Wednesday, March 4, 2015

All In The Family- The Restaurant Biz, Not the TV Show

The restaurant business is literally the lifeblood of our family. Not only does it keep a roof over my head, but also my daughter Laura, a restaurant manager, and her boyfriend Scott, an executive chef. It's business that can be challenging to work around- schedules often conflict with spouses and kids, holidays often mean the restaurant is still open, long hours, stressful shifts. It's not for the faint of heart. Working in the restaurant business requires a special sort of passion- for the food, for the customers and taking pride in what you do.

My daughter Laura got her foot in the door when she was still a college student. She wanted a part time job for extra money and applied for a job at Des Moines' popular Gateway Market. In this little upscale gourmet market she would set into motion a series of events that would bring her to where she is today- managing Malo, Des Moines' newest Latin restaurant. Always a hard worker she fit in with the staff and became a leader, catching the eye of the owner, George Formaro. George is a successful local restaurateur and James Beard nominee who, when opening up his hugely successful Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, took Laurie along with him to this new opportunity. She learned the ins and outs and eventually quit her full time corporate job to work at the restaurant full time. When George opened his latest restaurant, Malo, Laurie was offered a management position and the rest is history.

Laura, at the Roasting Cancer Chili Cookoff 2012
Get to know Laura-

1. What is one thing you really enjoy about restaurant management? I guess I really enjoy getting to meet new people on a day to day basis. I've done the whole corporate desk job, and warehouse job, and I am very outgoing- a social butterfly so being in the service industry is perfect for me. I constantly meet new people from all over and then I have my regular customers I see weekly, sometimes daily, and I get to know them on a personal level.

2. What is one thing you really dislike? What I really dislike are people who think they understand the restaurant business, not just customers but also employees. Some people think it's such an easy job and they could do it without question. Wrong! There is a lot that goes into every day and night.

3. At one time you had a dream of opening your own place- now that you have been behind the scenes, do you still think you would do it? Hmmmm, there was a point in my life where I wanted to own a salad bar/protein shop, I'm not sure if I'd still want to. At least not right now. I still have a lot to learn about what goes on behind the scenes of the restaurant business.

4. What is one recipe you really want to learn to make?  I don't really have on particular recipe I want to learn. I just like learning anything I can. I don't have much time to cook at home because of my work schedule, but I do watch and see many new dishes every week that wow me.

5. What is one thing you love to cook yourself, at home? Desserts! I loooooove my sweets and I love making and getting to eat them!

Laura takes after me- not only does she love cooking but she
appreciates quality cookware, like these LeCreuset bakers!
While working at Malo, Laurie met Scott Stroud, who was the executive chef working with George to develop the menu and get the restaurant opened and running. Scott has quite an impressive resume, starting when he was 14 years old and working at Sheffield's Deli. After graduating high school he worked at Chef's Table and Des Moines Golf and Country Club in addition to the deli. He is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis and had his externship at the Grand Hotel du Val Andre in Van Andre Pleneuf, France. Returning to the U.S. he worked at Bouchard in Las Vegas, The Cafe in Ames, Iowa, a resort in Kenai, AK, Dos Rios in Des Moines, IA, Gigi and Big City Tavern in Boca Raton, FL, Willy's Cantina and Tavern in Townsville, Australia, and many others including the Jethro's family of restaurants in Des Moines, among others. His favorite restaurant to cook in is still The Cafe

Chef Scott Stroud
Get to know Scott-

1. At what age did you decide the culinary field where you wanted to be?  I was 14 and working at Sheffield's Deli. That simple act of completing a task from beginning to end (cooking) provides me with an instant gratification that has gone unparalleled. To get through the rush of a busy service and provide guests with a satisfactory experience where everything goes right- there is no better feeling. I started like most in this profession, doing dishes and prep and eventually working my way up to where I am today. I owe a lot of credit to Sheffield's. Yes, my mom cooked but we never really spent time in the kitchen. I eventually did collect her recipes and all our family recipes. I have been cooking for 16 years and I can't imagine doing anything else. It's all I've ever done and all I really know how to do.

2. What food trends do you think will be big in the coming year? A few things- food trucks, locally, with legislation in Iowa loosening, that was never an "if" but a "when." That will open the floodgates for everyone. You will see a mix of great food from people who can't afford a standing restaurant and want to make an honest living, and work their way up to the end goal of four walls. I'm also expecting some people to try and make a quick buck who will put out crappy overpriced food but Des Moines will not tolerate this, they will flash and sizzle in the pan one day and be gone the next. 

When I visit other cities I see a lot more snack type restaurants, where you can spend hours eating smaller plates and drinking wine. I would compare this idea to one of my favorites, The Cheese Shop, but with even more seats and a broader menu.

Food and restaurants will always be here but I believe society as a whole is embracing the culinary scene more than ever. We love celebrity chefs and The Food Network. With that, we have cookbooks coming out of every kitchen in the world. I think we will continue to see more cookbooks coming out of restaurants and from chefs like we have never seen before.

Microbreweries- we have more Iowa beers available than ever before. I see this trend continuing to grow and with restaurants all over the state supporting these local quality products, I wouldn't limit it to beer even. I would expect to see more in the distilled spirits department continue to grow in our own backyard.

3. Something you HATE to cook?  I think a lot of chefs hate making dessert and pastries. It takes a certain kind of person with patience and understanding, two traits most kitchen managers don't have. I can only speak for myself but in school we briefly covered the topic- only 8 weeks, compared to a 1-2 year program focused solely on sweets. I've made some of the most basic desserts, such as creme brulee, chocolate lava cakes, and ice cream. I wish I had spent more time or had better training in desserts because the possibilities are endless and everyone loves dessert!

4. Goals- do you see yourself owning your own restaurant one day? I used to dream about owning my own place, but then you hear that nine out of ten fail in the first year, you think twice. I've worked for ma and pa restaurants and I've worked for large corporate hotels as well, and I like where I'm currently at. Jethros/Splash it's not so corporate that it has no soul, but at the same time it's not small that I worry about not getting a check, or something goes wrong. The company takes great care of us and I'm really happy in my current position so it's hard to say if I would ever want my own place. I have no immediate plans to do so.

Scott cooks at home- roast chicken, French corn sauce
5. Who would you say is your culinary icon(s)? Anthony Bourdain- a teacher I had in high school knew I worked in restaurants and gave me "Kitchen Confidential." I was hooked, I wanted to go to the places he had and do the things he had in his book.

Thomas Keller- I graduated high school a semester early and was working at three restaurant jobs before culinary school and getting burned out. My dad got me a copy of "The French Laundry Cookbook" out of nowhere and I was never so inspired by a chef. So unrealistic and over the top, it's really a coffee table cookbook because no average home could afford let alone reproduce most recipes. Years later I staged for Chef Keller in Las Vegas at Bouchon and that is a whole story for another time. Everything his kitchens produce is as close to perfect as possible. A couple years ago I was able to get a reservation at The French Laundry and it was hands down the best meal of my life.

Locally I have been inspired by working for Jason Simon at Alba, George Formaro with Orchestrate, and Dom Iannarelli at Splash/Jethros. They gave so much to their businesses and worked their tails off to get where they are today. I'm very proud to have worked and learned under these three culinary leaders in our community. Everything from scratch, lots of hours, but priceless experiences in those kitchens.

Last, and in no way least, is my chef, Joe. Unlike many of his peers, Joe did not attend culinary school. He began working in restaurants as a teen and worked his way up through the kitchen, serving in several positions along the way. He got his start in a Greek restaurant and has worked in several Italian restaurants over the years as well as American, Mexican and barbeque restaurants. He has worked in catering, also at Des Moines Golf and Country Club, a dinner theater, a mobile food cart, and a lake resort, The Port on Lake Panorama, as well. One highlight of his career was the menu design and pairing of food and craft beers at an event hosted by Olde Main Brewery, designing dishes from appetizers to dessert that complimented their different beers.

Chef Joe Riccio
Get to know Joe-

1. Culinary school regrets? If I could go back and go to culinary school, one skill I really would want to master would be ice carving. With a lot of catering experience in the past, ice carving definitely would have been an asset.

2. Favorite piece of kitchen equipment? My favorite pieces of kitchen equipment are my knives. A good knife sharpener is also very important. You don't get far with dull knives. At home I really love using a Kitchenaid stand mixer for making fresh pizza dough.

3. Name a food you hate to work with. Not a fan of beets- not to eat and definitely not to work with. Messy and not a vegetable I like at all. Not into liver either- it smells terrible and the texture is awful.

4. What kind of cooking competition do you think you could kick some serious butt in? If I ever entered a culinary competition that I felt I could dominate, it would be Italian cooking. I have a lengthy history of Italian cooking and love playing with pizza recipes. I would definitely give someone a good run for the money in a burger cook off or chili cook off too.

5. Who is your culinary icon? Mario Batali. Watching old reruns of Molto Mario is a favorite pastime of mine and I'm amazed at Mario's extensive knowledge of Italy and food.  
Joe's Homemade Stuffed Peppers, a customer favorite
at The Port on Lake Panorama
Besides those family members that work in restaurants, the rest of us love eating out and checking out new places. We are all great cooks. It gives me something interesting to write about and I get an inside look at coming food trends and local restaurant news. My daughter, son in law and grandson recently treated me to dinner at Americana, a newer restaurant in downtown Des Moines. It's on my list of must-try Des Moines restaurants so I was super excited to go. The restaurant itself is an interesting mix of arty, contemporary and industrial decor and the menu is a mix of tapas style dishes and upscale American classics, such as Truffled Mac and Cheese, Bacon Wrapped Meatloaf, Shrimp and Grits and so much more. It was a great Sunday night meal and I'll definitely be back.


  1. Restaurants are among the cornerstones of modern and civilized living, where food and nutrition is refined to varying levels of sophistication and purpose. That's what makes them enduring and lucrative. Anyway, I wish you all the best. May you continue to stay with the restaurant business, and try to find various opportunities with your product of choice.

    Brian Carter @ Restaurant Business Broker

  2. I for one agree with your statement about it being a hard business and a tough place to work in. You not only need to be able to work by yourself but with others as a team. Saying that it can also be really rewarding. Keep up the hard work because it all pays off in the end! Love the detailed Q & A as well! Great read.