Eric Schaefer Kicks Off a New Column for Chow Bella and Introduces Us to Travis Tolmachoff
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.
Photo by Jamie Carey Mulhern. Travis Tolmachoff
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."