Kitchen to Corner Office
Transitioning from Chef to Owner Requires Preparation.
Published: September 2013
City streets and country roads are lined with broken dreams, distinctive diners and clever cafés opened and closed all too soon by well-intentioned chefs with ambitions bigger than their skills and resources. Then there are the restaurants opened by entrepreneur-types who have blended culinary talent with sufficient business savvy and successfully made the move from kitchen to corner office. Not that these true owner-operators take much time to sit down at a desk. Most, like Koho Bistro Owner/Executive Chef Jeff Strom are busy running the front and back of the house, while somehow keeping an eye on the numbers, government regulations and other key issues simmering in the business mix.
“We opened the bistro in three months,” recalls Strom. Along with developing the concept, image, design, decor, and menu, the new business owner suddenly had to consider the bigger picture. “These were things that I never had to think about before, but was now a major factor in the direction I wanted the bistro to take,” explains Strom. “It was a huge challenge!”
Having Partner and General Manager Angela Chan at his side has certainly helped, but even that partnership hasn’t freed Strom from the day-to-day, never-ending responsibilities of an owner-operator. “In the past I was mainly concerned with food cost, kitchen labor and would sometimes inquire about sales numbers on a particularly busy night,” he shares. “Now with my own restaurant, I’m obsessed with numbers, all of them: front of the house, back of the house, sales, labor, food costs, liquor costs, marketing and advertising, human resources, the list just goes on and on. Like a first child, you want to make sure you do everything little thing right. It’s all you think about.”
Proper preparation is vital, according to those who have made the move. “Thankfully, it’s a process that happens over time,” says Marcel Lahsene, a Partner with Chef Vitaly Paley in the Imperial restaurant and Portland Penny Diner. Lahsene realized early in his career that he wanted to venture outside of the confines of the kitchen, but that he needed to understand the whole business to be able to contribute at a greater level. “You realize in your first management position as a Sous Chef that you are charged with running a business. Some of the early responsibilities include ordering produce and managing online labor resources. One realizes rather quickly that the equation requires a lot more than just good food. One also realizes that there are other people on the management team to manage things that as the chef you are or were deemed incapable of.”
Backing away from a passion to take on other opportunities isn’t always so easy. “I think a big part of it is not just transitioning to become an owner, but it’s transitioning to be less in the kitchen as well,” observes Pascal Chureau, Chef/Proprietor at Allium, a neighborhood bistro in West Linn. “Letting go of being 100 percent chef and that side of the business is a little bit scary. You’re still in it, but by stepping away from the kitchen, it kind of rejuvenates your passion. Now you’re able to do it more when you’re ready to do it and when you want to do it, versus all of the time.”
Making the transition from chef to owner, doesn’t mean losing sight of what brought you to new heights in the first place. “I actually had to remember to keep up my food chops and keep my cost and my labor, my food quality and my creative work, while I was adapting and learning some of the business principles that I was trying to do,” says David Machado, owner of Nel Centro in Portland. “It was a challenge. I could have been complacent. I could have just stayed in the restaurant I was working in, been the chef and gone home, but I got on a plane and went to other cities and stayed in hotels. I was away from my family, trying to gain these experiences.
“I think the restaurant business is unique in that it’s always looking for the person who wants to do the work. It’s always looking for the person who is ambitious and aggressive. You’ve got to be confident, but you can’t be just aggressive without competency.”
Being Green, Without Going Into the Red
Published: June 2011
The world is Chef David Machado’s oyster. The owner of Portland’s Nel Centro, Lauro Kitchen, and Vindalho restaurants has added his own interpretations to Mediterranean- and Riviera-inspired recipes, earning him a loyal following of foodies willing to cross rivers and mountains for dishes like Spit Roasted Pork Loin with Creamy Polenta and Rhubarb Chutney.
Though Machado’s menus are influenced by his visits to exotic far-away regions, he doesn’t need to travel to the street markets of Europe to locate the ingredients that fuel his patrons’ passion for Ricotta Pansotti with Humble Tomato Sauce. The talented chef has found sustainable food sources in his own backyard, and he is turning green into gold.
Incorporating home grown sustainable products into a menu doesn’t necessitate Fort Knox for a bank account, but Machado maintains that it does require smarts. He believes that restaurants’ lack of profitability is almost always tied to buying products out of season. “Take a look at asparagus from Chile 30 days after the market in Washington closes for fresh asparagus and see what the price difference is – it’s unbelievable,” reports Machado. “When I buy asparagus or tomatoes, I wait until the price is right,” an opportunity that usually coincides with the bountiful produce harvests in the northwest, he says. “That’s when it’s at a price that everyone can make money, from the grower to the chef.”
There are other reasons Machado prefers to buy close to home. He likes being able to purchase Food Alliance-certified products from Oregon growers, “which means that they’ve been out to the farm to inspect their practices.” That is important to him. “I tend not to buy out of the country for a couple of reasons,” he explains. “One is we don’t know their pesticide practices. I can never be sure of what they are doing. And I tend not to buy out of the country because of the enormous amount of fuel that it takes to bring it here.”
That makes sense considering there are eco-friendlier solutions available in Oregon. “Personally, I would rather see some of the farmers be able to have an outlet through those who are already in the distribution business,” says Machado. “The more stable the distribution, the more stable the pricing and the more access I have to information like what is going to be available next week. They’re making it much better, much easier for chefs to buy product.”
Businessmen like Jim Reynolds, vice president of marketing at Food Services of America (FSA) Portland, relish being that resource for the foodservices industry. FSA Portland, the nation’s first Food Alliance-certified distributor, has developed SNOR® (Sustainable, Natural, Organic, Regional) and Hygeia (healthy alternative choices like gluten-free and low sodium foods) product lines. “It’s very important to us that we walk the walk, that we don’t just hitch onto the latest fad, ride it until it’s not a fad anymore and just jump on the next one,” he says. “We’ve really invested in this as a way of life.”
Reynolds reveals that FSA plans to round out its family of products later this year with a new line. “The third piece for us is the social consciousness piece and that includes things like cage-free animals and involves things like fair trade issues,” he says. “We’re taking care of the earth, we’re taking care of ourselves, and we’re doing the right things.”
That includes conserving energy. “The one thing that we bring to the table in a central redistribution point is the optimization of fuel because instead of a hundred little trucks making a hundred little stops a day, you get one big truck picking everything up and one big truck dropping everything off,” points out Reynolds. “Honestly, the carbon footprint of that is much smaller from a central distribution point of view than from the small individual distribution point of view.”
He adds that the costs associated with sustainable goods could be shrinking as well. “As sustainability and eco-friendly products become more main stream, the prices are reflected as a result,” according to Reynolds. “The materials that are used to make non-eco-friendly products, primarily petroleum, are obviously dictated by the price of fuel. Not only are sustainable products becoming more affordable, I think non-sustainable products are becoming more expensive.” He adds that freight discounts and volume purchases also help control costs, “and by keeping multiple suppliers in stock, you keep them honed on their pricing and focused on being attractive in price as well as in product.”
Williamette Week Restaurant Guide 2010
Published: October 21, 2010
Southwest Portland is packed with hotel restaurants—most of them notably absent from these pages—but Nel Centro is the definitive article: the hotel restaurant’s hotel restaurant. Against the experiments of Clyde Common, the dining room of Hotel Modera isn’t trying to redefine the lobby bar into a neighborhood hot spot (this may be because it’s not really in a neighborhood, unless you think the PSU end of the bus mall counts). Instead, it takes its cue from the enchantingly retrograde futurism of the Wells Fargo Center and other surrounding office towers, and becomes the photo spread out of a vintage Condé Nast Traveler. That design ranges from the hanging lamps, which look like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Christmas baubles, to the corn chowder, whose array of primary colors opened a recent meal. The signature dish—peep those open ovens—is the rotisserie chicken, remarkably moist and tender, perched over a tomato-and-bread salad that soaks up the bird’s juices. There’s roasting of a different kind on the porch: three raised fire pits, for three times the romance of the Doug Fir, with none of the crowd. This is the date spot to take the squeeze you don’t want any of your friends to meet. Hey, if things work out, there’s room service. AARON MESH.
Ideal meal: New York steak with porcini butter and sharp broccoli rabe.
Best deal: The crème brûlée gestures enticingly from the dessert menu at $7. It’s worth splurging on.
Dave Holstrom & Nel Centro ~ 2010 Sante Award Winners
Published: October 30, 2010
2010 Santé Restaurant Awards Winners Announced
Santé is pleased to announce that 88 stellar hospitality-industry professionals are winners of the 2010 Santé Restaurant Awards. Now in their thirteenth year, the Santé Restaurant Awards were created to recognize excellence in restaurant food, wine, spirits, and service hospitality. The Santé Awards program is the only peer-judged restaurant and hospitality competition in North America.
Portland, Oregon — Santé, the Magazine for Restaurant Professionals has named Nel Centro a winner of the 2010 Santé Restaurant Awards. Now in their thirteenth year, the Santé Awards were created to recognize excellence in restaurant food, wine, spirits, and service hospitality. The Santé Awards program is the only peer-judged national restaurant and hospitality competition in North America.
Dave Holstrom, owner and President of Guy du Vin, is the author and director of the wine program at Nel Centro. Chef/Owner David Machado and Dave Holstrom have collaborated on many projects since the mid 1990’s. They worked together at the Heathman Group where Holstrom created a ground breaking wine list at Southpark Seafood Grill and Wine Bar. Holstrom has won numerous awards for his wine programs, including multiple awards from Santé for the Southpark program; Best Wine Lists in America from the Monterey Wine Festival in consecutive years for Southpark and Bluehour; and Restaurant Hospitality’s Annual Best Wine Lists In America for two consecutive years.
Published: July/August 2009
As the Northwest exchanges rain for sunshine, a trio of Portland restaurants are pairing patio dining with summertime fare. Cool off with beverage offerings of carefully crafted cocktails and light summer wines, while taking in the splendor of nearby mountains, downtown views, and garden settings.
It was the pissaladière that got to me: the flavors of earthy Niçoise olives, sweet caramelized onions, and salty anchovies achingly evoked trips to the south of France that were poignantly too far in the past. But if I couldn’t actually go there, at least it seemed I could eat there… or as close as is possible in Portland.
In his new venture Nel Centro (pronounced “chentro” and meaning “in the center”), Portland restaurateur David Machado (Lauro, Vindalho) returns to his downtown hotel roots with an urbane interpretation of what he and Chef de Cuisine R. Paul Hyman are calling Riviera cuisine. It’s Northwest ingredients meets Mediterranean sensibility with dishes that reflect the aromatic herbs and seasonal inspiration of the coastal country from Nice to Genoa.
Platter: Machado Takes a Chance Downtown
by Douglas Perry
Published: May 5, 2009
Next Week, David Machado, who helped spark downtown’s fine dining scene in the 1990s, then pioneered an eastside neighborhood style, returns to the West Side to open Nel Centro (pronounced nell chen-tro). The 115-seat restaurant (plus 55 outdoors) focuses on the twin cuisines of Nice and Genoa, the Riviera cities ruled by the House of Savoy before France and Italy divvied up the coast.
It took David Machado several passes to see the potential for a restaurant at the Hotel Modera, a new boutique hotel near Portland State University. The location, left of downtown’s center, is largely untested for up market restaurants–the closest are Carafe, Veritable Quandary and Higgins–and there are no other hotels within a few blocks. Add to that a whopping 8,000-square-foot restaurant footprint, which makes for a lot of seats to fill even with 174 hotel rooms under the same roof.
“I pride myself in understanding what a location will become,” says Machado, who opened popular Lauro Kitchen on Southeast Division Street when it was dining desert, then spurred the Clinton neighborhood with the contemporary Indian spot Vindalho. “And I just didn’t see how it would work.”
Then he took a closer look at the nearby Park Blocks, museums and concert halls. He realized the new MAX line runs right in front of the hotel and liked the open feeling of the property, thanks in part to the hotel’s swell patio. When Modera’s owners came through with an accommodating lease (and shrunk the restaurant space by nearly half), the deal was sealed.
Why two cuisines? “French is tricky,” he says, “because it carries so many different meanings and straight Genovese just seemed too narrow. “Uniting two cuisines that came out of the same tradition made a lot of sense. When you come right down to it, Portlanders love this kind of food.”
The seasonal, north-Med menu will feature pansotti pasta with walnut sauce; steamed mussels in Pernod and cream; rotisserie leg of lamb with garlic custard; a Swiss chard tart with pine nuts and raisins; and bouillabaisse. Starters and salads run $7-$12, pasta and entrees $14-$24, and bar items around $10. Desserts and baked goods are in the hands of ace pastry chef Lee Posey, who made her name at Pearl Bakery.
Machado, who will serve as culinary director, wrote the menu but hired New Orleans native Paul Hyman as head chef and co-collaborator. Hyman worked at several Big Easy restaurants, including the famed Commander’s Palace, and was executive chef at celeb chef Todd English’s Bonfire Steakhouse in Boston. “He knows French cooking and he’s worked in hotels — that really mattered,” Machado says. “I had to have someone who could do banquets.”
It’s a dicey proposition to open a high-end spot when hotel occupancy is soft and diners are spending less and staying home. “I understand what the challenges are but I’m hoping the location, design and (my) reputation will be enough,” Machado says. “Once we get people in the door, all we need to do is deliver.”
Bread & Butter: Machado Strikes Again
By Anne Marie DiStefano
Published: April 30, 2009
Southeast Portland has been good to David Machado, who owns Lauro Kitchen, 3377 S.E. Division St., and Vindalho, just a few blocks away at 2038 S.E. Clinton St.
For his next venture, he’s moving into the restaurant space inside the new-ish Hotel Modera (1408 S.W. Sixth Ave.) The name is Nel Centro, and the focus will be food from the Italian-French Riviera around Genoa and Nice, with dishes like salt cod croquettes, tuna carpaccio, and bouillabaisse.
The spot is under construction. Machado and his team have taken on the task of turning a yucky motel diner into an airy space that will sync up with the mod look of the hotel.
Machado has made the best of the stylish patio that leads from the street to the lobby of the hotel. Looking out, diners will see a row of firepits creating an effect that Machado calls “Fellini-esque.”
There are raised coves in the ceiling and a big wrap-around bar. There are also two rows of deep booths, because, Machado says, one thing he’s learned in his years as a restaurateur is that Portlanders love to sit in booths. They find it comforting, he says, and maybe they’re less interested in being publicly seen than city-dwellers elsewhere.