Couples in Cuisine

Photos and text by JANIE OSBORNE

Combine one happily married couple with the ownership of one restaurant, vigorously mix in menu-writing, food-preparation, bookkeeping, management, marketing, and, voila: you have the recipe for winning restaurants in Montana.

While every marriage entails collaboration (he does the dishes, she pays the bills), couples that succeed in the restaurant business - enterprises that demand multitasking and long hours - must hone their teamwork and communication skills.

This month, Montana Living takes a peek behind the scenes at thriving Montana restaurants that are owned and operated by couples. These restaurants are succeeding not only because of the cuisine they create, but also because of the couples who have created them.

Sweet Pea Cafe & Bakery
Bozeman, Montana

Charlie and Alison Totten, owners of Bozeman's Sweet Pea Cafe and Bakery and parents of two children (Willy, age 7, Lizzie, age 3) laugh when they compare their quaint European-style cafe to a "mom and pop" restaurant.

Since the couple purchased the restaurant in 1998, Alison, has managed the front of the restaurant, the bakery operations, the wedding cake design, catering, public relations, bookkeeping, scheduling, and payroll. "I also take care of a lot of the unglamorous administrative paperwork and financial details," she says.

Charlie is the head dinner chef and bread maker. He oversees all kitchen operations, maintains all restaurant equipment, and ensures that the bakery operations are running smoothly.

Both bring their own talents to the business: In addition to her organization skills and bookkeeping precision, Alison contributes a sense of aesthetics to the cafe, which is evident in the restaurant's decor: colorful wall paintings (the featured works of local artists rotate every two months) and fresh vibrant flowers accent the green and white bistro style floors and black concrete tables. Alison's artistic bent is also evident in the classically elegant wedding cake designs .

Charlie, a graduate of Maryland's L'Academie de Cuisine, designs the lunch and dinner menus with an eye toward innovation and integrates local ingredients whenever possible and calls on only the freshest of in-season ingredients. For Charlie, the process of preparing an entree involves an understanding of how different flavors, textures and colors interact with each other.

At home, the Tottens engage in a similar division of labor with Charlie cooking on his nights off and Alison staying on top of the housework. "But," says Alison, " Maybe one day our kids will do all the cooking and cleaning!"

Info: 406.586.8200

Q Cuisine

Restaurateurs Daniel Roberts and Suzy Schaer operate Q Cuisine, a swanky uptown restaurant in Billings that features American bistro cuisine.

With its high, pressed-tin ceilings, Victorian-era chandeliers and glowing blue Plexiglas wall, Q's atmosphere compliments its innovative menu.

Q Cuisine's owners

At Q, Roberts' and Schaer's collaborative style of management resembles the divide and conquer strategy. Schaer, the general manager, oversees the front of the restaurant, and Daniel, executive chef, manages the kitchen. "We respect one another's work space," says Schaer. "Daniel is in the kitchen and I am out front. We really only see one another except when I help the servers run food during service."

Roberts is responsible for hiring and training the kitchen staff, menu development and implementation. Suzy's responsibilities include overseeing daily operations, hiring and training "front of the house" employees, balancing the books and keeping up with maintenance and building upkeep.

The couple, who were married in April, agree that the key to success at work is relaxation at home.

As for keeping up with their home: "Daniel takes the garbage out," says Suzy. "I usually end up doing the classic cleaning. Daniel tackles the laundry."

So who does the cooking?

"I make a great Sunday brunch," says Schaer. "And Daniel throws together Sunday barbecues - his ribs are too die for!"

Owning a restaurant and working together is ideal for Schaer and Roberts: "It has always been our dream to have a place together. It is hard work but at least we both have a clear understanding of what it means when one of us says, 'I had a long day at work.'"

Info: 406.245.2503

Bugaboo Cafe
Big Sky, Montana

Kim and Paul Cameron, who met and married one year after their first date, epitomize the hard-working restaurant family.

"After the amount of time that we have worked together, there isn't a whole lot of explaining that needs to be done to get the job done. We are both working for and with each other for the same purpose," says Kim.

Restaurant couples work odd hours, doing whatever it takes to make their enterprise a success. The Camerons are no exception. "Considering there isn't a lot of time spent at home, there isn't a whole lot that gets done at home," Kim Cameron said.

The Camerons met at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas, and have worked together in a variety of restaurants for 11 years.

"Our style of cooking has evolved over the years," say Kim, who were executive chefs at Big Sky's Yellowstone Club prior to opening Bugaboo in 2004.

Over the years they adapted their styles to their customers' tastes. "We have found that most people like simple fresh food, like a good grilled cheese sandwich, succulent ribs, or fresh soups ," Kim said. Consequently, at Bugaboo, Kim and Paul serve what they call classic affordable food.

At home, the couple alternates years of chores, with one doing the laundry and one doing the dishes. The next year it switches. As for the rest of the chores at home, Kim says: "We haven't figured out how to train the dogs to do the floors and windows!"

Info: 406.995.3350

Pearl Cafe
Missoula, Montana

Wife and husband team Pearl Cash and Bob Brugh own and operate Pearl Cafe, an elegant fine dining establishment in downtown Missoula.

With 22 years of restaurant experience under her belt, Chef Pearl is at the helm of the business, while Bob (who refers to himself as "busser/owner") manages the front of the house, working to "keep customers smiling."

Prior to the couple's ownership of Pearl Cafe, Cash owned d'Auria in Victo r, La Chanterelle in Missoula and the Alley Cat Grill in Missoula.

At Pearl Cafe, Cash plans the menu and works with the kitchen staff to develop and execute recipes. "I also contribute to the front of the house," she says. "In this restaurant, I wanted to be able to fully enjoy my customers; some have been coming to my restaurants since 1975."

It's hard for Pearl to classify the type of food she serves. While the cafe's atmosphere has a French feel, she says, "The food is so much more."

"I'm not trendy," says Cash. "But I make use of all of the interesting foods that are out there."

The couple has been married 17 years. They met when Cash was looking for a venue for la Chanterelle. Bob's real estate company, Neighborhoods by Design, helped find the location.

While they concede that the restaurant business is a "very difficult, time-consuming business," they share a customer-centered philosophy. What sustains them and what they enjoy most is their customers: "I do it because I enjoy seeing happy people sitting at their tables enjoying their food and wine," Cash says.

Info: 406.541.0231

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