Cafe Society

Why These Three Restaurateurs Went Into the Food Industry

People who want an easy life don't go into the food industry. Hours are long, you're on your feet all day, and margins are tight. So why does anyone do it?

Some, like Erin Markham, owner of Saucy Noodle Ristorante -- which I review this week -- literally grew up in the restaurant. "I was raised here," she says, "so it was certainly in the back of my head to be in the restaurant business." And while she worked in other restaurants and studied restaurant management as she got older, "I wasn't thinking I was going to take over the family business." But when her grandfather, Sam Badis, asked her to get involved on a more official basis in the early '90s, she couldn't resist. See also: At Fifty, Saucy Noodle Ristorante Is Like an Old Friend

And when he passed away a few years later, Erin and her husband bought the Noodle. "My biggest joy every day is hearing stories of my grandfather," she says.

Not everyone knows from an early age that cooking is for them. Clay Markwell, chef-owner of Scratch Burrito and Happy Tap, majored in fine arts and photo journalism and later worked in advertising. But as time went on and he realized he was "playing hooky to go home and make homemade sausage and brew beer for Octoberfest parties," he decided to change careers. Markwell left Chicago for Denver and got a job as a prep cook at TAG, which gave him the skills he needed to open Scratch, which celebrated its one-year anniversary this summer.

Then there are chefs like Rachel Best, who turned to restaurants as a way to make money while preparing for something else -- only to find that restaurants were that something else. Best, the executive chef of Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant in Boulder, got her foot in the industry working in the kitchens at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she studied international relations. Later, she also worked at the Dushanbe Teahouse, which is owned by the same restaurant group that runs Leaf.

But Best didn't go straight from academia to Leaf. First, she joined the Peace Corps and worked in Cameroon, and went back to Boulder after a yearlong pit stop at a farm in Virginia. Only then did she decide to return to the kitchen, where she translates the foods she's eaten abroad to dishes on Leaf's plant-based menu. "My minor was in cultural anthropology," says Best. "I'm really into global cuisine. My biggest thing when I travel abroad is to check out food."

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz