By Amy Serrano, High Sierra Chefs Association
For the last 18 years, Zozo’s Ristorante has been a staple in Reno’s Italian cuisine scene. From its opening in 2000, the Ashton family — consisting of Sid, Judy, and their son, Kevin — have worked hard to make Zozo’s a favorite among Reno locals, who in the 2017 Best of Reno contest conducted by Reno.com and RENO Magazine, voted it as the best Italian restaurant in the city.
Kevin Ashton, Zozo’s head chef and current head of the back of the house, marks this moment as his top career achievement.
“It was a great accomplishment for us, since there are so many great Italian restaurants in town. This was the people’s vote too, which made it even better,” he said.
Ashton, along with his parents, started to make their mark in Reno’s food community in 1986 with the Sugarless Shack, a sugarless bakery.
While Ashton dabbled with jobs in the food industry, such as working in fast food restaurants and a Chinese restaurant in his teens, it was here where one of Ashton’s first standout jobs began, as he took the position of nighttime baker.
“We were making these sugar-free pastries and cakes and making all these great desserts for people who generally couldn’t eat desserts — diabetics, hyperglycemics ... we had a Weight Watchers right next to us so we were cooking a lot of food in accordance with their programs. It was a very healthy business so I learned some stuff early on,” he noted about the bakery.
While the Sugarless Shack was eventually sold, the Ashton family continued to build a name in the Reno food scene with the opening of The Rockin’ Roll Sandwich Shop. It was during this time that Ashton further pursued his culinary career by attending the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore.
“I knew that I was going to be a chef when I was a little kid. I always tell people that when my other friends were outside playing with Tonka trucks, I was inside playing with Tupperware. That was me, so I was always into the kitchens and the food for as long as I can remember,” Ashton said of his decision to build a career in the industry.
Along with the instilled love for the culinary arts that came to him at a young age, Ashton also pointed to his grandfather as being a mentor in his career path.
“My grandfather was a mentor when it comes to cooking. He owned a restaurant and was a brilliant chef. That’s where I learned to cook, that’s where I got the passion,” Ashton said.
Ashton graduated from school in 1992, which is when his professional career began. Eventually, The Rockin’ Roll Sandwich Shop was sold, and with that came the creation of Zozo’s in 2000.
“It’s been quite a run. We’ve been very fortunate with our different businesses and the things we’ve done. They’ve all been very different, so we gather a bunch of different knowledge from each of them and build up from there,” Ashton said.
With almost 30 years in his culinary career, Ashton has seen the ups and downs of the profession. Perhaps one of the biggest hardships chefs face most frequently is the long hours — and, with that, the sacrifices that have to be made in their personal lives.
Ashton, while understanding of this reality, has a more positive take on it.
“You do give up a lot but at the same time you do it because you love it. Everybody who is a chef truly has that same feeling. They’re willing to give up a few things to follow their passions and their dreams,” he said.
While undeniably passionate about cooking and about his family’s restaurant, Ashton makes sure to take time outside of work for himself, his hobbies, and most of all, his family.
“At the end of the day, you can’t be married to your work. You can love your work, but you can’t be married to it ... I have four teenage daughters, so raising my kids is my life right now. I love playing guitar, I love music, and I love cooking at home too,” he said.
His advice for those considering a culinary career?
“Love what you do. You’ve got to love what you do. Don’t try to cook someone else’s food; cook your way. Be yourself and be passionate about cooking. That’s what’s going to make you an individual in this industry.”