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Sometimes, the power of love is strong enough to run a great restaurant
ust in time for Valentine’s Day, we rounded up 10 restaurants that are run by couples, and we were able to speak with some of the owners themselves and ask them about what it’s like to run a restaurant with their mate.
No couple has done more to transform the dining scene in Las Vegas than Kim Canteenwalla and Elizabeth Blau. They’ve both been in the industry for more than 25 years, and in 2002 they co-founded Blau & Associates, which is one of the country’s top restaurant development companies. In Las Vegas, Blau and Canteenwalla run their own restaurants, Honey Salt, a neighborhood hotspot that opened in 2012, and the recently-opened Made LV, and they also run Simon Restaurant & Lounge with chef Kerry Simon and Buddy V’s with Buddy Valastro. Andiron Steak & Sea, a new restaurant in the master-planned community of Summerlin, near Las Vegas, is also in the works.
One of America’s best Italian restaurants (and named the best casual restaurant in the world by the International Herald-Tribune), Providence, Rhode Island’s Al Forno was opened in 1980 by the husband-and-wife-duo George Germon and Johanne Killeen, who continue to run the restaurant today. The couple fell in love with Italian cuisine while living and working in Italy, Johanne toiling in a small restaurant outside of Florence and George teaching sculpting in Rome, and went on to open the renowned restaurant, which is perhaps most famous for introducing grilled pizza to the United States. “We take turns being chef and sous-chef,” Germon told RI Monthly. “I can begin a dish, and she’ll finish it.”
Karen and Quinn Hatfield are the culinary duo between the The Sycamore Kitchen and the acclaimed (now-closed) Hatfield’s Restaurant, both in Los Angeles. They met in 1997, when they both worked at Spago. "I was the pastry chef and Quinn was sous-chef and manager," Karen said. "We were forbidden to date!"
When they opened Hatfield’s together in 2006, "there were definitely a lot of growing pains," she added. "You can learn how to live together as a couple, but to learn how to work together is completely different. It’s not just taking out the trash! It’s challenging but rewarding."
For couples looking to open a restaurant together, Karen said that "the most important thing is to be up front about expectations with each other and whose roles are what. You have to have your dynamic figured out. Be patient, because it takes a couple of years, but at the end of the day I’m sharing and creating something with my best friend."
Jennifer and Harrison Keevil run the 60-seat Brookville Restaurant in Charlottesville, Va. They met while working in San Francisco’s Clifton Inn, and began dating within a few months of meeting. "She says I didn’t see the signs at all," said Harrison.
"She’s in control of the entire restaurant, the big-picture stuff," he added. "And he’s the yin to my yang," said Jennifer. "He cooks. Having him around is great. The best part is that we’re together all day."
They just had their first baby, which meant that their staff really needed to step up. "When we’re stressed out, if we were just business partners we’d just yell at each other," said Jennifer. "But for us, yelling would be destructive as opposed to constructive. You have to watch what you say!"
Jenn Louis and David Welch run Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern, both in Portland, Ore. Louis is the chef, while Welch manages the bar, kitchen, and server training.
"We met in 1998 at Wildwood Restaurant, which was one of the first great Pacific Northwest fine dining restaurants," said Welch. "I ran front of house, and Jenn the back." They started dating soon afterwards, and both left the restaurant business temporarily (Louis started a catering company called Culinary Artistry; Welch went into journalism). They were married in 2003.
They opened Lincoln in 2008, and Sunshine in 2010. "We collectively make decisions, so knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is very important," Welch said. "It’s actually really easy for us to make decisions in a timely manner, because we know where the other person is coming from. It’s also really easy for us to get each other’s attention!"
The most important part of running the restaurant, though, is communication. "If something’s not going well, we can tell just by body language," he said. "You need to communicate on a higher level, and you can’t get away from it, so you have to impose boundaries."
Kyle and Tiffany met in the kitchen at New York’s popular Allen & Delancey, and today Bailey is executive chef at Washington, D.C’s Birch & Barley while MacIsaac heads up the pastry program there as well as at 15 other restaurants in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group portfolio.
"We got a call from the owner of the restaurant group right before our wedding, and we skipped our honeymoon to move to D.C. to open the restaurant!" MacIsaac said. "We run two completely different parts of the kitchen, but we’re always there to support each other. Kyle will be completely honest with me and vice versa, and we always keep an eye on each other. We both focus on different things, and that’s why the pastry chef/chef combo works!"
Mary Catherine and Donald Mikula run Salinas Restaurant, which opened in Manhattan in June 2011. Donald grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but they met in San Francisco; Mary Catherine was a model and Donald was her hairdresser, and they married in 1999. "We loved designing our apartment and hosting dinner parties, and the idea just came to us to open a restaurant," Mary Catherine said. "We had spent time in Salinas, Spain, and felt that if we were going to open a restaurant it would have to serve Spanish food. We found a chef from San Sebastián, and the rest is history!"
"We both designed and operate the restaurant," Donald added. "Mary Catherine is the general manager and I work behind the scenes, dealing with guest relations, etc. We wouldn’t have it any other way."
While running the restaurant may be rewarding, "it’s not for the faint of heart," Mary Catherine warned. "You have to be all-in. You have to really want it and love it, and you have to be a people person."
"It’s an amazing gift to be able to run the restaurant together," added Donald. "It’s an extension of our home."
Lindsay and Jesse Schenker are the duo behind the popular restaurants Recette and The Gander in New York City’s West Village. They met in middle school, where they had what Lindsay describes as "a brief romance." They rekindled the flame when they were both in their 20s, and opened Recette shortly before they were married at age 27. Lindsay is the director of culinary operations (handling hostessing, HR, private party/events coordination, scheduling, etc.), and Jesse is the head chef.
"You learn so much about yourself and your partner running a restaurant together," Lindsay said. "We’ve had our highs and lows, but every day we can look at each other and know what we accomplished."
"What each of us lacks, the other is strong in," added Jesse. "I cook, and Lindsay can’t even boil water. I can’t use a computer to save my life. I don’t think the average couple knows each other as well as we do. We see a completely different side of each other."
"This business is very emotionally charged," said Lindsay. "It’s very important to have each other, and we can relate because we’ve both had the same 18-hour day. It’s good to do all these hard things with someone you love."
Highlands, a French-inspired Southern restaurant, has been called Birmingham, Alabama’s best restaurant by plenty of critics and publications, and Frank Stitt opened it when he was just 28. Today, he runs the restaurant, along with its offshoots Chez Fonfon, Bottega, and Bottega Café, with his Iranian-born wife Pardis, and they can be found in every restaurant, every night. Stitt told The New York Times that “Without [Pardis], the Highlands is not the Highlands.”
The couple first met when Pardis was hired to work at Highlands, and today they also own a farm in nearby Harpersville that supplies their restaurants with eggs and organic produce. “She’s my partner as well as my wife and has played a major role in the success of our restaurants,” Frank told Business Alabama.