John Yoo, owner of Paseo Colorado’s Porto Alegre, shares his experience on moving to the US, getting involved in the hospitality industry and how he came to own “Pasadena’s best kept secret.”
You moved to the United States when you were young. How did you first get involved in the restaurant industry?
I grew up in South Korea. I came to the United States when I was 10 and our family started a hamburger restaurant. We owned the restaurant and we were shorthanded and I sort of followed in my father’s footsteps and helped him out at the restaurant. I made my first burger when I was 12 and a half. We were in the family restaurant [business] for seven years. I would go to school, come straight to the restaurant, work all night and go home with my dad at 10. I was working from age of 12 and a half until I was 19 and then we moved to a small city in Delaware and we owned a deli and I worked at the deli for another 10 years. I also went to school for hotel and restaurant management, worked at the Hotel DuPont, and then I wanted to branch out on my own and I moved to California.
Moving to Los Angeles is certainly a huge change from Delaware. Also, how did a guy from South Korea come to own a Brazilian steakhouse?
At the time, my cousin was in the bar business and he asked me to come out here. I came to LA and it was just very flashy—you know, a guy from Delaware coming to a big city like Los Angeles. I was 26 at the time. [The bar business] didn’t go too well so I branched off, learned the [garment] manufacture business for five years. After five years, my uncle was running this Brazilian steakhouse. He was having a hard time running two businesses because he had another in Long Beach. So I said, “Let me take over.” At the time I was very scared. I had a son [about to born]. My son was born in August and I took over the restaurant in September of 2014. So, it was a juggle.
What were your first days like at Porto Alegre?
When I came into this restaurant, the restaurant was in really bad shape. The restaurant literally only had eight wine glasses, we were constantly running out of stuff, and the staff didn’t have proper training. It was chaos. It was a juggle from September to November because as a new guy coming in, everyone thought they could push me around. There was one time I had no kitchen staff and I had to take over the restaurant by myself. But I was able to make it through. That period made me realize how important it is to have a good leader.
What types of changes did make to Porto Alegre?
I changed the method of cooking. The pit didn’t have air going into the charcoal so the charcoal was burning—not cooking—the meat. We also reduced the usage of salt. These days, a lot of people are health conscious. All of the recipes have been modified. Everything is fresh. I don’t use any preservatives because I wouldn’t cook anything at the restaurant that I wouldn’t want my kids to eat.
You recently bought your uncle out and are now full owner. Why did you decide to stay?
I catch myself finding inner peace when I cook and when I see people happy because they’re full from eating the food I’ve cooked.