Call it the battle of the soft-shell crab. Quinn Hatfield, chef and co-owner of Hatfield’s, didn’t want them on his menu -- they’re best eaten simply, he thought, and he knew that they’d be so popular that he’d be cooking crabs all evening instead of artfully plating his signature dishes. But the L.A. restaurant’s pastry chef disagreed. And last weekend, Hatfield pan-fried crabs until they sold out.
Hatfield’s pastry chef admittedly has more clout than most. She’s the restaurant’s co-owner -- and the chef’s wife. “It’s unbelievable how much they sell,” said Karen Hatfield. So it was a smart decision from a business standpoint, but also from an aesthetic one: Arm slightly twisted, Quinn created a dish that was simple yet elevated. The crabs, lightly seared and matched with a nuanced succotash, were fantastic.
This kitchen dynamic isn’t just one restaurant’s brief epiphany; it’s becoming an increasingly common business model. Husband-and-wife teams, almost all chef-pastry chef combos, are helming an impressive number of L.A.'s best new restaurants -- it’s a trend that’s reached such critical mass, that it’s actually changing the L.A. restaurant scene. In addition to Hatfield’s, there’s Fraiche in Culver City and Marche Modern in Costa Mesa -- all open less than a year and all owned and run by married duos. Bastide, that temple of culinary aspiration on Melrose Place, will have a married pair as executive chef and pastry chef when it reopens next month. And then there is the first wave, restaurants that opened in the last few years with chef couples heading the kitchen, including the acclaimed Literati II in West L.A. and Beacon in Culver City.
None of these restaurants follows the old European model of the well-toqued man running the kitchen and his wife, aproned and smiling, out front. This is a new paradigm: a small, serious restaurant run (and usually owned) by a team of highly trained chefs. These are small, focused restaurants that work to articulate the technical skill and aesthetic choices of two people with a clearly defined -- and very united -- front. The menus are vastly different, from Beacon’s Japanese fusion to Fraiche’s gutsy Italian to Marche Modern’s sophisticated take on French country fare. But there’s a similarity in the seamlessness of the menus, in the intimacy of the restaurants, and in the purposefulness of, as the Hatfields repeatedly called it, “the big picture.”
“We wanted to be the only two people in charge,” Quinn Hatfield said of the decision to leave Cortez in San Francisco, where they were co-chefs, and open their own place in Karen’s hometown. They wanted control, freedom -- and symmetry. “We’ll eat in places and the dessert menu and savory menu will be too different,” said Karen said. “We have really similar ideas.”
The Hatfields were quick to point out that it isn’t easy, with the long hours and the stress of running a business. “But it was never a choice,” said Karen. Quinn agreed: “I’d never have this kind of trust in anyone else.”
The rise of the neighborhood restaurant -- small, serious, chef-owned -- has increasingly made opening a little restaurant with your domestic partner not only feasible, but actually practical.
Jason and Miho Travi, chef-co-owners of Fraiche, recently sat down between lunch and dinner service at their outdoor patio, where passers-by kept interrupting to ask if they could get a table. “It’s kind of amazing that chefs can be married to normal people,” said Jason, looking exhausted, his chef’s whites spattered in sauce.
Like the Hatfields, they divide the kitchen: Jason’s the chef, Miho’s the pastry chef. “We have a good balance,” Miho said. “I think that’s the key, just to give each other space, to know when to back off, and that, no matter what, we both have each other’s back.”
It’s striking that so many of these restaurants divide the kitchen along what are essentially gender lines. But though pastry has always attracted more women than men, it’s no longer a secondary province in the kitchen. In the last decade, pastry has come to the forefront, with flamboyant desserts and inventive pre-desserts on the menus of such restaurants as Heston Blumenthal’s the Fat Duck -- and even entire dessert restaurants, like New York’s Room 4 Dessert.
That kind of cachet helps, as does the business acumen of many of these pastry chefs -- and the fact that though the husband is often billed as executive chef, the wife is making many of the decisions. “We’ll fight it out over the little things,” Karen Hatfield said. And the big ones? “He doesn’t fight those battles.”
A number of these new couple-run restaurants have another thing in common: Wolfgang Puck. Both the Travis and the Hatfields met not at culinary schools nor through mutual friends -- but while working alongside each other in Spago. So did the couple behind Ame in San Francisco and the famous duo behind Campanile.
Sherry Yard, longtime Spago pastry chef, worked with both Miho Travi and Karen Hatfield (whose marriage she jokingly takes credit for) in the pastry kitchen. And what about her boss’s reported soft spot for workplace romances? “Oh my God,” Yard said. “He’s the biggest instigator ever.”
Puck’s e-mailed response was as measured as his recipes. “After spending so much time at work,” he wrote, “it’s easy to have many common interests and fall in love and marry.” And if your boyfriend works 3,000 miles away, it helps to have a boss who calls him for you.
That’s what happened with Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone, co-chef-owners of Ame. The pair met at the original Spago in Hollywood in 1983, where Doumani was working in pastry and Sone was training for Spago Tokyo with Puck. After Sone returned to Tokyo, Puck would call him up in Japan -- and then hand the phone to Doumani in Spago’s L.A. kitchen.
The pair’s transcontinental relationship resulted in a business and personal partnership that’s lasted more than 20 years.
“We watch over each other’s things,” Doumani said. “Even though I would never intrude on one of his dishes and he wouldn’t on mine -- it’s an extra set of eyes.” Doumani said the most difficult aspect of running a restaurant with her husband is menu planning. “You can’t rest on your laurels,” she said. They argue over seasonality, and who gets to use a marquee ingredient (“I couldn’t do a chocolate bread pudding with dried cherries when he was doing duck with cherries”).
And they questioned whether they were up for Ame, their second restaurant. “Just to buy new chairs for Terra took us two years,” Doumani said, “because we couldn’t agree on anything. Hiro wanted; I refused. We still don’t have them.”