These couples run five of the Bay’s dining hotspots. We find out what makes them tick on and off the clock.
Owning and running a successful restaurant in the Bay Area is no easy task. From healthcare costs to labor shortages to fierce competition, the modern day restaurateur is forced to overcome an intense set of challenges. Throw love into the mix, and you’ve got a blueprint for disaster. Or do you? A surprising number of the region’s top eateries are owned and operated by couples — men and women whose unconditional love allows them to support each other in the kitchen at work and at home.
These couples are genuinely passionate about the food, atmosphere and service they present at their restaurants, but they are also incredibly passionate for each other. But how do they make it work? Do they fight over what type of custard ( lemon verbena or basil?) to serve with the grilled stone fruit course? Or whether their new cookbook should include recipes for both clams and mussels? Or what type of eggs (scrambled or sunny side up?) to have for breakfast in the morning?
To learn how these relationships and restaurants work in harmony, we sat down with five different couples — Robbie Wilson and Emily Perry Wilson of Bird Dog, Anu and Vikram Bhambri of Rooh, Val and Carolyn Cantu of Californios, Carrie and Rupert Blease of Lord Stanley, and Anjan and Emily Mitra of DOSA — and asked them how they manage to mesh their personal and professional lives. Here is how our conversation went down.
How and when did you meet?
Anu Bhambri: We met through our parents in a traditional Indian way where parents introduced us, and we spent six months getting to know each other better. We then got engaged and got married six months later.
Carolyn Cantu: We have been together since high school! We began dating in 2000 in Brownwood, Texas. We met through a mutual friend. I had just moved to Brownwood from Ft. Worth, and Val asked to meet the new girl.
Robbie Wilson: I ran into a wall. So, on the other side of that wall: Aspen, Colo.
What did you do on your first date?
Carolyn Cantu: We went to this tiny little steakhouse called Katy’s the next town over. They have a steak special and fried catfish. I always got the steak, and Val loves fried catfish.
Emily Mitra: We had dinner at an Indian restaurant in the Mission (on Valencia!) that’s no longer around.
Carrie Blease: Rupert and I were working in Oxford, England at Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons. We went to the movies and a pub afterward.
Anu Bhambri: We went out sightseeing in Delhi near India Gate, which is sort of a central place in India’s capital, and then went to dinner at one of the hotels in the city.
Emily Perry Wilson: We had a formal date on the books for the next evening, but Robbie sent an impromptu invitation to come over and watch football. We had the best time, and ended up eating hot dogs and opening an amazing bottle of wine. And the dinner out the next night was absolutely perfect (and extremely civilized)!
Name the three best qualities about your partner.
Anjan Mitra: Emily is charming, funny and smart. Emily Mitra: Anjan is sophisticated, intelligent and gregarious. He’s the one you want at your party!
Carrie Blease: Rupert is funny, crazy, and thoughtful. Rupert Blease: Carrie is beautiful, stylish and cool.
Anu Bhambri: I love her patience, caring nature and her personality which is always positive. Vikram Bhambri: Vikram is very hardworking, calm and caring, He is always willing to help others and works tirelessly 24/7.
Carolyn Cantu: Val is patient, driven and genuinely cares about people. Val Cantu: Carolyn is the opposite of me in a lot of ways; she makes me laugh, her love of life, and she’s gorgeous.
Robbie Wilson: Physical ones aside: Intelligence, sense of humor, and departmental rage. Emily Perry Wilson: It’s hard to choose three, but Robbie is passionate about creating, has a terrific sense of humor, and is the best father to our son I could have ever hoped for.
How do you separate the personal aspect of your lives from your professional endeavors?
Anu Bhambri: It is very tough, and we struggle with it every day, but over time we have learned to keep the two separate. We try and not discuss too much work when we are at home or with our kids. But, both of us are very passionate about it so [it] ends up crossing that line. As the restaurant projects have settled a bit more, we are now more at ease, but the ambition to do better keeps us excited about the opportunities. The good part is that our kids enjoy dining out and enjoying finer things in life as much as we do so sometimes it does not feel like we are mixing things.
Anjan Mitra: We don’t discuss work at home (even though it’s tempting) and definitely not in front of our daughters. Emily Mitra: We essentially live together in two bubbles floating beside each other at all times — our work and personal life. This often means biting our lips not to share an email or Yelp review one of us has just read. We try very hard to live in the present moment.
Robbie Wilson: We actually do not. The professional endeavors simply reinforce our unified front. It can also be a rallying cry for family trips and/or a night out. The path we chose is equal in terms of lifestyle and career. Emily Perry Wilson: We don’t. When we began working together, I researched this very topic at length to strive to separate the worlds. But we found the black and white separation doesn’t work for us. We embrace that we’re both business and life partners. That said, we refrain from passionately kissing or passionately bickering in front of the team.
How has working together strengthened your relationship?
Carrie Blease: We have gone through a lot working together. Opening Lord Stanley was one of the hardest and most accomplishing endeavors that made us realize what we can do together.
Anu Bhambri: It has given us a much better understanding of each other as professionals who were in the same tech industry before and now working in a completely different F&B industry. We also now understand each other’s strength better to leverage it as needed and weaknesses so that we can work around them. We also admire each other’s working style when on the floor or working with partners, customers, etc., as it gives us strength watching both of us put in the hard work and passion that we put in.
Carolyn Cantu: Working together, you are forced to live your personal and professional lives in front of everyone. I think it is so important to treat each other with respect. How are your employees going to respect you and the business you have built if you can’t respect each other? It has been amazing to develop our dream from nothing together. Val Cantu: Working together forces you into stressful situations that can be high stress, and working through them makes your relationship much stronger. As Carolyn has exited service and day-to-day operations, since having our son, our relationship has gotten even better. It’s great to work together, but it’s essential to have some separation, as well.
Robbie Wilson: It allows us both to spend time together that otherwise would be unavailable based on the hours needed to perform our duties. Emily Perry Wilson: Since there is never a dull moment in this business, it has helped us discern what really matters. There’s a “fire” every day. We help each other take it all in stride, and when one is having a particularly tough time, the other rushes to support them.
What types of professional disagreements have you had? How were they resolved?
Anjan Mitra: We frequently have differing opinions that we need to resolve; however, the result ends up being a decision that is fleshed out more thoroughly. We had initially planned to open our first finecasual restaurant in Palo Alto, but then I realized that Oakland was a more suitable audience and location for the current market. It’s not that it was a disagreement, but we always need to ensure that both of us are entirely on board with some of the major decisions we make. Emily Mitra: We had many arguments about whether or not to serve kebabs in the new dosa by DOSA concept, and Anjan won. He was right that Indian kebabs are much more unique than my experience with kebabs in America and worth having a second tandoor oven — something I argued against for awhile.
Carolyn Cantu: We used to get into the dumbest disagreements when we were both working service. We are both stubborn and such perfectionists, and there is a lot of pressure trying to make sure that everything is perfect every single night. These fights were almost always resolved after the turn and maybe a small glass of wine! Val Cantu: I can’t think of a significant disagreement. There were plenty of little moments, but we’ve always worked through it, really quickly.
Robbie Wilson: I wanted to become the pioneer in the new cuisine of Equatorial Guinea. Emily said that I was an “idiot” and I agreed. Emily Perry Wilson: They are all resolved the same way: We take a breath, maybe some time, and talk through it.
What do you love about working together?
Carrie Blease: Getting the opportunity to travel to new places for work and experimenting with new ingredients we are introduced to there. We recently traveled to Bali for work. There were so many exciting fruits and seafood.
Anu Bhambri: An opportunity to work with your life partner. A chance to work with someone who is smart, passionate and equally committed to the projects. We also get an excellent opportunity to experience the culinary world closely together since we are both very excited about it. We get energized solving problems together, growing the business and in turn, create a better life for our family together.
Robbie Wilson: Emily speaks my language and provides unconditional support with 99 percent of my endeavors. Emily Perry Wilson: Every day, I’m grateful that we are building something together — it’s a true family affair.
What do you credit your relationship success to?
Carrie Blease: Supporting each other through whatever comes our way.
Anu Bhambri: Trust, commitment, and love for each other and our family.
Carolyn Cantu: Time and patience. It is such a balancing act to try to keep each other, ourselves and work happy and healthy. It has not always been easy, but we have always keep at it. If something isn’t working at the restaurant and is affecting our personal life, we try to fix it as quickly as possible. You have to learn when to bite your tongue and when to speak up even though you know it may hurt the others feelings. Val Cantu: I think having an understanding commitment to each other helps us continue to have a successful relationship.
Robbie Wilson: We are both goaloriented and likeminded fools. More importantly, we both laugh. A lot. Emily Perry Wilson: There are many things, but as far as working within the business, there is a very distinct line of what falls under Robbie’s purview and what falls under mine. We’re fortunate in that our strengths and passions really differ. I’m not a chef, and Robbie isn’t driven by the business aspect. There’s some overlap in the branding and development, but fortunately we have a shared vision.
How do you keep the romance alive when you’re always together at work and home?
Carolyn Cantu: We try to make time for date night as much as possible! We have a one-year-old — which is much like having a new restaurant — so we have to remind ourselves to make the time to be a couple. We also try to have “coffee talk” most mornings. We will sit around, play with the baby and chat before running in opposite directions for the day. We don’t see each other most nights these days, so we both love our mornings together as a family and couple. Val Cantu: We work separately most of the time, which keeps us from driving each other insane. When we did work and live together, 24/7, we usually took an hour to unwind separately, at the end of the night. We’re always trying to take each other out on fun dates. We’re always saying silly things to each other and trying to keep our lives together light and fun.
Robbie Wilson: With profoundly successful P&L’s. As hackneyed as it may sound, great food and wine and someone else executing it. Emily Perry Wilson: I am diligent about scheduling date nights, family time and travel, even if it’s a very quick trip. I also make it a priority to celebrate — milestones as well as little things — as often as they arise. Life is short.
What do you do for date night?
Carolyn Cantu: We both love to eat out. We are so spoiled in this city. For day dates, we love going to the museums and a spa day is always welcomed! Val Cantu: Go out to eat! We go on little trips around the Bay when we can.
Robbie Wilson: We actually end up taking special little trips in lieu of date nights. After pushing so hard, for many, many days in a row, this formula works best.
Who does the cooking at home?
Vikram Bhambri: We have our responsibilities split naturally. Anu usually cooks vegetarian meals, and I focus on nonvegetarian dishes. Sometimes we cook together with the whole family contributing, which makes it more fun.
Anjan Mitra: Emily primarily, except for Indian food that I prepare. Emily Mitra: I love to cook, and I am big with kits these days to ensure a few meals are well composed each week. I also eat as much raw, vegetarian food as possible (80 percent) and serve these kinds of meals to my girls as well since my Indian food diet is well taken care of at DOSA every day!
Robbie Wilson: Emily.
What’s your best advice for young couples who are considering getting into the restaurant industry together?
Anjan Mitra: I always say that if you agree on every issue, then one person is not adding value! Therefore expect there to be differences, but it’s important to keep an open mind and a clear way of resolving disputes in opinion. Define your roles as best you can so that there is a separation of responsibilities and chain of command. Emily Mitra: Be willing to learn and make mistakes, and know that what matters is how fast you recover and how well you build processes that support you. Listen to each other. Know your strengths, and divide your roles and responsibilities without unnecessary overlap so that you still have things to talk about over the dinner table at night.
Carolyn Cantu: Make sure that you are both committed to each other and this industry. It is insanely hard and some days impossible. It is so important to have each other’s backs and be fighting for the same goal. Val Cantu: I think it’s a great idea if you both have experience and know what you are getting in to. I think you have to be confident in your relationship and understand each other well before you jump into that mess. I believe strong couples have a history of being successful in the restaurant industry, and I would encourage it.
Robbie Wilson: 100 percent authenticity with one another. Clear and defined professional and personal goals. Listen. Manage your expectations knowing that everyday will present a crisis or nine. Emily Perry Wilson: Understand your roles clearly, and strive to remain unruffled and respectful. The question is not if it will be stressful — it will be — but rather how you choose to handle it. Lean on your partner.