SALT LAKE CITY — Restaurateur Joel LaSalle has a passion for food, but it pales in comparison to his dedication to his customers.
“I could sell hot dogs. I could sell tacos. I don’t care what I’m serving,” said LaSalle, head of Salt Lake’s LaSalle Restaurant Group, the organization behind Kyoto Japanese Restaurant, Oasis Cafe, Current Fish & Oyster, Under Current Bar and Caffe Niche. “As long as our customer base loves it, that’s the meaning of success for me in the restaurant business.”
So when he opened Stanza Italian Bistro & Wine Bar, located at 454 E. 300 South, in April 2016, he had high hopes he was meeting the needs of his guests in providing an Italian restaurant fit for the market.
Little did he know what a rocky road the first year would be.
Stanza went through three chefs in a year, LaSalle ended up buying out his partner and the menu just wasn’t lining up with the brand he had envisioned, no matter how many times it had been refined.
“(Running a restaurant) becomes problematic sometimes, and it’s tough to find that really great fit,” he explained. “(With chefs), there’s chemistry involved and integrity and talent working with our staff, … so you don’t know all those things until you experience somebody.”
Then along came chef Jonathan LeBlanc.
“Some owners like big ego, power guys. We don’t,” LaSalle said. “We like the guy you can go fishing with. We like the guy that I’m going to be friends with hopefully when we’re old, and somebody you can build a life with, a professional life with, in the restaurant, and that’s really what I feel about Chef LeBlanc.”
LeBlanc — who is characterized by his down-to-earth demeanor, kind eyes and friendly disposition — joined the team at Stanza in May of this year, bringing his encyclopedia of culinary experience along with him and transforming the restaurant into exactly what LaSalle had dreamed.
“It’s not just that his food is fabulous, it’s that this guy is a joy to work with,” LaSalle said.
LeBlanc, who received his formal training from the Art Institute of Houston’s culinary program, has made his way around the food world. You name it, he’s done it, from working at the fish market in Salem, Oregon, to opening a steakhouse in Texas to bartending at a French restaurant to being at the helm of a Japanese sushi grill.
And long before food became a career, LeBlanc could be found making beignets with his mother and grandmother or catching crab after the elementary school bell rang.
Now he’s adding Italian cuisine to his resume as executive chef at Stanza, bringing an emphasis on high-quality ingredients and “clean, simple, bright flavors.”
“I kind of approach it as I’m going to use Italian ingredients, but I’m going to reimagine the identity,” LeBlanc explained of his approach at Stanza. “It’s all Italian ingredients but now it’s something different.”
LeBlanc grew up as a self-described “military brat,” moving around the United States with his father in the Air Force, including Redondo Beach, California; the Washington, D.C., area; the Florida panhandle; San Antonio, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.
“All these places I lived kind of started the background, if you will, (of his culinary career) because I got exposed to a lot of different foods,” LeBlanc said.
He spent more than 20 years in the food industry after graduating high school before attending culinary school. Since graduating, he’s gained even more experience in varied forms from being an instructor at the culinary school to consulting to working at fishing and hunting lodges.
It was such a job that brought him to Utah for the first time to work at a hunting club in Corrine, Box Elder County.
“I wanted to get out and I wanted to check out the mountains and see about moving and relocating, so that’s where the seed of moving to Utah started,” he said.
He made the move in 2014, bringing his three sons, who are now 18, 14 and 11, along with him. LeBlanc is a relatively new single dad but finds a way to make it work with his demanding schedule at Stanza.
“(Being a single parent) keeps you moving,” he said.
At home, LeBlanc cooks everything from Indian food to Tex-Mex to Cajun Creole, something his sons have come to appreciate.
“They’ll eat anything,” he said with a laugh. “It’s more like ‘Dad, are you home tonight? And are you cooking?’ Then they won’t go anywhere.”
LaSalle said from the first time he spoke to LeBlanc on the phone, there was something intriguing about him.
“As we’ve gone along … the staff — and not just the kitchen staff that he has ultimate rule over, but the front of the house staff — the customers that he comes out to talk to (and) the vendors that talk to me, they all say what a joy it is to work with him, and of course, there’s the food.”
LeBlanc said the feeling is mutual as there is a sense of family that inspires a level of dedication.
“I don’t want to put anything out bad. I don’t want my team to put anything out bad,” he explained. “I don’t want to let my ownership down. … These are the best people I’ve ever worked for.”Comment on this story
LaSalle said Stanza is seeking to bring “the trinity of the restaurant business” — excellent service, food and environment — that is both “efficient and affordable for (Salt Lake City’s) market,” with dinner menu items ranging from $7-$46. The restaurant also offers a three-course lunch special that changes weekly “to take full advantage of seasonally available ingredients from local farms,” according to press materials.
“I think the food speaks for itself,” LaSalle said. “There’s an evolution that’s taken place at Stanza, and I think it’s worth giving thought to.”