E. Euser.