‘Top Chef’ finalist got his start at campus cafe

Joe Sasto pasta UC Davis

Credit: Bravo Media

UC Davis alumnus Joe Sasto works his pasta magic on “Top Chef,” where he’s made it to the Final 3.

Quick summary

  • ‘Cheftestant’ Joe Sasto ’10 worked as a kitchen supervisor at the ASUCD Coffee House
  • He fondly recalls making — and eating — the meat loaf, nachos and chicken tetrazzini
  • Now an executive chef in Los Angeles, he is two shows away from winning Season 15 of TV’s top cooking show

From the CoHo kitchen to the Final 3 of “Top Chef,” the hit Bravo TV cooking competition — that’s our Aggie alumnus Joe Sasto!

“People always ask restaurant people where they got their start, and I say, ‘The Coffee House,’ and they don’t get it,” Sasto said in a phone interview with Dateline UC Davis on Feb. 27. “It’s one of those things that’s so hard to describe unless you’ve been there.”

If you are staff or faculty, you’ve most likely been to this campus institution nearly 50 years old, operated by the Associated Students of UC Davis and mostly run by students.

Sasto worked there for two years, from 2008 until his graduation in 2010, the last year and a quarter as a kitchen supervisor. “There’s so much cooking, so much restaurant work going on. ... It’s really a unique, special place.”

Among his favorite CoHo foods — to make and eat — he recalled the meat loaf (especially with extra glaze from squirt bottles) and the nachos (“my go-to snack”), and, of course, the CoHo’s iconic chicken tetrazzini (“I don’t think I’ve ever had chicken tet as good as that”).

“It was fun and I learned so much there,” he said. “It was carefree, with all of us students, but we cooked some really awesome food.

“The CoHo crew comes in so young and inexperienced, and, yet, they end up contributing to a successful, well-organized operation — really esteemed.”

Family style

“Mustache Joe” Sasto
Bravo Media

Sasto himself was held in high esteem at his fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, where he cooked “family” meals on Sundays, and for special occasions such as when parents visited on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

He’s a family-style-meal kind of guy and a passionate cook — learning from his mother, Claudette, whom he called his biggest influence in cooking and in life. “She’s the one who taught me the power of food and family ... the power that food has to bring people together,” he said.

Sasto said he had wanted to work in restaurants since he was young, and thought about going straight from high school to culinary school. But his mother wanted him to go to college, to earn a degree, to have something to fall back on. And so he did, enrolling at UC Davis as a freshman. His mother died the summer after his first year.

Despite that devastating blow, Sasto honored his mother’s memory by staying in school and receiving a Bachelor of Arts in communication. “I don’t regret anything at all,” he said. “I appreciate everything I learned at UC Davis.”

From Mendocino County to LA

A Sasto creation: Ricotta Gnudi with Lobster Roe Butter, Lobster Glaze and Black Truffle.

His Top Chef biography picks up from there: He opened a restaurant in Ukiah (Mendocino County), earning a swift education in the business (and its pitfalls); took a break to travel through Europe; then brought his newfound international inspiration to San Francisco’s Cotogna and then its sister restaurant, Quince.

He spent three years at the three-Michelin-starred Quince, learning the ropes and roots from one of America’s most celebrated Italian-influenced chefs, Michael Tusk, who ultimately entrusted Sasto to manage the restaurant’s handmade pasta.

Chef Joe moved on to become executive sous chef at Lazy Bear, bringing his pasta prowess and attention to detail, and working with Bay Area products and producers with great reverence.

Sasto recently moved to Los Angeles, where he is executive chef at Michael Mina and Adam Sobel’s new restaurant, Cal Mare, specializing in coastal Italian fare.

As you can see, his star is definitely on the rise, with or without winning Top Chef. He’s already outcooked 12 other “cheftestants” in Season 15 of the Emmy and James Beard Award-winning show.

Cooking in Colorado

Cocoa dough, about to be wrapped around a pea and pecorino (cheese) filling. Cocoa and peas? “It’s a pretty classy combo these days,” says Sasto, calling this creation an homage to chef Jeremy Fox, who popularized peas and white chocolate. (@chef.joe.sasto)

Two episodes remain: This Thursday (March 1), when one more chef will be cut, and Thursday (March 8) when the Final 2 will square off in the season finale. Each episode premieres at 9 p.m.

Season 15 is an all-Colorado edition, that is, the weekly competitions have been held around the state, in a variety of settings: restaurant, campsite, food truck, farm, theme park, beer garden. Top Chef is in Aspen for the last two episodes.

Sasto’s favorite competition so far: the Olympic challenge, in front of an audience, stadium-style. He won the contest with his Carrot and Beef Casoncelli, a stuffed pasta — with pasta being one of his specialties.

The show can be crazy, he said. “You have to be able to think on your feet, which is something we did at the CoHo. Anyone can point out the problems, but the successful cooks and chefs will figure out how to make it work.”

Follow Chef Joe on Instagram to see more of his cooking.

Creative hair styling

Lauren Woods ’10, front-of-house manager at the CoHo, who worked as a student with Sasto, recalled his “great energy” and how he made the kitchen “a more lively and fun place.”

Another co-worker recalled Sasto’s “experimental” hair and beard styling. Woods recalled the time Sasto shaved and cut his hair into a Friar Tuck look, and another time he sported an “infinity” beard” — that is, he shaved his head except for a thin strip in front and down to his sideburns and connecting with his beard.

“That was my thing in college,” Sasto laughed. It all led to the handlebar mustache he’s wearing now, earning him the nickname “Mustache Joe” on Top Chef, in part to differentiate him from the another Joe in the competition, who also made it to the Final 3.

So, will it be “Mustache Joe,” “Cleanshaven Joe” or Adrienne who wins?

Joe Sasto knows, but he can’t say. Tune in: 9 p.m. Thursday!