“Without risk, there’s no reward. This applies whether you want to open a restaurant or be a competitive yo-yo-er.” That advice comes from restaurateur Michael Krupp, who opened Somerville’s A4 on Monday with business partner and chef Michael Leviton and chef de cuisine Jeff Pond. A4 is the pizza-focused sister of Kendall Square’s Area Four, the restaurant-cafe that’s become a hive for techies and tourists.
Buoyed by an improving economy, several prominent chefs will launch second ventures this season. Jason Bond will open a Concord outpost of Cambridge’s Bondir. Oleana’s Ana Sortun, who also owns Sofra Bakery & Cafe in Cambridge, debuts Sarma, a sit-down meze parlor in a quiet corner of Somerville. Island Creek Oyster Bar’s team is finalizing plans for Row 34 in Fort Point, showcasing oysters and local beers. Meanwhile, Craigie on Main owner Tony Maws is readying Inman Square’s grill-focused The Kirkland Tap & Trotter a few blocks from his Central Square flagship. Tim Maslow of Strip T’s in Watertown welcomed the first guests at Ribelle on Monday. And T.W. Food owners Tim and Bronwyn Wiechmann, who brought French fine dining to Huron Village, recently opened Bronwyn, a Central European restaurant in Union Square.
Though an offshoot venture is a colossal investment — from money to time spent shuttling between stoves — chefs say the payoff is greater. The decision requires financial capital, but it breeds something impossible to monetize: loyalty. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Budding cooks feel challenged, and established chefs can channel their ambitions through a cadre of like-minded colleagues.
A second restaurant hopefully brings in more profits, which some chefs share with staff. “When I worked at Formaggio Kitchen, I was amazed: They offered 401(k) plans, benefits, vacations. I looked up to them. . . . I couldn’t do that with a restaurant with just nine tables,” says Bond, who explains that his 100-seat Concord restaurant will afford better benefits for his employees. Rachel Miller, his Cambridge sous chef, will become sous chef in Concord. She’ll raise her profile cooking for a fresh clientele and toggling between lunch and dinner service. Meanwhile, at the Cambridge restaurant, chef de cuisine Marc Sheehan, formerly of New York’s acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns, will be at the helm. “I’m not an ego person,” says Bond.
Garrett Harker, the established restaurateur known for triumphs at Eastern Standard and The Hawthorne cocktail bar in Kenmore Square, agrees with Bond. “You feel obligated to create opportunities for your talent pool,” he says. “The goal isn’t to chip away at a chef. The goal is to shape them so they can be fulfilled and make a contribution.” Harker points to mixologist Jackson Cannon. “When we created The Hawthorne, it was because Jackson had done such a dynamic job at Eastern Standard. He deserved an opportunity to experiment,” Harker says. “The [staff] joke is, ‘We’ve given you our 20s. What will you do for us?’ ’’
Harker conceived Row 34 with the Island Creek team, chef Jeremy Sewall and Island Creek Oysters founder Skip Bennett. Expansion was nice, but professional growth was paramount. Francisco Millan, sous chef at Island Creek, will move to the new Fort Point location. While Island Creek is known for New England seafood, “Fran might take a world approach to flavors and spices,” says Harker. Sewall will remain a presence, but Millan will have creative input — necessary since Sewall oversees other restaurants, including Brookline’s Lineage. “Restaurateurs are control freaks, but we easily marvel at what’s happening in spite of us,” says Harker.
For a chef, ego is as essential as knife skills. So is restraint. “It’s important to have awesome young talent,” says Wiechmann. “I look for people who remind me of what I was like when I was in my 20s. I remember what my focus was and spot the ones who want to do it. They’re as passionate as a cello player or a painter,” he says. Wiechmann strategizes menus with his chefs each week, urging them to design dishes. With camaraderie, the groundwork for a new project begins before a lease is even signed.
‘They offered 401(k) plans, benefits, vacations. . . . I couldn’t do that with a restaurant with just nine tables.’
Krupp and Leviton share this philosophy. “Michael and I treat people like people. We let them know when they screw up, but we treat them like adults,” says Krupp, who considers A4 a laboratory where Pond, the chef, can experiment with unusual pies. With such faith, trust and careers flourish. Danny Scampoli has worked under Maws at Craigie on Main for six years, and will be chef de cuisine at The Kirkland Tap & Trotter. Sarma chef Cassie Piuma has been Oleana’s chef de cuisine under Sortun for 12.
Yet Maws and Sortun are the big names, praised if it’s good, blamed if something goes wrong. Like all mentors, they have to know how to let go. “If I can’t figure out if I can trust someone in 12 years, I’m in trouble,” says Sortun. “A lot of creative people are introverts, and managing is something that has to be learned,” she says. Savvy chefs exude influence, even when multitasking. Orchestration becomes something akin to a theater production. “We discuss daily what went wrong. The priority is dealing with people who are responsible and . . . providing them with support,” Sortun says.
Maws is equally precise. “We’re constantly going over scenarios to teach people what our concept is. Sometimes it’s as simple as ‘Where do I get the water?’ ”
Says A4’s Leviton: “I want [staff] to know I’m there, a little bit nervous. A lot of that is checking in with as many people as I can or walking through the kitchen, talking to folks.” He calls this constant watch “Big Brother-ish in a way,” then adds, “I’d like to think that some of our success is due to that benevolent dictatorship.”
Finally, humility has to be part of the business plan. Says Wiechmann, “There’s constant learning that keeps me humble and polite, because it’s not easy. I feel confident in being a restaurateur, and yet things go wrong. There’s no guideline. It’s like your baby, and there’s no book on how to quickly raise your kid the right away.”
When you can’t be in two places at once, Wiechmann says, similar dilemmas arise. “It’s the same here. There’s no formula, no direct path.”
Not yet, anyway. “We have people at MIT working on cloning us,” says A4’s Krupp.