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Aspen Times Weekly: Team Spirit

by Amanda Rae
Valentines day table place setting
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

UNITY RULES

Work with your lover? Know this: “Every situation is different, there’s no hard-and-fast rule,” says Brunelleschi’s owner Gil Vanderaa, who operates the restaurant with partner Emily Kolbe. Herewith, more tips from Aspen couples rocking the culinary world:

DO “Be willing to negotiate all the time,” Vanderaa says.

DON’T bring relationship drama to work. “We work hard when we’re here, so we don’t have to feed each other emotionally,” Kolbe says.

DON’T take work home. “It’s a big challenge,” says Karin Schwendtner, who runs La Crêperie du Village with husband, Raphael Derly.

DO divide responsibilities. “Give each other space,” Schwendtner adds.

DO put a lid on PDA — for the sake of your employees. “We don’t really kiss a lot in the restaurant — we’re not making out!” Kolbe quips.

DON’T assume that working together must be difficult. “We loved working together,” says chef Kathleen Crook of opening Steak House No. 316 with now-wife Kristina Goode. “We found that it made our relationship stronger than anything else.”

WORD ON THE STREET during President’s Day weekend was that Aspen hotels and restaurants were packed to the gills, attracting crowds second only to Christmas and New Year’s Eve. That’s great news for those in the service industry, since the second weekend in February represents the winter midpoint. Just two months remain until Closing Day — offseason is clear on the horizon.

Ironically, now is the time when restaurant workers — whose job is to please patrons with finicky palates, sky-high expectations, and overstuffed wallets — likely need some extra love, and last weekend coincided with Valentine’s Day. And more than a few lucky Aspenites, enjoy some extra support at their place of employment.

“When it’s a holiday, you’re celebrating at your business,” says Emily Kolbe, who has managed Brunelleschi’s with partner and restaurant owner, Gilbert Vanderaa, since it opened in 2005. “Nothing says Happy Valentine’s Day better than working at Bruno’s!”

Kathleen Crook, executive chef of Grey Lady Aspen, understands this, too. “Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries are often not celebrated on their actual date,” she says of balancing quality time with her wife, Kristina Goode, general manager of Aspen Kitchen. “For example, we typically celebrate our Christmas on January 6.”

“We put our hearts and souls into this restaurant and I think you feel that. People pick up that it’s our baby. Love is always welcome in our restaurant.”—Karin Schwendtner and Raphael Derly, La Crêperie du Village

As it happens, the couple met six years ago while opening Steak House No. 316 as executive chef and general manager, respectively. In three years, they learned a few universal truths about dating and mating in an industry defined by long hours and high stress.

“It can be really easy to become consumed with work during the height of the season,” Goode says. “We do our best to communicate and ensure that the other feels like they are also a top priority.”

Despite romantic sacrifices, couples working together in the culinary industry are quick to speak of other benefits: Dividing tasks according to personal strengths, seeing each other often, and working toward a shared goal, all of which strengthen the bond between lovers.

“Your customers, especially in a resort community, they’re all here to have a good time,” Vanderaa adds. “They’re an extended family.” ‘

Running a restaurant as a couple serves as quality control, too. “When you have two contact points, things will be held to the standards that you want,” Kolbe says. “Our staff is great.”

At the same time, “When things go wrong, you dwell on it longer; when things go right, you get to celebrate more,” Kolbe says. “You have more conversations about it.”

While couples working at separate venues may not see each other as often as those who toil side-by-side, there are advantages. Aspen Kitchen executive chef Matt O’Neill met fiancée Rebecca Chastant, assistant general manager of Matsuhisa Aspen, three years ago while working in culinary operations at The Little Nell. O’Neill was executive chef at Ajax Tavern; Chastant worked banquets.

“The pro to working in the industry is that we both understand our insanely sporadic schedules,” Chastant says. “If I was with someone with a 9 to 5 job, it would be difficult for them to grasp the hours and job functions it takes to work in our industry.”

O’Neill offers practical advice to making this kind of culinary relationship work: Set aside time for each other — be it a certain time throughout the day or by staying up together after work, even late-night. And, he says, “No matter where we are working in town, always find a way to kiss at midnight when the ball drops on New Year’s Eve.”

O’Neill’s key piece of advice — “Don’t work in the same restaurant” — illustrates how relationship preferences differ widely. Goode, for one, looks back on working with Crook at Steak House with nostalgia. “Some days it was hard to separate real life from work life,” she says. At the same time, “It was incredibly rewarding building something together and watching it succeed.” (Find more advice from culinary couples on the opposite page.)

Says Crook: “I loved [Kristina’s] management style. And I got to see her all the time.” Like O’Neill and Chastant, Goode and Crook define their time together as sacred.

“We give each other 15 minutes at the end of each night to talk about work and after that we focus on us,” Goode says. Date night—usually spent cooking, playing a board game or cards, and sharing a bottle of wine, natch—is on Monday night, which both have off. “No phones, no TV, just us,” Crook says.

If anyone understands the challenges of separating business life and private time, it’s Raphael Derly and Karin Schwendtner, husband-and-wife team behind La Crêperie du Village. The couple was married December 2010 — just eight weeks after meeting; one year later, they opened the restaurant. Taking a leap of faith has paid off: The Food Network recently named the five-year-old Crêperie’s beef fondue as one of the top five romantic dishes in America. A film crew came through in November to capture La Crêperie’s sultry ambiance.

“To open a business together after knowing each other a short time, we needed a lot of trust,” Schwendtner explains. “The romantic aspect of opening a restaurant as a couple is that it binds you as a project. It’s our business baby.”

Like Kolbe at Bruno’s, Schwendtner manages the practical aspects of the restaurant while Derly acts as gregarious host and brings a designer’s eye to the interior. Owning their roles is key.

“We used to work together all the time,” Schwendtner says, “but we’ve been separating [our duties] more at the restaurant to look forward to seeing each other. We have to find time to be a couple. Finding that balance is challenging, but rewarding. At the same time, we love to share stories of our customers — happy people!”

Working alongside your sweetheart in any industry poses challenges and reaps rewards. However, partnerships bred in Aspen restaurants may have another major advantage that help make them work. “We know that if we have problems,” Vanderaa quips, “we go skiing together and it gets better.”

This column was inspired by Amanda Rae’s research for “The Dating Game,” a feature story she wrote for Aspen Sojourner (Summer 2015). Read it online at: aspensojourner.com/Aspen-Sojourner/Summer-2015/The-Dating-Game/


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