Umber Ahmad always loved to bake. An MIT-educated child of Pakistani immigrants, she worked as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs before starting her own luxury brand consulting business. One of her clients was Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio; after tasting Ahmad’s cookies, cakes, and brownies, the chef encouraged her to pursue baking, not banking.
He offered her space to bake in his commissary kitchen in New York City while she worked on her business plan. Once Ahmad was ready to take the leap, Colicchio became a partner in her now-highly lauded Mah Ze Dahr bakery, the first in what he intends will be a line of “Tom Colicchio Discovery” brands to open with his investment support. “If someone has a good idea, I’m game,” he says.
Chefs have long invested in restaurants that aren’t their own: Chef David Chang backed his former pastry chef, Christina Tosi, in Milk Bar; Noma co-founder and chef Claus Meyer helped chef Fredrik Berselius open the Michelin-starred Aska in Brooklyn; and Colicchio himself has helped several former employees launch their own projects.
Lately, though, at spots like Chicago’s Pacific Standard Time, LA’s Kismet and Trois Mec, and San Francisco’s Kaya and Besharam, chefs are moving away from silent investing, taking on the more public and financially significant role of operating partner. They’re shouldering the capital investment as well as the restaurant infrastructure — everything from accounting to human resources — giving chefs who might not have the same resources a leg up. It’s a paradigm ripe for replication; one where mentorship crosses over into partnership, and at least in one case, where equity is given a seat at the table.
Pacific Standard Time: Homegrown Talent and a Five-Way Partnership
One of Chicago’s most talked about new restaurants, Pacific Standard Time, is a product of this new funding prototype. PST, which opened in May, is a California-styled restaurant featuring open-hearth cookery that harkens back to the Creole-Chinese foods of chef-partner Erling Wu-Bower’s childhood — dishes like trout with cucumber, zhoug, pepper jelly, pepitas, and cilantro; pita with ahi tuna, green chickpea hummus, urfa, and mint; and chicken marsala with English peas, oyster mushrooms, and charred chimichurri.
Wu-Bower had been nurturing the idea for PST for years while working as chef de cuisine for chef Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality Group, which owns a dozen restaurants including Blackbird, Avec, Publican, and Nico Osteria. Wu-Bower shared his dream with his friend Josh Tilden, strategic director of operations at One Off, and the two began to look for a space of their own. When they found it, they gave notice to chef Paul Kahan and his business partners, Donnie Madia Gianfrancisco and Terry Alexander.
Wu-Bower and Tilden saw their departure as a justified progression of their growth as restaurateurs, and yet they were conflicted. “We had a lot of emotion through that whole process. These are our mentors who we were leaving, and it was super awkward,” recalled Wu-Bower. Kahan and his One Off Hospitality partners were also bereft. “We always encourage growth, but we were shocked when they said they were leaving to do their own thing,” says Alexander.
After two weeks of insomnia, Kahan called Wu-Bower and Tilden with a proposal: What would they think of One Off becoming investors and operational partners in Pacific Standard Time?
“It was a curveball,” recalls Wu-Bower. “We had no idea they were going to suggest partnership, but it was a great idea. We both felt we would be stronger staying together as one.”
While many chefs promote from within and some even offer longtime employees ownership stake, this collaboration between One Off Hospitality and Wu-Bower and Tilden’s newly created company, Underscore Hospitality is different. “What’s unique about the PST deal is that it’s not just promoting someone up through the ranks to become partner; it’s a new project in which all are equal partners,” Alexander explains.
The partnership has proven beneficial for both sides. Wu-Bower and Tilden are in the driver’s seat creatively, but they have a strong capital foundation, and access to existing One Off infrastructure including human resources, accounting, communications, and IT, as well as kitchen space for menu R&D, and access to their partners’ expertise and mentorship. “There is no class you can take to learn what we have learned from them in opening this restaurant,” says Wu-Bower.
“I feel like this model can bring new blood and new ideas into a well-established 20-year-old company,” says Kahan. “It can also help with retention of top talent who can be given a clear path to partnership. It’s exciting.”
The Animal-Fueled Restaurant Revolution
When Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook met in culinary school at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, they quickly learned they would do far better as a team than as individuals. “In our industry, it’s hard to survive as a line cook,” says Dotolo. “Even back then, we leaned on one another and started to support one another.”
The pair went on to open a series of buzzworthy L.A. restaurants: Animal in 2008, Son of a Gun in 2011, and Jon & Vinny’s Italian in 2015. But they soon realized there was more to life than opening their own restaurants: What they really wanted to do was help other talented chefs who might not have the capital or the infrastructure to succeed.
“We began to think about how we could help others achieve their goals and give them a fair deal because there were not a lot of good deals out there for up-and-coming chefs,” says Shook. “We saw that old-school restaurateur model” — that is, cobbling together startup cash from family, friends, and friends-of-friends or selling out to a group of inexperienced but flush investors — “dying in front of us and we felt like this was a good opportunity to help others and diversify the group.”
The pair have since turned collaboration into a thriving culinary enterprise, brokering several partnerships, some with chefs who were not previously their own employees.
Their first partnership was with a French-trained chef who caught their eye at his L.A. pop-up, Ludo Bites.
In 2013, the trio opened Trois Mec, a restaurant that serves a constantly changing five-course tasting menu and takes reservations via a ticketing system. They followed up with with a French bistro, Petit Trois (which earned a James Beard Best New Restaurant nomination in 2015, and now has two locations), and Trois Familia, a neighborhood cafe featuring French, Mexican, and California cooking that serves dishes like beet tartare tostadas, omelettes with French onion soup sauce, and foie gras burgers.
In 2015, Dotolo and Shook partnered with their own beverage director and former director of operations, to open Helen’s Wines, a wine shop, school, and event space located in the back of Jon & Vinny’s.
For Johannesen, who had been toying with the idea of her own wine and event business, their willingness to invest in her was a tremendous boost — financially and personally. “They are great partners,” Johannesen says. “We have the same business ethos and it’s been amazing to have their backing, but with full autonomy and creativity.”
The three became partners in both the all-day restaurant Jon & Vinny’s and the eight-by-ten-foot Helen’s Wine Shop, where bottles are sold for dine-in or takeout. A second Jon & Vinny’s/Helen’s Wine Shop will open in LA’s Brentwood neighborhood this fall.
Shook and Dotolo more recently partnered with chefs Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson to open Kismet, another all-day restaurant with a focus on Middle Eastern flavors. The two met in person when Kramer moved to LA, while she and Hymanson opened Madcapra Falafel in Grand Central Market, located in LA’s thriving downtown. As they had done with Lefebvre, Dotolo and Shook invited the duo to do a guest-chef stint at Animal. “We loved them and their composure in the kitchen,” says Dotolo. “We kept the conversation going and made it clear that if they wanted to do a full-service restaurant, we wanted to give them the proper support.”
In early 2017 the foursome partnered to open Kismet in LA’s Los Feliz neighborhood. The awards swiftly followed, including a 2018 James Beard Foundation Best New Restaurant Nomination; 2017 Food and Wine Best New Chef, Food; and 2017 Eater LA Chefs of the Year.
For these partnerships, Dotolo and Shook provide all the capital, as well as the operational support — bookkeeping, legal, accounting, insurance, human resources, and public relations, as well as preferred vendor and farmer connections. All of this helps reduce costs and enables Kramer and Hymanson to offer more benefits to their employees, including health insurance, which would be far more costly if they had to do it as individual restaurant operators. “We really try to help our partners while giving them the freedom to do what they want,” says Dotolo. We can give them feedback, but it’s their show.”
For the Animal guys, the collaborations mean more than just potential profits. “It brings us a lot of happiness and joy,” says Shook. “All of these people make the food scene more interesting. We are more powerful as a group than we are as individuals.”
Daniel Patterson: Equity Gets a Seat at the Table
Daniel Patterson, the acclaimed chef behind Bay Area restaurants Coi and Alta has routinely supported former employees in their own endeavors, sharing resources and advice. In 2015, he also partnered with Coi alum Brett Cooper to open Aster, a one Michelin-star restaurant serving creative California cuisine.
More recently, Patterson has actively joined forces with chefs beyond his own restaurant group, and those at a disadvantage in a competitive marketplace. Patterson is working with the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United in its racial equity pilot program to promote racial diversity and equity in the restaurant industry.
“What we are doing now is directed towards women and people of color and getting more representation in fine dining,” says Patterson. “For me it’s not just about the food, or creating opportunity, but creating spaces that are intentionally inclusive. ”
So far, Patterson has forged three new restaurant partnerships, with more planned. While every partnership is different, Patterson says there are several common threads: The chef-partner takes the lead as creator of the concept and culture while Patterson’s restaurant group helps shape it into a sustainable business model and provides HR, accounting, and other operational support. “In all cases the partnerships are with people whose values are aligned with ours, especially around equity,” says Patterson.
The first was with Nigel Jones, chef and owner of popular East Bay Caribbean restaurant Kingston 11. In January they opened Kaya, a casual Caribbean spot serving jerk chicken and rum cocktails in the space that formerly housed Alta. Then in April, Patterson joined forces with chef Reem Assil to open the Arabic restaurant Dyafa.
In May of 2018, Patterson partnered with chef Heena Patel to open Besharam, an upscale Indian restaurant at the Minnesota Street Project focusing on her native Gujarati recipes. “I dreamed of Michelin stars, and I wanted to bring something original and unique that would share my point of view — the one I had developed through my life experiences. But I had no idea how to do that,” says Patel. “I know nothing about fine dining and San Francisco is a complicated market to start a restaurant in. It’s particularly difficult not just for women and women of color and immigrants, but for someone who is not young and new anymore. When’s the last time you heard about a 50-year-old woman opening up a restaurant?”
And then came Patterson. “Partnering with Alta Group has offered me resources and technical experience that allowed me to jump immediately into delivering the kind of food I’ve dreamt of,” Patel says. “I appreciate that these doors have been opened to me. And I’m confident that I can prove that I belong behind them.”
With rising rents, increasing labor costs, and demand for more dynamic, diverse food offerings in major cities across the country, it’s clear that the restaurant business model will continue to evolve. In the food world, talent begets talent. With established chefs like Kahan, Patterson, and Shook and Dotolo putting more than their name behind a new generation of restaurateurs, a new but clearly viable model is born.
Andrea Strong, founder of the pioneering food blog the Strong Buzz, has been writing about restaurants and food for the past 18 years.
Editors: Whitney Filloon and Daniela Galarza