Melissa kicks off season 2 with James Beard-nominated chef Amy Brandwein, who shares how culture has helped her business adjust to—and innovate in—the restaurant industry’s new normal.
Melissa Jezior: Welcome to the cultur(ED) podcast. I’m Melissa Jezior your host. On this podcast, I talk to top culture makers in the world today to unpack the visible and not so visible forces that make up the often overlooked superpower of organizations. Today we’re kicking off Season 2 of cultur(ED) where we’re featuring changemakers from the restaurant industry. I’m thrilled to be kicking off this season talking with Amy Brandwein, chef and owner of two premiere Washington DC restaurants, Centrolina and Piccolina.
Melissa: Welcome Amy. I’m so happy to have you here.
Amy Brandwein: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Melissa: So first off, I want to say congratulations on some recent good news, which is nice to have amidst all the kind of the bad news that we’ve all been facing. Congratulations on your fourth James Beard award nomination. How does it feel?
Compared to your first second and third nominations.
Amy: It feels like everything and it feels like not so important the same time
Melissa: I can see that. I know it’s a crazy time right now. Yeah. Well, let’s start with the topic of culture. The restaurant industry is famous right for having a tense high pressure culture.
Melissa: Tell me about your experience growing up in the restaurant industry and how you drew from those experiences to build your own culture at your restaurant.
Amy: Yeah, so when I was coming up through the ranks in the kitchen, you know, it was not a time where people were even thinking about restaurant culture. It was more about creating fine cuisine at any cost, I guess. You know, and I don’t think anybody really thought of it as a legitimate industry.
So, you know as I saw kind of like what my experience was. I realized that you know, it’s an awful lot of work to not get not reap positive benefits out of it meaning like, you know see a path to ownership or you know empower people in a way that they feel like their opinion counts, you know. And so being one of the few women in the industry are definitely in my kitchen that I was working in many of them, I should say, or being very one of the few female chefs and Washington or anywhere else, you know, it was uncomfortable at times.
So, you know when I set up a path for becoming an owner myself, I thought like I really need to create a culture that reflects me I feel comfortable in and one where everybody feels comfortable and accepted to share their opinion for like the greater success.
Amy: I think there’s a lot of been a lot of intimidation and kind of like top-down type management and it can be good if you’re doing the right thing, but I mean the same time like there’s a lot of employee burnout and frustration that so that was kind of what my thought was is to create a group of supportive environment where people felt valued you know.
Melissa: I think that’s interesting. If you think that’s a trend we’re seeing in the just broader across many Industries and I love that kind of concept is like fine cuisine at any cost, right?
Melissa: Like I think a lot of leaders in the business world is starting to realize that it’s really not about you know profit at any cost or fine cuisine at any cost. It really is about bringing the right culture to the organization. And I think the organization then ends up doing better because of it.
Amy: Yeah. I mean I what I’ve discovered is culture equals profitability, you know.
Amy: and that’s something that as I started it, you know, it wasn’t I just wanted to be able to like pay my bills and create a job for myself you handle and then I realized that the culture was this thing that was like the oxygen that everybody the customers and employees were all breathing and it be it became one of the roads to probability of success, which I was is I was even learning while I was doing it, you know.
Melissa: Yeah, I totally understand that so I you know, obviously this Covid pandemic is something restaurants were not prepared for–no one was prepared for. Tell me about how your team responded to this unforeseen event and decided to pivot and go to takeout and delivery.
Amy: Well, you know, we had been in an interesting time period prior to this. We had just been through huge massive year. Meaning we had opened Piccolina, which was our first adventure outside the first restaurant and so that was a lot of learning, and not for me so much because I’ve done it so many times, but for the team it was a big learning process. And then at the same time, we renovated Centrolina.
So, in the space of you know, nine months we had opened a small Cafe and also completely gutted half of the restaurant. And so, what happened during that process was when Centrolina was being renovated. We move some of our prepared food operations over to the cafe because they’re right across the street from each other, and the market that we rely on for some of our revenue was no more because it was under construction. So, I had an idea of, and I didn’t want to lose my customers that relied on the market. We like huge residential population here. So, what I decided to do was I had I was thinking like, how do I still you know maintain this revenue stream, how do I make sure that we’re still connecting with customers? And so, I had an idea to put the groceries online because we had a we didn’t have a market by said I can still sell online, and you know. So I set out for this idea thinking that at that time period that I wanted to continue trying to serve the community, and also I said well would be really cool if I could deliver groceries to people at City Center or beyond.
Amy: Because there’s a lot of people say in Cleveland Park or you know other parts of Northwest you see that want my pasta or they want the sauce, but they don’t want to travel for it. They don’t want to make you know, sometimes with traffic and could be 45 minutes. So long story short is we had already I, so I had already reached an agreement with Caviar was to delivery service at that point to put my market online.
And so I was it was like this like project in the back of my head that I was like really excited about and then when pandemic happened, I had already had my grocery store online. So that part it was a lot of heavy lifting to my team. I think I was driving my team a little bit crazy because they’re like, you know, we’re selling like just a few things today and I said, it doesn’t matter. Like at that time nobody really understood exactly how important it was going to be.
Amy: We were just entering the data in the computer and so when this happened I had already been I’d already had an agreement with Caviar that they would do this for me and it was like the first market of its kind that wasn’t like an Amazon that they were going to do this for and so when I already had the agreement then I just like, you know, I put my pedal around to it and I already had their commitment.
So then they set out about taking my data from the from the online grocery store that we already had and input it into their system. So that part was really really easy for us. I mean meaning like we are already doing it. We’re already doing groceries now, but we had already pivoted before this thing took place. So that part of it was really exciting for me because you know, I was like my little like my little geeky project made for shape, but I was like really happy about it, you know.
Amy: And so that was fun and then you know the delivery service, you know, gosh we drive around, and I’ve driven around. It had the pivot hasn’t been too hard. It’s been it’s been interesting, but it hasn’t been like a huge sea change, you know, my food is known for being like fine dining meets accessible sort of, so I don’t make things that are extremely complicated.
I just make things that I think are the best way to do a certain thing and get out of the way basically. So, it’s very well suited for what the times are. So, I think in some respects, I just I was very in a very good position to be able to move slightly different direction.
Melissa: So, in other words you were planning for the pandemic and you didn’t even know it.
Amy: I have to say pretty much. I didn’t know that I was, but you know, we renovated the space and we had 50% of our real estate devoted for the market we modified it. It’s a very long story that’s not worth getting to but, we modified it and now we have a much smaller footprint and that was my entire idea with the online grocery stores that my square footage is much smaller because I want to do private dining. But I want to have more revenue per square foot in that space and that was why I was thinking about the market online.
So, this whole thing has been like just a it’s been an amazing thing. I mean now, you know, the market sales are accounting for at least 50% of our Revenue now, it’s something else. I mean, I’m not even shocked, you know.
Melissa: That is amazing. So, I also heard that you recently had an employee test positive for covid-19 that requires you to shut down the restaurant or the operation right do a full deep clean. And then I heard you just reopened again on May 8th. So, tell me did you ever think about just throwing in the towel?
Amy: Yeah, I mean I thought about you know, we had been we’ve been open post closure dining closure. I think it was about a month solid month. We had done the new the new normal and you know when that happened it just was very, I was very surprised because it just it wasn’t our entire team was healthy except for one individual, who is doing much better now. But it was frustrating, and I was scared.
I was I was definitely feeling more fearful, you know and so we were all home. I have an amazing management team and we’re all home and I used to talk to them all the time like, you know, once of the started I said, you have a choice you can work if you want. If you don’t, we’re gonna hire you back when this gets to a better place everybody wanted to work and I was surprised that everybody’s—I was very sensitive to how they might be feeling because I knew how I was feeling pretty I’m pretty tough, you know, and so if I was feeling I was just very concerned about staff and they all wanted to they were wanting to come back to work even more. So, it was interesting.
I wasn’t expecting that and so, you know now we just do what we do, but try to we did, you know, install it even more health practices and that type of thing and yeah, I mean, I think we’re all kind of in a good place about the situation that is right now.
Melissa: So, I’m always interested from both personal experience and professional experience how like unexpected disruptions whether it be a key employee that quits unexpectedly or this pandemic how and they’re always hard to with. But I think from them often comes learnings and growth and innovation. So, I’m curious about what you’ve learned from this and what how you’ve grown and what you will hope to take into the post pandemic future both personally and professionally.
Amy: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I have learned a lot from this, you know, I I think the first thing is that we as a group are not working as many hours.
Especially we weren’t we’re not working as many hours as we were before and I think I’ve learned from that that that that makes that makes for a better team, you know, it’s one of these things that’s part of the restaurant industry and then the economics of payroll and such that it’s just very hard to up make the dynamic, you know the prophets work. But I’ve learned that like I think that there’s a space for trying we have to try to make this different. I think that’s what I’ve realized is this industry needs to change and I have re-thought I don’t know how exactly I’m going to implement it.
But I’ve been mulling it over my head that you know, we should be changing the work requirements and maybe it’s you know, having an extra staff member on hand because that’s one thing that restaurants don’t have that that a lot of other industries have. Most industries have you know, somebody sick, like there’s somebody who can fill in, you know in the restaurant industry is never like that.
It’s just not so we are unprepared for these times. And so I’ve really been thinking about what the industry needs to do to try to change this situation and there’s just a lot of different policies and things that I think just need to change just around us but also internally you know. Gosh, I don’t know health care obviously and trying to figure out how to give the staff more time off so that they can feel more balanced, I guess. I have to say like I have sort of I am used to working the past which is like looking at all the food before it goes out and the customers and it’s just you know, it’s the way that I do quality checks on the food.
And this is just sort of you know, it’s been sort of a sucker punch, you know, and so it’s been I’ve been able to let go a lot of the that pressure and sort of just like let my team kind of do what they do like being managed by me, but I’m not as hands-on right now and I kind of it’s not that bad of a thing.
[Laughter] I’m learning how to do that. You know, so I’m trying to you know, I’m learning how to do that.
Melissa: I think that’s amazing and I think that’s what I think that’s what shows resilience is when people and businesses can really truly take what they’ve learned and apply it to going forward think it bodes well for your future and hopefully we’re all of our futures.
Melissa: So being at a head chef and a business owner, I think you could you possess a very unique DNA that combines rights got to have a little bit of leadership, a little business sense, a little creativity. So, taking all of that. What do you think makes what is the difference you think from being a great chef to being a James Beard award-winning chef?
Amy: Such a good question, you know, it’s something that we as industry professionals we think about all the time like what’s the marker? Like, how does this you know, what is the difference?
You know and I think the difference is just from a culinary aspect that these types of awards or recognitions are accolades that they’re the most important thing is that they’re given by your fellow peers, you know, they’re it’s like what do they consider the mark of a great chef and I think you know great chefs can be or what’s the difference between being a Jami–you know a great chef and James Beard Chef. I think that being a great chef is having, you know, great food moments of brilliance being exciting, you know and having enough skill that you know, you’re busy, but I think that’s the mark of a great chef.
I think James Beard chef is this consistency over time marked with all those other things. So, can you still excite people? Is it consistent all the time? Is everything that you do excellent? And I think that’s the marker that people usually look for is you know, not that one thing is great, and the other things are so so. It’s the consistency all throughout your entire organization and also kind of like, you know, what are you saying through your food?
You know what is your what is your what chords you’re striking and so each chef has their own style and then within that each stuff that is I think a James Beard Chef makes it they make their mark in some way in a way that’s different. And so, there’s something distinctive about them.
Their cooking or maybe their personality their restaurants what they look like what they feel like something else some different thing that their bringing to the table that makes people go wow, you know.
Melissa: So, in being a celebrity chef, do you find that that helps you or hurts you in terms of your role of being a manager and a leader?
Amy: Well, I don’t think of myself as a celebrity chef. No, but you know, I think my staff I don’t think my staff thinks of me that way either. I mean I’m not I think they see me coming to work every day and I think that I mean, they see all the news clips and things like that, but they also see me come to work every day. And so, I think that’s the thing. They know that like that’s real, you know, and that we’re here all working together.
So, what makes it easier I think is, you know, when you’re creating great food and you’re creating this culture and you’re doing things people are excited about it brings a lot to the restaurant. And that um trickles down to longevity and you know sustainability profitability. Yeah. I mean when you have that type of press that’s coming, it makes getting people in the restaurant easier. It helps the entire organization and then you know, there’s pressures that go along with this. I think sometimes you know, I’m pretty down-to-earth think sometimes the staff I have moments where I have to reinforce that, you know, whatever it is that we’re doing is just not good enough, you know. And I think that those are the moments where they sort of like a reality, you know, it’s a little bit of a reality check like, you know, something is not in line with what I do or it’s not on the standards that I hold sometimes, you know.
Wait, I have to put down the you know, I have to put my foot down. That’s just not that’s just not good enough for us. We have to do better than that, you know, so I think it creates a lot of pressure sometimes the same time like I think I’m fortunate to cook in a certain way that the customers really latched onto it, and it’s a way that makes it easy for my staff to operate. Meaning that like I create food that’s realistically executable with really great flavor profile and I think that is the thing that on is a one of our greatest strengths is what can we do realistically. Being realistic I think and knowing what your strengths are and what kind of chef you are I think makes things a lot easier to do. I know what kind of show I am that I know what I’m not and try to put yourself in a situation where you’re not cooking, you know in a way that you’re comfortable and it creates a lot of problems.
Melissa: I love that idea of being like setting high standards, but also being really realistic in terms of what you can implement and being grounded in that because I think that is what creates excellence in any industry.
Amy: Yeah, I think so. You have to be if you’re setting high expectations Is that people can’t reach there’s no way there’s no way that’s gonna work. It has to be executable every day. It has to be something that people can understand has to be something that they can do over and over again and you know. It has to be something that is like honest, you know in your approach and if you’re if you’re you know French chef and your four-star chef then that’s who you are. Then you create that and that’s your model and people understand that.
That that’s great. But you know for me, I think it’s realistically understanding stress levels that are people are under and this I know because I was in that environment.
It’s about creating a realistically executable food that is attainable and not—I’ll tell you one thing that I say. I told my staff is that you know, if a chef is screaming, you know at you know, whoever, the issue lies with the chef not the employees. As the chef’s the one who hired the sous-chefs, the chef’s the one he created the menu, the chef’s the one who sets the standards and staffing. And so, if there’s a problem with the food or people weren’t doing things correctly ultimately the chef is the one who has to take responsibility for all this so they shouldn’t be screaming the staff. They should be looking at their selves trying to figure out you know; how do I fix this? Because whatever I set up it’s not working.
You know, I think that’s the key to how I view things is that you can’t create an unattainable environment and then take your frustration out on your team.
Melissa: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I you know that acts I’ve heard actually that you you have talked about a lot about keeping the need to keep your emotions in check in the kitchen and this is kind of related to that that same thing and I think it’s something that any business leader can relate to is that you have to be able to keep your emotions in check. Tell me how have you learned to self-manage your own emotions and such a high-pressure environment?
Amy: You know, I have to think you know, I think being an owner changed my you know, I realized that I have a responsibility and so being an owner and having I have 80 employees and so having so many employees, you know, they need you to stay calm and nobody wants to work with somebody who is losing their temper, you know, so, you know, I take a deep breath.
I just learned to breathe. Sometimes I’ll go have a glass of ice water. I’ve told my staff sometimes like go in the corner and drink some water because usually like after 10 seconds you’re calm, you know. And so, I think I have to just I just try to not go with my first impulse which is like release the tension.
I try to I try to pause for a second and breathe and then you know because I have moments of I’m a I’m sort of a perfectionist, you know, so I have moments where I get very frustrated, you know, but I have to try to control it and I understand it’s my job to control that, you know, I have two feet. Like I said, it’s like the responsibility rests with me to figure out how I’m going to manage through this, you know, and it’s kind of nice, you know, you see the you see the positive results of doing it.
And then once you realize that there’s another way to get through it. It seems like an easier than having issues with staff later because you lost your temper, you know.
Melissa: Yeah, yeah. I totally I hear you on that. I was reading a quote recently. I’ve been thinking a lot about during this whole pandemic and its really, it’s very closely related to what you’ve been talking about. It’s a leader is supposed to absorb fear but exude hope. And it’s kind of similar to what you’re talking about. Like, that’s our that’s our job in terms of creating a culture is to be the shock absorber to ground ourselves and then outwardly were something you know, we’ve managed the emotion.
Amy: Yeah, I have that’s something I’ve learned since I’ve started the restaurant is that you have to face things and head-on and exude be positive. I mean, I’m a realistic person. I’m not like always thinking that everything’s going to work out perfectly, but I think that from the power of Goodwill and your staff and being positive and, you know corralling everyone to do the right thing. I think the greatest strength is having that that mindset and with that you do leave through it, that is depending on you to have a leadership role like, you know, you’re marching in front of everybody and everybody else is with you, you know, but you have to lead.
Melissa: So, I read that you’re a big proponent of good communication and that you should not confuse communication with conflict. So, tell me more about that.
Amy: You know, I think there’s a lot of times where you know, there’s you know, there’s issues like, you know, maybe somebody doesn’t understand the task at hand or maybe, you know, staff member is having maybe issues staying on track. You know, I’ve been reading a lot, I read a lot about different and not just restaurant things but just all kinds of things business things and you know. I think one of the biggest problems that people have is time management so like say somebody who were having time management problems in the restaurant industry. It’s very easy to get distracted. You know, I think it’s important to discuss them and discuss them head-on and you know make sure people understand why there was the issue.
Amy: And I always say that it’s not you know, it’s I always said that even when I was the brunt of some instruction that wasn’t delivery wasn’t so pleasant, you know. It was always the lesson that was being learned and important thing is learning the lesson and I always say to them, you know, my job here is to teach everyone here how to do behave professionally and understand this industry of respect, you know. And so it’s I think if people understand the way you think they really understand what you’re saying and why you’re saying it and they understand it’s tied to the bottom line and it’s impactful into whether you’re going to be successful or not. I think if you explain the metrics of what it is that you’re doing then people really there with you. You can’t just like say do this and then expect people to understand why it’s important bringing them into the philosophy of business is I think is very important. Communication is you know conflict is getting to the root of the problem.
And I’ve had many, you know, many of my team members, you know, tell me, you know, not many but my team my management team my poor management team, they’ll tell me when I did something that that bothered them, you know, and I think that it’s important to listen to that, you know, um, We learn from I learned from them all the time. Like, you know, I’ve learned how to be a leader.
I didn’t just like pop up and be one I’ve made tons of mistakes and I try to like kind of learn from what they’re saying and then I try to say, okay, well, here’s my take on this, you know. And I think that exchange has been super important, you know. But I think I think having the team be part of discussions that are business-oriented about why you’re doing things why you want things to happen why it needs to happen a certain way or what the goal is I think is the thing that makes people really like advanced, you know. that’s what I think.
Melissa: It gets back to that supportive culture that you talked about in the beginning of our conversation like that’s part—I think that would probably be part of building that support of cultures is teaching people.
Amy: Yeah teaching people business. I mean, you have to you have to teach, you know, you can’t just be that this is my restaurant and well it could be it could be.
[Laughter] but it’s not it’s it could be and that’s kind of what I’ve been, you know, seeing throughout my career through many different places I’ve worked like you know, this is this is our place. This is my place you’re going to do this and I don’t like that and do this and why is that like that and maybe an occasional good job and you see success, you know, but it’s really like it’s coming as a directive, you know.
My goal is to teach people who work for me the what business is and like what metrics are, and how do you make a profit, and what do we need to do, and how we’re going to market ourselves, and we have to keep moving, and here’s why you know. And they see once they I think they understand that you are giving them something besides a paycheck. You know, I hope I don’t know.
But I try to say, you know, like my I have some managers that have never worked in a really high pressure office environment, which I have I have a background that I worked in legal and political field before becoming a Chef so I worked in some really high pressure law firms and law firms doing political work and things like that. And I know what those environments are like, right so some of my staff hasn’t been in that type of environment.
So I my job is to explain to them what those environments are like and what expectations are like those types of environments try to try to explain to them that this is also a professional environment and this is how we’re going to make sure that we’re operating in those kind of same lanes business-wise. And then also it’s helpful because explaining these things makes them understand that our clients are on the other side of that who are in those types of environments. Their expectation is X because that’s what they’re used to. So, all those things are really helpful, but my goal is when people when they finish working here is that that they understand from an advanced business perspective. You know what it takes to be like responsible, you know a responsible high-level type of executive, you know, I mean.
Melissa: I love that. You’re very active in our local community including being a part where with DC Urban Greens a nonprofit organization that provides fresh and affordable produce to your restaurant and the community. Can you tell me what you’ve learned from relationships with farmers and food producers because I think all of us in any industry have partners outside of our own business that kind of make the entire value chain work. So, I’m curious how what you’ve learned.
Amy: I’ve learned a lot in terms of how hard it is to manage a farm. I mean and it’s very difficult work. There’s other there’s other factors besides just growing a vegetable, you know, like DC Urban Greens is an amazing farm in DC.
They have problems with groundhogs, you know, and the enemy can be groundhog doesn’t sound so serious, but it is when they’re digging holes in your in all of your vegetables, you know, so those things are like were you know, you need an invisible fence to keep the deer out things like that.
There’s like there’s impediments that you don’t quite think about that are environmental, you know that are costly you know, so and then, you know, just the way that gosh, the role of food is super important what I learned through this situation, which I kind of already knew, but you know our supply chain is I mean we the chefs and the restaurants are sort of at the center of the supply chain and farmers are reliant upon us to sell, you know, and it’s a very fragile situation and you know, I guess I believe that I’ve learned from DC Urban Greens is just how important is like hyper local agriculture as you know, and how important it is to just I think keep your dollars as close to home as possible. You mean the spending of it and seeing the money circulate throughout. DC has been really important to me and impactful.
You see people that are actually employed by some of the work that you do. It’s very it’s very rewarding and it’s very instructive.
Melissa: I think that’s a trend we’re going to continue to see going forward post pandemic.
Amy: Yeah, and I’m happy about it because I kept talking about how I loved urban farming and how we should be able to do some agriculture in DC proper on these, you know sites of land that were being converted and you know, it didn’t have that much traction.
But now I think that people are seeing that they are having much more success getting items from local places local farmers than maybe outside and then all the problems with the plants and it just highlights a lot of issues in the food in the food agriculture world.
Melissa: So, in this incredible time of need for the restaurant industry including farmers and everyone else supporting your business. What do you want to suggest to me and to listeners to support the people and businesses of this time in this time of great need and change?
Amy: You know, I think the first thing is just, you know, patronize the places that you care about, you know, I mean I myself thought about my dry cleaner I had to do some dry cleaning and you know, I wasn’t worried—this is when we were in the quarantine. And I was oh my gosh, like oh maybe I should do one of those pickups, you know, there’s you know contact was pick up things and I thought of my dry cleaner in the middle of downtown she’s you know, they probably don’t have too much business has like no you’re going to get out of it. You’re going to get in your car with your dry cleaning like you always do you’re going to go take it to them. They need your business.
You know, I think that people don’t realize like how much the business is needed and how much like if you do not support or the local businesses and small businesses. They will not exist anymore. People underestimate the amount of value in a $100, you know food order a grocery order or whatever the case may be. It’s hugely important.
Melissa: Okay, so final two questions that we ask all of our guests. What’s the first word or the one word that comes to mind? When you think of culture?
Melissa: What do you mean by being?
Amy: Being like, how are you being like, what is your you know, how are you existing? How are you living?
Melissa: Awesome, very cool. And then if you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
Amy: Well, there’s an obvious one that would be perfect in this time. Get this virus done so we can stop wearing masks and having everyone terrified scared of each other’s terrible. I hate it.
Melissa: I hate it too. I hate it too. Amy. Thank you so much for your time. And you have you make delicious food. Thank you so much for it. And I can’t encourage any of you want to go eat at Centrolina and buy some stuff from your market.
Amy: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.
Melissa: Wonderful. You have a wonderful day, Amy, and I look forward to hopefully getting to meet you sometime in person. Take care.
Amy: Thanks a lot.