Episode Thumbnail
Episode 21  |  52:31 min

S2:EP21 - Brian Lewis, Acclaimed Chef & Restaurant Owner

Episode 21  |  52:31 min  |  04.07.2021

S2:EP21 - Brian Lewis, Acclaimed Chef & Restaurant Owner

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This is a podcast episode titled, S2:EP21 - Brian Lewis, Acclaimed Chef & Restaurant Owner. The summary for this episode is: <p>During our interview, we discuss managing work-life balance in a constantly moving industry, hiring and training tips, and how he moved from his role as a chef to the ownership role. </p><p><br></p><p>This is a really great episode for any chef or restauranteur listening to understand the transferrable skills in both of these roles. </p>
Takeaway 1 | 02:16 MIN
From Chef to Restaurant Owner
Takeaway 2 | 02:50 MIN
Finding strengths in weaknesses
Takeaway 3 | 02:07 MIN
Doubling to Tripling Restaurant Size
Takeaway 4 | 01:58 MIN
Creating a Cohesive Culture

In this episode, I interview Acclaimed Chef and Restaurant Owner, Brian Lewis.


Chef Brian Lewis, who brought seasonal American Cooking to Westport, CT with his restaurant, The Cottage, replied by recently opening his latest venture, OKO (Short for "Okonomiyaki").


He is incredibly talented and has years of experience in the restaurant industry - now owning four different restaurant concepts.


During our interview, we discuss managing work-life balance in a constantly moving industry, hiring and training tips, and how he moved from his chef to the ownership role.


This is a really great episode for any chef or restauranteur listening to understand the transferrable skills in both of these roles.


Let's dive in!

Guest Thumbnail
Brian Lewis
Executive ChefInstagram

Brett Linkletter: In this episode I interview Chef Brian Lewis, who is an incredible chef, has years and years of experience. Has had so much success. And as of recently, has just leveled up to an owner of now going on four locations. He's got two different restaurants. One is called The Cottage. And the other one is a Japanese concept called OKO. In our interview we discuss a number of topics, from work life balance, between having a family with kids at home during the pandemic and homeschooling while also being an owner in the restaurant industry. We talk about hiring and training tips. We talk about how Chef Brian has moved from the chef role into the ownership role, and the kinds of changes he's had to make along the way. We talk a lot about how being a chef is like being an artist, and then being the owner is more like being the art dealer. A lot of amazing topics, I think you're absolutely going to love an enjoy. And so without further ado, let's dive right in. Hi, my name is Brett Linkletter, CEO and founder of Misfit Media. Best damn restaurant marketing agency on the planet. Here at Misfit we help restaurant owners grow and scale their business through strategic online marketing practices. Right now you're listening to our podcast, Restaurant Misfits, where we'll discuss all things related to restaurant marketing, management, and everything else in between growing a restaurant business. This podcast is also brought to you in collaboration with Total Food Service. For over 30 years, Total Food Service has provided the restaurant and food service industry with exclusive interviews, to the latest news on products, trends, associations, and events. You can sign up for a free monthly subscription by visiting totalfood. com today. And from all the misfits over here, we hope you enjoy the show. Cheers.( silence). Offer convenient and secure contactless pay at the table with Up n' go. Even text guests or check so they can pay before picking up to- go orders. Guests pay quicker, tables turn sooner, staff is more efficient. Up n' go supports NCR Aloha and MICROS. Brian, how are you doing?

Chef Brian Lewis: Doing great. How are you, Brett?

Brett Linkletter: I'm doing well, I'm doing well. Obviously we're nearing the end of Q1 here in 2021, obviously last year was pretty hectic for our industry. How about you, how have things been for you in your restaurants?

Chef Brian Lewis: Yeah. To say the least, hectic. I'm super blessed and grateful for the way that it all... The test that it put us to and how we all got through it, as a restaurant group of three, and now soon to be four restaurants. About 75 staff members that were just, honestly, amazing and all worked so incredibly well together. And I can't believe how much we pulled together.

Brett Linkletter: Awesome. Well, hey, I'm glad to hear that. I mean, blessed and grateful, those are two words that I haven't heard most people say about the pandemic, so that's fantastic for you guys. Yeah.

Chef Brian Lewis: It's less even the economics of it, because we've certainly had our challenges there, and it's been just the fact that just many, many factors that I can sit here, just over a year to day kind of thing and reflect back. And grateful for how I kind of was able to show up, and how my staff showed up. Physically and otherwise, obviously. And really just having, from the very beginning, and this may sound cliché, but every file that I had assigned to the pandemic, whatever we were doing, it was just simply called adapt and overcome. And really, it's obviously with compassion for our fellow workers and for our guests. And it just brought out so many great qualities of, honestly, that I found in myself, I don't know if they were great, but qualities that I'm proud of, and my staff.

Brett Linkletter: 100%.

Chef Brian Lewis: Whether-

Brett Linkletter: I think when things get tough, too, is also when you see if people's true character, right? It's like what is the level of stress someone can take? What are the true characters that are going to come out in these stressful times? And that's what really makes us stronger, I think, together as a team, right?

Chef Brian Lewis: Totally.

Brett Linkletter: I mean, even for our company, right? Misfit Media, we're a marketing agency. And same thing with us, we only service restaurants. So we felt it just as bad. I mean, we lost probably half our clientele at the beginning of the pandemic. But what I would say about is the experience, the team coming through on the other side, oh man, are we close now. Have we been through hell and back together. You know what I mean? So it is interesting, it kind of bonds people, it connects people, and you see the best or the worst of people, I think, you know what I mean?

Chef Brian Lewis: For sure.

Brett Linkletter: Brian, for everyone who's just learning about you for the first time and maybe seeing you for the first time today, can you tell us a little bit just about yourself in general? And about your two restaurant concepts? I know you have The Cottage. And then is it OKO, right?

Chef Brian Lewis: So it's OKO, yeah.

Brett Linkletter: OKO. Okay, perfect. OKO and The Cottage. Yeah, tell us about your restaurants.

Chef Brian Lewis: So, a bit of a Westchester native, from New York. Traveled the country most of career. California, New York City, bit of time in Europe. And landed back here in Connecticut about 12, 13 years ago. Headed up the Bedford Post Inn with Richard Gere and spent a lot of time really kind of advancing from just being a chef, not just, but from the role that I've known since I was a child cooking just in the kitchen to really expanding outward toward ownership, which is an entirely different game, which I love and am grateful for. So anyway, I ended up in'08, I think it was'08, I can't remember the years. Not'08, excuse me,'16, or 2015, opening The Cottage in Westport, which was a real departure from the Bedford Post Inn which was a rather large kind of very big budget project inaudible chateau that I was very proud to be part of it and spearhead. And then I ended up taking on this small restaurant that a very well known chef in town, who I respect a lot, Bill Taibe, had his place called Le Farm, which one thing came to another and he was looking to sell it. And it was half the size of what The Cottage is now, it was a tiny little, I guess, 32 seat restaurant. Just the kind of thing that a chef who's ready to roll their sleeves up and just cook their butts off, cook their hearts out, like I was, and am. I dove in. I had one partner, we went in, we grabbed the small space knowing we had next door to a barber shop that we had our eyes on to expand, if and when that came available.

Brett Linkletter: Amazing.

Chef Brian Lewis: Yeah, long story short, we were in with three or four months of just, again, me and three other people just cooking, day and night. That was it. A staff of four, we got a killer review from the Times, which kind of sealed our fate in a really nice way. And then just kept going, expanded to that next store, the barber shop, which we added a beautiful bar, and really changed both the ability to service our guests, the way that they should be. We took away all the confinements of such a small space. Of course, changed the economics, and we could really grow and become that much more profitable and such. Which allowed me to then pursue our next endeavor, which was a passion I've had for quite some time, which was a Japanese inspired restaurant.

Brett Linkletter: Amazing.

Chef Brian Lewis: Yeah.

Brett Linkletter: That's awesome. So Brian, you said something right there, you said advancing from a chef to ownership. I thought that was interesting, because so for me as an agency, I have clients that we service that are the same position as you, where chefs became owners. I have clients that, honestly, zero restaurant experience, had some career in finance or whatever the heck it was, and then gets in the restaurant space. They're two totally different owners. You know what I mean?

Chef Brian Lewis: Yep.

Brett Linkletter: What would you say... I mean, do you feel like... And what's weird about this, for me, is I've heard people say there's advantages and disadvantages to both, right? I hear the guy in finance say, " Well, I'm not a chef, but I know the numbers, and this, and that, so I'm a great business owner." And I hear the chef say, " Well these guys don't know anything about food so how they can run a restaurant business." Well what are your thoughts on this? Because I think it's an interesting question, I know, but I see it all the time.

Chef Brian Lewis: How many days do we have for this interview?

Brett Linkletter: What's that?

Chef Brian Lewis: I said, how many days do we have for this interview. I'm joking.

Brett Linkletter: Yeah.

Chef Brian Lewis: Yeah, I've seen many, or at least both sides of it. First of all, for years, for decades that I've been in this business, it's been a very almost front of house led business, service and the money seemed, from my lens anyway, growing up sous chef in New York City, in California, and chef de cuisine, and all these different roles that I was never in the ownership capacity, but I'd always feel the dynamic and kind of understood where the real leadership, per se, was. And then it shifted dramatically. Lots of factors, ever since, in my view, Food Network was a huge contribution to shifting the paradigm and creating opportunities for more leadership driven chef owned businesses. Lots of other reasons behind it, but I believe that the talent is the talent, right? The talent can't... Someone once said to me when I was becoming an owner actually, or a partner, and it was a very successful business person. They said, " You're going from being the artist to now the art dealer." And it's a very big difference. And it's really stuck with me for quite some time, because you have to think through so many different things as a chef. And a lot of chefs, I can speak for myself anyway, I'm not very good at compromising, because I won't, the quality for, say, a financial reason. So there's challenges that come down the line that way. I've learned through crawling over broken glass that I've broken myself, so to speak, how to take my lumps and learn the hard way, the right way, whatever you want to say, made mistakes, but ultimately, as a chef who's super passionate about his craft. But I'm also now super passionate, and quite frankly, I feel I'm really good at it, being an owner and a leader. And I know what my weaknesses are, and I'm fine with that, because I seek the people out that an offset those weaknesses. For example, I'm a sucker for beautiful food. And whatever that might be, the very best quality. And that can be challenging to anyone who's really good with numbers and money, and I need to surround my control... Or it gives me great direction. My chefs will say no when I'm ordering certain things. I'm that guy, which-

Brett Linkletter: Got it.

Chef Brian Lewis: ...where the conflict can be. And I completely understand the finance person wanting to take the reins from the chef. So it can be a real challenge and a real battle.

Brett Linkletter: Got it.

Chef Brian Lewis: So finding the right balance between the right team. I have an amazing partner that we have a great arrangement in the way that I run the business, we consult with one another on things, but they let me run the business.

Brett Linkletter: 100%. No, I love what you said there about you're going from an artist to an art dealer. I think that's a great analogy for this, this is perfect. And I think a lot of people, I think, as you're developing into your career, that happens in quite a few different industries, right?

Chef Brian Lewis: Sure.

Brett Linkletter: Even, again, for me, right? When I was... I think inaudible my business I was a freelancer, then we grew into the agency role. And so every industry, I think, deals with that. But that's really cool. And I've always thought... I mean, it's interesting, right? Because I've always thought, if you had the chef experience, if you know what it's like to work front of house, back of house, working in a restaurant space and you're the owner, I would imagine you're going to have a leg up on someone who has on experience in that. I just imagine. Some people just mentioned, " Well, I got a fresh perspective." And I'm like, I don't know how relevant that is. I mean, the restaurant space is so incredibly different than any other industry, honestly, for the matter. But anyway, I've always seen this and I was so curious about it.

Chef Brian Lewis: crosstalk. Maybe being an investor in a restaurant whether you're depending... Whatever your percentage is, the money is so important, you can't do too much without it, for the all needs, obviously, of a restaurant. crosstalk-

Brett Linkletter: Absolutely.

Chef Brian Lewis: But the-

Brett Linkletter: And so now you have, what is it? Is it four locations open, right? Or is still three?

Chef Brian Lewis: So I have The Cottage in Westport and I have OKO in Westport and OKO in Rye, New York. And now I just two weeks ago, actually the day before the anniversary of the closing of all the restaurants on the 16th, so on the 15th I had a deal announced where I have a Cottage going to the Greenwich Avenue in Greenwich.

Brett Linkletter: Nice, very cool.

Chef Brian Lewis: So two Cottages and two OKOs within this operating, knock on wood, in the year.

Brett Linkletter: That's amazing. And during this time, I mean, that's an incredible accomplishment. That's so cool. I love that.

Chef Brian Lewis: Thank you. Thank you.

Brett Linkletter: What is... A lot of restaurateurs I hear speak of going from one to two to three to four locations seems to be a huge feat and accomplishment. It seems to be something incredibly difficult. I mean, especially going from one to two, you're doubling the size, right? And then again, two to four, you're doubling again. What's that experience been like for you? How have you coped with that?

Chef Brian Lewis: One to two was the most difficult. Adding the third was a feeling of the all common word these days, the popular word of scaling. So it felt like I could actually really... I felt the advantages of what it's like to scale to take... By the way, without feeling complacent and like I'm just cut and pasting, because I can't do that. I mean, there's a balance of taking... So we took OKO and I had the same architect, amazing architect, designer, general contractor, actually now I'm using the same general contractor for The Cottage. But a graphic designer, lawyer, accountant, all of those things. Doing the... They all come with new challenges and new opportunities. And I have to say, having a... I don't know if a bench is the right word. But it's pretty amazing, the talent that I have, of the people that I just mentioned. And that's not even counting my executive chef for the company, that now I have a company large enough I just promoted him to executive chef, Christian Wilkie, who's amazing, and Ralph Leon who's our director of beverage and hospitality, and then our controller. So I have an executive team, and myself, of four that will oversee. And we are amortized all over all four restaurants, and we basically are the vision, the operations, the logistics for them. And that's where it's now starting to get... I don't want to say easier, but just a hell of a lot more efficient and easier to stay and be focused on it.

Brett Linkletter: 100%.

Chef Brian Lewis: Having the first one, Cottage, was great, we were sailing along. When I did a new concept, by the way, that I've never done, Japanese, and that was the toughest. It was the most rewarding probably, because... Well not most, but it was super rewarding, because it was very well received. But the risk was really high.

Brett Linkletter: Got it.

Chef Brian Lewis: Yeah.

Brett Linkletter: Got it.

Chef Brian Lewis: So but now... By the way Brett, I'll get just as stressed out and put just as much pressure on myself to open the fourth once it comes to it, because you need that. You need that healthy anxiety, I guess.

Brett Linkletter: 100%. No, I would say yeah, for sure. I mean, here's the thing, I think, in all kinds of of business, right, and especially during COVID, we've all faced a high level of anxiety, right? But the matter is, not whether we get anxiety or not, or the stresses or not, it's how we respond to it, not react, right?

Chef Brian Lewis: Well said, very well said.

Brett Linkletter: I mean, right? That's what it is. You can expect that things are going to happen in good ways, negative ways, curveballs, whatever the case. But how do we respond to these things? I mean, it sounds like, whatever the case, I remember in the beginning of this interview that you feel blessed and grateful. I think that's a great thing. I mean, something that I always think in general, and in business and life, is being more grateful, right? I mean, one thing I've noticed over the last year, which I'm sure you've noticed too, is God, I mean, it just seems like left and right everyone's complaining about something all the time now. Oh, business is down, this is down, this is that. Oh, whatever the case. Be grateful. There's a lot to be grateful for too, right?

Chef Brian Lewis: Right. Yeah. Yeah.

Brett Linkletter: We need that. We need more of that.

Chef Brian Lewis: It's kind of somewhat synonymous to the, it's not what happens in life it's how you deal with it. Same concept. Because it's going to happen. You're going to get all focused on your... You set your GPS, you've got your route all mapped out, and you just better be ready. This is a business strategy that I live by, I'm very organized and very detailed and focused, but you have to be super ready to go off road and crosstalk-

Brett Linkletter: 100%.

Chef Brian Lewis: You know what I mean? Because it's never going to be just like that, perfectly mapped out.

Brett Linkletter: Something I always think about too is, when you look at each challenge in business, look at it more so as an opportunity to get ahead of the competition, is what we tell our clients too. Hey-

Chef Brian Lewis: Absolutely.

Brett Linkletter: ...we're all going through shit, but how are we going to get over this and make that an opportunity and a leg up on our competition? Hey, our competition is going out of business, hey, that's unfortunate for them, I feel for their employees, and their team, and their staff, and everyone, but also, because they're now crumbling because of this, that opens up opportunity for us to service now that many more customers in the area, right?

Chef Brian Lewis: Yeah.

Brett Linkletter: So-

Chef Brian Lewis: Totally. And no one out there, nor are you suggesting, is doing it without compassion. And we've simply put our heads down. During COVID, from the very beginning, because now there's the reference to the COVID era, right? As if we're out of it. But there was such a great call, for me, to lead, but to lead not as chef, to lead simply as a leader and try to see, because that's what I'm so used to, I'm so used to the throes and all the experiences of what I need to be reacting to in a kitchen environment. This went so far beyond. I mean, this went so into the care of how people are... Does someone need help financially? Does someone need help, staff- wise, with food? We set up a meal train for all of our staff. It was 60 some odd people that two times a week they'd get a family fed for a family of four. So we could stretch it out to three or four days worth of food for themselves. And we had a train, literally. Because we closed two of the restaurants, kept OKO Westport just to- go, which was incredibly well supported and successful during that period. And to be able to have this meal train going and keep about 95% of our staff returned to work, we used our PPP money in the right way, that supported going forward with our businesses and the health of the businesses, and the health of our staff. So it was really just a lot of really, I think in hindsight, good decisions that benefited the future. It was a long view. I think having a long view, then and now, is important.

Brett Linkletter: Totally. Right, how do you... I mean, it sounds like, obviously, you said going from one to two locations was the hardest part, and I'm sure part of that was figuring out your systems, figuring out the operations, doubling the size of your business, finding the right people. A big thing that I hear all the time, in the restaurant industry, a major problem in general is just finding good people, right? Finding good people, getting them trained. How do you go about finding good people and training your staff?

Chef Brian Lewis: I like to say luck favors the prepared. I mean, I've been in this industry for well over 30 years, and it's just a common thing. There's highs and lows of the surplus of really good people, or even just the availability of people that are showing up. Honestly, now, well obviously, everyone who's hired in any of the restaurants I definitely interact with before they're hired and such, but I want the management... Each silo now, each restaurant has their own silo, their own management team, and I try to empower them, through hopefully a cohesive culture between all three restaurants, and certainly our standards and ethos of bringing in people that make sense for what we're... They don't have to have all the skills, but they have to have the aptitude, the right attitude. We'll teach them the rest, because it's easier to teach what we want them to embrace. And of course, if they have certain skillsets that they can compliment and even add to what we're doing, we're open for that, but other people than just myself making these decisions and each restaurant attracting, through their own style. Down in Rye, Marissa, our manager, and Fecidio our chef, I mean, they have such an incredible... their own little culture that I've learned how to foster and not get in the way of and micromanage, which is so amazing to watch how they attract their set of people, their employees, their staff, and it's just incredibly rewarding, because I get to see the fruits of their labors, it's really nice.

Brett Linkletter: 100%.

Chef Brian Lewis: It's always a challenge, but it's also... And needless to say, when you're doing well, servers are making money, and when we're able to pay a really nice strong wage, which we do, that helps.

Brett Linkletter: Yep, that helps a lot, yeah. I mean, that's the thing too, right? Employees want to be always growing and developing. And what better place to go work at a company that's growing and developing, right?

Chef Brian Lewis: Right.

Brett Linkletter: No one wants to work at a restaurant that is stagnant in growth. They probably see someone like yourself, hey, multiple locations opening up, this guy is on the rise, this thing is awesome. So, and I get it.

Chef Brian Lewis: And I think... I hope so. Because then you get people that are jazzed. You just don't want to find someone... It's too hard of an industry, especially in the kitchen in my view, to just have a job. You know what I mean?

Brett Linkletter: Yeah. 100%.

Chef Brian Lewis: I get it, some people inaudible. But to really be passionate about it, we have a lot to offer in that regard. So we're full of passion and excitement for new things, and not just doing... We're doing another Cottage, but it'll look and feel like a Cottage in its own space, it'll have the same menu format, but it definitely will have its own chef with me, driving and pushing the envelope in their own direction. It's not just a cut and paste.

Brett Linkletter: 100%. Up n' go Pay at the Table will save your staff tons of time splitting checks, because it let's guests tap on what they just ordered to pay fairly in groups. Up n' go will also keep your payments secure, because it's a PCI certified level one service provider and offers safe and convenient digital wallets, including Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Venmo, alongside credit cards. Over two million restaurant guests across the country, and over 1, 000 restaurants in nearly every state have benefited from Up n' go. Don't wait. Visit upngo. com now and request a free demo. That's U- P- N- G- O. com. Again, that's U- P- N- G- O. com. And I think I saw one of your kids just run up the stairs just now. I know you have a... Is it... I know, obviously, since COVID, you said your kids are doing school from home, homeschooling and everything, how has that been as an adjustment for you as a business owner? And then also, in general, how do you balance just family life, work life, because especially in the restaurant industry, obviously, a lot of the clients we talk to on a regular basis they're like, " Man, I'm in the restaurant by 7: 00 AM, I'm out by 11:00 PM oftentimes." And how do you balance it?

Chef Brian Lewis: So I actually just recently had a similar question asked in an interview, and it was a written one. And I was happy to say that I've been truly excited... Let me just turn my phone off. I've been fearful in this career, since I was 13 years old, I've been always fearful of when I became a dad, and I didn't become a dad until I was 46. So I was always worried that I would have such a challenge to be able... Would I have enough time for my children? Because I want the time, and I wouldn't sacrifice that. So I'd sacrifice my career. And it just so happens that, in the seven years that my boys have been walking this planet I've opened what will be four restaurants in that amount of time. So paradoxically, it's actually allowed me, through the success of the restaurants, lots of hard work, but I've been with them way more time than I could have ever imagined. Amazing. I've been able to really... It is the craziest, again, paradox and blessing. And I'm not really open for lunch other than one restaurant three days a week, pre- COVID OKO was. So I'm here with them, since they were born. And I make the time, I choose my priorities, and I actually have an incredibly well balanced career and home life. What would that have been like in my 30s or early 40s? The timing was just right for me because it ensured there was time, or it would've been really tough. But this is... And I have to totally shout out to my staff. I mean, when emergencies happen and stuff like that, I'm there. But I mean, I'm always there. But I'm saying, it would pull me in deeper where I... But right now, and for quite a long time, I've been able to really manage and run the company as I see fit with my staff and be able to include my children as the number one priority in my life.

Brett Linkletter: I love that.

Chef Brian Lewis: crosstalk.

Brett Linkletter: That's awesome, man. That's really, really cool.

Chef Brian Lewis: Yeah.

Brett Linkletter: Very cool. And Brian, how do you get better, in general? Do you have any mentors you look up to? Do you read any books? How do you personally get better as a business leader and also as a chef?

Chef Brian Lewis: I definitely... I mean, I think... I love that question, because I think there's a... I've been called the most insecure cocky person by loving... Because I'm never, ever settled. I mean, I'm inaudible and happy, but I'm never arrived and like, " Oh, we're there." There's always a bit of get up and what's the win today, what's the growth today, in addition to just... Which, by the way, as of late, my growth has been finding that piece with empowering all those around me, in terms of my management staffs. So to really do it and letting go. That's the hardest part that I've found, in growth outside the kitchen, is to not be in the kitchen. When I left The Cottage, I'll get back to that answer, I promise, when I left The Cottage to go OKO all of a sudden I had a Cottage being run by my sous chef, who did an amazing job, but I was terrified. But I had to detach.

Brett Linkletter: Totally.

Chef Brian Lewis: Yeah, so detachment. And I read a fair amount of war related business, this 38 Strategies of Power and 48 Rules of War. These two books that I read. They're kind of riffs off of The Art of War, as they apply to business strategies. And I love crosstalk-

Brett Linkletter: Wait, can you repeat those two books for me one more time? That sounds really awesome.

Chef Brian Lewis: I may... Do me a favor, Google inaudible. It's either the 38... They're upstairs. The 38 Strategies of War and The 48 Rules of Power. Or I just might have the numbers... I always confuse the two.

Brett Linkletter: Let's see.

Chef Brian Lewis: So 38 Strategies of War. 48 Rules of-

Brett Linkletter: The 33 Strategies of War.

Chef Brian Lewis: Yeah, there you go. And it's by Greene. And I just love short reads, and they're just really great case studies that are derived from the original Art of War.

Brett Linkletter: Nice.

Chef Brian Lewis: And they just have... Yeah, it's a... And then I like to read Good to Great, I like Ray Dalio's book, Principles. And I also love to surround myself, very fortunate through our industry, to meet some incredible business leaders in Westport and when I was in Bedford and in New Canaan. Yeah, I've just been very, very fortunate. As well as, importantly now, I really like to... So I read a lot of that in addition to cookbooks nonstop, but the mentors around me also are my family for sure. But along the way, just people that I've become friends with that are running large hedge funds or whatever type of crosstalk-

Brett Linkletter: Totally.

Chef Brian Lewis: And to get myself out of just the restaurant paradigm and think more outside of that. Yeah.

Brett Linkletter: Yeah. No, I think that's cool. Well, two things there, first of all what you said, is getting yourself sometimes out of the restaurant, out of the paradigm, to kind of expand your mindset on things. I think that's really, really awesome. I actually interviewed someone about a month and a half ago, his name's Adam Bossi. And he's a coffee maker that services restaurants and other, obviously retail stores, and whatever he does. And he just opened his first coffee shop in New York. And he travels quite a bit to kind of get inspired. And he's like, " I need to remove myself from the business, kind of reset my mindset on what I'm doing. I need a change of pace." And so I think a lot of people forget that. People get into doing the same thing over and over again. And I was actually on a call with someone, this was six months ago, and this restaurateur tells me, " I have 30 years experience," and the guy he's had one restaurant concept, he's had this goal of opening a second for so long, so many years. And I said, " I really don't want you to get offended by this question here, but do you have 30 years of experience or do you have 30 years of doing the same thing year after year after year?" And it got him thinking. It got him thinking. He was like, " Holy crap."

Chef Brian Lewis: crosstalk. Yeah.

Brett Linkletter: I mean, you got to get out of the typical mold you're in or you're just going to stick to where you're at. Which I thought was interesting. It's something to think about. And I was like, " Please don't get offended by this. This is something that I really want you to think about seriously." And he took it to heart. And I don't know how he's doing now, we're not working with him. But maybe I'll have to check in with him. But-

Chef Brian Lewis: But I think that's great advice. Just because you're doing the same thing, one way, over and over... I'll use my gold game. I've consulted for hotels, right? And they gave me all the clubs and all the free golf I want, and I play as much as I want. And I enjoy it, but I suck, because I'm just doing the same thing over and over again and never seeking-

Brett Linkletter: I suck too, by the way.

Chef Brian Lewis: There you go. inaudible. But it's the same idea. Just because you're doing... It becomes rote. And having the diversification, for me, of two different concepts, right?

Brett Linkletter: Yeah.

Chef Brian Lewis: Different... But there's a clear connection that is coming from me, and my staff now, as far as Cottage and OKO. At that timeframe I just started becoming a business owner more, and a chef, not more than chef but that's also been the greatest inaudible for me. I had this kind of... And it probably speaks for a lot of chefs, that once you start having to... And I'm sorry to break to to those that... Some guests will be like, " Oh my gosh, you're not behind the stove." When I opened The Cottage I was behind that stove seven shifts. We were open seven shifts. And I was there from 8: 00 in the morning, that year, nonstop. That one year.

Brett Linkletter: Wow.

Chef Brian Lewis: And you grow. Well, which is normal. I mean, I used to be, like most of us, 80, 90 hours a week was just an average week. And you find yourself working... I remember working, when I started working a 12 hour day five days a week I felt incomplete, like I was just not putting enough of the table. And when you're done, and this is, historically, inaudible San Francisco. And then you give your notice to the executive chef, you're moving on. They're pissed off at you because you're leaving, and the thousands of hours you just logged are gone. You did what you did, but you can't get that back. So I think that whole quantity of work is a thing of the past, as far as the expectation that a chef should just be worked to death, and have no life, and no balance, and not have the same beauty and ability to enjoy everything that crosstalk-

Brett Linkletter: Totally. It's like, why are we working at the end of the day? Well, hopefully, we end up working in a profession that we really enjoy, which it sounds like, obviously, you love what you do, which is amazing.

Chef Brian Lewis: crosstalk.

Brett Linkletter: I mean, I truly believe, if you love what you do and you're making money, that's winning life.

Chef Brian Lewis: Totally.

Brett Linkletter: That's awesome. That's totally winning life. But I feel like it's such an East Coast thing. I feel like you East Coast guys just work crazy hours compared to West Coast people in general.

Chef Brian Lewis: I inaudible. I can agree. Can you get my power cord upstairs?

Speaker 3: Where?

Chef Brian Lewis: Under the bed. Thanks, babe.

Brett Linkletter: No worries. So the other thing you mentioned, obviously, I know you like these war books, and you like how business is relatable to war. I love that by the way, and I feel like I kind of have a similar mindset on it, but I mean, what has been something that maybe you got from the book? Or how do you approach business in a way that is similar to war?

Chef Brian Lewis: I mean, I think it's a certain... And I'm not a proponent by the way of actual war, just for the record, at all. I think it's more like some of the very classics of go around the mountain and persevere your resources for when you're going to need them. And don't fight head on if it's a losing battle. Don't go after, for example, a business deal just because you want it. Go after that business deal because it's the right deal, because it's going to make your life better, make your financial partners... Thank you. Awesome. Thank you, babe. It's going to make your partners money. It's going to be a successful endeavor, not just a passion play. So if we're analogous to, persevere your resources, wait it out. I'll say that about during COVID. That was a really good way to look at how to close the restaurants, when to reopen them. I waited until I was ready to reopen them, not just because the governor said it was okay to open. I didn't reopen until we were ready, until we felt that we had everything and all the best practices fully lined up and it was the right time of year. So we waited a month after we we were allowed to open. The Cottage and inaudible. So that's a good example of, just kind of hold steady. Don't get too antsy just to get back at it. And it worked.

Brett Linkletter: Got it.

Chef Brian Lewis: Let other people do it. I'm not in a rush. I'm not racing other people to see how fast I can rebound. Again, it's a long view, a long game here. And, to me, it was myopic to just think you're going to open up and just start ringing the register again. Sometimes it requires just much more time to kind of mend the bones in that broken leg or arm than to just get going.

Brett Linkletter: 100%.

Chef Brian Lewis: So we really, we were lucky to... So I just like that kind of thought process of, again, outside the restaurant world, and thinking about... Good to Great's another really good book. Just how to bring in my team's advice. I tried to not make any real individual decisions that just came from me. We really had the proper crosstalk.

Brett Linkletter: 100%. So Brian, obviously, you've had a lot of experience in this industry, which is fantastic, obviously. Very clear. What do you think, when you were first getting into this space, what's one thing maybe you wish you had known when you first began your career?

Chef Brian Lewis: Huh. Getting into the space of this industry?

Brett Linkletter: Yeah. When you were first starting your career in this space.

Chef Brian Lewis: I mean, I was... Oof. I mean, in hindsight, I would've taken the advice that I was just kind of talking about, which is don't become a workaholic, if that's the way... A workaholic, I don't know the true definition of that, but I personally, it was my sport throughout junior high school, high school, it was my sport.

Brett Linkletter: Totally.

Chef Brian Lewis: And I mean that literally. It was a place where I went instead of football and all that, I kind of gave all that up in ninth grade when I fell in love with this. And that was wonderful. I tried to compete toward the Olympics, tried to do all the culinary Olympics, all that stuff. So that's a great, passionate thing for... I wasn't much into academics as a kid, and it was really good for me. But I think what I would do differently is certainly try to find a much better balance in life, early on, in terms of... Because it was so widely understood. Thankfully I, by the way, I never fell into the partying lifestyle of that type of part of our industry, which is out there, not for everybody but obviously-

Brett Linkletter: Totally.

Chef Brian Lewis: But yeah. I think I would have probably balanced it out better. I was fortunate to go to school for business as well, in addition to the culinary institute. So I had that nice... That was really, really a nice part of my youth, to have a college experience.

Brett Linkletter: Totally.

Chef Brian Lewis: And balance that out. But I think more of that would've probably been better.

Brett Linkletter: So you said you're lucky that you didn't fall into the party space. So yeah, I have seen that quite a bit too. And another guest I had on the podcast was like, he was falling into that space, trying to pursue his career as a restaurateur, and he said... I mean, he's totally sober at this point. And he's like, " If I hadn't done that there's no way I'd accomplish what I had today, no way." And I think that's something to be said. And I'm not saying I'm an advocate for, " Hey, everyone should be sober. And that's it."

Chef Brian Lewis: crosstalk.

Brett Linkletter: But I think, like you said, it's balance, right? It's balance. You get these guys who just fall into it, they fall into it. And then they wonder why they're not growing, well that's why.

Chef Brian Lewis: Seriously. And I don't think, from my perspective, it's not about necessarily wishing to rewrite a story, but probably having the presence of mind, certainly right now, how to write it forward. How to write it going forward. How to learn from it and how to appreciate. Because it really has taken a lot of time, even today, literally, to not feel as if I'm neglecting... Because you have three, now going to be four restaurants, where my identity becomes about... Hoo, a little therapy session here. My identity becomes about being a chef. inaudible knows me. I'm the one cooking, I'm the one... But let me say, that I have become... I look back at how I was as a chef and leader, and I am a different person as a leader while I'm not just trying to do this while lead all those around me.

Brett Linkletter: 100%.

Chef Brian Lewis: Because there's this, there's cooking, and cleaning, and making inaudible.

Brett Linkletter: No, I think it is-

Chef Brian Lewis: crosstalk.

Brett Linkletter: I think one of the toughest skillset is to become a business leader, because when you're mastering your own craft you have full control over what you do.

Chef Brian Lewis: crosstalk.

Brett Linkletter: When you become a business owner you're not working in the business, you're working on the business. And you have to relinquish a lot of these duties to your staff. And that's hard to do for a lot of people.

Chef Brian Lewis: Well, plus... Completely. And you have to accept that, or at least I do, that they're going to... It's going to come back. You're going to trust people, you're going to work with them to the best of what you provide, as far as your vision. Your clear vision is essential. If you don't give a clear vision you're not going to get anything close to it coming back, as far as what the results you're looking for. But even if you give the clearest vision to the most receptive, highly intelligent, creative person, it's still going to come back from their DNA, so to speak. So you have to accept that. And you have to be able... It took me a while, and I'm finally there- ish, where you're-

Brett Linkletter: Totally.

Chef Brian Lewis: ... ableto harness that and let them grow. And basically, you start producing others, so to speak, with a common vision. It's kind of like, and I'm not a big sports guy, but I'm big with analogies and metaphors, it's like going from being the quarterback to the coach to the owner.

Brett Linkletter: Yes, totally.

Chef Brian Lewis: And you can't have it all. And I love being the quarterback, whatever, but at the same time, you have to high write, you have to instill and inspire. And then be... Which I am finally, really, really, really love it. I really love that part of the process.

Brett Linkletter: Totally, 100%.

Chef Brian Lewis: And crosstalk. And I'd go to each restaurant and work on dishes with the staff, and chefs are bringing me food to taste, which is how I grew up as the sous chef, bringing it to the chef owner. Now I'm the guy that we're talking, we go through the whole collab, the ideation, the creative process verbally.

Brett Linkletter: Totally.

Chef Brian Lewis: We go through stuff. My chef at OKO Westport, John, who is a super talented young guy. And he gets it. We'll talk through food, and we've worked together for years cooking. But then we'll just talk food and he'll bring me food. And this is going to sound extremely lame, but I'll taste it and I'll be like, " It tastes like I just made it." Which is wild. I mean, it's him.

Brett Linkletter: That's so cool. No, yeah, 100%.

Chef Brian Lewis: I mean crosstalk.

Brett Linkletter: What about this? So obviously you've been very successful, this industry-

Chef Brian Lewis: crosstalk.

Brett Linkletter: ...though, as you know, is competitive as it gets. What do you feel like is something that just really separates you from the others? I mean, obviously, you're definitely a hard worker, your food looks amazing.

Chef Brian Lewis: Thank you.

Brett Linkletter: But if you had to identify, maybe one, maybe two things that just really separates you from your competition, what would those things be?

Chef Brian Lewis: I mean, I don't ever really knowingly try to compete with anybody, that's the truth. Except for Beat Bobby Flay. I just compete with myself. I'm pretty hard on myself about my standards. So I think the standards that I keep are maybe a little pigheaded, in the sense that I don't give them up. And I always just... And the originality of my food, as much as food can be original. But just, I think, the daily, daily... I don't know really how to answer the question other than the daily-

Brett Linkletter: Is it, you're saying, maybe the consistency?

Chef Brian Lewis: I was going to say, the daily consistency of looking at food. And you can see if it needs salt, some time. Or just those... Not giving up on any step of the way of what the right disciplines that you ask to have in place by your team across the board. Don't give up on that. Just because I'm super busy and I'm driving from this restaurant to this restaurant or whatever, all the beautiful... I look at this new dish, that's great. But you can't stray from this. And you could call that a dictator, or whatever you want to... And I joke about that. But there is a certain core set of disciplines in the kitchen, and in the dining room, all throughout in the way that we treat our staff. Human resources, because I'm involved in all of it, and I just think being true to your vision and being consistent is so important.

Brett Linkletter: crosstalk.

Chef Brian Lewis: Because you can come up with great ideas all day long, make a great dish once, it means little in the scheme of things, but the consistency is really everything.

Brett Linkletter: Totally. I once heard a mentor of ours, years ago, say, " You have to have monk- like discipline to succeed, to master your craft, to stick to it."

Chef Brian Lewis: Ooh.

Brett Linkletter: And I think that's kind of what you're talking about here, is having that monk- like discipline to really strive for that perfection and greatness that you know you should be day in and day out every day in everything you do, right?

Chef Brian Lewis: Totally agree.

Brett Linkletter: But and what about this? You've had a lot of experiences, what would you say is your overall biggest failure in your career? And what'd you learn from it?

Chef Brian Lewis: Hm. Hm, hm. How many failures am I allowed to talk about?

Brett Linkletter: Yeah, I know right.

Chef Brian Lewis: No. I would say my biggest failure was probably in San Francisco. I was a chef of an ill- fated brasserie, that I wanted to go in one direction. And I was pissing vinegar, I was just 28 years old, or 29, or 30, something like that, and I had been the executive chef of a very successful place called Bic's, and then I went on to open this restaurant, I just won't mention the name, and I was part of the startup. And I knew in my gut it was wrong. The owners were really, really wanted it to be just a gastropub. And I was trying to make it my version of basically Bouchon. And I went to Paris, studied there for a little bit.

Brett Linkletter: Nice.

Chef Brian Lewis: I was just so into it, but I think I knew the whole time that I was constantly fighting uphill, an uphill battle, and losing.

Brett Linkletter: Yeah, totally. yeah.

Chef Brian Lewis: And crosstalk with someone, at that time, who I was a terrible manager of people, I was a great cook and talented in the kitchen, but not a good manager of people because I was just so blindly just wanted success for the restaurant that I didn't know how to really achieve now that I look back. And how to be diplomatic, and so on, and so forth. And I should've just left the job. And what happened was, we had a review from the San Francisco Chronicle that was so scathing. It was an evisceration. And I look back, and it was accurate, because the restaurant was just overrun, it was just a collective mess.

Brett Linkletter: Totally.

Chef Brian Lewis: And I handled it so poorly, emotionally. I was so, so wrecked by that review. I felt scarlet letter, blah, blah, blah. So I think that would be my biggest... That was definitely... Because it set into motion a pretty... It unearthed a lot about...

Brett Linkletter: Totally.

Chef Brian Lewis: That level of criticism, at that... I remember the internet was becoming a big thing at the time and I was crosstalk. This is that long ago, and I was getting emails from my cousin in Connecticut like, " I heard what happened." And this is like, you didn't have that bandwidth yet. Well, I mean, you did, it was just crosstalk. And I was like, " Oh shit, I'm really..." So I was devastated by that.

Speaker 4: inaudible.

Chef Brian Lewis: And to pick myself kind of back up from that.

Speaker 4: inaudible.

Chef Brian Lewis: Sorry. crosstalk

Speaker 4: Hi.

Brett Linkletter: No worries.

Chef Brian Lewis: Sorry.

Brett Linkletter: But that was crosstalk.

Chef Brian Lewis: So that was it crosstalk.

Brett Linkletter: But it sounds like you knew from the beginning that this wasn't going to go exactly how you wanted to, it's like your gut told you this wasn't the best idea. And I think the valuable lesson there too is also following your gut. I think sometimes your gut tells you things that you can't really see all the answers, but it's telling you to move in at least some direction, and we got to follow it. I mean, I'm inaudible on that too.

Chef Brian Lewis: crosstalk. What's that?

Brett Linkletter: Right? I said I do the same thing. My gut will tell me something and I'll just keep doing it no matter the case. And then I'll come back later and say, " Oh, that's why." Following your gut, following your instinct, I think, obviously, is so important.

Chef Brian Lewis: No, inaudible-

Brett Linkletter: Anyway Brian-

Chef Brian Lewis: ...I swear by it. And crosstalk.

Brett Linkletter: 100-

Chef Brian Lewis: So I think it's both following your gut instinct and it's not what happens, and I didn't deal with it well, so-

Speaker 3: inaudible.

Chef Brian Lewis: Guys, please. Thanks, please.

Speaker 4: I need a coaster.

Chef Brian Lewis: Sorry.

Brett Linkletter: No worries. And Brian, anyway, today was so fantastic, it's been such an awesome time getting to know you, have this conversation with you. For any of our listeners that maybe want to look your restaurants up, look you up in general, where can our listeners connect with you online?

Chef Brian Lewis: Oh, so we have thecottagewestport. com. And then we have okokitchen is the website, okokitchen. com.

Brett Linkletter: Very cool. And what about yourself? Are you on social media, personally?

Chef Brian Lewis: Yeah, I believe our publicist, she knows all the codes and all the passwords of all the crosstalk and Facebook, and all that good stuff.

Brett Linkletter: Perfect, perfect. All right guys, well hey, if you do want to look the restaurants, again, look at those sites, we'll be sure to have those URLs below in this podcast in this section. But anyway, Brian, thank you so much for your time today. This was fantastic.

Chef Brian Lewis: crosstalk.

Brett Linkletter: And we'll be in touch real soon. Thanks a lot.

Chef Brian Lewis: All right. You take care. See you now.

Brett Linkletter: All righty. See you.

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