A Gem Formed From Grit
Despite choosing “the worst time ever” to open his first solo venture, Michelin-trained Chef Dean Yasharian ’03 demonstrates resilience at Perle Restaurant in Pasadena, California.
by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/magazine editor. Photos courtesy of Pauline Yasharian, unless otherwise noted
Published Monday, March 7, 2022
Chef Dean Yasharian ’03 is a veteran of some of the world’s best kitchens. When he dreamed of launching his own restaurant, Perle is the place he envisioned: a small restaurant in the community where he lives and where great food is the focus. A place for “foodies.”
But he didn’t envision the disruption of a pandemic.
Chef Dean Yasharian ’03 at Perle, the Pasadena, Calif., restaurant he opened during the pandemic. Despite opening at the “worst time ever,” the 50-seat bistro has gained acclaim, including a Michelin Plate and a place in the Los Angeles Times “101 Best Restaurants in L.A.” list.
Perle Restaurant, at 43 E. Union St. in Pasadena, Calif., was forced to shut down days before its opening, but has persevered.
Typically, he says, a new owner can expect to spend every day at their restaurant for the first three months. For Yasharian, it stretched to two years as he repeatedly redirected – and fired and rehired staff – to meet public health protocols that seemed to turn on a dime.
Nonetheless, Yasharian and his team have persevered. Perle Restaurant is one of nine Pasadena restaurants – out of 600 – to earn a coveted spot in the 2021 Michelin Guide (it received a Michelin Plate) and food editors from Eater, the Los Angeles Times and others have touted it as one of the LA area’s best French eateries.
Perle Restaurant is a 50-seat, upscale casual bistro in Old Town Pasadena, California. It is named for Yasharian’s oldest daughter and was slated to open on his son’s birthday: March 20, 2020.
The timing “couldn’t have been worse,” Yasharian said – but there were reasons behind it.
“As a young chef, you have an idea of your first restaurant – what you might want that to look like, what you dreamt about,” Yasharian explained. “The reality is that raising money for a restaurant if you don’t have it is a daunting experience. That was the first stage of the process. It doesn’t necessarily happen overnight.”
It also took time to find the right property and to navigate a sea of bankers, lawyers and contractors. When they finally got the key to the Union Street, Pasadena, property, Dean and his wife, Pauline, did many of the renovations themselves.
“All of this led to the timing of our opening week,” Yasharian said. “We got about 20 staff trained. We were going to do the soft opening on Friday, and we found out on Wednesday that was the shutdown.”
He knows of other restaurants planning to open around the same time that simply waited another year. But Yasharian needed income. So he watched and, like everyone else, hoped the world would reopen in a few weeks. When it didn’t, he modified his menu for takeout.
“I hated it. I didn’t want to be schlepping food in containers, but that’s what everyone was doing,” Yasharian said.
After a series of more changes from local, county and state governments – from takeout-only to limited indoor dining to more shutdowns – Pasadena encouraged its restaurants to place tables outdoors, no permits needed, and blocked on-street parking to provide more space. With 30 seats available, outdoor dining became Perle’s “saving grace” for the better part of a year.
“That literally is the only thing that kept us afloat,” Yasharian said. “That was the first time we got in a rhythm and felt like a restaurant in a way.”
Meanwhile, summer 2020 wildfires nearby created very poor air quality. (“It was snowing ash,” Yasharian recalled, but diners kept their outdoor reservations.)
“We had a lot of things coming at us,” Yasharian said. “It was just a nutty time.”
Adding to the challenge, because of its newness, the restaurant was not eligible for the government assistance that many other businesses received, since funding was based on financial figures between specific dates in 2019.
“I fought and fought and fought,” Yasharian said. “It’s kind of sad, because if you’re a ‘mom and pop’ like us, and you’ve got your life savings tied into it, and all of a sudden, the government says, ‘You don’t get any help,’ then you basically lose everything, and I’ve seen it.”
Still, Yasharian and his team built a following. Over the 2020 holidays – when another shutdown arrived – Perle’s premium six-course takeout offerings were popular, as were its specials for Valentine’s (the restaurant sold five pounds of caviar) and Mother’s days.
“It’s hard enough to open a restaurant. There’s a 99% failure rate. And then you’ve got this challenge (the pandemic) on top of that, and all these other things that came in. We have this sort of confidence that if we can make it through that, we should be OK.”
Outdoor dining – enhanced when the city added concrete barriers to block on-street parking – became the restaurant’s “saving grace” for the better part of a year. But it was tiring: Staff moved heavy mahogany tables on iron bistro stands in and out each day and made a longer trek from kitchen to table.
After a year and a half, Yasharian was excited for his bartender to finally work behind the bar (with its antique bar stools) and had plans for intricate food/beverage collaborations.
Perle Restaurant, outfitted with between-table barriers for the pandemic, succeeded in building a following in a year affected not only by the pandemic, but wildfires and civil protests.
Perle’s menu reflects Yasharian’s background in French cuisine and a connection with the surrounding environment that was cultivated in childhood.
Yasharian, the youngest of seven, was born when his parents, Marcella and Dale, operated a dairy farm on Armenia Mountain in Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier. Soon after, his father took a job on a 1,000-acre farm in Harpursville, New York.
“I never would have thought that I would be a chef growing up, but I always had that connection with the farm,” Yasharian said. “We were kind of a meat and potatoes house, but we always had fresh vegetables from the garden. We had a sweet corn stand. We’d gather our own eggs. We’d have our own cow butchered every year. So we always had that connection from farm to table.”
He remembers helping his mother in the kitchen and watching Julia Child cooking shows with her.
But his interest in a culinary career was piqued at age 16, when his family moved back to Pennsylvania to farm his father’s homestead near Wyalusing.
The Hitchkos, the parents of a high school friend, owned a restaurant near Wyalusing Valley Junior-Senior High School that became an after-school hangout for Yasharian. Originally from Connecticut, they brought “very good” Italian and Greek/Mediterranean food to the bucolic town of 600.
Eating was naturally part of the after-school experience.
“We’d walk down into the kitchen and make a big bowl of hot wings and go outside and eat them,” Yasharian said. “Eventually, the old man said, ‘If you’re going to keep eating my food, you’d better start washing some dishes.’”
Yasharian started washing dishes for free, but soon, Mr. Hitchko offered him a job.
“It’s the old dishwasher story,” Yasharian joked. “I started washing dishes, and then I was immediately sort of enjoying it, watching the guys work in the kitchen, and I wanted a taste of what they were doing.”
So he moved from dishwasher to line cook, but he was still unsure what he wanted to do when a Pennsylvania College of Technology representative visited a career event at his high school.
“Within that presentation, I heard about the culinary program,” he recalled. “I was cooking at the time, and I was enjoying it, so I said ‘Why not?’ and went for it.”
He enrolled in Fall 1999 and “clicked” early on with Chef Michael J. Ditchfield, instructor of hospitality management/culinary arts. The two have remained friends.
“I liked learning about nature’s bounty,” Yasharian said of his classes with Ditchfield, a longtime proponent of local and sustainable foods. “It was my first introduction to supporting local, eating local and learning the classic dishes of the area, wherever you are.”
Following his freshman year, he secured an internship at Chef Stephan Pyles’ Star Canyon restaurant in Las Vegas. Pyles is known as the founder of modern Texas cuisine.
Yasharian now offers similar opportunities to students from a nearby culinary school. Many have remained on his staff.
He tries to instill in them the dedication it takes to succeed in the demanding industry.
“You have to be 100% all in, or you’re going to be miserable, and eventually you’re not going to want to do this anymore,” Yasharian advises. “I think, to be a good chef, you’ve got to make that commitment; you’ve got to really immerse yourself in it.
“After that (internship) in Vegas, I made that decision with myself, because even the first two semesters, you don’t know. You don’t know if this is still for you. But after the experience I had there, I was all in. I came back sort of amped.”
Yasharian also decided, upon return from Vegas, to work for one of the best restaurants in town, and with Ditchfield’s recommendation, he secured a job with Chef Kevin Nash at the Old Corner Hotel in downtown Williamsport. He then was part of Nash’s opening team at 33 East (since closed) and completed another internship at a high-volume resort in Virginia Beach en route to his bachelor’s degree in culinary arts technology.
Perle Restaurant's pickled radish, cucumber, avocado, preserved meyer lemon, croutons, aioli, nasturtium - and underneath? Blue crab.
After graduation, he headed to Cambridge, England, where his sister lived, and dropped resumes “everywhere.”
Midsummer House, on the banks of the River Cam, is the only restaurant that responded. It turned out to be the best restaurant in Cambridge – one of the top five in the United Kingdom – and the holder of a Michelin star. Chef Daniel Clifford granted him a one-week trial.
Yasharian compared Clifford's kitchen demeanor to the likes of the famously fiery Chef Gordon Ramsay, for whom he would later work.
“I think what Gordon does is he represents a generation of chefs with that mentality that he got famous for, but when I see him acting like that, I don’t think of Gordon Ramsay,” Yasharian said. “I think of a lot of chefs that are very similar. It’s an extreme learning environment. The British Michelin chefs are sort of unique. They’re kind of a dying breed now, I think. But I wanted that. I don’t know why I wanted to go get abused, but I did.”
Yasharian survived his trial week and stayed for about a year as chef de partie on a kitchen staff of seven.
“It’s like a grueling, 8 a.m. to midnight/1 o’clock in the morning day, and if you’re five minutes late, you’re not allowed in, and if your jacket’s not ironed, you have to get out and come back. If you didn’t order properly for the next day, you’re on a bike flying up to the Cambridge Market. I used to grab the dishwasher’s bicycle in a panic and go get some potatoes or something because I forgot to put it on the order sheet,” he said.
“It’s the hardest kitchen I’ve ever worked in, still, and I’ve been to a few other good ones after that.”
Due to visa complications, he returned to the U.S. In the end, he was relieved to leave but grateful for the experience.
During Yasharian’s tenure, Midsummer House was awarded its second Michelin star. “The chef called me up in New York at the time and said ‘thank you,’ and it was kind of special.”
French classics: Lingcod à la Bordelaise & eclade de moules; Braised beef cheeks, baked shallots, carrot purée, potato crisps and Bordelaise sauce; and escargot.
New York City
From Cambridge, he moved to New York City, where another sister lived.
“I think I walked all of Manhattan and dropped resumes everywhere,” he recalled.
One of the only kitchens to call him was Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, owned by esteemed French restaurateur Daniel Boulud, who has produced some of the country’s best chefs: the likes of Thomas Keller (of The French Laundry) and David Chang (of Momofuku).
“I absolutely loved it,” Yasharian said. He spent three years at the restaurant as a junior sous chef.
He took a break from Restaurant Daniel when Ramsay opened a restaurant in New York. Again he was hired as a junior sous chef. The restaurant earned two Michelin stars in its first year. Yasharian said it was an impressive operation, but he stayed only a year.
“Stepping away from Daniel’s umbrella, I realized how much more I appreciated him,” Yasharian said. “I respected his company, and I felt I could grow more with Daniel.”
Yasharian helped to open Bar Boulud, near Lincoln Center in New York. It wasn’t necessarily the Michelin-level cooking he thought he’d stay with, but it was a project close to Boulud’s heart because it represented the food of his roots in Lyon, France.
“I felt like I was taking a step back in terms of quality at first, but it was to gain management experience, mostly,” Yasharian said. “It was my first sous chef gig.”
When the restaurant’s chef de cuisine left, Yasharian was bumped to that position and remained there as the kitchen’s second in command for about three years, until Boulud made plans to open a second Bar Boulud in London.
Meanwhile, Yasharian had met Pauline, and they were married in New York City in 2009. Ditchfield was a guest at the wedding. In the same month, Food Network viewers watched Yasharian win a “Chopped” episode in Season 3 of the long-running competition series.
Yasharian travels home to Pennsylvania for a barbecue on the family farm. Photo courtesy of Chef Michael J. Ditchfield
In 2010, the Yasharians moved to London, where Dean was the opening executive chef for Bar Boulud in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. In its first year, the restaurant climbed to top 5 in the U.K. and was included on San Pellegrino’s annual list of the world’s top 100 restaurants.
It also ignited a gourmet burger craze in the city.
“Even the local butchers thought we were crazy because we were using slightly better cuts of meat for our burger,” Yasharian said. “But then, sure enough, everyone started doing the same thing as us.”
The restaurant also reversed a London law against serving burgers cooked to less than medium doneness, inviting the health department into the restaurant for two weeks as Yasharian and Bar Boulud helped to write the protocol for serving burgers cooked rare or medium-rare.
“Then literally every restaurant had to follow suit after this if they wanted to make their own burgers and be able to serve them at the lower temperature,” Yasharian said.
While in London, he received a shoutout from the renowned Chef Keller in a September 2011 interview in British GQ, and he appeared with Chef Boulud on NBC’s “Today” show, demonstrating London tailgating recipes, during the 2012 Summer Olympics there.
Yasharian remained with Bar Boulud London until 2015, when he and Pauline, now parents, set their eyes on the Los Angeles area, where Pauline had grown up.
Yasharian and his son, Mason, with acclaimed restaurateur Chef Daniel Boulud in 2013. Yasharian worked for Boulud for 10 years, climbing from junior sous chef at Restaurant Daniel to executive chef of Bar Boulud London.
Coincidentally, Chateau Marmont, an iconic celebrity hangout in West Hollywood, was looking for a chef and recruited Yasharian – not knowing he was interested in moving to the area.
He didn’t necessarily want to be a hotel chef, but he’d learned a great deal about it at Bar Boulud. And Chateau Marmont, with its rich Hollywood history, “is not your average hotel.”
“Literally everybody’s ‘somebody’ in the dining room, and you don’t have to freak out because Jay-Z’s on a table, because literally somebody’s on every table,” Yasharian said.
It is the site of after-parties for the Oscars and movie premieres, and his kitchens catered penthouse parties and other events.
But the hotel on Sunset Boulevard was not known for good cuisine: “They’re not there for the food; they’re there because it’s the Chateau Marmont, and that’s where they socialize,” Yasharian said.
Among the famous who loved to stay at the Chateau was the late Chef Anthony Bourdain, a food-travel television series host. While working for Restaurant Daniel in New York, Yasharian had helped to prepare an after-hours dinner for the top chefs of New York – the likes of Keller, Emeril Lagasse and Eric Ripert (La Bernadin) – that Bourdain considered one of his favorite meals.
“Probably the most memorable course was the ortolan. That’s the one that Anthony talked about from time to time,” Yasharian said.
Yasharian explained that the since-banned French dish – a small bird eaten whole – and the method of serving it date to medieval times. Since it can be messy, diners place a black cloak over their head.
“So you saw all these guys putting the black napkin over their head, and they just love the whole theater and experience of it. And then we were able to go into the room and have some wine with them.”
Years later, at Chateau Marmont, Bourdain advised Yasharian about what menu items could be changed and what, for tradition's sake, must stay.
“It was great to hear his insight on the Chateau,” Yasharian said. “I took a lot of what he said to heart.”
Yasharian helped to rebuild the hotel’s busy kitchens and, in his first year, saved $300,000 in food purchasing alone.
“I had my hands full there, but ultimately, I knew my job was just to improve the food a little bit,” Yasharian said. “The whole time, I wanted to get back to doing things that were more meaningful for me. I wanted to cook for foodies again; I didn’t want to cook for Hollywood anymore.”
He wanted to be in his own community, build relationships, and cook for people who were coming to see him and eat his food.
“Ultimately, I am where I wanted to be,” Yasharian said.
A photo-worthy spread at Perle: Fluke crudo with caviar and apple, a charcuterie board, and steak tartare
But it’s not his last stop.
In September, when interviewed, Yasharian was regrouping after a long period in crisis mode, strengthening his team to go full occupancy – and finally have a grand opening – at the quality he wants to deliver.
“There’s still a drive to make this restaurant the best it can be,” Yasharian said. “There’s still a lot more we can do to achieve that.”
Repaying his investors and restoring his work-life balance are motivators, too. And he’d like to open another, bigger restaurant.
“If we can get 50 seats right, then maybe we can talk about future projects, and $3 million openings – and maybe I won’t have to reupholster the chairs and paint the walls for the next one,” he smiled.
From today’s vantage near the top of the industry, he remains as committed as he was when he returned from his Las Vegas internship as a Penn College student. Ditchfield has watched that devotion pay off.
“He was hungry,” Ditchfield said. “He was a kid from rural Pennsylvania, and he wanted to see what was out there. So he got the fear out of the way, and he did it. That’s the hardest thing for me to get through to students. A question for them would be: How bad do you want it, and are you willing to do what it takes to make your dream a reality?”
“Not everyone’s going to be famous,” the chef/instructor added. “Not everyone’s going to be rich. Not everyone’s going to be on TV. But this is still the land of opportunity, and it could be you. We’ve got a lot of graduates doing great things.”
Yasharian is proof.
Yellowtail crudo at Perle Restaurant