Matt Lyman, David Dressler, Erik Oberholtzer – Tender Greens

August 19, 2010

Matt Lyman, David Dressler Tender GreensRestaurateur Profile: Matt Lyman, David Dressler and Erik Oberholtzer (Erik not pictured)

Owners: Tender Greens

9523 Culver Blvd.

Culver City, CA 90232

Yelp: 4 stars

Interview Date: Friday, August 13, 2010

Matt Lyman, Erik Oberholtzer and David Dressler each had his own history in the restaurant business when they met while working at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. “I went to Shutters and met Matt,” says David. “Then Erik came, and we became the Three Amigos.”

Matt grew up on a farm on the East Coast in a “cooking-friendly family.” “I worked in restaurants through high school,” he says. “I started in the Front of House but soon realized that all the fun happened in the back, so I transferred to the kitchen.” When he decided to pursue cooking as a career, he attended culinary school in Maryland to hone his skills. Next he became a cook at the Ritz Carlton in Pentagon City. Next he began working with Gunter Seeger as a sous chef – working at two of Seeger’s Atlanta restaurants.

Matt moved to California 13 years ago and began working with Jean Francois Meteigner at La Cachette. “He’s a super nice guy,” says Matt. “Despite everything you hear.” From La Cachette, Matt went to Shutters on the Beach, where he was the Chef for four years and where he met David and Erik.

David was born in Montreal and spent his summers working for his Aunt and Uncle, who owned a hotel in the Adirondacks. “I started working there when I was about seven,” he said. When he was 18 he moved to Switzerland where he attended hotel and restaurant management school for four years.

David moved to California as a trainee at the Hyatt La Jolla while still in school. He was invited to stay on as the Assistant Manager, Food and Beverage. After managing Cafe Japengo, the sushi restaurant at the hotel for a while, he decided to switch coasts and went to the Four Seasons, first in New York, then Dallas. Finally he ended up back in California (who can blame him?) and he went on to be part of the opening teams at the Beverly Wilshire, Four Seasons Carlsbad and Four Seasons Newport Beach.

After a short stint as an independent training consultant, David was recruited to Shutters on the Beach. “After we had worked together for a while, Erik shared his ideas for Tender Greens with me,” says David. “Actually, it was during his annual performance review in an off the record conversation.”

Soon after that meeting, David, Erik and Matt began “planning their getaway.” David left Shutters to raise money for Tender Greens and got a job at the Peninsula Hotel as a pool waiter. “I knew the manager and told him what I was doing,” says David. “I told him that I just wanted to wait tables – no management!”

Tender Greens Culver CityThe original plan of raising money in about two months morphed into two years of fundraising, but in 2005 the company was officially formed, and in 2006 the team opened their first Tender Greens restaurant in Culver City. The concept was born out of a desire to create a place where they would like to eat. “As Food and Beverage guys living in LA, there weren’t a lot of places where we would go on our day off for Farmers Market food at a price that didn’t suck,” says David. “We were tired of bad food, high prices and having to valet your car,” adds Matt.

After the first opening in 2006, the team followed up with a second location in 2008, a third in 2009, a fourth in March 2010, and numbers 5, 6 and 7 planned for Walnut Creek, Santa Monica and Pasadena scheduled through 2011. Ultimately, they have plans to open about 30 restaurants.

“The best part of owning a restaurant business is being my own boss,” says David. “I don’t have to compromise my own values, and we’re able to provide an opportunity for young people who are looking to get a leg up in the world. We are responsible for 160-170 employees, and growing, and we feel proud that we are able to help a lot of people improve their lives.”


Caroline Styne – Lucques, AOC Wine Bar, Tavern

August 16, 2010

Caroline Styne Lucques, AOC Wine Bar, TavernRestaurateur Profile: Caroline Styne

Co-Owner: Lucques, AOC Wine Bar, Tavern

8474 Melrose Ave.

Los Angeles, CA 90069

Yelp: 4 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, August 10, 2010

“I always had this little entrepreneurial ‘thing’ in my head,” says Caroline Styne, co-owner of Lucques. “I had a little health food company with a business partner, a catering company, and was always working in an entrepreneurial capacity.”

After trying her hand at a few ventures, Caroline had an idea that she wanted to ultimately be in the restaurant business and began working at Jones Hollywood. She managed Jones for about four years before she was introduced to Chef Suzanne Goin by mutual friends.

“We kept flaking out on each other,” says Caroline. “Our friend kept saying that we had to meet, and finally we made the commitment to get together for dinner. When we finally did meet, we hit it off immediately.” After “dating” for several months, during which time they met at different restaurants and “turned plates over and checked the silverware,” the two agreed that they had a good opportunity together. “Suzanne had a successful career as a chef and wanted to open a business but didn’t have a manager,” says Caroline. “Meanwhile, I wanted to manage a restaurant and didn’t have a chef. We just clicked immediately and shared so much in common.”

Lucques Melrose Ave Los AngelesCaroline and Suzanne hired a “gung-ho” realtor and proceeded to give her their requirements. “We had very specific requirements, and about a one-mile radius within which we wanted the restaurant,” says Caroline. “It took about one and a half years to finally find this space, but it was good for us to have that time to get to know each other better.” Once the space on Melrose was found, everything began falling into place for Lucques. “We met in October 1996 and opened Lucques in September 1998,” says Caroline. “We’re very fortunate and have very similar visions. In the past 12 years, I think that we have had just one or two times that we have disagreed on something. I think of us as ‘restaurant soulmates.”

Caroline focuses on the front of the house and is also a sommelier, while Suzanne focuses on the kitchen. Lucques has a small bar that quickly became a popular hangout for guests, which gave them the idea for their second restaurant, AOC Wine Bar. “The bar here was incredibly popular – there was a communal spirit, and we used that as a starting point for AOC Wine Bar,” says Caroline. “We thought about how we like to eat off each other’s plates, and came up with the small plates concept for the restaurant. The idea was that you could explore food and wine in a fun place.” AOC Wine bar was opened in 2002.

For their third concept, Caroline and Suzanne were originally looking outside of Los Angeles. “We thought that we needed to open in another city to avoid competing with ourselves,” Caroline says. “But we realized that the Westside is far enough away – especially with traffic – that it was the perfect location.” When a spot formerly occupied by a Hamburger Hamlet opened up in Brentwood, Caroline and Suzanne drove over and checked it out immediately. “We had always wanted a restaurant with a market attached, and the space was perfect for that concept,” says Caroline. “We had started baking our own bread, and saw the opportunity to create a bake shop in the space.” They opened Tavern in 2009. “We’re on a very unofficial 5-year plan,” says Caroline. “It just seems to have worked out that way.”

Both Caroline and Suzanne balance their restaurant businesses with families. “We are very hands-on, kind of control freaks,” says Caroline. “We also have kids and husbands, and we want to spend time with them.” Caroline says that she usually works five (very long) days per week. “I’m never ‘off’ – I’m always on the phone, doing work or thinking about work,” she says. “But when I work on this side of town I work during the day, go home for dinner, and then come back to work later. It all works out – you just have to really want it!”

“I’m a ‘go for it’ kind of person,” says Caroline. “I say that if you want to do something – if you have a dream or vision, then just go for it. If you have the energy and the desire, then it will work.”

Kim Dubarry – Yankee Doodles

August 14, 2010

Kim Dubarry Yankee Doodles Third Street Promenade Santa MonicaRestaurateur Profile: Kim Dubarry

General Manager: Yankee Doodles

1410 3rd St Promenade
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 2.5 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Kim Dubarry, General Manager of Yankee Doodles on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, started in the restaurant business right out of college.

Most of her experience has been in the nightclub business – she began as General Manager of a nightclub in Orange County when she was just 21 years old, and worked there for 11 years until it shut down in 2006.  “I just kind of fell into it,” she says. “I knew the owner and ended up staying.”

Her next move was to Tia Juanas Long Bar and Grill in Irvine, where she was also General Manager. Then early this year the owners of Yankee Doodles made the trip to Orange County to meet her, and she came on as General Manager in March of this year. With five offsite owners, Kim runs day-to-day operations, but still needs to be aware of the owners’ wishes and decisions. “Definitely the biggest challenge is working with offsite owners – making sure that we’re communicating,” she says.

“You have to like what you’re doing to stay in any business this long,” says Kim. “I definitely like the people, and I like working with the owners.” With more than 100 employees and a capacity for 600 guests, Yankee Doodles is a large business that requires constant communication to maintain consistency.

Yankee Doodles Third Street Promenade Santa MonicaTo keep everyone on the same page, Kim says that one of her secrets is not throwing too many changes at the staff at one time. “One change at a time is about what we shoot for,” she says. “For most of our staff, this is just a job – they have other things to do outside of work, so we have to be really clear in our communications.”

“It’s definitely different to manage a sports bar compared to a nightclub,” she says. “Here we have steady business all day long with big crowds around sports events. At a nightclub you have a lot of people in a really short period of time.”

When I met Kim, it was about a week after the new Santa Monica Place opened, which features more stores and restaurants to attract tourists and locals to the Santa Monica Downtown area. “We have definitely noticed additional traffic from the new mall,” says Kim.

I asked Kim whether she has any advice for a restaurant owner who is hiring a GM. “You should definitely look for someone who has experience on the floor – doing everything,” she says. “When it gets really busy in here, I can jump behind the bar and serve as a bartender. You want someone who can not only teach your staff how to do things, but who can also cover when necessary.”

Michael Cigliano – Santa Monica Seafood

August 9, 2010

Michael Cigliano Santa Monica Seafood

Restaurateur Profile: Michael Cigliano

Co-Owner: Santa Monica Seafood

1000 Wilshire Blvd.

Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 4 stars

Interview Date: Friday, August 6, 2010

Michael Cigliano and his four brothers and sister took over Santa Monica Seafood from their two Uncles, and have continued the business as a family affair. Santa Monica Seafood was started by Jack and Frank Deluca in 1939 on the Santa Monica Pier, and then moved to Colorado Street in Santa Monica until last year, when it launched on Wilshire Blvd. with a full-service retail fish counter and café with table service.

“Our Father and other Uncle were in the fish business together in San Pedro,” says Michael. “So we grew up in this industry, and when our uncles were ready to retire in 1981, our father bought the business for us to run.”

Santa Monica Seafood“It wasn’t really my intention to get into the family business – I wanted to be a firefighter or in the military,” says Michael. “But after college I came to work here – I started behind the counter and eventually got into sales.” Ever since, Michael has worked alongside his siblings to grow Santa Monica Seafood into the largest seafood distributor in the Southwest.

“90% of our business is wholesale,” says Michael. “But when we got the opportunity to move to this store we saw the chance to finally give our customers what they wanted – a restaurant.” In fact, Santa Monica Seafood was somewhat forced into opening the restaurant portion of their Wilshire operation because the space had a conditional use permit that the landlord didn’t want to lose. The only way to keep it alive was to open the café, which customers had been begging for.

“We envisioned a little oyster bar with self-service, casual dining,” says Michael. “But we tried that during the mock opening and the flow just didn’t work. We went to full-service – it happened overnight from one mock-up to the next.” Moving from the wholesale and retail counter service into full-service restaurant business wasn’t too much of a leap for the siblings. “We didn’t have any experience running a café, but we have a lot of experience running a business,” says Michael. “Some of our employees had restaurant experience, and we relied on them to help us all.”

In addition to the Santa Monica location, Santa Monica Seafood also operates in Costa Mesa, and they plan to expand that location to include a café with similar features as the one in Santa Monica.

To manage the business, the siblings get together twice per year for shareholder meetings with their Board of Directors and Advisors. In addition to his own two children, who are still too young to work in the business, Michael has six nephews and one niece, two of whom have already begun to make inroads at Santa Monica Seafood – one in purchasing and one in the oyster bar.

“Running a restaurant is like any business,” says Michael. “If you have good employees, a good product and good training, you can succeed.” The numbers in the restaurant are proving that concept – they have increased month over month and customers report being very satisfied. “We keep the menu simple, and keep the quality of our product center-stage,” says Michael. “We work in a little bit of our Italian heritage, but keep things really pure.”

The hardest part of running the restaurant business, says Michael, is the staffing. “The restaurant requires much more staff than the wholesale and retail businesses,” he says. “We have a great team, but we didn’t realize until we got into it just how many people it takes to run a restaurant.”

Michael says the company doesn’t have any immediate plans to expand into additional restaurant locations. “Our core business is food service distribution,” he says. “The stores offer some great branding opportunities, and we love having them in the family, but I don’t see us building any more in the near future.”

Stephen Abronson – Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar

August 9, 2010

Stephen Abronson Pourtal Wine Tasting BarRestaurateur Profile: Stephen Abronson

Owner: Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar

104 Santa Monica Blvd

Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Stephen Abronson, owner of Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar, was in the film industry before making the leap to become a restaurant entrepreneur. In the late 1990s, while pursuing his Masters in Film, he was always looking for good places to go to write. “I wondered why there wasn’t anywhere that I could go to write that served wine – the coffee shops obviously didn’t serve wine, and the restaurants weren’t really open to having you go there to work on your laptop,” he says. “And that was really the beginning of Pourtal – though I didn’t know it at the time.”

He worked in film development for several years. “The industry was – and is – going through a transition, and I decided that I wanted to go into a different direction altogether,” says Stephen. “It just became too hard to do the projects that I really wanted to do.” So in 2005, Stephen decided to open his own casual wine bar where he imagined he would have been able to go with his laptop and enjoy a glass of wine.

Pourtal Wine Tasting Bar Santa Monica“I started researching wine bars and found out about the machines available,” says Stephen. “My vision was to provide a light form of edutainment – a place where you can come to learn about wine and drink wine in a casual, comfortable and fun way. It took about 2 years to find the right location. “I looked around Los Angeles and considered Culver City and West LA,” says Stephen. “But I really wanted to be in Santa Monica since I live here and it’s great not to have a commute.”

The City of Santa Monica clearly preferred that the business be located downtown by the Promenade, so Stephen focused on that area. “The landlords made it hard – they were skeptical about whether I could get a permit but were inflexible about creating an agreement that would allow me to get out of the lease if I was unable to get the permit,” says Stephen. “I spent a lot of time walking around and calling every landlord in town I finally found this place, where the landlord was more flexible.”

After about a year of permitting and construction, Pourtal opened on April 29, 2009. Before opening, Stephen churned through four chefs before finding Chef Sean Takaki right before the door opened. In the beginning it had a very limited food menu, but that changed quickly. “We noticed that our guests really wanted more food to go with their wine,” says Stephen. “We have been experimenting in the last few months and the food has become more integral to our operation.” This can be a challenge given that the kitchen was not designed for heavy preparation work. “We’re adjusting to fit the needs and are figuring out the best way to increase our menu by increasing efficiency.”

The best part of owning a restaurant and bar, says Stephen, is that “even though it took a long time and was hard, we did it. In this economy, every day that we’re open is an accomplishment.” Beyond just being grateful for every day of operation, Stephen has found the overall experience very rewarding. “It’s a lot of work, and can be very stressful and require a lot of hours,” says Stephen. “But it is also very rewarding – you pour so much of your heart into creating the right concept, and it’s great to see it in action.”

“It’s a challenge to maintain the combination of high-quality with a casual atmosphere,” says Stephen. “I think we are still trying to set our guests’ expectations. It’s really about finding the right employees to convey the concept of the bar.” In addition to setting expectations, the staff also needs to be able to educate guests about how to order and operate the wine tasting machines, which offer a broad selection of wine by the ounce. Because some people are looking for a simpler experience, they can also order wine by the glass. “We’re trying to teach people a new concept,” says Stephen. The Italian-made machines not only serve wine by the ounce, they also preserve the wine so that Pourtal can offer wine by the glass that normally wouldn’t be available.

To promote the restaurant and bar, Stephen has made the patio section “dog friendly” and on Wednesday nights offers free dog walking services so that people can still circulate inside around the wine tasting machines. “We try to think of all kinds of fun events,” he says.

Mark Gold – Eva Restaurant Los Angeles

July 30, 2010

Marc Gold Eva Restaurant Los AngelesRestaurateur Profile: Mark Gold

Owner: Eva Restaurant

7458 Beverly Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90036

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Monday, July 26, 2010

Mark Gold, owner of Eva Restaurant, grew up in Los Angeles and got his first restaurant job at 16 – working as a busboy at Geoffrey’s in Malibu. He also started early as a restaurant entrepreneur, cooking bagel burgers for everyone on the block.

From Geoffrey’s he began a career in restaurants. He worked at Cutters in Santa Monica, where he was hired to make pasta. Next he interviewed at Trump’s, but they said they wanted someone with more experience. A few weeks later Trump’s called him back – another employee had just quit and they needed Marc to start making pastries immediately.

“We were doing tea service – I was supposed to cut the crusts off the bread, but I couldn’t even do that straight!” says Marc. After mastering the skills he needed for Trump’s Marc worked at a few other restaurants before deciding that he should go to school. “I figured that I should go to school if I wanted to make a career out of cooking,” he says.

Mark attended the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, and then returned to Los Angeles as a Chef in 1989. He worked at Patina for 2 years, and then moved up to the Bay Area, then back to Vermont, where he married and opened a small restaurant with his wife and another couple. “I was young and cocky,” admits Mark. “I was still working to find my style. I was pretty tough to work with, and the situation got complicated, so one day I took the dog and moved back to LA.”

Mark took a job as sous chef at Loews Santa Monica, where he learned what it was like to work for a hotel. “There are unions and a lot of rules, and not a lot of passion,” he says. “It was really difficult when they brought me on as manager over guys who had been there for years. I was trying to be cutting edge within the hotel culture, which was hard.”

Eva Restaurant Los AngelesHe took jobs at the Water Grill and iCugini, promising on his resume that he had “phenomenal cooking skills,” which surprised his prospective employers. “They said ‘show us!’ and I always could – it was true!”

Mark was offered a role in opening a new restaurant at the Century Plaza Hotel. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I took it.” He hadn’t forgotten his previous experience with hotels, though, so he clarified that this experience would be better. Of course, though, it was still a union hotel and Mark left soon after the restaurant opened.

His next challenge awaited: Chef Joachim Splichal asked him to take Café Pinot to the next level. He brought Café Pinot’s reputation from a theatre restaurant to a destination restaurant, and it became the highest-profit restaurant in the Patina Group. “It was a huge turnaround,” says Mark. After a year off, he took another challenge from Joachim and worked at Café Rouge in Orange County. After six months, he left to pursue consulting and begin working on his own vision.

In September 2009 he opened Eva Restaurant, set in a bungalow on Beverly Blvd. “It’s a small, intimate space with a great location,” says Mark. Of course, there are usually challenges involved in opening a restaurant, and this location has proven challenging in the areas of plumbing, permits and parking. The most important thing for Marc is to keep his creativity flowing so that he can run a tight ship and deal with the challenges of being a restaurant entrepreneur. To handle slow mid-week nights, he developed “Beer and Bird” night – serving fried chicken and keg beers. Revenues have increased dramatically on those nights as a result. He also offers a fixed 5-course dinner party that includes wine on Sundays.

The best part of being a restaurant entrepreneur, says Mark, is the freedom. “It’s not that I have lots of free time, but I can make the decisions about when to open, when to close, what to serve, and how to serve it,” he says. He also values his flexibility and the opportunity to be creative.

Nguyen Tran & Thi Tran – Starry Kitchen Downtown LA

July 30, 2010

Nguyen Tran and Thi Tran Starry Kitchen Downtown LARestaurateur Profile: Nguyen Tran & Thi Tran

Co-Owner: Starry Kitchen

350 S. Grand Ave.

Los Angeles, CA 90071

Yelp: 4 stars

Interview Date: Monday, July 26, 2010

A year ago, when Nguyen’s wife Thi was laid off from her job in advertising, Nguyen encouraged her to follow her cooking passion. But this isn’t your typical husband – he didn’t suggest that she go to cooking school or find a job … “I said, let’s open an illegal restaurant in our apartment!”

And so begins the highly unusual story of Starry Kitchen.

“Thi had been updating her Facebook profile with photos of different dishes she had cooked for several months, so people were already thinking of her as a chef,” says Nguyen, a film producer. “When she updated her status to let people know that she had been laid off, she got 27 replies, all telling her to cook – to get a food truck or something. She thought we were all crazy, but I told her ‘Everyone in the whole world knows that you love to cook except for you!’”

At the time, food trucks were hitting it big, led by Kogi. Nguyen and Thi agreed that Vietnamese food paired even better with Mexican food, and began thinking about developing a food truck based on Pan Asian comfort foods. “For three weeks we played with everything we could think of, and then I said – let’s start it – why not?” says Nguyen. “We opened our illegal restaurant in our apartment on Sundays for lunch, offering one dish per day and asking for a $5 donation.”

Starry Kitchen Downtown Los AngelesWithin a few weeks, friends and neighbors had spread the word. The service on Sundays increased from 25 people to 75 people, and then Nguyen and Thi added dinner on Wednesdays. “Once people came in, they liked it, they brought in more people, and the buzz just grew,” says Nguyen. “We had Yelp reviews about our apartment. In fact, we were the No. 1 rated Asian restaurant on Yelp, and No. 2 was a five-star restaurant! It was amazing!”

“Eventually the health department found us,” says Nguyen. “Although we were technically a dinner party with donations, they shut us down, and I told my wife it was the best thing that ever happened to us.”

The timing worked out – a friend had been operating a struggling sushi restaurant in the Grand Plaza. “We had been thinking of doing a truck, but at the time the rent for this space was the same as rent for a truck because at the time everyone wanted a truck,” says Nguyen.  “We did some test runs on Saturdays to see if we wanted to do this, and we really liked it.” They took over the lease in mid-January and opened February 16, 2010.

Some financing was gathered from friends and family, but there weren’t many startup costs. “The only thing we changed is the paint and the stickers (signs),” says Nguyen. He put his film career on hiatus and took over as “marketing” for Starry Kitchen, while Thi is Executive Chef. They are both on-site every day, and seem to love what they are doing. The day that I visited, Nguyen wore a sandwich board sign to promote some of the specials and had a conversation with every single customer who walked in the door.  The menu is simple and changes constantly. It all falls under the general heading of Pan Asian cuisine and is priced under $10.

Without a doubt, Nguyen says that the best part of owning a restaurant is the customers. “I’m a very intense personality – I know that. Whatever I do, I figure out how to make my personality work for us, and so far it’s working here!”

Nguyen and Thi are planning to expand Starry Kitchen, especially since the work has actually been easier and more enjoyable than they expected. “I thought we would be working a lot harder for a lot fewer customers,” says Nguyen. “But we have had such a great response, our timing is great, and our sub-$10 price point for fresh food means that people are willing to taste it, and then when they taste it, they love it and come back for more!”

Emanuele Massimini – Sugarfish by Sushi Nozawa

July 24, 2010

Emanuele Massimini Sugarfish Sushi NozawaRestaurateur Profile: Emanuele Massimini

Co-Owner: Sugarfish by Sushi Nozawa

11640 San Vicente Blvd

Brentwood, CA 90049

Yelp: 4 stars

Interview Date: Monday, July 19, 2010

Emanuele “Lele” Massimini is originally from Rome, and began working in restaurants when he was 13 years old, washing dishes. He has been in the restaurant business ever since, and he and friend Jerry Greenberg, the founder of Sapient, were frequent diners at Nozawa. Chef Kazunori Nozawa is known as the “Sushi Nazi” in some circles, and he is known for his “Trust Me” slogan that exposes guests to what Chef Nozawa says is the traditional art of sushi.

Lele says that one day Chef Nozawa approached Jerry and him about a new idea he had for serving the same high-quality sushi served at Nozawa for half the price. It was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up, so, with the addition of a fourth partner, Sugarfish by Nozawa began development. “Nozawa is the president of the company and is 100% in charge of everything that you eat and the menu,” says Lele. His son, Tom Nozawa, serves as Chef Nozawa’s eyes and ears in the kitchen, while Lele manages the front of the house.

“Nozawa is always the first guy at the fish market – he wakes at 4:30 a.m. each day and spends 2-3 hours at the fish market selecting the best fish available,” says Lele. “His ability to always pick the best fish is incredible. He is so admired, and it is very stimulating to work with someone who you look up to.” According to Lele, after selecting the fish, Chef Nozawa prepares it for his restaurants and then takes a catnap in his chair before the lunch rush. Another catnap before the dinner rush, and he’s ready to go. From the sounds of it, he sleeps just a few hours at night.

“He puts so much of his soul into this food,” says Lele. “Eating is a sacred moment for him.”

Sugarfish SushiAs for Lele, he maintains what he calls a “normal restaurant schedule.” He manages all service and front-of-house operations at both Sugarfish locations. Lele says that Tom, who has worked in his father’s restaurants since childhood, makes sure that the food served at Sugarfish meets his dad’s high standards. For example, most sushi restaurants create sushi rice in large batches a few times a day. Chef Nozawa believes that sushi rice should be loosely packed and fresh, so the rice at his restaurants are cooked in small batches and discarded after 20 minutes. “The health inspectors are always blown away by that,” says Lele. “Old rice is usually the first mark against other sushi restaurants.”

Chef Nozawa’s high standards require some explanation for guests who are used to American sushi, which has quickly grown from an exotic food to something that you can find in the refrigerated section at your supermarket, 7-11, and even at some gas stations. For example, the rice is lightly packed, which makes it hard for some people to pick it up with chopsticks.

The menu is based on Chef Nozawa’s interpretation of the Japanese tradition of omakase, in which the master chef determines the menu. There are no caterpillar rolls or anything else that strays from the simple combination of fish, rice and seaweed. “Our concept is bringing high-quality sushi at a price that is more affordable,” says Lele. The team accomplishes this task through a combination of elements, including labor and real estate.

Sugarfish was first opened in Marina del Rey in June of 2008. “The economy happened while we were in construction,” says Lele. “But we moved ahead and consistently increased our revenues from Day 1.”

Lele also says they learned a lot in the first eight months of operating. “We had a lot of rules before,” says Lele. “Fish is a high-priced ingredient, and so we required people to order the ‘Trust Me’ menu so that we could control inventory and control the price point. Then we learned how to keep control without requiring our guests to order the ‘Trust Me’ menu.”

The Brentwood location was opened in June 2009 and both restaurants now offer both a ‘Trust Me’ menu and a la carte options. The team is working on another location this Fall, followed by a fourth in the Winter. “We have to make sure that with each expansion we can ensure the same high-quality fish supply,” says Lele. He says that the farthest they are considering for expansion is San Francisco because it would mean a short 1 hour flight for either himself or Tom to fly up for support.

Gail Silverton and Joel Gutman – Gelato Bar and Espresso Caffe

July 20, 2010

Gail Silverton and Joel Gutman Gelato Bar and Espresso CaffeRestaurateur Profile: Gail Silverton and Joel Gutman

Owners: Gelato Bar and Espresso Caffe

4342 ½ Tujunga Ave

Studio City, CA 91604

Yelp: 4.5 stars

Interview Date: Friday, July 16, 2010

Although I grew up in Los Angeles and have spent a good deal of time in Studio City, I had never before been on the short block of Tujunga Avenue that takes you back in time to a simpler, friendlier small town. Gelato Bar and Espresso Caffe is a fixture on the street of mainly husband-wife business partnerships, and it was full of neighborhood friends meeting and working over gelato, espresso and Panini.

Gail Silverton is the founder of The Neighborhood School, a well-known nursery school in the Valley. “I was operating three schools, and I love it,” says Gail. “It is a very intense business – the parents and the health and safety concerns are very serious, so I was looking for a business that was lighter … something that felt less serious. As long as we don’t poison anyone, we’re OK serving gelato.”

As she searched for the perfect location that would provide her with the sense of community that she loved about her schools, the location on Tujunga Ave. opened up and she jumped on it. “The building came available and I signed the lease – I didn’t know what it would be yet,” she says. Gail and her sister, Nancy Silverton of Mozza and La Brea Bakery, travel to Italy annually and have a deep love of the culture, so when she saw the space, she naturally gravitated to an Italian fixture: gelato and espresso.

The café opened in September 2006, right around the time that Gail met Joel Gutman. In 2007 they were married, and in February 2007 he quit his 23-year career in the advertising business to join Gail in the café business. “We were both looking for a simpler life,” says Joel. “We were paring down as we got older. I thought to myself – if money was no object, would I be sitting at a desk all day?” The answer was clearly “no.”

gelato bar and espresso caffe studio cityThe two were planning to work in the business only occasionally, but their savings were wiped out by Bernie Madoff, bringing them deeply into the day-to-day operations. “Instead of 20 hours per week, we are working 40 hours or more,” says Joel. “But we still go to Italy every year, and are working on tasting every gelato and coffee in the country,” says Gail.

When Gail and Joel added espresso to the menu they undertook it as a learning opportunity and have fully immersed themselves in the coffee business. “Coffee is a moving target and a great challenge,” says Joel. “It is a great challenge not only to learn how to buy and make it correctly, but also to educate our customers about how espresso fits naturally with gelato – as it does in Italy.”

The best part of owning the Gelato Bar and Espresso Caffe are comments like “Oh my god, this reminds me of Italy,” says Gail. “Also, we are seeing that people are becoming entwined through the café. They come here every day and get to know each other, and that’s what I really wanted – a community. We survive on about 100 customers who come in twice a day – for coffee in the morning and gelato in the afternoon, with a Panini here and there. Many of the people who come here have gotten to know each other.”

Gail sold two of her schools and has maintained one with 80 students. “I love my school, and I love this, too,” she says. “Scaling the school down was necessary so that I could do both.” Gail and Joel recently opened a second location in Los Feliz, but that location is more hands-off. “We have a great store manager – a friend of mine,” says Gail. “So we basically set up the store and trust her to run it.” As for additional locations, Gail says that they are always on the lookout, but that it really depends on finding the right community-driven location and service-oriented people to help them grow.

These factors are critical because there is something sweet about their lifestyle now. “We live two minutes from here,” says Gail. “And the customers love knowing the owners and knowing that we will do almost anything for them.” For example, one day Joel personally delivered 20 small gelato cups to a child’s birthday party on his way home one afternoon. “We can do that because we’re the owners,” says Joel. “It’s an amazing feeling to be able to say ‘yes’ to almost any crazy idea, and people really love it.”

Jean Francois Meteigner – La Cachette Bistro

July 16, 2010

Jean Francois Meteigner La Cachette BistroRestaurateur Profile: Jean Francois Meteigner

Owner: La Cachette Bistro

1733 Ocean Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Yelp: 3.5 stars

Interview Date: Monday, July 12, 2010

Jean Francois Meteigner, owner of La Cachette Bistro, was born and raised in France, and he remembers making and selling crepes with a friend that they proceeded to sell to their classmates. Of course – they ate many of the crepes themselves, too!

Jean Francois’ first apprenticeship was at the age of 15, when he worked at a high-end restaurant called Trois Gros. For three years he worked at all of the kitchen stations and learned his craft. “One day a week we would go to cooking school,” he says. “We would go to school in the morning, go back to the restaurant to help with the lunch rush, go back to school and then back to the restaurant for the dinner rush.”

Following that, he went to Bordeaux, where he worked at Le Chapon Fin restaurant for one year, went to the army for one year, and then returned to Le Chapon Fin for another six months before moving on to Paris. In Paris, Jean Francois worked at Le Chiberta, focusing mainly on appetizers and desserts. Then he went to L’ Archestrade – a three-star restaurant run by Chef Alain Sendereus. For a year he worked at the dessert, fish and meat stations.

La Cachette Bistro Santa MonicaJean Francois left France for Los Angeles in 1980 and soon found work at L’ Orangerie, which is no longer open. He started as a cook and became an Executive Chef at the age of 26 years old. After 10 years at L’ Orangerie, Jean Francois opened Cicada with a partners. After two years, Jean Francois sold his shares and moved on to become a consultant with the Bel Age Hotel.

In 1994, Jean Francois opened the first La Cachette on Little Santa Monica in Century City. “We opened in the middle of a recession – I seem to have a tendency to do that,” he says. “I opened it as a bistro – high-volume, affordable food. As the concept developed, however, it evolved into a more upscale restaurant. Every year we upgraded something to make it higher quality.”

In 2008, Jean Francois began working on opening a second La Cachette in Santa Monica, but meanwhile renovations on Beverly Glen Blvd. made it increasingly difficult for guests to access the Century City location. “They basically locked up access to the restaurant,” he says.

After serious consideration, Jean Francois decided to close the original location and move everything to Santa Monica. The new location opened August 28, 2009.

Sixty percent of the menu at La Cachette is French, and all of it is prepared using French techniques, but there is definitely an international approach to food, including some sashimi and specials like beef chilli.

“I was never too French,” says Jean Francois. “My grandfather was from Naples, and I cook a lot of Italian food, along with Californian and Asian … a blend of different styles. The truth is that I’m not that French anymore – I’m more American than French, and I don’t want to be stuck with just one style of food.” Everything for the restaurant is cooked on-site, including the smoked fish, desserts, fruit purees and breads (except for the table bread).

“Everything is fresh,” says Jean Francois. “I go to the farmers market every Wednesday and Saturday and make sure that I get the freshest, best ingredients. I incorporate as many California seasonal ingredients as possible and try to stay green.”

Jean Francois says that he thought the transition from one location to the second would be easier, but he feels he is still getting used to the new space and clientele. The best part of the new location is the more functional kitchen, a newer building, outside seating and nice air quality. As for the hardest part: “The stress of the economy,” he says. “I don’t think it’s about how much I’m working or how great our food is right now – it’s about the economy. One week it’s busy, the next it’s slow. The restaurant business in a recession is hell – you have to watch every single penny.” To boost the restaurant’s visibility, La Cachette engages in lots of marketing. “We do everything – promotions, special events, blogs, Twitter – you name it, we do it,” he says.

And for all of the stress that Jean Francois openly discussed (which I appreciated since most people don’t go into that during these interviews), he is obviously very happy being a restaurant owner. “I’m good at it – it is hard work, but I love it,” he says.