A Woman in the Kitchen, Part 2

The Kitchen entrepreneurs profiled on these pages followed their passion for food into business. Some cater, others bought an existing restaurant, a few are no longer owners. Several carry on a family business. They share an enduring love of food and a highly developed ability to collaborate. Here are their stories.

Wendy Lee, Matahari

“Our food at Matahari isn’t typical Chinese food — it’s a mixture of Asian regional flavours and textures.” From left: Wendy, Annie, Sherrill.

Have engineering degree and MBA, will open a restaurant. Wendy Lee’s journey to restaurant proprietor includes coming to Canada to study, then opening a restaurant with her sisters.

“I got married!” says Wendy Lee, when I asked her where she was over the holidays. “To a high school classmate in Brunei who now lives in Korea. We reconnected in 2010. My husband started a manufacturing business three years ago, so for a while we’ll have a long-distance marriage.

“After six years in school (U of A, Mechanical Engineering, Western MBA), I thought I’d visit with family for a while before looking for another engineering job. My sister Sherrill worked for a company that was closing as the owners were retiring, and my other sister Annie had been a hairdresser for 20 years, but her passion was food not hair.

“Food was our passion. We all love cooking, we all want our own business, why don’t we open a restaurant? It was a pivotal time — we understood that. If we hadn’t made this business together we’d be all over — this keeps us together as a family.

“We started looking for a space and a year later, opened Matahari.

“Our food at Matahari isn’t typical Chinese food; it’s a mixture of Asian regional flavours and textures — Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia. My favourite dish on the menu is the shaking beef; I love the fresh, citrusy taste. My mother is Malaysian, but we grew up in Brunei and that’s where she taught us to cook. Annie runs the kitchen. I take care of front of house and Sherrill is mostly kitchen, but helps out front of house especially when I’m away.

“There is a community of Chinese from Brunei who started to come here in the late 1980s. I came to study, my sister, and then the rest of the family, immigrated.

“Family business? We’re together all the time! Perhaps there’s a trade off in privacy and we have minor disagreements but we agree on the big things and that’s what counts.”

Mandy Quon, The Lingnan

Mandy Quon, The Lingnan: “Everyone we date ends up working at the restaurant; otherwise when would we see them?” From left: Amy (mom), Mandy.

The Lingnan became known across Canada with the TV series Family Restaurant. The women in the family business are front and centre, at least from a customer’s perspective.

“My mom and I don’t do any cooking. My mom is the entertainer and I do all the work. But my mom does run Chicken for Lunch, Monday to Friday. She started it when I was in grade three; everybody said don’t buy it, but look how well it’s done. I work in sales at Fairmont responsible for the mountain region. We’re both at the Lingnan only on the weekends. That’s when it’s busiest because everyone wants to come when my mom is working.

“Anaid Productions asked us to do a demo, then we filmed for a year three, four times per week. It’s been really good for business, which is up at least 30 per cent. People had forgotten about Lingnan. We’re in the third season now and there is the Quon Dynasty spinoff. That’s been really good, not only for business but for my dad, it brought out his personality. He’s extremely private but enjoys people more now, and he’s a better communicator.

“My brother Miles really looks after the restaurant — he’ll be carrying on after my dad. Marty has a job outside the restaurant as well. But everyone we date ends up working at the restaurant; otherwise when would we see them?

“I’m a little bit of a shopaholic. When I have two hours to spare, I go shopping, it’s relaxing. But I’m not as bad as my mom. She has so many clothes her closet fell over — she still had clothes from the 80s — jumpsuits.”

Michelle DeLand, caterer Extraordinary Food

Michelle De Land, caterer Extraordinary Food: “Make food people want to eat.”

Many Edmontonians still mourn the demise of River City Grill, Michelle’s Crestwood area restaurant that closed in 1999 to make way for Crestwood Centre.

“I took a break from cooking,” says Michelle. “For about five years.

“I had been a private chef for a family, catered, did dinners and weddings. Extraordinary Food is an extension of that.

“My mentor is Madeleine Kamman. She taught a course at Tante Marie in San Fransisco. At the end of the course we had to create a menu in order to graduate. Students were doing a lot of different things and I was worried my menu might be too plain Jane. She said: ‘Your menu, I want to eat.’ I’ve never forgotten that — make food people want to eat.

“Peter Jackson is also a mentor. I cooked at Jack’s Grill in the beginning and went back recently to help with training and the transition to the new owners. The kids at Jacks are crazy for food. There’s something about these kids — they are amazing, they give me hope.

“The body is not able to do what it used to do. I’ve never been a clipboard chef, but then I’ve always been in pretty much boutique kitchens working the line. I was happy; I could do 92 covers on Valentine’s Day and still walk the next day. This is not something I want to be doing when I retire. If you’re doing a good job, it’s very physical. Plus there’s all the schlepping.

“This is still an underpaid and overworked profession. The rate of pay for cooks is about $14 an hour when starting out. But it’s important to take the opportunity to work in environments where
you can learn.”

Marianne Brown, caterer, The Butler Did It

Marianne Brown, The Butler Did It “Our clients say, ‘I know you’ll leave me with a spotless kitchen.'”

Marianne’s passion for entertaining led her to expand a cleaning company into a fine catering operation.

“I have a marketing background, but at one point I started a cleaning company. My cleaning clients needed help at their parties to serve, to hang the coats, to wash dishes, to set the table — really, to make them look like Martha — we started saying we’ll mop, shop,
and chop.

“We were planning and styling the parties and hiring the caterers. I found at the time there was a void for caterers who wanted to do small stylish things with restaurant quality food. ‘Want the radishes carved in the shape of a Buddha? Sure, we can do that.’ Of course, now, I understand why no one was doing this sort of thing then, but we didn’t know any better.

After several years of trying to do it all, we are going back to what we do best — what I call diva dinners: small elegant affairs, intimate stuff. Things have changed, more people want our sort of thing.

“I love beautiful food. Every time we do a party we get raves for the food and for the service. It’s very personal. We don’t do cookie cutter affairs and I go to every party. It takes time to do this kind of thing, labour costs are high, and we have lovely people who work hard to make it beautiful. I am a disciple of local, but not all of our clients understand the difference or want to pay for it.

”Our clients can’t or don’t want to do it themselves. They say: ‘I know you’ll leave me with a spotless kitchen — there won’t be toothpicks lying around.’”

Anna Muze, Il Forno Ristorante

Anna Muze, Il Forno Ristorante: “It has to be in your heart — there is nothing else I want to do.”

Pack Rat Louie’s operations manager Anna Muse bought Il Forno from the founder, the larger than life character Ralph Maio. Her challenge? Keep what was good about the restaurant and improve on the rest, all under the watchful eye of a regular clientele who liked things just the way they were.

“I have a business degree. At some point I walked into a restaurant and thought: ‘this is something I’d like.’ I started at Sorrento, then Sorrentino, then Peter Johner’s Pack Rat Louie where I was the operations manager for nine years.

“When Peter sold the restaurant, I agreed to stay on for a year to help with the transition. I hadn’t really thought about what would happen after that.

“One day I was having dinner at Il Forno, chatting with the owner Ralph Maio, who told me he wanted to sell. I didn’t really believe him, but when I told my son he said, ‘Are you serious? Call him!’

“The hardest thing was to establish myself as the new owner and to have our clientele accept me. There was a lot of ‘who the hell are you and why are you here?’ Some of the customers responded well, some didn’t. I do recall one saying ‘this is a good restaurant; don’t screw it up.’ I listened to that.

“I’ve had a lot of fun. Yes, there’s issues. When the economy is good we couldn’t get staff. Thank God for the foreign worker program. Two fellows were able to get permanent residency and they became my everything in the kitchen. When the economy is not so good we had fewer customers and had to put some major renos on hold.

“Pricing is tough. Costs, including our rent, have increased 20 per cent in five years; we pay a cook $18 to cook $10 pasta. We’ve raised our prices only once in three years. Customers sometimes don’t want you to do anything differently. We redid the bathrooms, and several customers asked, ‘Why?’

“We want to be able to do more things in the community. We just had a successful fundraiser for Pilgrim’s Hospice. We’re going to change the menu a bit, with more baked pastas such as lasagna and cannelloni. We hope to redo the ceiling and lighting and make the space a bit more flexible for private dinners and events.

“It has to be in your heart — there is nothing else I want to do.”

Jennifer Ogle, Under the High Wheel

Jennifer Ogle, Under the High Wheel: “You need a certain work ethic to be in this business.”

We’ve loved Jennifer’s food since her days at Blonde in Calgary. Now she embarks on a new venture.

“My background is Acadian French — I grew up in a family that loved good food. I worked at various places in Edmonton, operated a catering company called Jennabeans, then worked at the Cookbook Company in Calgary. Everything changed for me then, working with chefs from all over the world who would come to do cooking classes. But it wasn’t until I did a stage with Lesley Stowe in Vancouver (a Bill Clinton dinner) that I seriously considered cooking school. Gail Norton from the Cookbook Co. and others encouraged me. I received a scholarship to La Varenne. I did a four-month program there, then a stage in a Michelin star restaurant. After that came Blonde, then I traveled in Europe and came back to Edmonton to Organic Roots, and kept my knife skills honed.

“Blake Mckay and I had always talked about opening a place together and the opportunity came at Leva. Antonio Bilotti had moved on so we leased the space. Blake moved to Montreal and when my lease came up I knew I wanted to do some thing else, with the focus more on food, less on coffee.

“Now here we are, Under the High Wheel at Roots on Whyte. Ada Kalinowski is my business partner. We’ll start with old world comfort food, delicious food that nourishes the body and makes taste buds dance.”

Anita Lewis, Café de Ville

Anita Lewis, Cafe de Ville “The banks laughed at us. Imagine, two women wanting to be in the restaurant business.”

Anita carried on a 124 street eatery tradition, brought it into the 21st century and created partners out of staff.

“Jane Pawson-Loblaw and I had worked at Sidetrack, I was the office manager for 12 years; Jane was the front end manager. Michael and Robert were in for drinks one night and said they wanted to sell Café de Ville. They were thrilled we wanted to buy it.

“The banks laughed at us. Imagine, two women wanting to be in the restaurant business. My husband co-signed and Jane’s father gave her the money. That’s how it ended up being Jane, Mark and I on the ownership documents. Jane had some health issues and moved back to Saskatchewan. Mark and I decided we needed to have Paul (our son and the executive chef at the time) and Sal, our manager as partners in the business. A few years ago Tracy our exec chef became a partner too. Now there are five people in ownership and a second location in Sherwood Park. This will provide us with an exit strategy eventually. Right now we’re having fun — both Mark and I work at the Sherwood Park location — but we will want to ease out at some point.

“Ownership is different, you notice everything. I have no regrets.

“Business is up, and our clientele is getting younger which is good as aging clientele was my biggest fear.

“Tracy has great relationships with suppliers — our customers know local is a must for us.”

Selwa Naidoo, Narayanni’s Restaurant

Selwa Naidoo, Narayanni's Restaurant: “There is a lot of love in our food.”

The Naidoo family opened Block 1912 several years ago, introducing a relaxed European coffee house vibe to Whyte Avenue and Selwa’s exuberant flavours to a legion of fans. Their next act, Narayanni’s, allows Selwa’s cooking to take centre stage.

“My mother loved to cook and entertain. I would climb up beside the coal stove and watch while she made a dish. I was always curious, what was the cinnamon stick doing in there? Even now, if I want to know something, I call my 83 year-old mother.

“I use all good ingredients. Not too much oil, no cream, no fat when we make a soup — some salt, some pepper, some thyme, some onion, then all your vegetables. First turmeric, then your home made masala.

“I made all the salads and we had a pastry chef at Block 1912. After 15 years we sold it. We outgrew it. I wanted a restaurant. I found the site, a heritage building on the south side. The restaurant is named after our granddaughter Narainee, also the goodess of wealth.

“Most Indian cooks have been trained for the American market. But we are South African — it’s a mix of white, African and Indian food cultures. We serve European desserts and salads, we have vegan night, we like to mix it up. I blend all my own spices. Our girls Shabathira and Youmashni and their husbands come and help on busy nights.

“Our granddaughter, five going on six, likes to get on a step stool beside me. She’ll say, ‘Don’t think you are cooking the food; I’ll do it.’

“There is a lot of love in our food.”

Amanda Babichuk, D’lish Urban Kitchen and Wine Bar

Amanda Babichuk, D’lish Urban Kitchen and Wine Bar: “Life on 124 street is burgeoning, and I love being part of it.”

Amanda brings superb marketing skills to D’lish. Her ability to capture a trend, then move on when the concept doesn’t work, is helping create a viable food business.

“I had moved from the suburbs to downtown to embrace a more urban lifestyle. I had discovered a place called Simply Supper and in an hour and a half or so, had made enough food for three weeks, and I knew every ingredient that went into it. ‘We need more of these,’ I thought.

“In November 2008 I started a meal assembly kitchen featuring clean, seasonal regional food. Within two years it was obvious that the whole meal replacement segment was not doing well. People thought it was a great idea for allergies but it was seen as a luxury service, not an essential service.

“In spring 2010 I rebranded as D’lish Urban Kitchen and Wine Bar, and continued catering.

“The restaurant business has a steep learning curve. It was painful. I had been a junior person in a corporate environment, now I was the senior person. I had no experience, I needed strong experienced people with me. I had never managed young people. How to motivate? How to inspire? I had a hard time finding the right mix of people.

“We’ve stayed true to our principles of seasonal regional food. We have some great people with fresh perspectives. We have new things going on: we’re going to try alley breakfast out the back door of our kitchen; we’ll be open for lunch again in the spring; and we’ll start serving weekend brunch. Life on 124 street is burgeoning. I love being part of it.”

Zofia Trebaczkiewicz and Julia Kundera, Enjoy Centre

Zofia Trebaczkiewicz (left) and Julia Kundera, Enjoy Centre: “We have a lot of satisfaction and pleasure and freedom to do the things we want. We’re not so tied down with the pressures of running a business.”

From the early days of Café Mosaic, through Two Rooms and then Flavours Modern Bistro, the sisters created oases of flavour on Whyte Avenue — casual spots for breakfast, lunch and dinner that were accessible and delicious. Now, they are instrumental in the evolution of food at the Enjoy Centre.

“Café Mosaics was the first non-smoking restaurant in the city,” says Zofia. “Then we opened Two Rooms Café, the Backroom Vodka Bar, then Flavours. Flavours was a good business with good food but with lease issues, things like that, we got out.

“Julia worked at Planet Organic. I went to work at a library (my other love is books) but food kept calling. Someone told me about the Enjoy Centre.

“We missed producing food. It feels like home here. Julia is the sous chef, and designs the salad bar, also organizes catering. I was still working at the library at first, but helped out with prep part time.

“Our ideas about flavour and serving standards are in sync with the people here. I’ve moved to the bakery — it was missing support and direction. We are involved in an educational process for both counter staff and our customers. What is sourdough? Why are these breads different than those made with conventional yeast? We have four, no, five starters on the go including the one Gabor the baker brought from Hungary.

“Curtis is bringing his knowledge of fine pastry and chocolate. He’s actually building a machine to make chocolates. We’re developing a whole line of gluten free biscuits, breads, a beautiful banana muffin.

“I have a lot of satisfaction and pleasure and freedom to do the things we want to do — not so tied down with the pressures of running a business.

“The sky is the limit here. Catering, totally gluten free catering, healthy options, wholesome foods, with beautiful bursts of flavour, with room for the occasional indulgence.

Lynn Heard, Unheardof

Lynn Heard, Unheardof: “We’ve finally reached the point where I can say ‘I get to do this my way.'”

Lynn started Unheardof with her brother David and his wife Claudia. Now 31 years later, Dave and Lynn show no signs of stopping.

 

“Yes, we started 31 years ago, complete and utter idiocy,” says Lynn Heard.

“Dave was a NAIT culinary graduate, working in motorcycles; he and Claudia had a young family but wanted to do something together in food. We started catering — mainly a weekend thing — eight months later, we were still getting along. Originally we planned to do a large development on 104 Street, 150 seats, with entertainment

“What were we thinking? I look back at the early days and cringe, as the food scene has changed so much. I look at some of the young chefs coming on and I’m in awe of what they’re doing. We’ve introduced new flavours. If someone said 10 years ago you’ll have lentils on the menu, I wouldn’t have believed it.

“The key is to increase sales while controlling costs. Labour is always a big expense. But at the same time, cooks train for two years to make 1/3 of what other trades make. It’s a calling; they do it because they love it.

“My advice to someone just getting started? Be prepared to be married to it for a while, but eventually you find a balance. We’re not open for lunch and we’re not open late.

“I get bored easily — this business is always different and always changing.

“It’s still fun, from March 15 to April 15 we have a bring-a-senior-to-dinner promotion in recognition of my 65th birthday. A highlight was our staff trip to New Zealand last year.”

Cindy Lazarenko

Cindy Lazarenko, one of our favourite kitchen women sold her restaurant Highlands Kitchen and is now taking some time off.


Mary Bailey is the editor of The Tomato food & drink.

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