Jessica Maher and Todd Duplechan are the husband-and-wife team behind Lenoir restaurant in Austin and the Metier Cook’s Supply shop next door. After working in kitchens in New York City, the couple moved to Austin determined to start a restaurant of their own. They succeeded — just around the same time Jessica gave birth to their first son. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we talked to Jessica all about their journey from cooks to restaurateurs, and from singles to married parents of two. Read on for her story.
Tell us about your background and how you and Todd opened Lenoir together.
Todd and I met while we were both in New York cooking. He is from Texas, and I went to school in Austin, so I always wanted to move back here. As our relationship was developing we thought it would be great to open a restaurant together — that was our goal for ourselves, and we thought opening one together would be really cool.
After about five years in New York we just picked up and moved to Austin without any jobs, hoping that someday we could open something but knowing that it wouldn’t happen right away. Todd took a job at the Four Seasons hotel, and I took a job and started a catering business. All the while we were looking at spaces and talking about it. It took us about five years, but we found the space and got a really great landlord and were able to open something.
That’s how we came to having a restaurant here. It’s a prix fixe, in the sense that it’s a set three courses for a certain amount of money but you get to mix and match however you like.
Did you ever have any hesitations about working together as a couple?
No, we work really well together. I knew based on our personalities and work ethics… we have a collaborative spirit and a can-do attitude. I thought it would make our lives a lot easier for us to be working together.
When we opened the restaurant our first son was a year old. The restaurant industry is hard, and working for someone else just means that you don’t get a choice about anything, really. Maybe you have control over some aspect of it, but you don’t have control over your days off. It does add a lot of responsibility, but it also added a lot of freedom to our lives.
That makes sense. How do you divide responsibilities at the restaurant?
Originally, we didn’t have a ton of money and we didn’t know exactly what we were doing. We had both worked in the kitchen and I had plenty of waiting-tables experience, and I had owned the catering business. I wouldn’t say either of us were masterful front of house people, but we also didn’t really have the budget to hire someone else.
We both cooked during the day, and then he worked on the line at night and I was the front of house manager. That was five days a week. I was responsible for making sure all of the bills were paid and all the reservations were taken. And we paid all of our vendors on the spot, so one of us had to be there all the time to write checks for whoever might come through the door. We both went to the farmers’ markets. We both did whatever needed to be done, all the time.
Now, we took over a space next door to the restaurant that we turned into a cooks’ supply shop. We have an office, a sous chef, a manager at the restaurant, so our responsibilities are different. He’s there at night, more working the pass instead of being on the line. We’re in a growth period but we still oversee everything.
So what does a typical day in your lives look like now?
We have two kids, so during the week we drop our son off at school and somebody comes to our house to watch our other child. Then we go into work together or about the same time, depending on what day of the week it is.
We open the store; we have a manager at the store and one other employee. At this point, I’m fully engaged in the store — I’m the buyer. I make sure I know what we’re out of stock on or if we’re getting in new things, paying attention to special requests or figuring out the best pricing for things. I’m doing that while the store is open for the first couple of hours, and then usually somebody else comes in. We’re replacing equipment at the restaurant, so Todd may be working on that, or sharpening knives at the store (we do a knife sharpening service there).
Usually some time in there we’ll get together and have a meeting with our managers to talk about what’s going on. Once 4 p.m. comes around I go home and pick up our younger son, and then I pick up our older son, and Todd stays at work. Not necessarily through the end of service — it depends on the night. He usually comes home around nine or 10 o’clock at night, six days a week. He’s off on Sunday.
It’s a lot! I’m really only working Monday through Friday and not even a full eight hours, but that’s because I’ve been picking up the kids and with them until they go to bed. We’re really in a crazy part of our lives.
Is there anything that’s been helpful for you in juggling everything?
Having a really good partner in life, with a positive attitude, who reminds me why we’re doing this. Sometimes you can get overwhelmed in the daily stuff. Having him remind me that we’re in it together and these things are positive and it’s a lot to take on at once but it won’t always be like this.
Another thing that’s helped is that because we do have managers now, we’re able to have a little more personal time. It’s been great for him to be home more with the kids. I was worried about being alone every night, but we have a lot more freedom now because we’re the owners of the business and we’ve set it up in such a way that we can have a little bit more time if needed.
What does your personal time look like these days? Are there meals you share together, or any rituals?
We have breakfast every day together — all of us. Prior to opening the restaurant, that was our plan because we knew we wouldn’t be together at night for dinner. We needed to have a meal together every day, so he always gets up in the morning and one of us makes breakfast, we all sit down and eat breakfast together and have coffee, and that’s really important to me.
Even the nights that he’s not there, I sit down and eat with the kids. On the nights when Todd is home, we cook dinner and we eat it as a family.
On Sundays and part of Mondays we have “kid time” together, and we’ve been able to go out on dates more often. When we had our first son we went out on maybe one date the whole first year — and it only got worse from there. Now, we’ll usually go out on a date maybe once a month, either on Sunday or Monday night.
Do you and Todd do anything to separate work and family life, or put any limits on how much you talk about work at home?
I don’t know if it’s possible not to talk about work, but we are really making the effort to not have our phones out. I read somewhere recently and started implementing this: when I pick our older son up from school, it’s important to me that the first 30 minutes of our time together is completely un-distracted. I’m not distracted by phones or chores or places I’ve got to be. It’s made the flow of our evening so much better. Because we have so much going on, it can feel like our attention is never fully theirs or each others’.
So that’s kind of the rule: let’s make our family time our family time and not an extension of work time. But I don’t mind us talking about work, because usually when we’re talking about work it’s not about things that have happened. It’s more like ideas that we have about things we can do with work. And oftentimes we’re so busy with other things while we’re at work that we don’t have time to really talk about the bigger picture.
Do you celebrate Valentine’s Day? Any special memories or traditions?
Because we’ve always worked on Valentine’s Day — even before we knew each other — he was just like, this is a lame holiday and I hate this. Now, we’re older and wiser and we have a restaurant, and we love it because people come into the restaurant. It’s great for business, and it doesn’t have to be overly “done.” It can still be an elegant thing that we do every night.
Generally, no, we don’t celebrate. Occasionally he’ll do something nice for me and I’ll do something nice for him, but my birthday is less than a week after Valentine’s Day, so I don’t feel like Valentine’s Day is the big deal. I definitely want to have a moment during that day where we’re like, I love you! But it doesn’t have to involve any pomp and circumstance.
Nobody in the restaurant business celebrates, because everyone’s working. So it’s kind of interesting to see if people have a workaround, or if they boycott it entirely.
It’s such a big night for people to go out to dinner, and no people who are cooking are getting to do that themselves. But, whatever. The cooks and servers get to have a lot of selfish moments. After work they’re going out and getting drinks and being part of the industry, so it’s their own little community of people who can bitch and complain about the day’s happenings. And Valentine’s Day is just one of those days.
Any time there’s a busy service and you’re going through it with other people in you’re restaurant, it really feels like you’ve gone into this battle together and come out on the other side. Maybe it went awesome, or it didn’t, but you went through it with other people and you can bond over that. In that way Valentine’s Day is kind of cool. Everybody gets it.
Do you do anything special at the restaurant for Valentine’s Day?
We do a set menu with four courses and a choice at each course for a set price. It’s a little bit easier to control. And we’ll do something with your check and an amuse bouche to start. Then we leave the rest up to the guest. We keep it simple, and that’s pretty much the motto at our restaurant.
One last question: Is working together any different than how you imagined it would be?
No. It’s great. It’s really stressful, and the fact that we’ve added multiple children and another business has been very stressful. But anybody would have been stressed out in the situation we’ve put ourselves into. We still really like each other. We enjoy spending time together. It’s fun for us to go out on dates together, because nothing has really changed between us in terms of our relationship. We like to laugh. We like to pretend we’re cool, but we’re not. It’s just as great as I had hoped it would be.
At the time it felt like it was going to take an eternity to build the restaurant, but looking back it’s been three years and it’s like no time passed at all. We’re in a much more comfortable situation. We can spend time together. We can leave our restaurant with our managers and our staff and know they’re going to take care of it like it’s their own place. We’re still there every day that we can be, but if we can’t be for some reason, it’s ok. And that feels great. It really feels like being an owner.
Photo Credit: Thomas Winslow