|Co-Chefs: Keeping the Culinary Romance Alive
by Heather Sperling photos by Antoinette Bruno
It’s Tuesday night, and there are only two cooks in the open, diner-like kitchen at Joule in Seattle. Rachel Yang turns Madagascar prawns on the grill-top, while Seif Chirchi pulls a small Le Creuset pan from the oven and tests the top to see if the black sesame spaetzle mac and cheese is up to temp. The story behind Joule is familiar: it’s a “casual, seasonal American” spot—the brain-child of chefs/owners with a fine dining pedigree who wanted to get out of the big brigade kitchen and do it their own way. The twist is in the plural: two chefs, two owners. Co-chefs.
It’s not a relationship for everyone. Two creative, alpha personalities can diverge, making for a haphazard menu, and, at worst, an unpleasant process of legal extrication. At best (and that’s really what we’re looking at here—it’s Valentine’s Day, after all!), there’s a yin and yang element that makes for a greater whole.
Rachel and Seif fell for each other in the kitchen of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House (NYC). Ducasse was Seif’s first big restaurant job and his only interest was classic French cuisine. Rachel is Korean and has always had a penchant for fusing Asian and French cuisines. Throw Seif’s parents’ Tunisian backgrounds into the mix…and you’ve got a hodgepodge of influences that inform their homey, hearty, funky dishes at Joule. Preserved garlic makes an appearance in cornbread and next to a bison hangar steak, and Southern-style “green bean” casserole gets its green from edamame.
Joule’s owners are married, and the 45-seat restaurant (which employs only one other cook, a dishwasher, and a sparse service staff) is their baby. Rachel takes the lead on menu construction—they like to say that she does the creating and Seif does the executing—but they bounce ideas off each other all the while. For them, the challenge is leaving the restaurant at the restaurant. “We’re co-chefs, co-owners, and we’re married,” says Seif. “You have to be able to separate. We may get on each other’s nerves at work, but as soon as we lock the door, we have to be able to leave it there and say, ‘Hi baby, how are you?’”
In Atlanta, another married couple, Joe Truex and Mihoko Obunai of Repast, split the menu nearly down the middle. Mihoko left Tokyo for culinary school in New York, where Joe spent his formative training working with Daniel Boulud. While Joe has stayed true to his American-French culinary roots, Mihoko has thrown her Japanese background and a certification in macrobiotics into the mix. The result: Repast’s current menu lists an appetizer of tuna-beet tartare with wasabi-tobiko sauce directly above a wild Burgundy escargot tart. It's a mutually beneficial relationship says Joe: "Her style of cooking helps me maintain a sense of balance and simplicity, whereas I believe my style of cooking helps bring out more intensity and bold flavors in her cuisine." The two are co-chefs and co-owners, but they do have a chef de cuisine who handles all ordering and inventory,in part because Truex also runs the restaurant’s wine program, along with juggling GM and pastry chef duties.
Gabriel Frasca and Amanda Lydon of Nantucket’s Straight Wharf met in the kitchen of Chez Henri in Cambridge, Mass. Amanda was a fledgling sous chef when Gabriel joined as a line cook. They traveled across Europe and worked all over Boston before relocating to Nantucket as co-chefs of Straight Wharf and, as of last summer, a sandwich shop called Provisions next door. One perk to working on a small island off the Massachusetts coast is that the restaurant is seasonal (open from mid-April to mid-October) which leaves the rest of the year free for brainstorming, dining out, and leading a relatively normal life. (Although they’re as busy during the off-season as they are during the summer, thanks in part to a young child.)
During the season, the two collaborate on the menus and on hiring, though Gabriel is “the operating brain,” dealing with more of the managerial and business aspects of operations. Amanda likes to focus on cooking, but says Gabriel is first on her speed dial when she needs any kind of help. Creative collaboration starts now, two to three months before the restaurant re-opens in the spring. The couple is chatting with their farmers about summer yields, eating around the island for inspiration, and starting to get menus together. Occasionally they meet up with another Straight Wharf couple, chef de cuisine Mauymi Hattori and her fiancé, who spent last summer working next to each other on the line. “They were cooking right next to each other for an entire hot season. It wasn’t without its tense moments,” says Amanda, “but it worked out just fine.”
Her advice for working with a significant other? Designate separate kingdoms and make sure you have lines of communication that are clear to your staff. “That was the hardest thing in our first season—we would confuse our staff if we had different visions for things.” They knew it would be challenging, but three years later, they say they’ve stuck to their promise to never fight in public, and when in doubt, to put the restaurant first.
For better or worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…co-chefs. Isn’t it romantic?