Robert Elias

This is a column in a series from Upserve called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by a restaurateur driven by friendship, Robert Elias.

It was just after I graduated from college.

I packed up my car and drove from small town Oxford, OH to Washington, D.C. to move in with my brother and experience all that the nation’s capital had to offer. I didn’t know my next move, but my brother worked in the restaurant industry and lined me up with a job at world-renowned José Andrés’ Oyamel Cocina Mexicano.

This wasn’t just a job. It was here that I would make a friendship that would change my career. I met Quintin Frye, a James Beard nominated chef and owner of two award-winning restaurants in Hawaii, where he previously lived. He moved to D.C. to join Andrés’ team as a sous chef in, what is regarded as, one of the top Mexican restaurants in the country.

I’ve worn nearly every hat in the restaurant industry, but never all at once, and Big Bear proved to be the ultimate test.

We worked together at Oyamel for over a year, and during this time our wheels began turning. One night, sitting in the chef’s office, sharing a couple beers, Frye asked me to take on a new project with him. He’d received an offer to be the executive chef at Big Bear Café, a local coffee shop by day in the Bloomingdale neighborhood looking to revamp its dinner program. “Did I want to join as his general manager?”

I jumped at the chance. I would have creative control over all things front-of-house. And I would be collaborating with not only a chef I respected but a friend I trusted.

We started meeting regularly outside of work to discuss our ambitions about the café. Frye would throw out an idea, like butchering locally raised pigs in the basement prep kitchen of Big Bear, and I would compliment with an idea to feature local craft beers on draft, sourced from the same states as the pigs. I also envisioned an ever-changing cocktail list to match whichever cuts of meat he’d serve and use herbs from Big Bear’s homegrown garden.

There was a synchronicity in our partnership that came naturally. Our ability to intuitively know how the other wanted to run a restaurant was the driving force for our success at Big Bear.

I needed to train a laid-back staff to properly and consistently execute dinner service without changing the vibe of the café.

That’s not to say there weren’t challenges. Big Bear had a reputation city-wide as a hip neighborhood café known for its carefully curated coffee program and relaxed atmosphere. We needed to convey our vision for the café, while maintaining the atmosphere and ambiance that gave Big Bear its charm. Overhauling the dinner service and beverage program meant re-thinking our service. I needed to train a laid-back staff to properly and consistently execute dinner service without changing the vibe of the café. We were catering to Washingtonians, but our first priority were our neighbors in Bloomingdale.

We used Valentine’s Day as our official introduction to the community.

My friendship with Frye meant we were on the same path, and following that path delivered the momentum

It didn’t go off without a hitch. There were lots of hitches, in fact. We ran two seatings of a prix fixe menu, short-staffed with a barista-trained-server, no designated bartender, and one food-runner — a term I use quite loosely here — not to mention the snowstorm brewing outside, which staggered the timing of our guests and put us all on our heels.

This was the night I had to prove to the owner of the cafe, who happened to live upstairs, that his restaurant was in good hands and that he had made the right decision entrusting me to captain the ship. Only after the storm had passed, did I learn from our guests that the night was a complete success.

My friendship with Frye meant we were on the same path, and following that path delivered the momentum. We earned a few features in local and national news outlets such as the Washingtonian, Feistly, and OpenTable. We became the destination dinner spot Frye and I sought out to be.

I’ve worn nearly every hat in the restaurant industry, but never all at once. Big Bear proved to be the ultimate test. The recognition was personal, too. I was distinguished by Zagat as one of 30 of “Washington D.C.’s 2015 culinary game-changers under the age of 30.”

When I consider the journey, it’s clear to me that my personal success was tied to shared success. I didn’t know when I started working with Frye that it would lead from conversations in the kitchen to our own thing. But looking back it’s obvious that being on the same wavelength, having that friendship, was a catalyst for my own growth. That’s a lesson from the restaurant world that can be carried over into any venture.

Who knew a couple beers at the end of a shift could lead to a life-changing friendship.
Cheers to chance encounters.

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Robert Elias has spent the better part of the last decade in the restaurant industry, from starting a supper-club to curating cocktail menus before moving back to his home state of Rhode Island. He now spends his days at Uperve adjusting to his first job as a "daywalker" while learning what it means to have a real weekend.