Claire Chan & Gemma Kamin-Korn on Finding Balance in Restaurant Work
"Even though we could milk it for all it's worth, maybe let’s milk it for most of its worth, and leave a few drops."
Claire Chan is owner of the Elk coffee shops and Bar Beau restaurant and bar in New York. Gemma Kamin-Korn is executive chef at Bar Beau.
How did you two meet?
CLAIRE: I like to say that Gemma was the best thing that could have happened to me over Craigslist because we found each other there serendipitously. I feel so fortunate because Craigslist can be so hit or miss with hiring. Someone with Gemma’s experience and general awesomeness is not easy to find.
So you were just advertising for a chef on Craigslist?
CLAIRE: That’s right.
And when was that?
CLAIRE: That was back in 2018, Gemma? Or was it 2017, because you started before we finished construction?
GEMMA KAMIN-KORN: I feel like I’d been involved since like April 2018— or did the cafe open that April and I was on since February?
CLAIRE: Okay yeah, it was 2018 then, because we opened the restaurant in July 2018. But Gemma came on earlier that year.
Gemma, did you know about Bar Beau or the Elk then, or had you heard about Claire?
GEMMA: I had not known about the Elk, or anything about Claire. I didn’t Google her. I don’t know if her name was even attached to the ad, and I don’t know if Bar Beau had an actual name yet. I went in blind and optimistic, with Craigslist being the crapshoot that it can be. Since the project was still very much under construction, there was a lot of vagueness. So it was just like, I’ll go talk to this person. What’s the worst that could happen? I’m not going to get abducted. It’s fine.
I wasn’t going to mention that but I guess abduction still remains a consideration when responding to Craigslist ads. Claire, when you were advertising for the job, how concrete was your idea for what Bar Beau was going to be?
CLAIRE: There was definitely a general idea of what we wanted in terms of size, menu, types of offerings. But I always knew that whoever we brought on, I’d welcome them, and want them to really put their mark on it. We had a mock menu of ideas to throw around and discuss, given the limitations of space. Otherwise, we worked together on refining it.
Was there any particular experience that helped solidify the idea, once you started working together?
CLAIRE: Gemma, remember when we made you make the asparagus dish?
GEMMA: I was going to say, it was the tonnato. I feel like that sealed the deal for you.
CLAIRE: That’s what it was. We were cooking out of a home kitchen at the time because we were constructing the restaurant. Bar Beau is so different from the Elk because it’s a different style of service and a different style of food. It really is such a different concept. So I was also exploring as I went and learning from the people around me. Gemma was definitely one of those people, and still is. One of the dishes she made for us during the interview process was this amazing asparagus dish.
GEMMA: That was my interview dish!
CLAIRE: We were like, “What can you do with asparagus? It’s in season right now.” And she made this beautiful asparagus tonnato with bonito flakes. It was amazing. And I’m like, “We need to have this on our opening menu!” And we did.
Is the tonnato still on the menu?
CLAIRE: We still talk about it, but she’s moved on.
GEMMA: I like to switch things out often, and I don’t like to go back to things a lot of the time. I’ll draw references or use variations of stuff, but it’s my own mentality that like—it happened, it had a moment, let’s move on. It’s in the past.
Did the experience of getting through the worst of the pandemic change anything about how you work, or how you view your position in hospitality?
GEMMA: I feel so fortunate that we did make it through. It wasn’t always pretty. But it happened. It’s wonderful that it did. Claire has always been an amazing boss in the sense that she’s very understanding. She looks at the business holistically. She understands that treating your staff well is going to make them better workers. And not all bosses and owners are like that. A lot of people are horrible tyrants.
When you normally work 6 days a week, 16 hours a day, and then the pandemic closes you down, you take a step back and say, “Well, okay, if I don’t have work to do now, what do I have?” You need to cultivate another aspect of your life that’s not just work. Work isn’t forever, though neither is your life I guess. But there needs to be more. So I think post-pandemic, I really do feel like the business has a little bit more balance. It’s not always about—just because you can, you should. There’s something to be said for a little bit of restraint. Even though we could milk it for all it’s worth, maybe let’s milk it for most of its worth, and leave a few drops.
Any examples you care to share of some aspect of your life or work you’ve cultivated according to that realization?
CLAIRE: At Bar Beau, we closed our coffee shop and adjusted the concept a little. What are we doing great? Let’s just focus on that. It really helps us focus on what matters, and still experiment, and still try to be fresh and new. Similarly, with the new opening of the Elk in Nolita, my GM over there, Bella, is working so hard, and she’s so committed, and she cares so much, which I really, really appreciate. I’ve seen her go from a supervisor role to manager.
But I can see that she is not taking care of herself. I needed to step in as the owner and her boss to say, “This is not life or death right now. We need to take care of ourselves.” That’s a huge lesson from going through the pandemic. You must take care of yourself to be a strong leader, and to be able to take care of others.
That’s certainly wonderful. I’m struck though how not so long ago, in most traditional hospitality environments, that sort of conversation would never happen.
CLAIRE: Yeah. It would be considered weakness.
How was that received?
CLAIRE: Bella’s young, and she’s without her family here in New York. She’d been focused on doing her job and on other people. I think having someone in authority express care and compassion was a little moving for her.
I remember at one of our managers’ meetings, I asked, “Well, how’s everyone doing? Are we all taking care?” Bella and the others started laughing, and Bella asked if I was their psychologist now. And I thought, oh gosh, did I overstep? I didn’t mean to. I really do want to know. I really want to protect everyone and make sure that everyone is mentally sound.
“I asked, ‘Well, how’s everyone doing? Are we all taking care?’ … I really do want to know. I really want to protect everyone and make sure that everyone is mentally sound.”
Did you make any operational changes to how the business runs as a result of this paradigm shift?
CLAIRE: We’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, which was something we decided to do during the pandemic. This is a business decision to choose quality of life. We have a lean team at Bar Beau. They get time off, and we close for a week around July 4th so that the staff can get a break. I’m doing a similar thing over Labor Day with the Elk. Yes, that’s a loss of business, and as a business owner and sole provider, that doesn’t feel good. But this is a long-term thing, and those are the considerations.
GEMMA: That’s one of the things I was referencing when I was talking about not squeezing everything for all it’s worth. That second day off is crucial, and it wasn’t a guarantee for a very long time for many, many reasons. So now that it is, it’s a huge peace of mind and a huge benefit to my work-life balance and overall happiness.
CLAIRE: We’re strategic about it, for sure. We try to consider everyone’s interests, including the business and the managers.
Do you anticipate trying to open more locations for Bar Beau, like you have for the Elk?
CLAIRE: I’m definitely open to it. It’s a unique concept that I think would do really well in other places. But while the Elk is in a place that’s ready to scale, Bar Beau is not there yet.
You’re at that stage of scale where you have to learn to delegate and not spread yourself too thin, in anticipation of further change. Going forward, how do you plan to approach more growth, more scaling up?
CLAIRE: I have to really get my power players lined up. I’ve done a lot of internal promotion, but to grow, I would really need some experts involved—from a financial standpoint, from an operating standpoint. As a founder, I’ll always want to be involved in moving it forward. But I think I need to surround myself with more core experts and people that have have done this before in terms of scaling.
What did the pandemic change about restaurants and hospitality in New York, in your view?
CLAIRE: Staffing and labor is definitely the first thing that comes to mind. Gemma, do you want to speak to that?
GEMMA: I’ve actually not had to hire anyone. We’re currently just at the beginning of trying to add another kitchen employee. We have a very lean team, and we did end up bringing some people in. But that was from one of my cooks referring people he knows. I always prefer to do that rather than hire a random person, just for the sense of camaraderie and the melding of personalities.
Random people like you get through Craigslist.
GEMMA: Exactly! It’s always been particularly hard with kitchen people for them to be reliable and consistent, especially on the lower end of the hiring scale. If you’re looking for a new chef de cuisine, generally people are a little more professional and reliable in showing up for an interview. But for a porter or line cook, I feel you like you have a 50-50 chance anyone’s going to show up to interview for various reasons. That’s been exacerbated since the pandemic, and it’s kind of hard to articulate why, because I think there are a number of factors. It just seems to be the general trend.
CLAIRE: I think a lot of people moved on from hospitality because it was transient anyways and seen as that between-careers type of job. The sheer amount of replies we get to job listings has drastically reduced. We used to get a whole slew of replies when we would post on Craigslist or any sort of job forum. And now it’s like crickets, it really is.
Everyone has said it’s been so hard with labor lately, but it didn’t really hit us till our most recent round of turnover. Now we get almost no replies, or people don’t show up for the interview, or they show up for the interview but don’t show up for the job. Like, do you want this job or not? And maybe the answer is no.
“Now we get almost no replies, or people don’t show up for the interview, or they show up for the interview but don’t show up for the job. Like, do you want this job or not? And maybe the answer is no.”
GEMMA: Maybe they don’t actually want the job, or they need it, but just can’t bring themselves to bite the bullet.
CLAIRE: There’s definitely been more transiency and more turnover than the baseline we had before COVID.
GEMMA: I do feel like recently things are starting to normalize a little bit—like it’s getting closer to the regular level of flakiness you normally experience in the hospitality industry.
It seems like there are more women running restaurants and kitchens, at least in New York—anecdotally, anyway. As examples of that trend, do you feel like the typical restaurant industry sexism has receded, or remained about the same?
CLAIRE: Oh, no, it definitely still exists. I mean, we’re greater in number—Gemma, me and, Bella, we’re all female managers. When it comes to staff, there’s a level of respect. But even there, we still experience funny things that are like, “Is that because I’m a woman? Are you speaking to me that way because I’m a woman?” That’s always in the back of my head.
It’s not just with staff, but with neighbors, or tradesmen. It’s always affecting us in some way. We’re definitely aware of it. It’s just how it is.
Are you taking any special precautions or making plans around a possible winter or fall slowdown of business?
GEMMA: Oh, that’s generally our busier time honestly. We’re we’re gearing up for a good season. Or were you talking about a possible resurgence of COVID during the colder months?
COVID plans specifically, given that it tends to surge back in fall and spike in winter. But also generally, how you feel about the upcoming seasons.
CLAIRE: The level of attention we pay to the smallest details—we’re like that anyways, but COVID heightened all that. But I think we’re ready and excited for fall. Gemma is super detailed, and she’s always asking “what if this?” and “don’t forget about that!”, so it puts us in a better position to handle anything that comes our way.
GEMMA: I’m a not a doomsday prepper, but I prepare for the worst and hope for the best. And I do like to prepare long term and have plans, so that just in case something happens, I’m always ready. But Claire has instilled in me a little more flexibility, and the ability to take things as they come a little more gracefully. Between the two of us, whatever happens, we’ll be prepared for it. And however it goes, we’ll adjust.
Do you have any sense that the pandemic permanently altered the dynamic between guests and restaurant staff? In the sense of making each more sensitive to the other’s experience, for example.
CLAIRE: There were elements of that for sure, especially during the thick of the pandemic. I feel like we’re back to business as usual now in terms of customers being particularly thoughtful, or not. But inside the operation itself, there’s a greater sense of care.
GEMMA: There were two sides of the coin. There were people who had the lovely idea of a shared struggle—you’re trying to keep me safe. I’m trying to keep you safe, I’m trying to respect your boundaries. People are a little less concerned these days, and everyone’s let their guard down. There might be some residual deference to humanity in both guests and servers that maybe wasn’t there before.
But the other side of the coin is that some of the worst things ended up coming out of people. That sense of, “I’m going out, and this is my time. I’m going to enjoy it because we didn’t have that for so long.” Especially late at night, people get some drinks in them, they go off and get nuts, and they’re difficult to wrangle. The expectations of service were very high because they hadn’t been out for so long, and their own personal expectations for their happiness of the evening were also so high. I think sometimes all this ended up bringing out the worst in people. That’s not across the board. It was just a few outliers. But it was an ugly period, I’m not going to lie.