Tony and Kevin. Two Chefs Gone Too Soon.

When I think of Anthony Bourdain, I can’t help but thinking of my friend, Kevin Weeks. Both chefs and both lost to this world too soon, each harbored some of the same qualities: an unquenchable and unyielding appetite for life, a passion for what they did and a similar passion to share it, and a deep and tireless curiosity to learn more about the world and its people. They were also two very influential people on my career and in my life.

I first read Kitchen Confidential two years into my life in the restaurants, right as I was deciding if this was going to in fact be my life, and I was going to abandon whatever my earlier plan had been—law school, journalism…cubicles. I was working for Kevin–a chef with wild red hair, chili pepper tattoos, a love for music, photography, painting, books, anything interesting really, and the sensibility that sleep was optional.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I loved being in this business. With Bourdain’s book in my hand, I nestled myself under Kevin’s wing, and I figured this path was sure as Hell good as any other I was considering.

From there, the wild ride began, and it continues to this day. I struggled mightily, I failed repeatedly, but I pressed on. I remember thinking early on with a mix of fear and excitement, “Holy shit. Is this what it is like?” Kevin basically responded, “Yes. And no. Now get back to work. And you’re buying tonight.”

I did it because I loved the heat and the salt and the night and the noise. I did it because I felt, even then, that I only had once chance on the ride, and I wouldn’t take the path well-traveled because I was supposed to. But I also did it because I wanted to be like Kevin. And in a way, like Anthony Bourdain.

Anthony Bourdain pushed himself out of his comfort zone in so many ways. He wrote his story beautifully, and then he spent years telling other people’s stories. He went where many others had not—across borders and onto the backstreets, down the alleys and through the dark doors without fear or prejudice. And then he left the comfort zone of his new famous life and owned up to his past, supporting the #metoo movement in our business and becoming a leader when our industry needed them the most.

It was remarkable to watch Bourdain’s career evolve. He was to me, a good chef, a brilliant writer, and a preternatural connector. Rarely can someone meander their way to match their career with their true talent. He brought the secret pain and joy of the professional kitchen to the masses, and then he went further to connect the world to itself. I don’t think we will know the significance of his loss for some time.

Kevin died in a car crash, the result of a negligent driver, over 11 years ago. He was 35. My wife was seven months pregnant with our daughter. At the time, we were planning a restaurant together that would become Eventide. He never got to see it, and he never got to meet Evelyn. Many of us that were lucky to be in his orbit have never forgotten that awful night, never forgotten the impact he had on us and never stopped missing him.

I gave a eulogy for Kevin—one of many given—where I tried to sum up what it meant when I said we should all wake in the morning and “Do something Kevin today.” Essentially it means at least for a moment, go and grab life into your hands. Inhale deeply, taste it all, slurp up every drop and then…go back in for more. Break out of your mold, free yourself from your rut, and seek and savor something new. Kevin was a chef, but he was also so much more. He could do it all, and he would try anything.

Anthony Bourdain did that over and over. It makes me so sad to see how that was possible for someone so similar to my friend, and to wonder just what Kevin could have done if he had more time to grow. I have no doubt it would have been special, and I don’t think anyone who ever met him would doubt it either.

And yet here we are, and the world pushes on without the benefit of these two extraordinary people. There is nothing we can do about it, and they would surely not want us to linger in our loneliness. For more than 10 years, I have been trying to do that, and I am buoyed by the thought—the hope, really—that Kevin would be proud of me. I don’t know how else to do it.

I imagine that Anthony would have liked Kevin, and that Kevin would have liked Anthony. I like to think they would have loved to sit together, slurping noodles, slamming back shots and laughing and singing. I would have liked to be there as well; sitting there being grateful to know them and trying not to say anything stupid.

I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in Heaven. But the idea that maybe the two of them could be sharing that meal together now makes me pause–and smile. And in another 40 years or so, if there is an extra chair, and I get to sit down, I would be grateful.

Kevin with a huge striped bass he caught off Martha’s Vineyard before he cleaned it and cooked it for us, and Kevin and I headed to or from (can’t remember) or friend’s wedding.

The New Grandmothers

Last night I had the great honor to meet world-renowned Chef Massimo Bottura. Chef Bottura is much more than a perennial winner of Michelin stars, best restaurant awards and every other accolade that can be awarded in our business. He is in fact a transcendent figure with a vision that goes far beyond his restaurant in Modena. I encourage everyone to watch his episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix to see what I am talking about.

Chef was in town at American University to promote his new book, Bread is Gold, a collaboration with other chefs of great renown. It is a recipe book, but it is also a vision for the future. In Chef’s eyes, the key to providing food for those who need it lies not in increased production, but in decreased waste.

As part of a panel discussion with local thought leader Chef Spike Mendelsohn, the notion that culinary traditions—and guidance on how to appreciate and not waste food—is less and less a thing passed down from grandmothers or others in our families. Our society, particularly in America, lacks that generational connection in many ways. And so, who is there to replace them? Who can carry on the legacy of appreciating that food comes from effort, from the earth, and it must be savored when eaten, cared for with love, and least of all, wasted?

Perhaps chefs?

Moderator Mitchell Davis from the James Beard Foundation threw out that notion acknowledging that concurrent with the decline in family traditions, there is a rise in the celebrity status of chefs. No longer in the back of the house, they are now front and center on panels, at the White House, on TV and in every conceivable venue for influence that exists.

They wield great power in influencing our culture, especially the younger generations, on how to treat food. They can act as thought leaders and shape generations and perhaps solve this great problem in our world as we race towards a more crowded—and hungry—planet.

Quite a responsibility indeed. Especially when many of these men and women have responsibilities to their businesses and families. However, what an extraordinary opportunity. And it can be done in a granular level by showing people how to prepare food for themselves, in their homes, with love and care for the ingredients. Just like your grandmother might have shown you.

Chef Bottura’s career has been defined by bold—and perhaps reckless—visions that he makes into reality through a singular combination of passion, drive and savvy. And of course, with a tremendous team to support him. This latest vision represents just the latest move for a man who seems hellbent on leading the way and creating change. From Parmesan 5 Ways to making Cacio e Pepe a rallying cry for earthquake victims to driving our world to think differently about how it eats—and wastes—food.

Just another crazy idea. One that may be gold.

Grazie, Chef.

Why Invest in Restaurants? Why Not!

You have all heard some variance of the adage, “Nine out of ten restaurants fail within the first year.” I can’t argue that makes it hard to sell restaurants as an investment. Except for one thing—it isn’t true.

Not even close.

In fact, only 17% of restaurants fail within the first year, the lowest number of any service providing business including real estate agents and brokerages. This myth has been debunked over and over, but the data I am using comes from a comprehensive study by two economists. The summary was published in Forbes.

Hmm. How then, given that the facts override the myth does it linger? Well there is one theory, but this isn’t a column about what are facts, do they matter, and can I make up my own facts if I want to? I’ll save that for another time (teaser: you in fact can’t make up your own facts).

Accepting for now that facts are facts, I think this quote from the researchers sums it up:

“Perhaps due to the visibility and volume of restaurant startups, the public perception is that restaurants often fail. However, as shown in this paper, restaurant turnover rates are not very different from startups of many other different industries.”

The fact is, what we do is for all to see. If the price of gas on a big sign is an indicator of the entire energy sector, or the economy for that matter, then the restaurant on the corner of your block, or the turnover in the entire neighborhood, is a sure sign of the risk of the industry, right?

Hardly.

Humans are notoriously terrible at estimating risk (if we were good at it, we would never drive a car), and the fact that our business successes and failures play out literally in the streets for all to see doesn’t help defeat false narratives.

The reality, however, is that many restaurants and bars and other food and drink businesses make it. In fact, many of these businesses scale far beyond their first store, and there are many opportunities for follow on investments and exits.

Don’t believe me? Fair enough. But would you believe Steve Case? The billionaire co-founder of AOL and founder of venture capital fund, Revolution LLC is very bullish on food. To the tune of tens of millions of dollars over several rounds poured into local startup, Sweetgreen (personal favorite: Rad Thai) and other food ventures. From its inception as a tiny salad spot in Georgetown, Sweetgreen has grown exponentially and is now valued at over $500 million. That’s a lot of green.

That’s one example, and a high profile one at that, but I assure you the list goes on. Whether it is Cava Grill raising $60 million (mostly from Revolution), or Spider Kelly’s entering our seventh year with rosy sales forecasts, examples of successful companies in this business abound.

But sure, there is risk. There are no guarantees, and it is a tricky business—customers are fickle and competition is fierce.

So, what is the secret? How do you improve your odds of picking the right opportunity and mitigating the risk? Ahem. Allow me to introduce myself…

By carefully selecting the founders I work with, patiently curating the concepts so they are ready for primetime and balancing out our portfolio to diversify, I am working hard to put our investors in the best possible position. And of course, I am jumping in with them, side by side.

Will that guarantee success? Absolutely not. But I sure as Hell can beat a 90% fail rate. And you shouldn’t need Steve Case to know that.

Reach out if you want to learn more.

Real Change. Right Here.

For many years, I was a Big Brother. Of course, I have been a big brother for all but those first two blissful years of my life (sorry, Ben), but the capitalized version is different. Big Brothers Big Sisters is a one-to-one mentoring organization that provides youth with adult role models—someone to provide guidance and positive examples. It is a great organization, and the reason I did it was that I wanted to be a part of change I could see right in front of me, right here where I live. There is no anonymity in mentoring, and the change you see is immediate and personal.

I have been looking for some time for an organization that can have the same effect, but on the broader community I live in and the industry I work in. I found it in La Cocina VA. After hearing a piece on NPR about the organization, I called the same day. I joined the Board of Directors weeks later.

La Cocina VA is primarily a culinary training center that provides people—primarily recent immigrants—with the skills and certification they need to work in the hospitality industry. “Job creators” are useless if there is no one with training to fill the jobs. La Cocina provides our industry with qualified and eager workers—something that we desperately need.

More than that, however, La Cocina VA offers hope to our most vulnerable community in the DC area. Language training, conflict resolution, counseling and food assistance are all a part of the program. La Cocina VA wants our members to become impactful members of the community beyond their job, and they understand that the ripple effect of that can be far and wide.

I am thrilled to have been asked to serve, and I hope that I can offer help in taking the organization to the next level. We are currently planning an ambitious new center in South Arlington. There will be a café and catering company to serve the Arlington residential and business community as well as an expanded training center and a culinary incubator to help members learn about the possibilities of entrepreneurship—yeah, I am all over that last part…

From the tiny basement of a church two blocks from where I grew up in Arlington, in the next couple years La Cocina VA will grow into a powerful force for change right here where we live. Skeptical? Look no further than the Founder and CEO, Paty Funegra. She quit her job to start La Cocina VA, and in its short existence, they’ve been visited by Senators and Congressmen, and she has been invited to the White House to talk about the mission.

I hope you’ll keep an eye on our progress and come visit us when we open the center—coffee is on me. Wait, foget that. Pay up—it’s for a good cause.

City Paper Feature Article

 

Spring Brings New Deals

I have been dying to write this blog post as all the details were being settled and all the documents signed. There is a long blog post in me about my love-hate relationship with lawyers. One of whom is my partner. Another time.

Nonetheless, as I write this the sun is bright and warm, and the air smells sweet from new blossoms and feels soft on my skin. Spring is here, and it is the time to leap forward with excitement and hope. As the last nails are hammered in for Takoma Beverage Company, they are only a moment from bursting into life. It has been an incredible—and incredibly fast—journey with founders Seth and Chris, and I am thrilled to see the opening just ahead. I hope you will come visit the store sometime to see for yourself what makes it such a great concept.

And more is coming to life in this season of naissance. We have partnered with two incredible concepts, and we are fundraising for both. Take a look below, and feel free to reach out to me if you are interested in hearing more.


 

City-State Brewing Company
The Flavor of the District

Founders James Warner and Kim Carnahan are committed to paying homage to their adopted hometown of Washington, DC, but they know that it will take more than a name to make a mark on the DC beer scene. James quit a promising career in politics to go all in on his hobby. He has worked in every capacity in the business, and all the while with the intent to learn as much as possible about the beer business so that City-State can be as successful as possible. I was sold on the beer at first taste, and it didn’t take much longer for me to be sold on the team. With a solid business plan in place and a significant amount of money already raised, James and Kim are far along in the process. Mothersauce will join with them to get City-State across the finish line and open for business.

The Eleanor
Bowling Lounge, Music, Bar & Grill

Adam Stein is a well-respected Chef and industry veteran who has launched multiple successful concepts over the years, and now he is ready to launch his own. The Eleanor will help to define Ivy City as the District’s next great neighborhood. The 7,000 square foot location will feature four bowling lanes, event/music space, a movie screen, bar and lounge area and an outdoor patio geared for large scale food and drink events like pig roasts and crab boils. Think of it as a cooler, bolder Spider Kelly’s. The Eleanor has the size, the style and the skill to make a huge impact that will go far beyond its neighborhood. With an LOI in hand for the location, the founders are ready to get going.


I hope that you enjoy this season and the hope and excitement it brings. It is great time for our company, and if you are interested in being a part of all that we are doing, feel free to reach out to me anytime at nick@mothersaucepartners.com.