Carolyn Jung - September 10th, 2014
Food Arts presents a special Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to John Washko, vice president of operations for Auberge Resorts, whose rigorous attention to detail and remarkable capacity for making the impossible happen have made him a legend in the hospitality industry over the past three decades.
“What I do is not brain surgery,” says Washko, 58, of San Francisco, who oversees seven luxury Auberge properties worldwide, with more on the way. “It’s taking care of people. I oversee everything that touches the guest experience.”
Over the years, he’s tended to the needs of five U.S. presidents. Previously, in his more than 20 years with Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, he helped open 12 hotels, from Dublin and Istanbul to Whistler and Costa Rica. He’s on a plane half the year. And he makes things happen, no matter the obstacles.
Years ago in Saudi Arabia, a Four Seasons partner/owner put him in charge of orchestrating an elaborate buffet dinner. In the middle of the desert. With no ice or refrigerator trucks. Then, a sandstorm hit. Followed by a torrential rain. “There were bugs you’d never seen before coming out of the sand,” Washko recalls. “It was like a plague and pestilence around me.”
He pulled it off, of course. In fact, the client was so impressed afterward that he booked a $100,000 event at the Four Seasons in the Middle East.
Washko grew up in Utah, where his Italian grandparents had purchased an 80 acre farm. He worked in the fields and gathered the firewood that fed his grandmother’s stove. “I can recall to this day the taste of her ravioli, pesto, and sugo,” he says.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of San Francisco’s Lone Mountain College, he traveled to Las Vegas to visit his brother, only to take a job at a resort to make ends meet. Little did he know then that he had found his calling. He boot-strapped his way up from captain at Caesars Palace to a job as a manager at the Sheraton Premiere in Universal City. There, he caused a sensation when he created a Dom Pérignon brunch in 1985, the first time a Champagne so prestigious was offered inclusively as part of a Sunday repast. Its runaway success not only put the hotel on the map, but prompted the Four Seasons to come courting to hire Washko away. He worked his way up there to become corporate director of food and beverage.
“He’s always looking out for the next new restaurant or next new trend,” says Alfons Konrad, former senior vice president of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, whom Washko counts as his mentor. “For him, it’s more than a job; it’s a lifestyle.”
For eight years, Washko also has served on the board and as a trustee of The James Beard Foundation, alongside the likes of Jacques Pépin, who recommended him to the organization. In 2007, Washko’s endeavors in facilitating scholarships for future generations of chefs earned him the foundation’s “Angel Award.”
“He’s one of the best at what he does,” says Pépin, who has known Washko for about 30 years. “He’s someone with an open mind and with great knowledge about the industry. He understands every point of view—from the kitchen to the dining room to the concierge.”
Despite a demanding career, Washko, who studied at Paris’ École Ritz Escoffier culinary school, also makes time to participate as a member of the Chaine des Rôtisseurs culinary society and the Conclave of the Masters at Cornell University. “Life gives back to you what you give back to it,” he says of his often hectic schedule. “I’ve been blessed to have people give me opportunities and I’ve always tried to live by that same principle.”