Interview with Tom Kaplan, CEO of Hugo’s Restaurant
According to Tom Kaplan, Hugo’s Restaurant was originally “Hugo’s Fine Meats”, not a restaurant! The upscale butcher shop was inspired by appealing food store displays the original founder (Mr. Terry Kaplan) saw in France while serving in the US Army during World War II.
The store was successful from the get go and as the store grew continued and tables with chairs were added, Terry Kaplan began adding new fare to his sampling menu.
Tom Kaplan: There was fresh pasta made daily in full view of customers… At least on the West Coast, in Southern California, we were the first gourmet market around in the 1980’s. We were making our own pastries and all these wonderful creations: salads, chicken salads, terrines and pâtés. Then we were also importing products from France, from Italy, olive oils, 200 years old balsamic vinegar: all these wonderful, exciting products and what we were preparing in the kitchen was all from raw ingredients. We didn’t call it “whole foods”. Nobody was making it so we made it ourselves.
Early on we promoted one of our dishwashers. Our current chef, Nabor Diaz Prado came to work for us 27 years ago. He kept watching, learning and working his way up and after 18 months or two years, this young man from Mexico took over the kitchen as a chef. We’ve had many members of the Prado family working with us in our 36 year history. We’ve never been without at least 2 -3 members of the Prado family. (Many of our long-time employees went on to establish their own successful businesses.)
Editor: It says a lot about the working environment at Hugo’s Restaurant.
Tom Kaplan: It says a lot about my dad. When Nabor – the current star chef – started to work here as a dishwasher, one of his first jobs early morning was sweeping the parking lot. And he remembers on one of his first days working here, my father calling him aside and telling him how important his job is. Customers arriving at the restaurant’s parking lot form their first impression of Hugo’s based on the cleanliness of the lot. If the lot isn’t clean, they may not return.
Editor: You never get a second chance to make the first impression.
On a different note entirely, I was surprised to learn that you’re serving pasta for breakfast.
Tom Kaplan: Yes, we do! We have a kitchen behind the Hugo’s Taco stand in Studio City that houses our pasta machine. We have a guy who is making nothing but fresh pasta all day long, at least three times a week.
Editor: It’s my understanding that Hugo’s has a special menu for people with food allergies?
Tom Kaplan: In L.A. people want to be as healthy as they can. Maybe because ours is an artistic city people are more sensitive to their bodies.
Editor: I stand corrected, we should be speaking of food sensitivities as well.
Tom Kaplan: Actually, it’s both. With the development of industrial agriculture over the last 100 years, I believe that a lot of foods have become intolerable. We are not eating meat any- more, we are eating something so far removed from the ancient grains, our bodies can’t tolerate it. Many people end up going to doctors with all kinds of ailments when it really is about going back to pure foods which is what we’re trying to do in Hugo’s Restaurant.
Editor: So, if I understand it correctly: when a group consisting of regular healthy people, a person with food allergies / sensitivities and a vegan come for a dinner to Hugo’s Restaurant, you can accommodate their diverse needs?
Tom Kaplan: Yes, that’s why Hugo’s is also a great first date restaurant! If you have an allergy to gluten or garlic, our staff knows practically every ingredient on the menu. They also have a book which they can bring to the table. The book has all the common allergens in our ingredients listed. Then we have an alert system: let’s say you’re allergic to garlic. Once you have chosen items that are garlic-free, the server will come and place a red coaster in front of you. Then they put an alert on the computer the guys in the kitchen can see. The kitchen staff double-checks that everything you get is garlic-free. (The guys are brilliant in the kitchen!) And then your special dish has a frilly toothpick put on it so the guy who brings your order to the table is aware that there is a special issue and looks for the red coaster on the table. We take food allergies very seriously.
My wife, Emily, and I are yoga practitioners and teachers. So we started to study Ayurveda and that’s how the Ayurvedic meals came about….
We were set for vegetarians quite early. But in the nineties people started saying: “we can’t have the pasta because we’re vegan.” And we said, “What the heck is vegan?” And so they said “there is an egg in it”. “So what’s the matter with that, you don’t have kill anything to have an egg.” But they’d say “we don’t eat anything containing animal products.” So then Nabor (the Chef) and I started looking how to make pasta without eggs. And Nabor who is from Mexico said, “I remember my parents used to soak flaxseeds in water overnight and the water would become gelatinous, why don’t we try that?” We did and we started using it in our pasta. Not one customer noticed. There was no drop in quality. So then we started wondering “what about the bread that we make? Instead of butter, let’s use olive oil. We reexamined our menu and got it down to the point that vegans could have sandwiches and pasta, or things that used to be vegetarian but have now become vegan.
About 2005 – 2006 I started getting emails about gluten and I said, it’s OK: I can’t please everybody, but then that one guy came in and made an appointment to talk to me. Having talked with him, I reevaluated the menu and realized that it wouldn’t be that hard to get rid of all flour in the restaurant. So the only gluten that we now have is in our pasta and bread and in some of the pancakes. We have no flour floating around that could cause cross-contamination. Then the same care progressed into other areas.
One of the members of our menu committee was into oil-free and low sodium. So again, we started looking for healthier alternatives and Nabor – the Chef: – who’s just a genius said, “let me play with things” and yes, we found a way to eliminate oil. It was never really planned, we never decided that this is going to be this way.
Editor: So these healthy changes were sort of a natural evolution…
Tom Kaplan: Are you familiar with sorghum?
Editor: That’s a type of grain, isn’t it?
Tom Kaplan: Yes. Over the last two years, we’ve been looking at how much water it takes to grow rice. It takes like 200 gallons of water to grow one pound of rice. Quinoa has become so expensive in the countries it comes from, the people who live there can no longer afford it. So we started looking at what other grains are out there that are ecologically-sustainable, drought-tolerant, you know, for our climate. It’s sorghum. It is super-nutritious, so we now have it in many recipes. We are saving thousands and thousands of gallons of water by trying to switch people to sorghum. Sorghum is now in our breads and pastries.
You can’t settle for mediocrity. You have to always strive to be different and better. Hugo’s is not an expensive restaurant, we are more egalitarian, we want everybody to sit and eat together no matter what their dietary restrictions / preferences.
Editor: I know that you are dedicated to serving whole foods, foods without GMOs, etc. These foods are more costly than their conventional counterparts. Does it make sense from a business point of view?
Tom Kaplan: I think it’s equally balanced. I worked in many restaurants in my life. My son has worked in many kitchens. I know what other restaurants do. I know that they’re buying things pre-made. So it costs them more, but they save on labor. When you buy raw ingredients, raw ingredients are cheaper than pre-made foods, but raw ingredients require more labor. So we get our food at a little lower price than other restaurants but our labor costs are somewhat higher.
Editor: Well, it’s not easy to remain innovative and relevant for so many years and yet, you succeeded. What a trip from “Eastern White Veal” to feeding people with varying dietary needs, sorghum and water conservation…
The world changed and Hugo’s Restaurant not only kept up, but pioneered many changes in the culinary arts and the restaurant industry. I still remember Hugo’s coffee (you HAVE TO try it: it tastes great and it works, if you know what I mean!). I never said thank you for the coffee. So, thanks for the coffee and thank you for caring. Hugo’s Restaurant has earned its good reputation by caring about our health, about their staff and yes, the environment. The legacy of Terry Kaplan, the founder of Hugo’s Restaurant, not only continues but has grown over time. Its core values of Love Of People, Food and Environment are timeless. Hugo’s Restaurant continues to be a magnet for local foodies’ and is still the leader in innovative and wholesome restaurant meals, a staying power well-earned, indeed!
(based on interview published by Anything L.A. Magazine and reprinted with permission)
Hugo’s Restaurant near you:
Hugo’s Restaurant West Hollywood
8401 Santa Monica Blvd.
Hugo’s Restaurant Studio City
12851 Riverside Dr.
Hugo’s Restaurant Agoura Hills
(at Whizin Market Square)
5046 Cornell Road
You may also enjoy Hugo’s Tacos which offers South of the Border whole food meals on a much smaller scale:
4749 Coldwater Canyon
Studio City, CA 91604