Anyone who has ever worked in the restaurant business knows the heat is not confined to the kitchen. On any given night, if you step behind the scenes at your favorite eatery, you're likely to see displays of mating behavior right out of a nature documentary. Cooks hitting on hostesses, servers groping each other behind the beverage station, quick hook-ups in the dry storage — it's a wonder any food makes it to the table.
This isn't a knock on the hardworking folks who work in the industry. The business is tough. Long hours and a high-stress environment naturally breed a closeness not found in most other sectors. As such, relationships form quickly and burn bright.
And they don't always fade away.
Proof positive are the many examples of long-lasting love found throughout the kitchens and dining rooms of some of St. Louis' most successful restaurants. A few couples work the line side by side, some divide up the front and the back of the house and others have found it's better to work at different restaurants entirely. All, however, share the common challenge of making a relationship work in an industry notorious for its disregard for work-life balance.
We were curious. How do they make it work? Are they able to talk about anything other than the business after hours? What drives them craziest about working with their significant other? And, perhaps most importantly, when did they realize it wasn't just a kitchen romance?
These are their love stories.
Simone and Damien Faure
"We ended up talking for hours and realizing how much we had in common even though we come from such different backgrounds. I'm from the projects of New Orleans and he's from the French countryside – but once we started talking, it was just easy." – Simone Faure
The first time Simone Faure heard her future husband's voice, she thought it was someone doing a bad Borat impression – and so she hung up on him. "Simone was actually the first person I talked to at the Ritz," Damien Faure recalls. "I called the kitchen phone to tell them that my plane was running late and she said, 'I don't have time for this, Gary' and hung up on me."
At the time, Simone was working in the pastry kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans. Damien was being brought in to reopen the property after Hurricane Katrina.
But when he identified himself, Simone thought her coworkers were pranking her. She remembers the phone call slightly differently.
"The guys in garde manger had been razzing us – they'd call the pastry kitchen and do these crazy accents and order all of this food, telling us they needed it on the fly, and then it would turn out it was for no one. So when the phone rang that day I said, 'I've got this,' and answered. 'Chef Damien, is it? We'll be right there. We're going to send a car for you and they'll have your name on a little marker.' Then I hung up and told everyone, 'Ha! I got their asses.'"
Damien might have held the episode against her had he not fallen in love at first sight. The French chef, who grew up in a small town in France and had been trained at Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, had planned on staying in New Orleans for only a month or so before heading back to his home country. Then he met Simone.
Despite his feelings, the relationship got off to a slow start.
"If he was pursuing me, then he didn't have any game," Simone laughs. A self-made woman from the projects, she became increasingly annoyed with Chef Damien's regular visits to her kitchen.
"He'd come into the pastry kitchen and say, 'I need such and such' and ask me to get it for him," Simone remembers. "Then, like fifteen minutes later he'd come back and ask for something else. My friend said, 'Oh girl, he's cute and I'm thinking he's into you,' and I told her, 'I'm thinking you need to go back to stirring that batter.'"
After what Damien recalls as a half-dozen attempts at asking her out, Simone finally agreed to a date that consisted of redfish takeout in the hotel room where she was living at the time. An hours-long phone conversation, a long-distance relationship and several visa issues later, the two are now married, raising four-year-old son Maxim and balancing the demands that come with being one of St. Louis' most talented culinary couples.
They now work separately: Simone is chef and owner of the acclaimed Botanical Heights patisserie La Petite Choquette, while Damien is chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton. It's an arrangement they prefer, at least for now.
"When we worked together at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis we talked about the need for him to call me 'Chef' versus Simone in the kitchen," Simone explains. "He'd want to walk in and give me a good morning kiss and say, 'Hello ma vie.' I didn't need people looking at us differently."
The laidback good humor that irritated Simone in the professional kitchen, however, is what she loves most about Damien in real life.
"If you ask Damien what his goals are he will say that his first goal is to make sure that me and Maxim are happy," says Simone, 42. "He doesn't tell you that he has to be executive chef of such-and-such restaurant by the time he is 40. He just wants to see the joy in people when they eat his food. It goes beyond the plate for him. He shares himself with people."
It's the perfect balance, in that Damien admires Simone because she is so driven.
"Everything Simone has done in her life she has done for herself," Damien, 34, explains. "She's where she is because of her hard work, and she always keeps a positive attitude — she never feels like something is the end or that she can't do anymore. I wish I was like that. She's much more impressive than me. I just have a beautiful accent."
Jenny Cleveland and Ed Heath
"Working together accelerates your relationship. We're like an 80-year-old couple that has been together for like 40 years versus a couple that has been together for ten years but only sees each other on evenings and weekends. We're like a codger-y old couple." – Jenny Cleveland
Ed Heath just wouldn't leave Jenny Cleveland alone. From the moment he spotted her on her first day of work at a Salt Lake City brewpub, he knew she was the one.
"I couldn't resist her," says Heath, now 34. "I was dating someone else at the time, but I remember seeing her on her first day and being like, 'Holy crap.' My relationship with my other girlfriend was in trouble and dwindling quickly. Then we broke up, and I began calling Jenny every day."
Cleveland, however, was not interested. "We were both going through nasty breakups, and he had been broken up longer than me, so I was like, 'Leave me alone,'" recalls Cleveland, who is also 34. "He had already gone through the hard parts and I was still going through the hard parts. I didn't know what I wanted to do and definitely wanted to be left alone. But then he kept calling me like four times a day and showing up at my house at 4 a.m. with bikes in the back of his truck asking me if I wanted to go for a bike ride."
Heath's persistence paid off, and he quickly found himself bonding with Cleveland over their shared lack of clarity on their career paths. Both were working day jobs that made them miserable and found their only solace during their shifts at the brewpub. They both realized that they wanted to make a career out of the restaurant business, but they didn't know exactly how.
One night, Heath had a revelation.
"He always gets mad when I tell this story," Cleveland laughs. "I don't remember exactly what he said, but in my head he said, 'If it wasn't for you I would...' And I was like, 'You would what? We shouldn't be holding each other back from what we want to do.' He said he'd want to go to culinary school, so I said, 'Let's do it.'"
The pair left Utah for culinary school in California, where they were in class together five days a week and consistently assigned to the same three-person working groups. "I think the instructors thought if we wanted to open a restaurant together we should know what we were getting into," offers Heath.
After school they settled into what they thought were their dream jobs and enjoyed the outdoorsy California lifestyle. Still, they knew they wanted more.
When Cleveland's sister called to tell her that the Edwardsville restaurant Fond had closed in her hometown, the two saw this as an opportunity to take the leap into owning their own place. Then just 31, they opened their restaurant Cleveland-Heath to critical raves – and the place has been packed ever since.
Though conventional wisdom suggests otherwise, Cleveland and Heath can't imagine not working together.
"It's very natural," Cleveland says. "It accelerates your relationship. We're like an 80-year-old couple that has been together for 40 years versus a couple that has been together for ten years but have different work lives and only see each other on evenings and weekends. I think we are like a codger-y old couple."
It's not always bliss, but they trust in the big picture.
"Everything is for the good of the restaurant," Heath explains. "We may be 180 degrees apart on how we get there, but the end goal is the same."
"I feel bad for the people who work for us," Cleveland laughs. "They see us fight every day. All of these things that you want to say to everyone else but you can't you say to the person you are comfortable letting your guard down with. All of this stress and frustration that should go to these other outlets falls on that person."
"In theory it should be a beautiful thing," adds Heath. "But it can get pretty nasty sometimes."
"Yeah, it gets pretty heated sometimes," says Cleveland. "But Ed has a great sense of humor and a huge heart."
"We had drinks, we went to the restaurant opening and had dinner, then went to a wine bar — she out-blind-tasted me. Then we danced in the rain and she kissed me in the back of a Chicago cab." — Nick Luedde
Audra Luedde's boyfriend at the time didn't realize it, but he was inadvertently setting his lady up with another man.
Both Audra and her guy were wine reps in Chicago, she recalls. "I had a really horrible day and met up with my boyfriend at a mutual account we had," recalls Audra. "He said, 'You know if you are having a bad day, go see Nick Luedde, because if anything he will give you the time and respect that you need."
At the time, Nick, a St. Louis native, was managing a fine-dining restaurant called Feast in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood. When he saw Audra, he wanted to give her more than just his time.
"I was very single and she was hot," Nick admits. "She came in and we hit it off right away. I had a little busboy named Jose who had worked for me for a long time, and he knew I was into her and we would always flirt all the time. As time went on and she came into the account, he would always have flowers set up on the table in the corner and everything. I was like, 'What are you doing here, man?' and he'd say, 'This is for your wife. I see it in your eye.'"
For nearly eight years, the Lueddes worked in several high profile positions in Chicago's restaurant scene — she as a wine rep and wine buyer, he as a sommelier and beverage director. The pair dreamed of opening their own place and had been tossing around ideas for years, but they knew that they would not be able to afford to follow through on that dream without sacrificing their independence to investors.
When Audra got pregnant with their first son, Miles, they realized the support they needed could come from Nick's family in his hometown. And that, coupled with the comparative affordability of opening a restaurant there, made St. Louis the right move. They packed up and began shopping around for what would become their critically acclaimed Clayton eatery, the Libertine.
"Everyone tried to talk us out of [opening a restaurant together], but it's all we've ever wanted to do," Audra says. "It's who we are. If you don't love it, you can't be in this business. And having worked together, we know each other's weaknesses very well."
Three years later, and now balancing the demands of two sons (Miles is now four; Luke is four months) the Lueddes credit their ability to balance each other as the key to their success.
"Nick goes way overboard and I am a little more understated. I have to reel him in," Audra, 37, explains.
"Yes, I'm pretty decadent – more is better," adds Nick, 39. "I have a crazy idea and she is like, 'Let's make this work.'
"It's different when you are a married couple, though," Nick continues. "I come home and we crack open a bottle of wine and the kids are in bed. We just come up with menu plans and ideas and go over everything together. I mean, when was the last time we argued?"
"Laundry," offers Audra.
"Well, I don't know," Nick says, "but we've been together so long that working together just isn't a thing. The restaurant is an extension of us, really. I mean, it's us."
Pierce Powers and Lona Luo
“When I first saw Lona I lost my breath.” – Pierce Powers
It sounds like a dating nightmare right out of a women’s magazine –- when Pierce Powers first took out Lona Luo, he ran out of money and she had to pay for their food. But that apparent misstep is actually what sealed the deal.
Luo, who grew up in a remote village on the southwestern frontier of China’s Yunnan province, was apprehensive of dating the American Powers, precisely because she was concerned that he was wealthy.
“I didn’t know what kind of social class he came from and I was scared to date rich people,” Luo explains. “I am from a really poor area and it’s embarrassing to show where I am from and how poor my family is. But when I went out with him, I realized he was really simple.”
Powers’ and Luo’s love story is as unlikely as any. The first in her family to read and write, Luo left home to work in a Japanese restaurant at a swanky resort in Yunnan’s capital, Kunming. Powers, who is from St. Louis, had moved to China to teach English and found himself assigned to her resort to train the staff.
He didn’t think about dating when he was there because of overwhelming cultural differences. Then he met Luo and everything changed.
“When I first saw her I lost my breath,” says Powers. “My first impression of Lona –- she had this stride and this diva essence that was just crazy. Everyone sees that in her. She is the kind of woman who loves to compete with alpha men. When we go hunting she just schools all the hillbillies with a knife when she cuts up a deer. They ask her for help. She’s just tough. When I met her it was like I met the matriarch that every male wants.”
Luo was equally interested in Powers, but for a different reason – he could take down an entire pot of her soup. “When I left to go to work, I had a big pot left and he finished the whole thing,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is my future man.’ I just wanted him to eat everything and enjoy the food I cooked.”
Powers and Luo married in her village and moved to the United States after she became pregnant. Luo’s friends discouraged her from taking such a leap. She wouldn’t be able to make it, they said, because of her lack of education and language skills. To prove them wrong, she got a job waiting tables less than two weeks after moving to the U.S.
“We are super different,” Powers acknowledges. “I’m like super emotional and a social worker, and she’s like, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps –- that’s how I roll.’ She’s got the mentality that if she doesn’t know how to do something, she’ll figure it out.”
One thing Luo figured out how to do – with Powers at her side –- is to cook food that has St. Louis lining up for more. After selling dumplings from a food stall at Soulard Market, the pair opened their fast-casual restaurant, Lona’s Lil Eats, in Fox Park in 2014.
Though labeled as Chinese, the restaurant’s flavors, straight from Luo’s village, are unlike any other Asian restaurant in town. And the neighborhood had never previously been a dining destination. Still, the critics swooned, and the restaurant is packed just about every night.
Powers runs the front of the house and leaves the cooking to Luo, an arrangement they credit with keeping them sane –- most of the time. The stresses of running a restaurant, they acknowledge, can sometimes take a toll.
“It’s really hard,” Powers says. “Doing business together has actually been good for our relationship, though. When we are struggling it brings us closer. When we don’t have that it gets more difficult. Working together is both the toughest and the most rewarding thing.”