|Chef Partners: Sharing Responsibility in the Kitchen
Today more than ever the world of the kitchen—beyond the food—is one of strong personalities, conflict, and aspirations for celebrity. And while a good kitchen relies on teamwork, at the end of the day the executive chef still reigns supreme. But the chef-partners at Seattle’s Spur and Tavern Law, Los Angeles’ Animal and Costa Mesa’s Pizzeria Ortica have put their egos to the side in order to share the spotlight, the responsibility, and the title. By giving up that little bit of control, these chefs have found that they actually have more freedom and—more importantly—better restaurants than if they would have gone solo.
Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook met at the The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and have been working together ever since. They had a catering business, cookbook, and television show all before they opened their first restaurant. With years of experience together under their belts—they even shared a cell phone at one point—the dynamic duo has entered into the world of restaurant ownership and chef partnership with Animal in Los Angeles. The restaurant is completely representative of Dotolo and Shook’s cooking style and philosophy: no frills, unexpected food served in a laid back environment. And their working relationship has done nothing if not improve.
While they no longer live together, the two still work exactly in sync, and continue to run their catering business to boot. When Animal first started out they each leaned towards their strengths, so Dotolo managed the business and did the pastry while Shook had the creative flare and worked the hot stations. As time has progressed they’ve set up an impressive system in which they can each perform every function in the kitchen and are completely interchangeable. “We try to have everybody here trained to work all the stations,” explains Shook. That means if someone is out anyone can sub in, whether it’s a cook or a dishwasher. It also means that Dotolo and Shook can take vacations and Animal keeps on chugging. Even when Dotolo took a three-week honeymoon, service at the restaurant was uninterrupted.
In Seattle, Brian McCracken and Dana Tough don’t go as far back as Dotolo and Shook, but after working together under Chef Maria Hines at Earth and Ocean the two found they had a mutual respect for one another and a common vision for a restaurant concept. When McCracken came across an ideal space for the gastropub they had imagined, he immediately called Tough and Spur was born. For the young chef-partners the creative process is often spontaneous and one of collaboration and brainstorming; one will come up with an idea and they’ll toss it back and forth, tweaking it until it’s just right. The formula has worked—McCracken and Tough recently opened their second collaborative project, Tavern Law.
Since McCracken and Tough work so closely together (they call themselves a “two-headed monster”), the biggest challenge comes from communicating when the other isn’t right there. But they’ve worked out a system to avoid any problems: they spend the first half of the day together at the office to go over paperwork, menus, and developments, then for service they split up and each go to one of the restaurants to work the line. McCracken and Tough alternate their schedules each week so switch which restaurant they are at and what tasks they are doing. They split up duties like inventory and ordering and also rely on their lead and sous chefs to take on some of that responsibility. “Really,” says Tough, “both of our heads are in the game and on top of everything.” While they agree that sometimes decisions can take longer because there are two of them ultimately it’s worth it because “we always come up with a better idea between the two of us, even on little decisions,” explains McCracken. And considering that they’ve opened their second restaurant in two years—in an economic recession, no less—they must be doing something right.
At Costa Mesa’s Pizzeria Ortica, Chefs Zachary Pollack and Stephan Samson worked together first with Chef Neal Fraser opening BLD and later with Chef David Myers at Sona. Samson recognized great potential in the younger Pollack and promised him a junior sous chef position in the pizzeria he and Myers were planning. But after working side-by-side for seven months the two progressed from mentor-protégé to equals, and Samson found a partner in Pollack. “It was serendipity,” explains Samson. “I had a feeling about him and it ended up working out really well.”
Pollack and Samson didn’t start out with a plan on how to divide the workload, but things naturally fell into place based on their strengths. “Zach's a great writer,” says Samson, “so he usually deals with menu descriptions, responding to e-mails, writing bios, etc. I focus more on personnel and purveyor issues.” And their menu planning is an organic, collaborative process where they each test out ideas and play until they get the final product they want.
For Samson and Pollack the pros of having a partner in the kitchen far outweigh any cons. Although some problems do arise they are rare and the pair has addressed any issues quickly and honestly. And in the end working together means that at least one of them is always in the kitchen. Samson says that “Quality control is much easier when one of us, and more commonly both of us, is always there.”
Teamwork isn’t for everyone—some kitchens aren’t big enough for two egos. Many chefs have a singular vision and work best executing it alone or with a business partner. Or, as Samson says, “I suspect a partnership would be difficult if personalities and opinions clashed, or if one person is more present than the other.” But for those who are willing and able to take the plunge and share the labor, it can be a fruitful relationship. As long as both parties have a common vision, distribute the workload, and get along it can be the start of a positive partnership. With the appropriate systems in place, giving up that initial bit of autonomy to share the title can lead to more freedom to innovate, expand, and have a life outside the kitchen.