“Just keep pushing, guys!” Chef Libry called out to his kitchen brigade as they worked like an assembly line plating hundreds of dishes. On the plate is garganelli, chicken pate, house made ricotta, and crispy pork belly. Servers waited patiently outside of the kitchen with large wooden blocks to deliver the finished plates to the hundred or so guests sitting inside The Fig House, a venue space in Los Angeles.
I should be networking with the guests attending roomforty’s popup dinner with winemaker Paix Sur Terre, but you’re more likely to find me inside the kitchen observing and chatting with the cooks at most dinners. I’m intrigued by the whole process as I’ve never seen a catering company place so much attention to detail on presentation and flavor.
roomforty is no ordinary catering company. Their philosophy and flawless execution is more like a fine dining restaurant with extreme care for the food and a knack for hospitality. Although roomforty can be hired to cater events, they often host their own pop-up dinners with select winemakers at their beautiful space, The Fig House—designed by Emily Henderson.
I sat down with owner Steve Fortunato—who previously worked at Patina Group—to learn about about his personal journey and hear the story of how roomforty came to be.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Santa Cruz. My parent’s house still sits in the Redwoods. I grew up with the forest around my house, building forts, seeing deer every single day. I played in the Redwoods until I was big enough to learn how to surf. Then I started going to the beach every single day.
Where did the passion for food come from?
My passion for food came from my upbringing. I grew up in a home where the dinner table, cooking, and attention to detail was a big part of our home. So if we had a barbecue, we didn’t put ketchup on the table, we would put ketchup in a ramekin, on a saucer with a demi spoon, and then we would put it on the table. That attention to detail—while I found it annoying growing up—really helped to shape me. The building blocks of hospitality related to me at a very, very young age. My parents were always entertaining and cooking.
We lived in a beach town, so we would always get our fish from the wharf. I had never purchased fish from the grocery store—ever. Proximity affects your paradigms. When I came to college and moved out of the house for the first time, I realized that that isn’t normal for everybody.
Tell us about your time with the Patina group.
I was a bartender and a server. I worked there for six years, which is a long time to work at a restaurant. I saw different general managers and executive chefs come through. That was the first time that the role of food and wine really ticked up a notch for me. The role of the server really ticked up a notch too. When you have worked in a fine dining restaurant and you’ve worked with servers where that is their profession and servers that are 40 and 50 years old, then you go back to a restaurant where there isn’t that level of professionalism in the service, it sticks out.
What is hospitality for you?
I think Danny Meyer really nails it when he says that service is the technical delivery of products or goods. Hospitality is how you make the recipient feel. You have to have both.
How did roomforty get started and what’s the concept behind it?
I started by going down the road of opening LA’s version of Gramercy Tavern: an accessible but warm, upscale bistro. I started doing restaurant negotiation after restaurant negotiation and kept hitting brick walls. In the midst of that, the same person that advised me to consider looking at restaurants as a potential career path also advised me to start doing some dinner parties to build a customer base.
What a smarter businessman would have done was to think about the business model and how he was going to market that. As a visceral, visual person, I thought about what the tables would look like that people sat at. So I started building an arsenal of large tuscan tables—which is a very odd way to start a business. I took six months and I built these tuscan tables that can be easily assembled and disassembled. I asked friends at the restaurant that I worked at to cook and we did our first dinner party. Four or five months later, I did it again.
All the while, pursuing opening a restaurant with this very high-paid, high-powered attorney.
I kept doing these dinner parties and saying “we’re going to open a restaurant.” I would go on Craigslist and order apartment stoves and I would rig the apartment stove to propane. I would then rent a U-haul and we would carry apartment stoves into people’s backyards. I didn’t know anything about anything. I didn’t understand the concept of rental companies, I didn’t realize there was probably camping stoves that you could use. And I would ask friends from the Patina group to come cook, find some servers, and bring the tuscan tables that I built. When you’re a server and a bartender, you’re counting tips every single night. Adding money to your monthly budget for an idea was really scary.
So we kept doing these dinner parties, and people started to say “hey, would you cater our wedding? I like how this is fancy, but fun. It’s fine dining, but it’s accessible.”
We did it, we catered some events, and made some money. But we kept saying “we’re not a catering company, we’re opening a restaurant.”
We kept hitting brick walls on the restaurant negotiations. I continued doing these grassroots dinner parties but were very underwhelming. But there was something about them that people were really responding to—there’s was a community there. I was getting more dinners and started really connecting with winemakers. I love winemakers and we immediately got each other. Sommeliers have their own sort of persona and personality. Winemakers have a totally different personality. They’re craftsmen, passionate about what they do, and intelligent, but there’s dirt under their fingernails. And they’re small businessmen who are all in. I had gone from begging winemakers to come to selling so much wine at these dinners. I was now charging winemakers to come to these dinners.
I quit my job and went all in. I used these dinners as a marketing piece. We lost money at these dinners but people would get a vision of catering from these dinners that was different from what they were experiencing with other caterers. The concept of multiple courses and a fine dining sensibility reflected in event catering wasn’t really being done when we started.
For me, the way I am wired is by my desire to make an impact in whatever sphere I am occupying. You don’t see the hospitality industry impacted by caterers—you see it impacted by restaurateurs.
There is this interesting thing that has happened to food where there are these two paths: there have been entities that have said, “we can make a lot of money serving mediocre food to hundreds of people. Lets do that.” And then there has been other people that have said, “lets be as passionate and excellent as we can. Lets become stars in the process and celebrities.”
So all of a sudden, it becomes about the individual, or it’s mediocre and about the money. I think both are missing the mark a bit. With the entity I’m trying to build, I’m trying to capture that sense of community and try to give honor to these sacred gatherings by giving the highest level of attention to detail. But also building a company that doesn’t exist around an ego.
The first thing that ever happened with roomforty was the building of tables. And really honoring the table as a place where a meal is shared in a real way and memories are made.
I’m trying to capture that sense of community and try to give honor to these sacred gatherings by giving the highest level of attention to detail.
What’s the idea behind The Fig House?
I started to look at the venue business model and the venue aesthetic. I became more and more convinced that it was a wise move, from a business model standpoint, that there was an opportunity in the market for a new aesthetic in the venue space. I embarked on the journey of opening a venue.
The Fig House is a venue that serves lots of different purposes. Whether it’s for weddings, birthdays, gallery showings, or openings. roomforty can cater at Fig House but continue to cater in other venues that we have relationships in the city.
To learn more about roomforty or to attend their popup dinners, visit their website.