Do Staffan Terje and Umberto Gibin Have the Ideal Restaurant Partnership?

The chef and general manager of Perbacco have kept the Piemontese restaurant fresh for 12 years, along with Barbacco next door.

Importing flour from a Piemontese mill allowed Perbacco to up its pasta game.

Having started in 1849 as a stand on Clay Street, Tadich Grill is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in California. But it’s only been at its current location since the late 1960s. (Technically, the north side of California Street between Battery and Front wasn’t even land at all, until the city filled in the Bay eastward from Montgomery Street.) But Tadich will likely hold its title for a long time to come, making any other culinary enterprises around it look like fly-by-night operations — even Michael Mina, which has been open next to Tadich Grill since 2004.

“We’re always going to be the new kid on the block,” admits Staffan Terje, chef of Perbacco, the 12-year-old Piedmontese restaurant on the opposite side of Tadich. “It’s funny: When we opened it, a lot of people in the restaurant industry were like, ‘Eh, it’s kind of a B-minus location, good but not great. Fortunately, we proved them wrong.”

The space had not had great luck, having been a steak-and-clam-chowder spot called Gold Coast, an Italian restaurant called Seven Hills, and something very 1970s-sounding called Love’s.

“We’ve matured into what I would say is not a good old standby, but one of those places that’s reliable,” Terje says. “Where you know that the experience might not be the newest and hippest, but what you get is great service and great food in a nice atmosphere. I think we’re fortunate that our architect and designer designed a timeless restaurant. We haven’t had to do much.”

At the same time, while 12 years pales beside Tadich’s century-and-a-half, it’s an eternity when compared to the general public’s rapid growth in sophistication. Italian food, even a specialized form of Northern Italian food, is a perennial classic. That in itself is not going to change, but you still have to keep pace.

Fortunately, so have specialty purveyors, making once-obscure ingredients easier to come by and allowing the kitchen to experiment more. For instance, Perbacco has begun importing pasta flour from a mill in Piedmont rather than through a big distributor — and they’ve added two full-time pasta-making positions. Owing to its history, its proximity to France, and its use of butter more than olive oil, Terje says that Piedmont is “the capital of what we consider pure Italian — and I don’t believe there’s a ‘true’ Italian food. It’s regional cuisines within the country. They fight about it constantly.”

People have been exposed to a lot more over the last few years, he says, so that not only do novelties wear off but so does the idea of novelty itself. And people whose approach to restaurant dining is to check off notches on a predetermined list aren’t necessarily Perbacco’s core constituency. But the chef seems to worry less about diners’ palates than about staff retention, clearly a concern with so many top-tier places out there. How do you keep a talented chef de cuisine who’s eager to move up?

“You constantly have to wrack your brain,” he says. “Where are they going to be in two months? How can I make them better? At the same time, how can I make them do things for me so that I don’t have to work so hard?”

The trick to aging gracefully amid all the shiny new objects vying for diners’ attention is to make incremental changes without succumbing to fads. For instance, as is the case with many chefs, Terje admits to having been slightly dismissive of vegetarian and vegan tastes. But as it became clear that they were here to stay, he took it as a challenge. He now makes bagna cauda, that garlicky and almost sneakily uncouth staple, with miso instead of anchovies. That way, everybody wins.

“You see some places go, ‘Well, we’re getting older, so let’s change it,’ and they fail miserably,” Terje says. “Because people go, ‘What happened? Why did you change it instead of slowly evolving?’ ”

One product of Perbacco’s evolution is Barbacco, the trattoria with more of a Southern Italian focus next door. (They share a common prep space, but otherwise retain separate identities.) Since they’re surrounded by a dense workday population, Perbacco and Barbacco will probably never want for a hungry clientele, but Terje also credits their success to his longtime partnership with his general manager and co-owner, the ever-dapper Umberto Gibin. The two met in Irvine before crossing paths years later in Sausalito, where Gibin was at Poggio when he asked Terje if he wanted to open a restaurant together, each in control of their respective domain.

“I know so many chefs who are dear friends who complain about their front-of-house person, and there’s a few chefs I know who have the same luck as I have,” Terje says, citing Ravi Kapur and Jeff Hanak’s partnership at Liholiho Yacht Club. “When you work with someone who is so professional and so good at what they do, you don’t have to put your nose into it. Umberto feels the same about me. We collaborate on things, but we let each other deal with what we’re good at.”

Gibin describes the arrangement similarly, as a series of consultations built on trust rather than a strict policy of noninterference.

“We’re not afraid to step on each other’s feet,” he says. “We’re in business. The idea is to be successful. It’s like a marriage: If you don’t communicate, eventually you’re going to divorce.”

The marriage has faced at least one challenge. In early 2016, Terje and Gibin took over a former ‘Wichcraft space on Mission Street, behind the Westfield Centre, and opened Volta, a French-Scandinavian restaurant. It was beautiful and well-executed, but like many other large, high-profile projects in and around the Mid-Market area, it only lasted a few months. In fairness, though, Volta wasn’t nearly as overambitious as, say, Market Square’s Dirty Water, which had also been a brewery. Both partners blame the location as the prime reason for Volta’s inability to catch on.

“Customers weren’t comfortable coming down to that area,” Terje says. “We weren’t the first ones or the last ones to close, unfortunately, but there were close to 10 restaurants that were high-quality that closed up between Ninth and Fifth. … There was so much development going on and suddenly, these big projects were just halting.”

Gibin concurs, ascribing 95 percent of the blame to the location and the remainder to confusion over Volta’s concept. But, he adds, they had been looking five years down the line, after the Moscone Center’s renovation, the opening of new hotels, and the gradual redevelopment of the entire neighborhood. But there were bad headlines.

“If you recall, in 2016, there was a dead person found in the stairway at Bloomingdale’s, a cook at Sons & Daughters and a year later there was an assault in one of the bathrooms upstairs,” Gibin says. “A young man was robbed and assaulted. The newspapers had a field trip with that and published over and over. Market Street between Fourth and Fifth was the block that received more police complaints about petty crimes than any other block. My business went down almost 70 percent almost overnight, and I couldn’t compete with that, so the idea was ‘Do we funnel more money in, or do we just say unfortunately it didn’t work out?’ I think that we did everything that we had to do. We had great reviews, the place was gorgeous, the food was really good, the service was good — but the location just killed us.”

While Terje adds candidly that they “should have seen” that Perbacco’s customer base might not want to have lunch on that stretch of Mission, it’s also true that Mission is not exactly a war zone. Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom are immediately adjacent, after all. And in hindsight, he’s grown more wistful about the experience. 

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Terje says. “The first couple of months, yeah, it stung — not only emotionally but financially. We lost a great deal of money but hey, that’s the restaurant business. It makes it hard when you’ve been successful with two restaurants: ‘Hey, we’re invincible!’ But you’re not.”

His next project, he adds, will probably be something fast casual.

Anyone who’s been to Perbacco knows that Gibin is a master of the art of anticipation, always keeping his cool on the floor. Having plenty of cufflinks and watches, some “80 or 85” pocket squares, and “a great collection of ties — last week, there were 130,” he adheres effortlessly to the image of an urbane gentleman.

As Gibin describes it, his management approach is almost zen. Your body and your mind have to be present with 100-percent attention, he says, always reading the dining room and studying new faces to glean what they want, sometimes before they know it.

“I am a traditionalist, but I always look ahead,” he says, adding that he believes there are some things that aren’t valid anymore that you can’t get stuck on. “But I still believe there is only one kind of hospitality and one way to do things: do it well.”

After so long in the industry, can he even relax when he dines out? Or is his eye constantly roaming about, scrutinizing?

“My wife already knows I always like to be facing the dining room,” he says. “I have to have full vision of the dining room and possibly the kitchen, so I can see the action.”

What Gibin likes is to be greeted promptly and courteously, and have a beverage served quickly. From then on, the pace can slow down. But presentation is important.

“I don’t want to see a mound of food on my plate,” he says. “That’s not appetizing. Give me something that looks good and I’m happy with that. If it’s a small plate, I’ll order another one. It doesn’t matter.”

Seeing that Gibin is Italian by birth and Terje is a native of Sweden, there’s bound to be some butting of heads over food.

“We had a fun discussion yesterday, talking about different regions of Italy,” Terje says. “I was like, ‘How many have you really spent time in?’ He’s like, ‘Honestly, not that many.’ Italians — if you’re in Piemonte, you’ll maybe go to Tuscany or go skiing in Valle D’Aosta.

“Then again,” he adds, “I’ve never been to Bakersfield. Italy can fit in California, but I drove up to Oregon cooking for a wedding a month ago. Getting up to Redding and Shasta. I’d never been there. It’s not the nicest place, but they do have an In-N-Out Burger.”

Perbacco, 230 California St., 415-955-0663 or perbaccosf.com

View Comments