Three guys and their journey to make a name for themselves on the California dining scene
by Alexander Quebec
Consisting of Chefs Lai Chao, Ryan Gallego and Jason Artajos, the guys have had a lot of history working together as a team, but recently have struck out on thier own as Trifecta Cooks.
The story begins back in 2013. Both Gallego and Artajo worked in sushi bars around the South Bay and all over San Jose. After graduating culinary school back in 2005, Chef Ryan felt that his career was plateauing and wanted to present himself with a new challenge.
After going on Craigslist, Gallego found an opening with Morimoto in Napa.
“I was looking for change, looking to improve my skills and get better. So I was actually on Craigslist and Morimoto in Napa was hiring, so I submitted my resume and they actually called me back like the next day, I went up for a stage to try it out, and they offered me a job. I told Jason about it.”
Jason went in a week after and applied, and was also accepted.
Chao was working at a sushi bar at an Oroville casino before joining the guys at Trifecta, making sushi pizza for patrons. “It was going nowhere, I was on Craigslist too, looking for a job, that’s a prime opportunity, growing up and watching Iron Chef, a change of scenery.” This opportunity, however, would mean a huge change for Chao, “I took a leap of faith, sold my car and left everything behind, took a huge paycut and ended up in Napa.”
“We actually met Lai at a drug test orientation,” one of them laughs.
Gallego explains, “We just walked in and asked if he [Lai] was applying for a job with Morimoto and asked if he wanted to room with us.”
With a week before starting at their new jobs, the boys had to find a new place to live, the end result being with them living in a Motel 6 for the first month. “It was crazy though, a huge change of pace, and change of everything, because we went from a really slow pace, like working at your own pace, and all of the sudden you jump into Morimoto and they were pushing like, one Michelin star,” Chao said.
The guys found themselves working at one of the most popular restaurants in Napa. Working with former French Laundry and Alinea alumni , they received the education and experience of a lifetime alongside a team of culinarians experienced in the operations of Michelin Star restaurants. The guys admit that crying and screaming in the walk-in were common among the staff members at Morimotos.
Gallego said, “I had times where I wanted to quit, but if it doesn’t challenge you it’s not going to change you, that’s how I saw it like, I’m investing my time to become a better chef and I know it’s going to pay off in the long run.”
“I think from that experience alone, from Morimoto Napa, it really shaped us to be who we are, because
now we carry ourselves with [very high] standards, you can’t just do something, it’s going to be done right, it built us up to who we are, without that experience, we wouldn’t be who we are now,” said Chao.
After some time at Morimoto’s, the guys also helped open up Village Sake in Fairfax, spending over a hundred hours a week and driving back and forth between Fairfax and Milpitas, each taking turns driving to and from the location.
Next they helped launch another restaurant closer to home, but after a difference in opinion with the owner on a few matters, the guys decided to go their separate way. It was a moment where they decided that it was time for them to start their own business.
“We know what we were capable of doing,we have all this experience you know, let’s try it, let’s do our shit, let’s try to do something,” Gallego said.
It was at that point Trifecta was born.
“VIllage Sake actually helped us out, because they hosted our very first pop-up at their location in Fairfax,” said Chao. “it was actually a ramen pop-up,” Chao added.
From that moment on, the guys have had pop-ups throughout the Bay Area and even one major one down in Los Angeles for Feastly. As someone who has seen the guys in action, I can attest to the fact that the guys put on a great experience. It feels upmarket, but never pretencious. They exemplify thier philosphy through every aspect of the experience, especially with regards to the food.
“We want to be trendy, but we want the food to do the talking more than anything.” We don’t want people to come because ‘oh we look cool’, you come because the food is just outstanding and you’re not going to find [anything like] it anywhere else.”
“We want to make it a destination,” Artajos said.
“It’s the whole experience is what we sell, look at us, we’re fun guys.” Gallego said, laughing with all the guys. “We want to try to educate our customers out here, we want to bring in something different, something new.”
“We’re not scared of talking to guests, we want people to come up to us and ask us questions about the food.” Chao said.
Their philosophy on food is simple: traditional techniques with modern flavors. From my experience, the traditional techniques do come out, the modern isn’t flashy, on trend or big, but rather subtle and nuanced, the flavors make themselves known without hijacking the entire meal, which makes for a very unique experience.
“Cutting fish, cooking rice, all these things matter when it comes to the final product,” Chao said.
When it comes to the pop-ups, Chao explained to me that for the most part the guys are in near complete control bringing everything from the food all the way down to the plates and tableware they will use to serve their guests. From their kitchen in a commercial park near Milpitas, which they share with four other restaurant groups, Chao further explained that the guys day might start at 10 AM for an event in San Francisco that starts at 5 PM. They usually don’t get home until the wee hours of the morning, after tearing down and packing up from the event.
They all did agree that one of the major wins for Trifecta includes winning the “Taste for the Space competition” at Eastridge Mall in San Jose, in spite of the fact that they were the only entrants who did not have a physical establishment or a loyal clientele like all of their other competitors.
“We were the last to enter in…our application almost didn’t go through.” Chao said.
Soon the guys will have a new home at Eastridge Mall, but in the meantime they’ll keep on doing the pop-ups in and around the Bay Area from their kitchen in San Jose. Until that day comes, however, the guys of Trifecta will carry on like they have been, scoring wins and making strides to improve their cuisine, culinary skills, and themselves each and everyday.
The chef world is intense, criticism and opinions abound from every corner. I was curious about the nature of high paced and often times critical culinary industry itself. The guys offered me some advice to share with any aspiring chefs and culinarians in the future.
“As a chef, you got to be able to take these criticisms, you got to have thick skin,” Chao added. “If you know your product is good and you believe in it, why would you care about what anyone else thinks?” Chao finished.
At some point in time, many of us dream of a time where we can quit our jobs and open up a business of our own, preferably in the restaurant industry. I asked the guys what are their final thoughts on those who want to pursue their dreams in the culinary world?
Gallego said, “You just got to do it, if you don’t do it, how do you know you’re not going to be able to make it? You’re going to fail, but if that’s your passion, if that’s what pushes you, you’re going to find a way to succeed.”
Chao ends “You got to give yourself a chance, a lot of people blame everyone else, but you can’t blame anybody because at the end of the day the decision is yours to make. It’s always going to be hard, if you accept the fact that life is hard and you’re going to fall on your ass a lot of times, it’s about how many times you get up, if you get up every time you fall, you’re going to be alright.” ⧫
For more information, check out their website for past events, future engagements and bookings at your next event.
Oops: An earlier version stated that the chefs came from Souza, the actual restaurant was Alinea. We’ve also fixed a few errors in thier names. We regret the mistakes.