Michael Kobayashi can’t keep away from the flame. One would think, after ten successful years as a music manager, that he’d evaluate the chaos of combining that life with the frenetic existence of a restaurateur, and just let it go. But Michael and his chef-brother, Chris, just celebrated the fourth anniversary of their restaurant, Artisan, and there seems to be no sign that Michael’s day after day commitment to both of those worlds is in any sort of decline.
I sat down with Michael on a sunny Paso Robles afternoon to talk shop. And when I say ‘talk shop’ with Michael Kobayashi, I mean we discussed superstar lifestyles and sustainable eating – he lives both. He’s what might happen if Michael Pollan and Bono experienced a mind-meld during some sort of whiskey-soaked limo ride into a new dimension. With a side of durian.
He got into the music industry at 25 years old – more or less because it was all he had ever done. He met his wife while they were both working at a video production company, back in the heyday of the $1 million music video; his resume reads like a Lollapalooza lineup in it’s prime: He’s worked with Perry Farrell, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson. He was the day-to-day manager for Aerosmith for eight years. And Michael has managed the British “hair band,” Def Leppard, since 2005.
If the path from road warrior to restaurant owner seems a little twisty to you, you’re not alone. But Michael feels it couldn’t be more natural. For one thing, he says his brother, Chris, has been cooking since the sixth grade – long before he trained at the California Culinary Institute and earned his whites at Asia de Cuba at Clift Hotel, Roy’s in San Francisco and Brix in Napa Valley. They had always talked about opening a restaurant together and then – about six years ago – they realized fine words butter no parsnips, and decided it was time to start their own show.
Chris wanted to be in Paso. No one else in town was doing modern American with a focus on the ethics of local, sustainable, organic. The incredible agriculture coming out of the area meant that they would always have a rich and abundant variety of produce to stock their seasonal menus. The booming wine industry was also a huge bonus. Now in their fifth year, the gamble clearly paid off; they are also still the only people doing local, modern American in the valley.
After long conversations with Lisa Marie Presley and Michael Lockwood, over glasses of Opus One and White Star and bucket-loads of Guinness; and drinking Down ‘N’ Outz with Joe Elliott and Jimmy Paige, backstage at London’s Classic Rock Festival, does Michael miss the rock star scene? While he no longer lives on the road, he hasn’t let go of rock ‘n’ roll completely. He still has one foot in that world of glitz and glam and a life in lights, and he still manages Def Leppard. But if his other world – the world of the day-to-day, and Artisan and family – is anything like his favorite restaurants: “I prefer simple, good, hole-in-the-wall food that has soul to it,” than he is exactly where he wants to be. Besides, he feels that now I’m here – this is what heaven is right now. Serving sustainable, elevated American food, with sophistication and a touch of rockstar edge. In Artisan Paso Robles, Michael and Chris Kobayashi are nurturing a special kind of animal – and it is delicious.