Stepping down the stairway, leading into Shabu, I was immediately struck not only by the elegance of the place but also some of the most incredible metal sculptures of fish that I have ever, seen. They enhance the “Freestyle Asian Cuisine” you’ll receive when you sit down to enjoy. Funny enough, I was greeted by Kevin Valaika, who owns the place with his brother, Bob. While Bob was back in the kitchen prepping for the imminent crowd of the night, I was able to talk to Kevin, the maitre d’, always true to his post, and familiar with every face that came through the door. Occasionally, you’ll find a 5-year -old, with a close resemblance to his father, assisting him to greet the guests and then hit a plate of Octopus on the side at his leisure.
So you say you had a meeting with Robert Redford, “Bob” as your friend called him. What were some of the things you discussed?
Kevin: Well, I was freaking out. At the time, I was in my late twenties and I had a HUGE ponytail, blonde hair and he just asked me about my philosophy and vision for mainstreet. What I told him is that you can’t just clean the block and bring in robotic types. This is a resort community and people like to see people with unique personalities, goggle burns from skiing all day, long hair, short hair, whatever, and not be your standard Deer Valley, hair off the collar, clean pressed… just not being able to exhibit your personality and he liked that so I was responsible for changing the hair policy at Sundance, so I didn’t have to cut my hair off!
So, what would you say the culture is, here?
Kevin: Our culture here at Shabu, I take pride in, making sure everyone is connected to the mountain whether it’s in the summertime biking, golfing, whatever your thing is… walking your dog, whatever, and in the winter, skiing. I just got our ski passes. I just purchased 14 ski-passes for staff and not very many people do that anymore. But we ski a lot here, definitely wearing two hats. We’re working in the restaurant, then we’re up in the snow.
What would you say the relationship between you and your employees is?
Kevin: Ummm… Well, I’m the best boss ever! I mean, c’mon, man! No, but seriously, we’re a tight family, always trying to help each other, very low turnover.
I mean, if you get a job here, you’re a fortunate local because it’s not a corporation, I am NOT a corporation… the farthest thing from a corporation is Shabu.
So, how did Shabu come to be?
Kevin: Well, my brother and I grew up in Chicago and that’s where he went to culinary school… Kendall, actually, and he internshipped with Charlie Trotter, who’s one of the most famous chefs in Chicago. Through that, he got to meet Nobu Matsuhisa and trained with him
in California, getting to work with him for eight or nine years, a long time. But that was kind of his calling to food was. And it was just before the Winter Olympics happened when I called him up and told him to come out to Park City because this place was going to blow up. In 2004 we started up the restaurant and literally charged it all on credit cards and trashed our credit. It was kind of like a Sundance movie. We had no backer and no money. We had a restaurant of used equipment and slowly kept flipping it and pouring more money into it and so today we don’t have an investor. Bob and I are the owners.
When Kevin and Bob moved out to Park City and laid down their claim, they were fortunate enough to have the support of a loving family around them. The family has been a central pillar for the two as in their early their wives managed everything from payroll to hostessing, and now even their kids are rolling sushi. That sense of family can be felt throughout the staff. Longevity is common in terms of the faces you’ll see when you visit, and a sunny disposition adds to the charm.
Tell me about some of the art in here.
Kevin: The art is all Scott Whitaker. We were introduced and he had been doing public art as well as his own thing, but he was getting into this metal thing. I told him, “Dude, I’ll make the whole restaurant to be your gallery”. So I paid for some art and then he keeps selling it and so it gives us fresh art to display. It keeps the room fresh.
Thinking more along the lines of sentimentality, what does Shabu mean to you?
Kevin: I feel like I’m the luckiest dude in the world because I get to work with my friends, then there’s the lifestyle, the biking, skiing… I mean, I go to freestyle skiing events. It’s Sundance film festival! It’s fun, actually. It’s also not a corporation. I stress that I mean, that’s why people like us. They know they aren’t going to a manufactured, franchised business. This is unique. We call it “Freestyle Asian Cuisine” at Shabu. We go out of the box. It’s not “Asian Fusion”, “Pan Asian”, “Pacific Rim”, “French Colonial”… And all the other names made up for Asian style food, I mean, we are two Lithuanian dudes that own an Asian restaurant and it’s through Bob’s connection with Nobu that he learned the secrets of Asian cooking practices. Secrets or no, there is true artistry and love at work in the kitchen of Shabu. With a menu diverse enough to satisfy the savviest foodie or the gruffest cowboy, everyone in between is more than well taken care of and should make Shabu a destination to visit the next time they find themselves on Main Street.