To say that the women of Long Beach’s culinary world are inspiring is an absolute understatement. To say that they’re outstanding reminds me of how limiting this language is, of how I wish I could crumple up this online document and toss it backward into the trash bin. Where is the word for the woman who not only runs the back of the house, but also takes care of the business side of keeping her restaurant afloat? Where is the word for the woman who does this while she raises her children and maintains a happy marriage?
What about the woman, far away from home, who misses her family, yet night after night brings to the table the comfort food she knows will make her guests smile? And what about the women who have only lived in Long Beach for mere months, tasked with starting completely from scratch, tasked with starting a new life in a new city and creating a brand new menu for the city’s residents? Who are these women and why are they important?
Katherine Humphus of Bo-beau Kitchen + Roof Tap, Janine Falvo of the SIP Lounge at The Renaissance Hotel, Rachael Beeman of The Pike Bar & Grill, Aubrey Neuman of The Social List and Natalie Gutenkauf of The Factory Gastrobar are five women who are making their names known in the Long Beach culinary scene and beyond. I was given the chance to interview the five of them, to find out why they cook, how they run a kitchen, how they stay sane and to find out what it’s like to be a hard working woman in an industry that used to heavily favor men (and more often than not, still does).
Because employees, restaurants and organizations like the Toklas Society are working hard to make back-of-the-house positions more suitable for females and minorities, I wanted to highlight the fact that Long Beach has a good thing going for its restaurant industry, and that’s the women that run the show at several of the city’s most popular eateries.
Katherine Humphus | Bo-beau Kitchen + Roof Tap
Katherine Humphus, Executive Chef at Bo-beau on Pine Ave., while eating out, will never send a dish back, and while off the clock, likes to go skydiving. A woman with a light heart and a down-to-earth attitude, she has opened three restaurants in the past three years, and moved to Long Beach when the Cohn Restaurant Group asked her to open up Bo-beau on Pine. A rock star of the food industry, Katherine is easy to talk to and provided plenty of insight into what it means to work hard and run a kitchen.
Chef Katherine Humphus. Photos by Brian Addison.
When asked how she feels when she’s cooking and what inspires her to cook, Katherine leaned back in her desk chair and thought about her answer, comfortably, in a manner akin to a thinker, like a woman who had maybe thought about such questions but had yet to voice her opinion.
"That’s like the hardest question to answer, everyone always asks me that, 'Oh Katherine what inspired this dish?' I don’t know-w-w," she drawls with a smile and an eye-roll, "but how do I feel? When I'm doing all this stuff and I'm trying to organize my day or my life, even when I'm at yoga I'm always like okay, you need to do this, you need to do that, my mind is always trying to compartmentalize everything. I have lists everywhere... and then when I cook it's very free for me. When I'm cooking it’s hard for me to get stressed out."
"Actually, John," Katherine nodded to one of her media professionals, typing away at a desk to her left, "made a comment to me the other day and people actually say this to me a lot: 'I love when you’re in your element' and I had a former boss that used to say 'I love watching you cook' and I was like, 'What does that mean?' and she was like 'Oh, you kind of turn into a different person.' John was actually referring to me freaking out on someone but I don’t know I guess it’s sort of like I'm on autopilot when I cook."
Katherine revisited the timeless, yet always slightly annoying inspiration question, my cliche inquiry on behalf of the curious and less culinary-inclined public, who tend to wonder how art is made. She immediately honed in on the details, knowing full-well that speaking from experience can sometimes generate universal applicability. She talked about one of Bo Beau's Roof-tap menu items, the Shredded Beet Patty Melt, which is basically, according to her, "just a veggie burger made out of beets."
"How it came about is I was visiting one of the other restaurants in the Cohn group and the owner's son walked by me and was like, 'Hey, Katherine check out this cookbook I got, it’s this Persian cookbook,' and he opened it up and there was this beet patty and I was like 'Oooh' and then the next day I was like 'We’re putting a beet patty on the menu.' I didn’t even get to see the recipe I was just like, 'Okay yea, I like that idea, let's do it.'"
When asked what version of herself she has to be to run a kitchen, Katherine said, “Well I try to stay pretty consistent but there is a certain side of me that comes out, it’s been coming out a lot this week [she laughs] but people don’t expect it and so it almost holds more weight because I am like really laid back, I’m very understanding, I don’t get upset very often. You know like if someone screws up i’m like, ‘Try harder next time.’”
Katherine leads by example and in a way that she would want to be lead. She tries to be the type of executive chef that she would want to work for. “It’s funny because you just have to step up and be such a leader, I have to always remind myself to lead by example, so whether i’m asking someone, like if you see a piece of trash on the ground pick it up—like okay that means if I see a piece of trash on the ground I have to pick it up. And that’s the biggest thing, whether I’m setting an example for my sous chef or the dishwashers or for the line cooks, whatever it is I just have to always know that someone is watching me and if I want them to do things a certain way then i have to do it that same way,” she explained.
On what she expects from a restaurant when she eats out, Katherine’s only pet peeve is bad service. “Good service, good food and that’s pretty much it. I have this thing where I will not send food back to the kitchen unless it’s completely the wrong order, but steak overdone, I’ll eat it, lobster underdone, I’ll eat it. I had like 2 ½ lbs of lobster the other day that was almost raw and I just can’t send it back I just don’t do that,” she said.
Katherine has this admirable knack for putting herself in the other person's shoes. I asked why she can't send the lobster back—was it out of respect for the chef, or something else? “Yea, I mean I get it, obviously the lobster I received was virtually raw, obviously the chef didn’t know that it went out like that, I just can’t do it, there’s like something inside of me that’s just like, no. Even if I order a really nice steak and it’s totally well done I’m like ehhh... but service really annoys me. I’m never like a complainer but that’s the only thing at a restaurant that upsets me, just blatantly terrible service. Like, why are you on your phone over there? 'Hello, I’m ready to order.'”
Wisps of wavy brown hair stuck out from Katherine's haphazardly-made bun, the hairstyle of a woman too busy working to care very much about appearances. I thought about my own work, of the days where there is nothing left to pull from the pool of creativity or I've received an especially harsh critique from a reader and had to ask for my own selfish reasons, how on earth does she keep the burner lit. How do you, Katherine Humphus, find the motivation to keep going, especially at the end of an especially harsh week?
"This is something that I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. It’s hard when you open a restaurant. This is my third restaurant opening in three years, I’ve done one a year and this one (Bo-Beau) was actually the easiest for me because I think I’ve done so many so recently that I had a lot of the systems in place for myself, but it’s so funny because you actually start getting used to working so much that you feel guilty taking a day off," she said.
Katherine's activities outside the kitchen are just as intense as inside, although, after every restaurant opening she's had to remind herself what she likes to do for fun. "I did take the 4th of July off," she said, referring to a day that was, at first, hard to remember amongst weeks of nonstop work. "I went to yoga on the bluff, went surfing, went skydiving, went kayaking in the ocean. I was like, 'Oh yea, this is what I do for fun,' and I remembered and I felt totally recharged. Friends that make me laugh, nothing crazy other than maybe skydiving...really any activity that doesn't make me think about the restaurant helps me stay motivated. Like when I'm surfing I have to think about surfing or I'm going to die."
On what advice she would give someone just starting out, Katherine said, “It just takes perseverance, you just have to get through it and however you can get through it, just keep going. I learned a lot and came out way stronger and way harder because of a tough experience I had in New York at wd~50. I would cry every day, like, every single day I’d go into the locker room and cry my eyes out and call my mom and be like ‘I wanna leave’ and she’d be like, ‘You can’t leave just keep going.’ You have to have thick skin and you have to be confident in your skills. Even if you’re doubting yourself you have to pretend like you’re really confident, like you have to fake it ‘till you make it and you have to really ask for what you want. Things won’t just fall into your lap, every opportunity that I’ve been given, specifically with this company, I’ve been with them for a very long time, is because I’ve been so annoying and so demanding and so ‘just give me the chance and I’ll show you that I can do it.’ Lucky for me they have given me a lot of chances and they keep giving me more because I have been successful and have shown them okay I can do it, I can do it.”
BO-beau kitchen + roof tap is located at 144 Pine Ave.
Janine Falvo | SIP Lounge at The Renaissance Hotel
Janine Falvo is a woman of curt language, a fitting facet for a character who has time and time again proven how capable, creative and matter-of-fact she can be, whether she’s running the kitchen at The Renaissance Hotel in downtown Long Beach or avoiding the played-up—yet still distracting—television drama encompassing her stint on the 9th season of Bravo’s Top Chef. Janine, like Katherine, is fairly new to Long Beach and is helping the city lift its reputation for innovative gastronomy.
While the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Long Beach is an international establishment, its restaurant, The SIP Lounge, has quickly become a hub for both the city's eclectic locals and the hotel's traveling guests, an always-unpredictable cocktail of beach dwellers and beach tourists. Janine’s ocean-to-fork policy mimics—and of course, revamps and extends—former Executive Chef Michael Poompan’s farm-to-table endeavors.
Janine cooks because her mother used to make a huge Christmas Eve dinner and it was the day after one especially inspiring holiday meal that she decided she really wanted to go to culinary school. “I wanted to when I was in college but my parents were like, 'No-o-o, you’ll have to work holidays and blah blah blah.’ I’m like, ‘It doesn’t matter,’ and yea, it was right after Christmas and I went into school in April of that year,” she said.
As far as the physical act of cooking is concerned, Janine says it’s her zen. Lately, for her, cooking has been “kind of a more peaceful thing than anything. It’s been a lot of research and development and planning. I’m at this point in my career that when I am cooking it’s just as much, it’s like the happiest I am all day for those few hours.” Whether she’s turning an artichoke or making something as simple as pasta, she says an armistice occurs between the mind, body and soul.
Asking the next question seemed like a long-shot and I wasn't sure Janine would want to dredge up the past, but she did, and I'm certain her wise words can inspire anyone trying to make it in a difficult industry. As a well-established chef, I asked, do you ever have to deal with gaining respect in the kitchen?
"Not anymore," Janine said. "I put it in my head pretty early on that I would outlast anybody or outwork anybody in the kitchen. When I was at Disney I was a line cook and I worked the hardest station. I made sure I worked saute... and it was a finesse station and I got beat up, every single night, but I took it every night, I pushed myself."
When I asked if being a woman made it more difficult to outlast the so-called “boys club” of the food industry, a hopefully soon-to-be outdated term used to describe the lack of women working in top culinary positions, Janine defined the situation as having everything to do with work ethic and very little to do with gender.
"I still push myself but I think you get respect by—it’s not just being a woman, I think it's being a worker and being knowledgeable and knowing what you’re doing. You know when you see people come in and they’re enjoying what you do and other people that you work with, they see that and you’re teaching them new things. I think there’s a respect level there. So don’t just focus on how you can get respect, just work with the intent that you have respect," she said.
In order to run the kitchen at The Renaissance, Janine’s ability to meld with the personalities of each of her staff members is as much a tactic as a testament to her good character.
“The kitchen’s a place where there are so many different types of people," she explained. "I could be working next to a kid that’s trying to go to school to be something completely different, but from the time he was 15 or she was 15, worked in a kitchen, and now they’re in college and just doin’ this now, and I could be next to somebody that hasn’t been in this country for very long, I could be working next to somebody that was in prison a year ago... to say that I’m not part of one of those freaks of the industry, like I have to be a little bit of all those people to understand them, to get everything I need out of each one of them and to have a cohesive team. So you know, I have to be a motivator, I have to be somewhat organized, I have to be creative, I have to have endurance. All of those versions of myself come out every single day.”
But what keeps a her going at the end of a really crappy day? Her answer was simple. "Good beer. A lot of caffeine, um, I have a close circle of friends across the country that I could pick up and text at any point and just pick up a conversation. That keeps me sane. I have a motorcycle, so I might go for a ride. I mean, being honest a good beer, a bottle of wine, Fernet. Yea."
On how to survive and succeed, Janine advises those new to the industry to “have thick skin, be tough, and don’t ever, ever cry."
"Don’t sleep around with every single person in the kitchen," she continued, "because it does get out, not that I know this from experience, but”—she laughed and brought herself back to the point—“you have to be tough, you have to be resilient, you have to be one of the guys, you can’t lose it an any point because eyes are on you no matter what, male or female. Eyes are on you and you can’t be the weak link.”
SIP Lounge at The Renaissance Hotel is located at 111 E Ocean Blvd.
Rachael Beeman | The Pike Bar & Grill
When I called The Pike Bar & Grill to see if Rachael Beeman would sit down for an interview, Chris Reece answered the phone and told me to call their Los Alamitos location. So I sent my phone signal across the orange curtain and was met with a tone of complete surprise.
“Hi Rachael, this is Asia from the Long Beach Post and I’m writing an article on influential female chefs in Long Beach, I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk a little bit about your role at The Pike,” I said somewhat mechanically, unsure as to how she’d respond.
“Are you serious?!” Rachael exclaimed, “Wow...that is really cool.”
Her baffled excitement, I would later learn, is one of the reasons Rachael is so great. She doesn’t hold much in, she doesn’t care much for composure and she is certainly at least half the reason The Pike Bar & Grill is such a raucous good time and one of Long Beach’s long-time favorite places for eating, drinking, good music and getting crazy.
Rachael hails from the tiny city of Monessen, PA, having moved to Long Beach in 2009 to try and make a relationship more feasible.
In Monessen, her cousin owned a pizza shop down the street from her house. Rachael would fold together pizza boxes and eventually started making the pizza when she was 14. Throughout high school and into her 20's she held two to three jobs at a time, until at 25 years old she was offered a full-time job with benefits at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. She didn’t think that that was really "her thing," though, so saying “What the hell,” she hopped on a plane to Long Beach with two suitcases, and the rest, as she says, is history. Delicious history.
“When I first moved here I didn’t make Baja tacos; I grew up making raviolis, meatballs and cabbage rolls, so like it was kinda weird to me. A taco to me is like Taco Bell. There’s not too many Mexican restaurants on the East Coast and if you do have them they’re like, you know, so-so,” she says.
Rachael started at The Pike as a bus girl who closed down the kitchen every Thursday night. She had recently been let go from a pizza shop in Long Beach for sticking up for herself against a rude customer. Her boyfriend, who already worked at The Pike, contacted Chris. “So Chris called me up," she said, "he was like 'be here Thursday at 10:00PM, you’re closin’ down the kitchen.' I was just washin’ dishes, and we got busy one night, I stepped and in and never moved. One of the cooks got really busy and I already knew how to do everything by then. I’d been observing it and just like watching and I just jumped on and Chris was like ‘Alright!’”
Rachael has been at The Pike for five years now, yet humbly avoids the title of executive or head chef. “We all kind of run the kitchen together, but I just - I’m boisterous and I know how things are supposed to be and sometimes people get lazy and you know, I’m a girl, I’m bossy and I have to be like that because you know if I don’t then I’ll get walked all over and that’s not about to happen, not where I’m from.”
Although humble, her confidence for her profession and work ethic shone through her attempt at not taking too much credit. Her words quickened as she said, “Everybody’s like ‘she runs it,’ but no, I’ve done this for so long, like I’ll work every part of this bar with no problem, it’s just easy, I love it, it’s what I love to do, you know what I mean? Like I always say I’m going to have my own bar, I’m going to have my own restaurant, and I’m going to cook the food and I’m going to serve your drink and serve you your food and then I’m going to clean your shit up after your done. And that’s exactly what I did and then the boss noticed that and everybody else started noticing that, too.”
Even taking a compliment is hard for Rachael, who knows that cooking a good meal is the bar minimum. “When people tell me ‘Aahh it’s soo good,’ I’m like thanks, it’s supposed to be good. I feel weird. I don’t really know how to react sometimes,” she said with a smirk.
Rachael is expressive, to say the least, and I couldn’t help but laugh with her when she brought up how foreign the concept of a seafood-inspired menu was to her five years ago. When I asked how she creates, she sort of shrugged and made it simple. “I just stick to what I know. I know stuffed peppers, I know cabbage rolls, I know comfort food. We like meat and potatoes where I’m from, this fish shit that I’m dealin’ with here, you know I’m like ‘WHAT?!’ It’s kinda weird for me, you know what I mean? I read a lot of cooking magazines, sometimes I’m like 'Ah, I could make that better,' or I’ll eat something somewhere and I’ll be like 'Ah, I can make that better,' and that’s what I do and it works. I’m a pretty simple person, I didn’t go to school for this, I didn't go take any special classes, I just experience through life. That’s what I’ve done and it’s worked,” she said.
On being the only female working in the The Pike kitchen, Rachael knows what works and what doesn’t. “There’s never been a girl in the kitchen, never, well there has been one, but that didn’t work out. It’s pretty tough to work with all men. It depends on the girl, not any female is going to be able to be back there, it’s not so much because they’re men, it’s just because like women have somewhere in their head that men have all this control and it’s not even like that,” she explained.
Rachael’s eyes began to water as she continued. “These guys, they’re like my brothers, they protect me, it’s not like that here. There are a lot of important people here to me, I don’t know what it’s like in other kitchens with guys, but here we’re kinda family,” she said.
Her advice to others wanting to get into the industry is simple. “Anybody can go to cooking school," she said. "But if you learn all the little things that I’ve learned throughout the years you’re not going to learn that in cooking school. Stay true to yourself. That’s all i do. I just stick to what I know. Just keep trying. It just makes you better at what you’re trying to get good at. Don’t let anybody walk on ya.”
The Pike Bar & Grill is located at 1836 E 4th St. in Long Beach, and 11272 Los Alamitos Blvd. in Los Alamitos.
Aubrey Neuman | The Social List
I can’t help but mention Aubrey Neuman’s age—a failed attempt to avoid seeming ageist, but a necessary fact to show just how extraordinary a situation Aubrey has been tasked with, as the Executive Chef at The Social List, one of Retro Row’s most recent additions. Aubrey Neuman is 23 years old, has six years of on-the-line culinary experience and is in charge of running the kitchen of one of Long Beach’s most talked-about new restaurants today.
Chef Aubrey Neuman. Photos by Asia Morris.
On the obstacles she encounters on a daily basis, Aubrey says she is at a point in her career where she has to prove herself to gain the respect of her peers. Of course, at first glance, she seems like an inexperienced young adult, one who you typically wouldn't guess would be where she is today. But looks are clearly deceiving.
“Lots of the kitchen staff are people that I know through someone or have worked with before, where respect has already been built, a little bit,” her voice raises an octave, “but I did hire a few people that had no idea who I was. One of my biggest obstacles was hiring, and shaking their hand, whoever I’m interviewing, and them looking at me like, 'who the hell is this young kid?'”
So how do you gain respect from the people who are supposed to answer to you? Do certain methods work better than others? Aubrey barely had to think about the question and toward the end of her response, I could sense she felt she had already wasted enough time on the topic.
“Yea, I don’t really care too much about it, if you don’t wanna respect me then you don’t have to work for me, it’s not an option. It’s either ya do or ya don’t and if you don’t then there’s the door. That’s the way that I feel most younger women executive chefs have to deal with things. They’re not going to invest their time in someone that obviously doesn’t want to invest their time in them either, so it’s not … really, I don’t really care. Everyone is replaceable in this business.”
I was reminded of a classic coming-of-age story, where a sensitive young woman enters her industry of choice, gets pushed around mentally, cries, pities herself, then eventually learns she’ll have to pick herself up by her own damn bootstraps if she’s going to be worth something, if she’s going to make her dreams come true. I’m not sure Aubrey noticed, but I had a very Devil Wears Prada moment of inspiration as I listened to her speak of her growth. It seems like to make it in this industry, one has to get knocked around a bit before they can really say, yes, I am here.
“Everyone is replaceable in this business, especially in the back of the house. I don’t know what it is but in the past four or five years this big trend with cooking... everyone loves it, everyone is super into it, but not everyone knows what it entails, everyone thinks it’s all fun and joy and food. It's almost like bikram yoga, it’s hot now, you know, but they don't know that it entails long hours, extremely hot conditions, burns, cuts, lots of blood,"—I assume we're talking about cooking at this point, not yoga—"lots of dead animals... it’s not that awesome if you don't love it. You have to love it, you have to love it to be good at it.”
According to Aubrey’s experience, you have to have a thick skin to make it in this business, something she learned while working for Antonio Medina of Gastronomico in West Hollywood. “When I first got into this business I was extremely sensitive," Aubrey explained. "I’m just a sensitive person, nice, caring, always making sure everyone's okay. I’m still like that but I really don’t care as much as I used to anymore, which is a good and a bad thing. It’s good for my profession, and it’s… I wouldn’t say bad, but it takes a toll on any other relationship that I have with people, because I have to have that exterior shell now because I can’t cry in the kitchen.”
And when it comes to crying, Aubrey says she certainly used to. “When Antonio used to scream at me I would have to take 5 minutes in the bathroom and cry a little bit, clear my head, then walk back out. Even at The Attic I would get so frustrated. I have this issue where if you’re screaming at me I can’t handle it. I would rather you throw a pan at my face then you yell at me because I’m sensitive,” she says.
Aubrey’s time at The Attic showed her partially what it means to be a hard working woman in a demanding position. “Working with a very strong independent female executive chef before this job showed me a lot," she explained. "It showed me that you have to work harder and you have to be a lot more tough and not take shit from anyone. Raq (Raquel Jubran of The Attic) would always tell me that. It’s going to be 50 times harder.”
On working in a mostly male kitchen, however, Aubrey said she actually prefers it. “To be completely honest with you, I would rather work in an all-male kitchen, although it was really nice working in a mostly female kitchen at The Attic. In an all-male kitchen there’s less drama, less shit talking, and I mean actual shit talking, you know. There’s a difference between actually meaning it and just saying it to say it. The boys just say it to say it, they’re crude, but women, they mean it. Even if they sound like they don’t mean it, they mean it. It’s just more catty with women, in my experience,” she said.
Aubrey is passionate about her profession and it shows. She spoke of the ups and downs, yet landed on exactly why such a laborious, stressful and sometimes degrading job is worth her time, having a sense of ownership at the end of the day, and knowing the product of your labor is delicious.
“But it’s gotten to the point where it’s almost scabbed up. You have to scab up, to be in this… this industry because guys don’t care and that’s one of the biggest reasons why they’re so praised about it, is because they can do this and that and this and that and not feel any emotion towards it. I feel like a woman has more passion when it comes to this business, which shows, and if you can place that passion toward your work it’s amazing, but you have to scab up and you have to have that armor, you just have to. It’s a difficult balance that you have to find, but once you find it, it’s great, you know, it’s something that I can’t even explain, when i feel that i don’t care what you think of my food because I know that it’s good, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
The Social List is located at 2105 E 4th St.
Natalie Gutenkauf | The Factory Gastrobar
Natalie Gutenkauf is, quite simply, “homegrown Long Beach.” A fitting title, given to herself by herself, for someone who began cultivating her culinary talents, along with her love for family and community, in the city a long time ago. Such well-nurtured seeds grew and blossomed into one of the most popular and well-loved restaurants to grace the wide streets and affluent neighborhoods of Bixby Knolls, The Factory Gastrobar.
Natalie is the answer to the question, can a woman have it all? Can she have a fulfilling career and a close-knit family? Run a business and maintain a healthy marriage? Yes and absolutely yes, says Natalie, though she attributes much of her success back to her family and her friends.
“The Factory exists because I have great family teamwork and support," she explained. "My kids are amazing and we have fantastic grandparents.” Family has always been a key ingredient in this woman’s life, whose only pet peeve when dining out is when people “spend more time taking pictures of their food and tip tapping on their phones than enjoying the people they are with.”
While she and her husband decided that she would stay home to raise their firstborn, as time wore on Natalie became antsy and craved an outlet for her restlessness. “I got a gig teaching at an art academy a couple days a week and it was great because they didn’t mind if I brought my daughter to class,” Natalie said. She later substituted for a teacher who taught a kids' cooking class through Long Beach Parks and Recreation. “I loved it!" she said. "She ended up giving me her class for the rest of the session and told me it was mine to continue future sessions. The next session I created two more kids' cooking classes plus an Eco-Art class.”
While Natalie taught, she also entertained at home. Her monthly all-girls tapas cooking party was the seed that eventually blossomed into The Factory. “I would invite up to 30 ladies and we would cook from scratch up to 10 different tapas items using recipes I had personally created," she said. "Soon my friends were hiring me to host cooking parties at their home or office. I called myself the 'traveling gypsy chef' because everyday I would pack my truck full of utensils and ingredients to teach class or host a party.”
Soon the task of packing and unpacking and the preparation involved with cooking off-site became exhausting. “As my little business continued to pick up steam, I started looking for a professional kitchen to work out of where people could come to me for classes and parties," she explained. "That’s when I found The Factory Gastrobar.”
In 2009 Natalie opened the doors to what she thought was the perfect space for cooking classes and selling handmade items. “I opened my doors as a Gastrobar and a small market where we sold gourmet cheeses and items handmade in the restaurant. I never dreamed my little bohemian culinary space would become so popular!” she exclaimed. “The restaurant is always evolving. The key is to not be afraid to make changes and experiment with new concepts and ideas. We don’t do things by the book here and we adhere to the policy of being just enough crazy to make food fun.”
The restaurant is known for its craft beer and wine selection and its fresh food, with a menu completely dictated by what local ingredients are available. Natalie described the challenge of running a small restaurant whose fresh food motive is sometimes pushed to the wayside, not by herself or her team, but by the vendors themselves.
“Shopping at farmer's markets for veggies is one thing, but securing key items like local fish and proteins is a much bigger challenge," she said. "When I opened the restaurant, no one cared much about local ingredients and I had my pick from small suppliers. Now 'local' is the new buzz word and some of my vendors have cut me out of their food chain because the products I order are in such demand by bigger restaurants and I’m not big enough to matter. So sometimes I have to be really creative with not-so-exotic ingredients that fit my criteria of local and sustainable.”
Gaining respect from her employees is rarely an issue, as those who have any sort of attitude simply don’t stay employed at The Factory for very long. Gender stereotypes, however, were a source of frustration. “I get overlooked quite often as people focus their attention on my male staff, assuming that they are managers or even the owner,” Natalie explained.
While it can hurt to be overlooked, Natalie soon found that a much larger issue demanded her attention and energy. “It used to bother me a lot more when I first opened the restaurant, but now I don’t care as much. I think the past couple of years dealing with my sick daughter has really humbled me. I had to let some things go and as long as people are happy and the restaurant is running as it should, who cares what other people think is my role. The moral here is that I know who the boss is at the restaurant and as long as I keep doing what I do right, I come home a winner,” she said.
Natalie explained how the the prospect of losing her youngest daughter kept her from running the restaurant, yet her family’s flexibility pulled them through to to the other side.
“Less than two years ago my youngest daughter had surgery to remove a life-threatening brain tumor. When you are in the restaurant you will see a chalkboard tucked away that says, ‘Berlin — She Helped Me Build The Factory’. I wrote that the day her neurosurgeon gave our family the news that if Berlin was lucky enough to live through the surgery, she would come out the other end with brain damage. But we found a way to deal with our tragedy and make life and business work by redefining our family roles.”
When I asked about her creative process, Natalie told me she was a painter before she started culinarily creating. “I am an artist," she said. "Before I started cooking I painted. I still do but the demands of owning my own restaurant and being a mom to three kids keeps me from painting as often. Most of the artwork in The Factory is my own. I experience a sort of primal recklessness when I paint. Loud music, wine and lots of dancing while painting. There is always that, ‘Oh, what the hell, just do it!’ mentality when I paint, like someone dared me to make a brash brush stroke or to throw globs of paint all over a perfectly crafted image.”
Natalie articulated her need for creativity, her need for solitude and meditation for creating The Factory’s menu. “When I create food, I still feel wildly inspired but it’s a more calming, cathartic experience. Most of the time I do menu development in silence. If I do listen to music, it’s Buddhist chants, like I’m channeling decades of chefs that created before me. I think maybe I was a chef in a previous life?"
She thought this over for a moment, then continued. "I must work in physical solitude. When I am in creation mode, my mind takes a trip to this magical place and just the presence of another in the room will violently snap me out of this secret universe where culinary nirvana is attained. I talk to myself a lot. Out loud. So I never really feel alone when I work. That probably has something to do with being a Gemini. All those personalities to entertain…”
Natalie is not only a fantastic chef, but an innovative businesswoman, knowing full well that to run a successful restaurant, you have to know a lot more than how to make a decent hamburger. What advice would Natalie give to a woman just starting out? Get an education and put that knowledge to work.
“What you see on the Food Network is not real life. You have to work in real life. And you have to work degradingly hard."
The Factory Gastrobar is located at 4020 Atlantic Ave.