Appetites: Couples and romance in the restaurant

Sun Street Breads
Baker Solveig Tofte, who owns and operates Sun Street Breads with her husband Martin Ouimet, checks on loaves of challah bread Friday morning, Feb. 8, 2013 at the Minneapolis bakery. Tofte is in charge of baking and the kitchen, while Ouimet takes care of coffee and the front of house.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Restaurant kitchens aren't exactly romantic environments. Between the sweltering temperatures, the fast pace, and the stress, they're more like literal pressure cookers.

And yet, it's an environment that has bonded more than one local culinary couple.

With St. Valentine's Day just around the corner, Rachel Hutton, senior editor of Minnesota Monthly magazine, is here to tell us how some of them manage to juggle a restaurant and a relationship.

Tom Crann: How does working in a restaurant breed romance?

Rachel Hutton: First off, it's physically demanding work, so it tends to draw younger staff, and, therefore, more single people.

Compared to employees who work in cubicles, there can be more collaboration and more opportunity for social interaction with your coworkers — even just a brief word or glances as you hand someone a plate. Also, the hours are odd, often later than most people's other friends stay out, so coworkers tend to socialize with one another after work.

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Tom Crann: The collaboration can be good for relationships, but it's also stressful, right?

Rachel Hutton: Yes, chef Lenny Russo once told me that when he became the head chef at the old Loring cafe, one of his first interactions with the best server, Mega, was to yell at her, and that she was so mad at him she nearly quit. Today, she's his wife, and they co-own Heartland in St. Paul. Russo described the change as being like one of those romantic comedies when the people hate each others' guts and end up falling in love.

Tom Crann:Do culinary couples celebrate their Valentine's Days cooking each other amazing, decadent meals?

Rachel Hutton: Since Feb. 14 tends to be one of the busiest days of the year, they're always working, so they probably all celebrate Valentine's Day Observed.

I think lots of chefs see Valentine's Day as a sort of fake, commercialized holiday, but appreciate what a boost it adds to their bottom line.

Tom Crann: Well, do these couples at least get to spend their holidays together, even if they're spending it in the kitchen?

Rachel Hutton: Somewhat surprisingly, some couples — especially if one oversees the kitchen while the other manages the business operations — don't see each other as much as you might think.

For example, Mitch Omer of Hell's Kitchen does most of his work at the restaurant while his wife, Cynthia Gerdes, sits behind a computer at home. Or chef Russell Klein of Meritage in St. Paul goes in to work later and stays later than his wife, Desta.

Tom Crann:What about the other end of the kitchen timeclock? Baker's hours must be hard, too.

Rachel Hutton: Definitely. Solveig Tofte of Sun Street Breads in south Minneapolis starts work after midnight, then her husband, Martin, gets their daughter off to school in the morning and then comes in to oversee the kitchen. They recently decided not to offer dinner service because they needed more family time.

Tom Crann:Now one of the Twin Cities more prominent restaurant couples have opened new location. How's that affecting their relationship?

Rachel Hutton: Chef Stewart Woodman and his wife — and restaurant namesake — Heidi, have opened their second restaurant, Birdhouse, they must be spending more time apart.

One of our writers, Jason DeRusha, talked to Woodman about this recently. He said they are still able to eat meals together at the restaurants. But he joked that their sexy conversations have been more focused on the business lately; less "50 Shades of Grey" than "Fifty Shades of Food Cost."

Tom Crann:What about couples who run seasonal food operations, like food truckers? Do they get more time together?

Rachel Hutton: The women who run the Chef Shack food truck, Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson, have taken past winters off. And, they've taken that time to travel to places around southeast Asia and India, sampling street food to get ideas for their next season here. They have recently opened a brick-and-mortar location, so those off-season travel opportunities may be running out.

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