I had the opportunity to catch up with my good friend and fellow Cava Private Dining Room lover, Daniel Harthausen. Daniel is just coming off of his big win on HBOMAX’s The Big Brunch and has been in a flurry of interviews around town. Everyone knows him now but RVAMAG wanted something more personal, so we sat down to talk his business, his passions, his commitment to working hard, leading with integrity, and we chat in rapid fire about the show as only friends do.
Alright, let’s go and get this started. We are here. Who is we? Nobody knows who we are. I’m just like saying stuff. This is Chance and I got my boy Daniel Harthausen. I’m never gonna call him Dan. People will be calling you Dan and I’m like…
Yo, bro like people call me Danny.
They call you Danny? You’re not a Dan or Danny bro you are you are a Daniel. What do you go by, Dan or Daniel?
I always said I could go by all of them but I like Daniel, so let’s stick with it.
Let’s stick with Daniel that’s a strong enough name. You know what I’m saying? It doesn’t need anything. I was looking up Chevy Chase earlier and his name is like, hold up now, because this is this is hilarious…
Chevy Chase triggers me.
His real name is Cornelius Crane Chase and I don’t know how they got Chevy out of that.
He does look like a Cornelius.
So we’re gonna make sure that we call you Daniel, so you don’t end up with some weird shit like that. Alright, let’s jump into it.
Why don’t we start with how we met. How did we meet? I think we were drinking wine at Saison Market.
Photo by Kimberly Frost
YOU were drinking wine and I pulled up to Saison Market which I thought it was the Saison bar. The first time we had a conversation was at the bar.
Yeah. Because I was always sitting in a corner like a creep.
I ordered a Monkey 47 Martini and you said, “Damn, fuck you celebrate something?” Something smart like that and I was like, “I just got out of prison.” [laughs]
It was meant to be and then it was the market and I kept running into you, Vinny, Jake, and Todd at the time. It was always cool. So we just ended up chillin, hanging out.
Going from there, how are you? How does it feel? Congratulations on winning The Big Brunch. How’s that feeling? You getting any rest?
No, it’s a little bit…I took a couple of days and tried to enjoy myself then kind of came back and hit the ground running trying to line some shit up. Trying to get things started to kind of capitalize off the win. It’s funny, like, I knew it was coming but I couldn’t talk about it and now that I can talk about it and do shit. It’s like life just fucking goes, man.
How long did you have to wait?
Like six and a half months.
That’s crazy. So since I’ve known you one of the big through lines of your career has been immersing yourself as much as possible, always constantly learning, and carving out your truth. Where do you think that curiosity comes from? What drives you?
I think with anything that I do a big motivator for me to keep pushing is just the satisfaction of doing a good job. Sounds really simple but one of the things I was really attracted to in the service industry, in the culinary world, is how intense and how hard the actual work is. You can really set yourself apart if you go about it in a way where you’re like I’m doing this because I want to do a good job. And then everything else that stands behind it and the narrative, the food, everything else comes out as a product that people enjoy. For me it is the just the act of doing something well.
So where would you say the pulse of the industry is now because you hear a lot about folks that they can’t find good help and constant talk about labor shortages or you hear things like nobody wants to work. What what would you say to that? Being somebody who cares a lot about this industry.
It’s a mixed bag because I’m younger. It’s like my involvement in a job as an employee and being a part of those conversations where people are telling me they can’t ever find a good person and I’m like standing right in front of them.
But, it’s just a shift right? I mean I’m always going to take, as an employer, that person who is telling me 2, 3 years from now they want their own restaurant and they have that kind of drive, they want to push themselves. If their expectation is even higher than the expectation I have of them that’s a great employee to have. But, you’ve got to have that conversation. And so you got to find, what does that ideal employee look like in today’s world?
Photo by Kimberly Frost
I agree. We are at a place right now where we are on the other side of people who left the industry. We lost a lot of folks who were tenured. Folks who paid their dues and things of that nature. So we’re really at the cusp of developing what that next generation looks like, accepts, and feels like. What is an ideal employee? Do you think it’s the drive of a person? Maybe somebody is a good host, but they’re not a good bartender kind of thing? What does that look like?
I think having a good well-rounded idea of what each position entails is a great place to start in trying to figure out what you want from the people that you hire in those positions. But something I learned really early on is I am never going to find another me. I’m never going to find someone who’s going to care about what I’m doing for my business as much as I am. I can’t expect people to.
So, as an employer, as a business owner, it is my job — that silent contract (or even that actual contract) — is taking each employee and providing them the tools to be as successful as they can be because it’s my shit at the end of the day. That is what my job is. And so having a star employee, somebody that can put in the hours and produce good work, and does it in a way that exudes leadership — all these things are somebody that I obviously want. That said, I would also take the green ‘hasn’t even worked in a restaurant but loves it and wants to learn’ person. I’m willing to invest my time because they can end up being a person maybe 2, 3 years from now gets the confidence to work and have their own restaurant, or whatever they want.
I want to be able to provide that for people whether I’m investing in new hires that don’t know a lot and I’m training them or I am teaching someone who’s one or two years in. Or people sometimes just need a check and like if you need a check and you’re willing to put in the work and do the things that I need to have happen, I’ll take that too. Being adaptive, right? It’s like the person that you hired, each person you put in a position is going to be different and I don’t know if I have an answer for an ideal person. But I think putting people in the roles where they’re going to succeed is what I want.
Finding out their motivation. You have moved all around the restaurant through back of house and front of house. I’ve seen you bartend. I have seen you serve. I’ve seen you do kind of everything. Where are you most comfortable? What do you like most?
Yeah, it’s like a fucking magnet. I made a very intentional move to learn front of house operations so that I could get a well-rounded experience of what it’s like to run a restaurant, front and back. That was a personal decision to continually train myself but I have to say I’m happiest in the kitchen. I think it’s like one of those things where even when I’m in front of house, I’m staring at how the kitchen is operating. I’m trying to figure out what services like for them and going through those motions as if I was a part of it. I think bartending is like the close second because it’s like the closest thing to cooking you get in the front of house but I will still a take a range burner and some pots and pans.
How did you get into bartending? What was your first thing, I feel you started in coffee, was that it?
I was a barista, mainly so I could pay fucking rent. I was a barista in the morning and I cooked at night. When I moved to Richmond, I needed to make a bunch of money and so then I was a barista and cooking six days a week, just pulling doubles all the time.
But the story for bartending is really funny because when I got out of cooking I was like let’s figure out front of the house jobs. I was already doing barista stuff so I was like I want to bartend. I didn’t really want to be a server,I knew I’d figure out management stuff later. but bartending is kind of like the dual thing.
Where Bar Solita is now used to be a restaurant Graffiato and I got hired there as a drink runner / busser. I was taking drinks, busing tables and one day, it was funny, because back then around 2015-ish the bartending world still had this kind of ‘pay your dues’ situation where like the people that got the best shifts had been there the longest or whatever.
I was drink running and I asked the bar manager can I work service Friday night? It is busy as fuck and he was like, sure. I followed up with “one hour of drink service?” He’s like, “Sure, I don’t want to do this shit.” So like in this 300 seat restaurant, all service gets rocked and so I did an hour — and I fucking fell on my face and drowned. But that was the first time I was like okay, I’m gonna figure this out because I don’t want to fail.
And then over time, we just had this deal where he’s like, “if you get better at this, I’ll let you I’ll let you bartend on the weekends,” and so I was a drink runner who bartended Fridays and Saturdays on service.
What about you at home? Do you cook at home? Do you spend time at home or do you spend time eating out and trying out new things?
It’s a mixed bag. I think when I eat at home it’s pretty boring. It’s rice and eggs or rice and tuna, chicken and vegetables kind of thing. It’s very standard just because I just need to feed myself and kind of go. Sometimes I’ll cook for my girlfriend and we’ll make a big dinner, make a nice steak. I rarely cook Korean or Japanese food at home because I’d rather go out to eat that kind of stuff just because I make it so often. But I do find myself eating out quite a bit because it’s a busy lifestyle.
Photo by Kimberly Frost
What’s your guilty pleasures? Is it the dining room at CAVA upstairs?
Yes, the upstairs CAVA dining room is my safe space. Now it’s not that I feel guilty going there, but I’ll get I’ll get pho like four times a week. And I go to Pho Tay Do like four times a week and by that fourth time I’m like I don’t think I should be doing this. [laughs] But I’ll still do it.
Like more from like the comfort standpoint, it just feels good?
Denzel is probably one of the best service people in the city. He fucking rocks, he rocks the room. It’s always a smile. It’s so comfortable and the bowl of soup is amazing. I’m just like addicted to it. I literally can’t stop eating it. And it’s like a joke. Like, I’ll like walk in and he’s like, the usual? [laughs]
What’s the best meal you have ever had? What’s the best service? Alright, let me backtrack this because usually I remember like my best moments were with the people that I was with. So maybe from an execution point — what was the best meal from a technical standpoint and then what is the best service experience? If they both happen to be in the same place, great but very rarely are they the same.
The most memorable one I’ve had. There’s sundae-guk, a blood sausage like oxtail broth soup in Korea, and there is this famous restaurant that sits on top of an apartment building. It’s just like a blank room, kind of all white with flowers on the table and they serve one thing. It’s a hangover meal because it’s like a super fatty broth with blood sausage in it. You sit down and they don’t even like talk to you. They just bring you the bowl and they dropped like a box down and it’s like white pepper, salt and chilli flake. That is probably hands down to like, best thing I’ve eaten ever.
The best service I got was actually Sushi Nakazawa and it was 21 course omakase. I got the wagyu add-on, got the uni add-on, got the sake bottles and it is so baller.
Felt like a Hype Williams video but no shiny suits?
[laughs] We pulled up at like 9:30 and sort of last seating. I like looked around, and said “yo, you guys do like whatever you want to give me. Whatever you want.” And they just they fucking rolled out all the punches and everything was timed perfectly. There was some dude that was always behind me. It’s that thing where it’s a nice gesture when you come up and make sure people got water, got like wine or glasses and everything like that — but when you do it without the person even noticing that you did it — it’s like these quick surprises where you’re like, “oh shit, I got more juice.” It was a really, really cool experience and definitely a super memorable.
Photo by Kimberly Frost
Young Mother is a pop-up, and I hesitate here. Yes, it is pop-up, but I feel like it’s a little more established than that.
I hate pop up. I don’t know. I’ve said it so many times where I’m just like…
What are we gonna do? Just come up with another name? Like, alright, whatever. Young Mothers is the thing that you do. You show up and it happens. Call it a pop up if you want to. Let’s keep it moving in exploring the similarities between Japanese and Korean food along that path, what have been some of your greatest discoveries? Have you learned anything new? Did anything surprise you
I mean, I’ve kind of transformed it in this thing because at first it was like that was the that was the idea. What are the similarities between these two cultures? The biggest motivator for that idea was the occupation of Korea by Japan in the early 1900s left echoes of culture inside of the country on both ends, right? But when you’re talking about countries having control over other countries, destabilizing their people, causing trauma, it’s almost a disservice to look at it on even planes. And so I’ve transformed this concept into looking at all of these things through a Korean lens. Just because they’re the ones that got covered under Japanese rule. In that sense, what was leftover right? You take over a country then they gain their independence in the 1950s. What are the ramifications, and even to this day, my grandparents have trauma from that time, it was extremely traumatic experience for the Korean people.
That being said, both countries and a lot of Asian countries in general, a lot of their culture is shaped around, the dinner table and sharing a meal. What I found was this uneven balance of a culture that was in extreme poverty trying to survive and another culture that was just thriving? And then when you mix those two concepts together it is finding beauty in people surviving. That is what really drew me to a lot of menus recently — how do I showcase the survival of my people in the context of the rule of another country that was thriving exponentially? Exploring that narrative more is what gives it a little bit more meaning because there’s a little bit of shared identity there, you know what I’m saying?
Are there pieces where you fight for that identity? What is uniquely yours? How do you move forward with that? This leads me to another question because I like to stir the pot. New American Cuisine, which I call New Japanese, where everything is a ponzu or dashi. I saw somebody eating oysters on the half shell out of a bento box, it was real weird. What are we doing? We’re bending genres, everything is New American. Just like Scott’s addition, where every week we add another street to it. I’m long winded but what does New American mean to you?
New American it’s a tough term because I think even from the first time I heard it, I was like what the fuck does that mean? And for me, trying to stray away from labels is not like a necessity but that’s just a result of what I’m trying to do. That it’s really cool that people can look at a culture like Japan and take concepts because they really do care about the ingredients and have a lot of techniques that are very special. A lot of ingredients are very special and if you’re able to transform that put it on the menu, use concepts on your tasting menus, or whatever… it’s great, because it’s growth, right? It’s figuring out ways to push the boundary. Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes it’s not, whatever.
We have these conversations about authentic representations of culture and there are spectrums of that, right? There is the low brow kind of bar food, throwing shit out, smacking dishes together, saying that a taco with Korean barbecue in it is like crazy. There is also the upper end where it’s like we’re having an 18 course tasting menu where all the ingredients are from Japan but they’re doing that menu in a way where it’s not reminiscent of the dish or the ingredient they’re using. They are putting their own spin on it. I look at those two things the same way. For me, when I’m trying to find the similarities, and I’m trying to build menus or dishes I ask “how do I find something that exists in culture that I can then showcase and present to people that they might not know?” I find ingenuity in that. That discovery of things that have a story is a lot more profound to me than me just saying I can transform an ingredient into something really cool.
I dealt with that a lot just kind of growing up in my household. You got your way of cooking collard greens. Everybody has got their own mac and cheese but nobody makes the mac and cheese the same way. If you try to make somebody else’s recipe it’s like you don’t get it right because you don’t get the love in it right. You don’t have that “I spent all day making a meal” and that is kind of what this is. And then we got to the point where the southern food explosion happened and half of Richmond was a southern restaurant but it was “New American.” Nah, this is slave food. This idea of unique identity. Something that almost feels like you invited somebody to your house and these are the things that we knew and this is how we came up. It feels familiar in a way, as if somebody’s grandmother is coming to you.
Part of that is like when you take dishes or when you take concepts, techniques or ingredients and strip them of their identity. You don’t allow it to tell the story of why it exists or why you’re using it or why you even discovered it. How did you discover these things? You read about it. You read a cookbook. All of those things have stories and what I’m trying to do is attach those stories back to things that people are getting more familiar with because of that New Japanese, New American kind of trend, we are seeing and getting introduced to all these concepts, ingredients and techniques but the stories are stripped. And so giving them back that identity is a big part of what I’m trying to do.
Young Mother is named after your mother, right? Tell me a little bit about her.
It’s a funny story that I don’t think I have ever really talked about before. My parents divorced when I was younger around eight or nine years old and I didn’t have a big relationship with my mom but those eight years that I did live with her my dad was away a lot in the military.
After they divorced, my stepmom, who raised me for a lot of my later years of life, both of them kind of had an impact on what I was trying to do with food. I learned a lot of cooking through my stepmom and her family. They’re amazing cooks and they have restaurants in Korea. My biological mom was a really talented cook but a lot of what I wanted to do with Young Mother was just to have a reminder of my life growing up. My mom was 19 when she had me. I can’t even think about having a kid right now. And I’m 27! That’s some shit, right?
Thought people had it all together…
That illusion allowed me to have a childhood that felt like I was loved that felt like I was taken care of and a lot of those memories are through food. There’s a lot of comfort in there for me just because it represents the times we were scraping by. It’s back to that same conversation: a lot of the food from Korea, a lot of food from a lot of cultures that people connect with is just a means of survival, not like exaggerated or exuberant or whatever. I’m connected with those dishes that that remind me of that.
Photo by Kimberly Frost
One of my biggest critiques has always been, particularly for this city, is that it feels like the concept stopped at the design of the building. We will put a couple of things on the wall, we’ll paint something red or what have you. It feels like nobody actually took the time to sit down and see through execution. So with the idea that you’re looking at, having your own brick and mortar, what is the aesthetic of your space? What what does that feel like? What makes it feel authentic?
That’s a great point, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. A big part of the puzzle is intentionality, right? And I’m gonna have the opportunity in a brick and mortar to finally present my concept in a way that I truly want to. The flip side of that right narrative is extremely important to me. The flip side of that is the actual dining experience. Another part of exploring truth and exploring narrative is also providing trust and I think a big part of the dining scene in Richmond right now is lacking in trust. People are having these experiences of trying to figure out where they want to eat — where they don’t know where they want to eat, where they don’t know where they can go to get a good meal. where they don’t know exactly the place that they know they’ll 100% have a great time.
My goal is to execute on that and to provide that but I also want to provide that in the space, right? I don’t need an exaggerated dining room. I don’t need all these crazy things. I don’t need it to be extremely beautiful. I don’t need it to be extremely esoteric. That’s not really what I’m trying to do. A big part of what I want to do is, make it a little more minimalist. Not in a way that feels like I’m like slapping you across the face with it, but in a way that you can focus on the meal in front of you. I don’t necessarily want distractions or take people away from the table they’re sitting at but I want them to be able to get a dish and be like, wow, I’m going to come here again because the food was great, not because I liked the decor.
And that experience is anchored in that space. It gives you that sense of place. That piece of trust is one of the things I talk a lot about. People used to ask me what my brand of hospitality was. I’m just honest with people.
Our job is to manage the expectations of people and not create unnecessary expectations. One of the things we used to talk about is don’t ask somebody, “how are you?” if you don’t mean it, right? And are you prepared for the other side of what that “how are you” brings? If I say “how are you” and you’re going through it and I’m not ready for 15 minutes? That’s not their fault, it’s yours because you set the wrong expectation. So now I think we’re in that space this goes back to what we were talking about what the state of the industry is where we have to find the folks who have been here who are in the space of ownership and moving forward. And this isn’t, I want to be very clear, this is not a treatise on any business. Everybody just came out of a literal crippling pandemic that took everything. We’re seeing food costs go up like crazy, you know what I’m saying? Everything is flexible. We’re moving back and forth right? People are figuring it out. But as we do, it’s one thing to pivot and pivoting is that idea of moving forward to set yourself up for a next step but if we’re stuck pivoting, what are we doing?
Long way to say what are we doing? What are we doing to recommit? And what does that look like as a group? I still feel very much like, what is the fine dining spot here? Like a true fine dining spot? Right? What does great service look like here? Where do you think that recommitment starts? Do you feel like this is a team driven thing? Do you feel like this is something where we can drive a movement in the city of folks being committed to this?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this too. My opinion and just my opinion is I just think people forgot about what the contract is. What are we doing here? We’re serving people and if you don’t like that, why are you in this industry? I guess people got a means to live right? They gotta have a job and they gotta make money, I get that. And there’s places for that but if you’re trying to be intentional. You’re trying to actually make something. If you’re gonna make something great. If you want to make something that that is something that people want to talk about, it’s got to be worthy of people’s attention. If you’re mad that people aren’t understanding what you’re doing — it’s not working. That’s your job. That’s the standard I hold myself to and the big thing that I want to bring to the surface element of it is like, let’s not forget why we’re here. Let’s have respect for ourselves and for other people and our jobs and let’s do it well. Let’s remember that contract. We are here to give people a good time and to make them happy and let them enjoy themselves. I think there’s a lot of nobility in that.
So there’s front of house and back house and there’s that very literal divide there. But sometimes it really is this divide like people are a chef and don’t like people, and they don’t understand how to be flexible. And that’s why we’re in the back and things like that. And then the servers don’t understand the rigidity of back of house and how everything is actually urgent and you not ringing in that special prep is actually setting everything back, As you seek to lead a kitchen team or staff, hiw do you make sure that that there isn’t that divide between front and back of house? What are you doing to encourage and instill that continuity there?
First off is leading by example, right? If I’m treating front of house a certain way, and people see that, they’re going to respond.. And so it is obviously, treating everyone with respect. I think creating environments where the culture is a little bit more fluid makes a lot of sense to kind of achieve those things but also you can’t force somebody to work as a server when they just want to cook. I don’t want to do that to someone. Y
I think communication is the biggest thing. There’s not a lot of time in the restaurant industry, we don’t have a lot of time to do a lot of shit. So people kind of push communication to the side. They act as if it doesn’t need to happen because they’re just trying to get their jobs done but a big thing for me is thinking about the infrastructure of my employees. So who do I have? What do I have in leadership positions that exude this goal of creating fluidity between the front of house and back of house? You know, and have key stakeholders in each team. But it starts with communication and that I think there’s a there’s a huge lack of communication in the restaurant, and I just don’t want that in my environment.
Photo by Kimberly Frost
It’s funny you reminded me of — I was making a purchasing decision for glassware one time and instead me trying to figure it out, I just went to the main dishwasher and said, “What do you think we should get?” I’m looking at these glasses. What do you feel about them? Let me know because you are the expert here. Finding the stakeholders of your team is critical and they always kind of like emerge and usually end up being the folks who are going to own something one day. Alright, I’ve got some rapid fire some rapid fire. Let’s talk about the bagel fiasco.
Second episode, I’m still pretty nervous. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I didn’t even think about the bagel. I was just trying to get the cocktail, right and everyone forgets they said it was the best cocktail. So I was like, damn, bagels. You know?
All right behind the scenes. How long was it like staging and moving food?
Man, it was a whole thing. We get in the challenge. They film it. We get about like an hour or two in the greenroom. They are setting up cameras and stuff then we go back in and the challenge starts. At the beginning, I went last one time and they waited. The duck was cooked. We had to show him a picture of how it looked because I told him I swear to God, it was medium rare. I swear to God, skin crispy, elegant, and then.
Do you have any passions that you’d like to explore that you haven’t?
I really wanted to get in producing and writing as far as on the on the entertainment level and acting as a part of that. My buddy Alec and I, we write and just kind of go through bits all the time. Writing is a really fun thing to do but I haven’t had a lot of the time to do it. So it’s not something that I’m like gonna say I do but I want to explore it.
Last thing, and then unless there’s anything you want to share. What other art are you inspired by?
Narrative is like a huge thing for me. So the film industry most apparent but I find a lot of narrative through like music production and in itself is story building. The way that people put music together tells a story. And it’s been really inspiring for me to like, explore that, for my own creativity, but also just like, enjoying music.
Interview conducted by Chance Fischer
Photos By Kimberly Frost