What Makes Restaurant Couples Cook?

I love my wife, but I can’t imagine working with her. (A married couple working together in television news? That would never work anyway.) So what is it about restaurant power couples? Marrying your coworker and opening a restaurant together, as Russell and Desta Klein did, seems crazy to me.

“In truth we see each other very little,” says Desta, the general manager of Meritage in downtown St. Paul, who met her husband/business partner when they worked together at W.A. Frost seven years ago. She goes in early to handle managerial and administrative tasks. Chef Russell gets to the kitchen by 11 a.m. to oversee the kitchen operations and visit with guests, typically staying until 9 p.m. “The most difficult thing about running a restaurant together is probably just the sheer amount of hours,” Desta says. “And despite what many people assume, most of our time is apart.”

The long hours required to run a bakery/restaurant proved to be a little too much for the couple behind Sun Street Breads in south Minneapolis. Chief baker Solveig Tofte often arrives at 2 a.m. to work the dough. Her husband, Martin Ouimet, gets their 7-year-old daughter off to school and then comes in to run the kitchen (he’s  behind the amazing gravy, sausage, and sandwiches). Tofte and Ouimet served dinner for about a year before pulling the plug. “We were stretched too thin,” Tofte says. Even though they weren’t there every night—Solveig usually leaves by 2 p.m. to be on mom duty—demands outpaced financial return.

Mitch Omer and Cynthia Gerdes, co-owners of Hell’s Kitchen, have found their key to happiness: she works at home on the business operations, while he works in the restaurant. “If I were a cook, we’d have divorced a long time ago,” Cynthia laughs. But Mitch seeks his wife’s input on menu changes: “It comes out better than if I would have done it alone.”

Now that they’ve opened a second business, restaurateurs Stewart and Heidi Woodman are primarily working in separate locations. Heidi spends most of her time at their new venture, Birdhouse, while Stewart holds down the kitchen at Heidi’s. Still, they are talking constantly and together quite a bit. “The best part is that we love to sit and eat together, which we now do often at our places,” says Stewart. “The worst part is that sometimes sexy talk is all about the P&L [profit and loss]—Fifty Shades of Food Cost,’” he jokes.

Jason DeRusha is a reporter/anchor at WCCO-TV. Have a dining mystery you want Jason to solve? E-mail him at DeRushaEats@gmail.com