But back in Yats’ kitchen, Joe’s sidekick Scotty Payton is stirring a huge vat of yellow corn. Scotty’s got big eyes and a wide grin. He met Joe in Lexington, Ky., back in 1990. Joe had a Cajun place there called Jozo’s — some say he was the guy who turned Lexington on to Cajun cooking.
Like a lot of people Joe meets, Scotty started as a customer and wound up with a job. He’d always loved New Orleans-style food and he wanted to get into the restaurant business. When he met Joe it was like getting accepted at a really good school or, as Scotty puts it, “You learn from the guy that does it best.” The corn has been slowly cooking for hours. Eventually, it will be combined with black beans and chilis to make a vegetarian dish they call B&B.
Scotty works in a space that’s about half the size of a cheap motel room. You enter by ducking under a heavy, black tarpaulin nailed over the doorway. Plastic tubs of herbs and spices — basil, cilantro, oregano, sage, cinnamon and thyme — are stacked against one wall. A deep, steel sink is set against the other. By the end of a typical day, about 400 meals will be carried out of here.
That’s what Joe means when he calls 54th and College the best corner in the world. It’s because this is where the story of Yats began. Now there are additional Yats restaurants downtown on Massachusetts Avenue, in Brownsburg and in Bloomington. There are probably more to come. People can’t seem to get enough of this inexpensive, yet remarkably savory food that’s as American as the swinging jazz CDs always playing in Yats’ background. It’s a sophisticated blend of funk and flash that warms the soul.
Joe’s wife Regina runs this burgeoning franchise. For his part, Joe is content to remain in the College store. This is his place. If you look closely at all the stuff he’s put here, from the polo sticks propped in one corner to the picture of a fishing skiff, you’ll find it’s like a 3-D map of his life.
At 9:30 a.m., the man himself arrives. Joe carries a box of pastries that he puts on the counter where orders are taken to share with Scotty and the other members of the crew — Scoth, Disco and Matt — who will be on duty until late afternoon, when the dinner crew takes over.
In another lifetime, when Joe was a champion polo player, he blew both his knees, but he still takes a healthy stride. And even though he’s in his 50s, he still smiles like a kid — a little shy maybe, but too excited and curious to stay that way. His eyes, behind those Aristotle Onassis-style glasses he favors, are disconcertingly penetrating — and warm.
Then there’s the way Joe talks. People often wonder if he’s from New York; there’s a similar, barreling intensity. But that’s native New Orleans you’re hearing. Joe, in fact, is a true Yat: an old New Orleans type whose name is derived from people calling, “Where you at?” to one another by way of greeting. “From the time I was a little kid, 9 years old, I always wanted to be in the race,” Joe says. “And I always got beat. I couldn’t catch the ball, couldn’t run very fast, but I always wanted to compete. But I was never very capable. I had a pro fight — I got knocked out in the first round. I was a failure at everything in life, except life. I got to do things and see things most people never get to do or see. Even as a kid, being on the Bayou by the Gulf of Mexico, catching big sharks and seeing dolphins roll their eyes at you alongside the boat. When they close the lid I got no beefs. It’s been pretty good.”
Joe’s dad was a Croat oyster farmer and fisherman; his mother, who is now in her 90s, is Sicilian. He grew up in a culture where cooking was a kind of sport. “Back in the ’50s it was still a deal where every Sunday the women would test their skills,” Joe says, “show what they were all about and cook a great meal. Every Sunday we were at somebody’s house.” New Orleans is a crossroads for cuisines — from the hefty country-style Cajun cooking the Arcadians brought down from Canada, to the Creole that blended French and Spanish colonial influences with African, West Indian and, later, the Italians. As Joe says, “It’s truly American food.”
In New Orleans, the Croats have a longstanding reputation for being fishermen. Joe’s family had plied that trade since 1905. So when Joe was 19, he and his brother opened a four-table oyster bar and named it Visko’s, after their grandfather. It was a phenomenon. “It was one of those things,” Joe recalls. “Lines through the door. I had no idea; I was a kid — I thought that was the way it was supposed to be.” Visko’s grew to a staggering 700 seats. “We were one of the biggest restaurants in the city — one of the biggest restaurants in the country, you might say.”
In 1981, Visko’s was picked by American Express as one of its top 100 accounts in the United States. On the wall by the entrance to the kitchen at Yats, there’s a framed photograph of the ad American Express published to celebrate its top 100. Joe’s up in the left-hand corner toasting with a glass of wine. “We had several days where we did 1,700 people — that’s when you consider yourself successful: when you do your job and everybody’s happy. Nobody got cold french fries. Nobody’s food was late. You sit down at the end of the night and say, ‘Wow, that was good.’”
Then a seemingly perfect storm of miscalculations and reversals of fortune brought Visko’s to an end. “I was 30 years old and should have had a great career,” says Joe, looking out the window at College Avenue. “I screwed up by wanting to retire and playing polo — and just burned out.” Joe eventually found his way north, to Lexington, Ky. There he was able to put the resources together to open Jozo’s, Lexington’s first Cajun joint.
But where he had served as frontman at Visko’s, wearing suits and tallying a $300-a-month dry cleaning bill, he was the cook at Jozo’s, relying on recipes gleaned from his mother and her friends. He also met wife-to-be, Regina, who was recovering from a divorce and waitressing at a local hot spot, the Atomic Café. “Joe was our best customer,” Regina says, “everybody loved him.” Joe would show up in a designer suit, red leather vest and dress boots. Regina was smitten. “What the hell is that doin’ in this place?” she thought to herself. “He looked like an Italian movie director.”
A cook in her own right, Regina had a keen taste for chili recipes, including the white chili that has become a Yats staple. “That was my recipe but he made it 100 times better. It doesn’t look the same. But I gave it to him. It used to be called Regina’s White Chili and you notice it’s not called that anymore,” she laughs. “There was nothing I could do that he couldn’t do better. He’s a master at seasoning. He can make anything taste good.”
Entrepreneurs at heart, Joe and Regina began collaborating on business ventures, including a plan to begin manufacturing food using a quick freeze technique that Joe hoped he could use to sell his dishes across the country. The two were on their way to Chicago in hopes of finding a distribution center when, by chance, they stopped in Indianapolis. Regina discovered that she could make a living selling some of her grub to the lunch crowd at the City Market and they decided to make their base here instead. But Joe’s food manufacturing plan fell through. He found himself “with no job and no future.”
At 11 o’clock, Yats opens for lunch. Burt Bachrach’s “The Look of Love” is playing through the sound system and two young men in white shirts and ties are standing at the counter, squinting at the black board where today’s dishes are written in chalk. There’s the chili cheese etouffee with crawfish, the most popular dish Yats serves. Etouffee is a sauce made from flour, butter and stock. Red beans with smoked sausage is also offered, as are gumbo soup (Joe’s personal favorite), jambalaya, chicken maque choux, hunter’s stew, spinach and mushroom etouffee, succotash and B&B. Joe is in back, filling plastic bags with quick frozen B&B for the other restaurants. So far this year, 20,000 gallons of food have been prepared here. Then, out front, somebody waves at a pal and knocks his drink on the floor. Joe’s out with a mop.
By 11:30, people are in line — all ages, ripped pant legs to high heels. All the tables are taken. Joe’s team files out of the kitchen bearing steaming plates, their eyes sweeping the room for their various destinations. By 12:30, jambalaya is being erased from the menu board. Dean Martin sings the praises of “Roma.” “It’s like having an immigrant mentality,” Joe says. “When they got off the boat, that’s where they were. They made a life and were successful — they did what they had to do. I used to drive by here. I drove by here a lot of times and I used to see this space and said, ‘I should be selling my food in there.’ I just had a feeling.”
On the first day, Scotty and Joe worked alone. They did $12 worth of business. The second day was $40. “That was still the funnest time,” Scotty says. “That September, October, November and Christmas that first year.” “We had the best time working,” Joe says. “Just us. We’d work double shifts, both of us. It was the greatest feeling of accomplishment.”
They knew they were on to something that initial Christmas. When the word got out they would be closed for two or three days, people started coming in a state of near panic. They wanted Yats for the holidays. “We started selling quarts,” Scotty says. “That was the first time it really hit home. We knew it was going well. But that’s when we began to feel how important it was, how much people really liked it.”
“The whole concept of this kind of food is a neighborhood place that’s cheap and people know your name,” Joe says. “So we take people’s names. I want to know your name. You’re better off having a friend than having a customer. Somebody’s your friend, they’re in your corner and that’s better than anything. That’s the best thing in the world.”
Anybody who’s ever spent time in Yats knows that Joe means what he says. Deciding to go to the College Avenue store is like deciding to go to a party. “Joe innately knows how to make people feel comfortable,” Regina says. “That is a gift he has been given. It’s not anything he manufactures or works on or thinks about. It doesn’t matter who it is — he’s gonna make them feel good about themselves. I’ve been hanging around a long time because he makes me feel good about myself.”
Joe’s eyes light up. “There’s a saying in Italian,” he says, “‘you do good, you forget about it, you do bad, you gotta remember it.’ Whether you’re dishonest or you hurt somebody or you steal — you got to remember it because you messed somebody over. You can’t forget about it. If you do good you can forget about it — you live your life easy.”
At 3 o’clock a couple of cops come in for a late lunch. In the kitchen there’s the hiss of onions frying in butter and flour. A large plastic tub is filled with an impossible amount of sliced sausage. In another hour the dinner crowd will start arriving. You begin to understand that Yats is some kind of happy medium between a white tablecloth restaurant and a bar. It’s partly a party, partly a living room and, maybe, a little bit of a pew. It’s not surprising to learn that after their AA meetings, recovering alcoholics like to stop by Yats for a bite to eat and some conversation.
“We know how to do a lot,” Regina observes. “We’ve got our food production down. We’ve got our decorating down. We know the locations we like to go in. We know what music we like to play. We’ve got all the things that other people struggle with or think about. We’ve got it all down. Potentially our biggest weak spot could be that the people we hire are not like Joe … we’re taking everything from the Book of Joe.”
This idea makes Joe visibly uncomfortable. “A psychologist told me I had some issues because I wanted to do a $5 restaurant instead of a $25 restaurant,” he says. “This is what I want to do now.” He looks across the room — at the burnished, tropic-gold walls, the Christmas balls hanging from the ceiling, the painting of the red cat in sunglasses. “What makes it good is people. People on that side of the counter and people on this side. It’s not just about me, that’s for sure. It’s the people who make the business.”
Little wonder, then, that some of the best training for Yats is starting out as a customer. Joe tells everyone who gets hired, “You wanted a nice, big plate. You wanted your bread to be warm. Everything you wanted on that side you got to try and do when you’re on this side … Something you eat is a very personal thing, so, to me, it’s an honor that people will eat it — and eat it again. There are a lot of places out there you could spend your $5.”
At 6:15 people are lined up to the front door. Some read newspapers or one of the many magazines Joe subscribes to and leaves out for casual pickup — Food and Wine, Watch Time, Chicago, Fortune, New Orleans, Jazz Times, Travel and Leisure, the IBJ, The Star, the New York Times. Although the line is long, the wait is short. The sixth man waiting hangs for just three minutes before he gets to place his order — and this in spite of the fact that three people in front of him are all given free tastings of different dishes before they make up their minds. Meanwhile, Joe congratulates an artist on her recent show, greets someone else with a question about a mutual friend and joins a couple at their table for a chat.
By 6:45 Joe’s catching a second wind. His eyes are flashing. “This is exciting … I was ready to lay down and have a sleep this afternoon, but now! This is the game. It’s the life. I used to think this wasn’t a very important job, it wasn’t a very important industry. People built skyscrapers and bridges and made steel and computers — that was real important stuff. But society developed because some cats could make food! It gives you time to invent the wheel and the other stuff you need to do.”
There are kids here and college students, men in suits and couples. A guy in a suit, vest and cowboy hat comes in looking for a John Kerry meeting and winds up ordering hunter’s stew. Joe tells him the Dean people come in from time to time. Frank Sinatra is singing “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.” Thirty minutes before closing. The guys in the kitchen stand in the white light back there, sipping sodas or folding their arms across their chests like ball players between innings. Joe sits at the counter and has a bowl of gumbo.
Before long the crew will bring out the brooms and begin sweeping the floor. Joe will be the last one out, waiting for the latest batch of maque choux to cool. It will be 10:30 or 11 before it’s done. “It seems like I spend my life waiting for something to happen,” he says.
When he was in his 20s, Joe hired a professional trainer and learned to box. He began entering bouts and, once, was beaten so badly he couldn’t go to work the next day. He lowered himself into a bathtub and was unable to climb out again. But he didn’t quit fighting. He was 45 the last time he climbed in a ring.
Joe hauls a bag of the day’s garbage to a dumpster behind the restaurant as he tells this story. “A long time ago,” he says, “I witnessed somebody get hit real bad and saw him hit the ground and I was real young and I always had that thing in my mind — could I take that? Could I take that shot? I always wanted to prove that, yeah, I could take that shot. I could keep going. Even though it hurt I could keep going. It’s funny, you know? I used to love it.”