Two Flowers, One Pot

Matt and Janel Bennett of Sybaris Bistro in Albandy. Photo by Marcus Larson.
Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton and Greg Denton of Ox Restaurant in Portland. Photo by Evan Sung.
John and Caprial Pence, nationally knowculinary instructors. Photo provided.

By Mark Stock

There’s a charmingly honest scene in “Cutie and the Boxer,” a movie about two Japanese artists living and working under the same New York City roof. Noriko, aka Cutie and the longtime wife of impressionist painter Ushio Shinohara, is asked if it is difficult being a couple with the same profession. She hardly blinks before offering the perfect response:

“We are like two flowers in one pot,” Noriko replies. “It’s difficult. Sometimes we don’t get enough nutrients for both of us. But when everything goes well, we become two beautiful flowers.”

The kitchen is the chef’s studio and the same simile applies here. Many Oregon restaurants are owned by husband and wife duos, and they’ll be the first to tell you it’s not always Champagne and caviar. Yet, it takes a special talent to excel on planet restaurant, and when a couple possesses the ability to do so, the results can be doubly impressive.

I asked five culinary couples five questions. I expected a lot of crossover, at least with the first four. The same analogies, the identical hardship or joy expressed in the same fashion. After all, they all toil in the same perfectionism-bent, pressure cooker industry otherwise known as restaurant management. But each couple offered its own tweak to the expected. And in a profession teeming with innovation and artistic license, perhaps that’s what I ought to have expected in the first place.

Sybaris Bistro

Set in the mid-Willamette Valley, Sybaris Bistro is in the thick of one of the most fertile agricultural corridors in the country. Expectedly, the menu reflects that richness, sourcing from a slew of Oregon purveyors. The Albany restaurant began in 2001 and has since caught the attention of the prestigious James Beard Foundation, including Best Chef: Northwest nominations in both 2011 and 2012.

Chef Matt Bennett and wife Janel started Sybaris 13 years ago and continue to run the place today. Janel writes the wine list while Matt tends kitchen. Almost everything is made in house, from bread to ketchup to ice cream. He has consistently operated under the philosophy that if he can make a better product than what’s out there commercially, why not make it himself?

Sybaris, named after an ancient Greek city on the Gulf of Taranto in southern Italy, offers Franco-Northwest American fare from a menu that changes monthly.

Is it difficult working in the same profession, let alone workspace?

Matt: Since we both work in the same restaurant, the inherent server-cook (read “cat-dog dynamic”) tension is multiplied exponentially by the wife-husband relationship. For the most part, we have worked out our respective roles in the restaurant’s first few months. Epic battles complete with tears, yelling and long periods of silence all occurred until we realized that our marriage is more important than the restaurant.

Janel: It was definitely trying at first. We were not used to being around each other as much as we were when we started Sybaris. I love him dearly, but every time I turned around, there he was! It got to the point where we had nothing to talk about because I would tell him about a conversation I had earlier in the day, and he would say, “I know. I was there.” We adjusted to it, but it took a while to get used to.

Are you constantly bouncing ideas off Each other? New dishes, new pairings, new ingredients, even away from the restaurant?

Matt: I get ideas for dishes all of the time — some are cooler in my head than they would be in the dining room. Janel acts as a censor for some of my crazier ideas. We have found that people are more willing to take a chance on an exotic dish if it is offered as an appetizer rather than a main course, so that is usually our compromise.

Janel: Every time we go out to eat, Matt’s mind is constantly working during the meal. He might find a new ingredient he hasn’t worked with before at a Chinese restaurant and say, “Hey, we could use this ingredient in a whole new way with other, local ingredients!” He seems to come up with new ways to combine flavors all the time.

In many ways, opening or owning a restaurant seems like having a kid in that once you do it, it needs to be nurtured for life. Is this a fair analogy?

Matt: A restaurant isn’t really like a kid. Children grow up and go on to accomplish their own goals after years of nurturing. A restaurant is more like a dairy farm; if you don’t milk the cows twice a day, they get sick. You need to sell the milk to get paid.

Janel: I think a restaurant is more like a second home and family. We certainly spend more time at the restaurant then we do in our own home! Most of our staff has been with us for years, one for the entire 13 years that we have been in business. I think if you ask our staff, they would say that I am the mother hen to everyone and that Matt is the fair-but-firm father. We nurture the staff, and, in turn, they take care of us and the restaurant.

Is the high pressure environment of running a restaurant a good relationship test?

Matt: Restaurants are a notorious divorce-making business. If your marriage is shaky to start, the restaurant will shatter it. Restaurants offer so many temptations that lead to marital grief. They also provide an opportunity to better your community, and that is the road we have chosen.

Janel: Working together closely in the restaurant is a test, that’s for sure. I think we respect each other enough to hear each other out. I don’t recommend it for everyone, but I think our relationship is stronger because we made it through the storm.

What’s the most romantic meal you’ve shared?

Matt: Our most romantic meal is a cliché but true. Killer bread, a perfect pear, OK wine and unpasteurized brie on the banks of the Seine; Eiffel Tower in full view, watching the sunset (for real).

Janel: What stands out for me when asked this question are the picnic dates we used to share before the restaurant and kids. Matt would ask what country I would like to visit and then prepare traditional foods from the chosen country. We would pick out a movie, throw down a blanket in front of the TV and eat together. Apparently I chose Greece quite a bit because he eventually barred me from that country.

Ox Restaurant

Fastened to the wood-fired grilling techniques of Argentina, Ox is one of Portland’s more exotic eateries. Chef Greg Denton, who previously worked with Thomas Keller at Bouchon in Napa, runs Ox with his wife, Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton. The two have worked together for more than a decade, including most recently at Metrovino in the Pearl District. Now at Ox, they  are focused on meaty, South American-inspired dishes like grass-fed Uruguayan ribeye, grilled lamb heart and cocoa-braised lamb shoulder. The Northeast Portland restaurant was named Restaurant of the Year in 2013 by The Oregonian.

Is it difficult working in the same profession, let alone workspace?

Greg: It’s not hard working in the same profession or kitchen together. We’ve been working in professional kitchens together since 1999, even before we were a couple, and we have always had a true connection. I think we are very lucky to have found each other!

Are you constantly bouncing ideas off of Each other? New dishes, new pairings, new ingredients, even away from the restaurant?

Greg: All the time. We’re always bouncing ideas off of each other. Actually, nothing goes on the menu without conversation. We both need to feel like it’s something we would be excited about ordering if we were a guest at Ox.

In many ways, opening or owning a restaurant seems like having a kid in that once you do it, it needs to be nurtured for life. Is this a fair analogy?

Greg: It is fair, but I look at the restaurant more like a car or an engine. You need to love it, clean it and take care of it. I feel the parental role comes into play more with the employees that you work with. You have to be supportive, listen, give advice and sometimes discipline as you might a child.

Is the high pressure environment of running a restaurant a good relationship test? 

Greg: It is, in the sense that you are either in it for the long haul or for the short term. People who are not in this industry can sometimes romanticize it, but the culinary business is a marathon, not a sprint. If you want to get into it with a partner, you need to make sure that commitment level is there. Because, when times get tough, all that romance you had in your head goes screaming out the back door.

What’s the most romantic meal you’ve shared?

Greg: Because our world revolves around food, we have shared so many romantic meals that it’s hard to keep track of them. The most recent incredibly romantic meal(s) we had was over a long weekend at the coast. It was our anniversary, and we just cooked great food, drank great wine, had no television or cell phone reception, we had our kids (two mastiffs) with us, and we listened to great music from the ’40s. Over three nights, we indulged in everything from oysters, smoked salmon and caviar to grilled foie gras and steak.

Caprial & John Pence

Gracing the local public television screen since 2003, John and Caprial Pence have hosted cooking shows, owned a restaurant and led culinary classes. Presently, the duo is putting on pop-up supper clubs as well as educational demonstrations and seminars at their northeast Portland space. The Pences ran beloved Caprial’s Kitchen in the Westmoreland neighborhood of Portland from 1992 to 2007. While gifted chefs, the Pences have demonstrated a Julia Child-like philosophy that good food is not a foreign entity and can be achieved in your own kitchen with your own two hands.

Is it difficult working in the same profession, let alone workspace?

Caprial: Sometimes it can be but after so many years of working together, we work pretty seamlessly together. Knowing what your partner’s strengths are really helps keep the flow of the kitchen moving easily.

Are you constantly bouncing ideas off each other? New dishes, new pairings, new ingredients, even away from the restaurant?

Caprial: Always. Not much of the day goes by that we are not talking about food.

In many ways, opening or owning a restaurant seems like having a kid in that once you do it, it needs to be nurtured for life. Is this a fair analogy?

Caprial: It is more like having a teenager that is happy one moment and the world is ending the next. It is also a bit like having a dairy farm. You really can’t leave it long even with the best staff and manager.

Is the high pressure environment of running a restaurant a good relationship test?

Caprial: It can test it in so many ways. Money pressures, time pressures, and if you add a family in the mix, it can be a challenge. John and I decided early on no matter what happens we would never blame the other person for anything. It was always the two of us.

What’s the most romantic meal you’ve shared?

Caprial: We have had many in our 31 years together, but I have to say some of my favorites are when we are camping, just the two of us on the river!

There are other coveted restaurants featuring couples at the helm, of course. Painted Lady in Newberg, run by Allen Routt and Jessica Bagley, is one of the best wine country has to offer. Paley’s Place in Portland has become an institution, commanded by longtime partners Vitaly and Kimberly Paley. The list is lengthy.

The ever-expanding food and wine scene here means that kind of love — the one shared by two people not only for each other but for what’s on the plate or in the glass — has stretched into more and more restaurants, wineries and even food carts.

If relationships were as easy as ordering a pepperoni pizza, there’d be very little romance. And romance does not demand a certain number of Michelin stars, if any. Remember, it can be as simple as a campfire and a view of the river. A fresh-picked flower, or two, can’t hurt either.

Mark Stock, a Gonzaga grad, is a Portland-based freelance writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon. He currently works at Vista Hills Winery.


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