Food and family go together. We're told, for example, that it's a good idea for families, no matter how they're configured, to sit down and share a meal at least once a day to keep the fabric of their lives from coming apart. Holidays and special occasions are celebrated with special food and drink. In some families, recipes are passed from generation to generation like heirlooms. The taste on your tongue of your great grandma's grape pie can put the two of you in touch, even if you've never actually met.
Restaurants are notorious for swallowing the lives of the people who work in them as if they were so many fresh oysters. It's a consuming and intensely competitive business.
And since food is at its core, it's not surprising that restaurant workers develop familial bonds with one another.
That seems to be the case with the young team that's recently taken the reins at H2O Sushi, a restaurant with a successful history in Broad Ripple that goes back almost a decade. Founded by chef Greg Hardesty and Michael Silvia, who later sold the business to colleagues Eli Anderson and Nicole Ankey, the restaurant was acquired last July by Chris and Anna Choi.
But when the Chois bought H2O Sushi, they were getting more than bricks and mortar with a sign on the door. They were getting a family.
H2O Sushi Chef's Tasting Menu for Sept. 23, 2009. 1st Course: Coramandel Oysters with Cucumber & Shallot Migonette served with Zipang Sparkling Sake.
On a Monday afternoon, four members of the H2O Sushi family are sitting around a table in their otherwise empty space. Upended wood and metal chairs, their legs poking the stillness, rest on tabletops. Artworks that adorn the space's angular walls appear hushed by available light. It's a little like being in a theater that's between shows. John Adams, Kathryn Reiner and Nick Hammond are here; so is the new owner, Chris Choi.
Chris Choi was born and raised in South Korea. He and his parents moved to the states when he was 19. His parents own a restaurant in Michigan and he studied hotel and restaurant management at Michigan State University, where he graduated in 2007. Before he decided to purchase H2O Sushi, Choi visited and ate at the restaurant on several occasions.
"When I first came here," Choi, 26, says, "Eli [Anderson, the previous owner] said I better keep all the staff because they're working as a team, a family. So I watched them. I didn't know them personally. I found they were working really professionally. They're much more professional compared to me. I was impressed with what they were doing. They know what they're supposed to do and they know how to take care of customers. They are the ones actually running the business, so I am very satisfied with what they are doing and I appreciate it."
John Adams started working at H2O Sushi in 2002, when he was a student at Broad Ripple High School. He was a busboy. Now he's executive chef. His eyes crinkle when he recalls his first encounter with Greg Hardesty's cooking. "I had never tasted food like that. I had never seen food that clean, with as much flavor and as much technique put into it. Everything he made he let me try and it was really delicious. I decided I wanted to cook for him."
Kathryn Reiner is sitting next to Adams. She describes herself as a server, but at H2O that's a pretty inclusive term. She's there to make sure customers have a great experience, from the time they walk in the door until it's time for them to leave. She's known John Adams since they rode the bus together in middle school. Both of them attended Broad Ripple High.
Reiner says she "was almost born in a restaurant." Her family owned an old Indianapolis mainstay, the Italian Village. "I grew up running around food and service," she says. "It was not fine dining but it was a fun place to go. The food was great and people knew it. When you come across something like that, it stands out and you realize what a restaurant can be."
Nick Hammond is another server, but he is also the restaurant's sommelier, in charge of its supply of wines and beer. He started working in restaurants when he was 17, bussing tables at Peter's up at Keystone at the Crossing, where he learned the finer points of service. After college, he parlayed his fine dining experience into a job at Elements, Greg Hardesty's downtown restaurant on Massachusetts Ave. "I'm really nerdy about things," Hammond chuckles, "so I'd have my little Barron's Food Lover's Companion
next to me as Greg would tell us the ingredients, and I'd act like I knew them and then immediately go back in a corner and grab my book."
2nd Course: Japanese Style Ceviche of Octopus, Kanpachi, Tuna, and Salmon Belly cured with Yuzu and Soy served with Daikon Radish Sprouts, Habenero Tobiko, Wontons, and Chile Mulato Oil, served with Brancott Sauvignon Blanc
"I did pretty well in high school," says John Adams, "but I thought of myself as kind of a rebel. I was into music and djing and hip hop and a lot of other things. So I kind of finagled my way out of high school and wound up getting my GED. My family was wondering what I was gonna do."
That's when Adams' uncle stepped in, offering Adams the chance to tag along on a three week trip to Southeast Asia that Adams calls "the trip of a lifetime." They went to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia places where people were passionate about food. "It opened my eyes to what kind of flavors were out there."
When Adams returned to this country he enrolled in culinary school in Minneapolis, eventually working at the Palomino there. "It was very high production. I saw the corporate environment and saw how much one kitchen could possibly pump out."
Adams, 25, was responsible for making Palomino's table relish 13.5 gallons almost twice a week. "That was the kind of volume they did there. It was pretty intense."
The experience convinced Adams to aim for work with a small, independent restaurant. "I modeled my food philosophy off of what I learned from Greg [Hardesty]: small menu, local ingredients, fresh, made from scratch, small plates, small presentations and big flavors. Applying a lot of technique and a lot of fundamentals to things that are really simple can be very good."
Adams was deeply affected by Hardesty's example. "You can tell that he speaks with his food," says Adams. "He's very calm, very quiet and seems like he's full of knowledge, without being arrogant. When he made staff meals and took the leftover tuna and made tuna salad, it was the best freakin' tuna salad you ever had."
Hardesty pushed Adams to be creative. "We did the whole local produce thing whenever possible. He was into sustainable seafood and that kind of philosophy rubbed off on me too."
3rd Course: Seared Foie Gras with Pain Perdue, Arugula, Quail Egg, Marcona Almonds, and Pedro Ximinez Vinaigrette served with Kung Fu Girl Riesling
Nick Hammond is built like one half of a parenthesis. He leans in to the table to make a point: "You have to have people who are truly in to what they're doing. I know that here, everything I take out to a table is going to be as good as possible. We're not taking food back and comping dinners for people. It just doesn't happen."
Hammond met John Adams when the two of them were working for Greg Hardesty at Elements. "That first week at Elements is when I fell in love with really good food," Hammond says.
"The staff at Elements and the way it worked was unlike any other staff I ever worked with," recalls Hammond. "We're very close to it, if not right there. It's a business model that won't work unless you hire people that you trust, people that are self-motivated. You keep it small so you can have servers who don't need constant oversight and micromanaging. That concept doesn't work if you extrapolate a huge restaurant with 16 servers. The law of probability is that you'll have people who don't care.
"A lot of restaurants I've worked at, people clock out and they go home and the last thing they want to think about is a restaurant. Whereas, when John and I were at Elements, we had people who got off and read cookbooks."
The training Hammond received under Peter George during his first restaurant job at George's restaurant, Peter's, was, Hammond says, "intense and beneficial." The experience helped later when he applied to work at Hardesty's downtown location, and it finds expression at H2O Sushi.
"It's a little more casual here, but all the servers are capable of doing really fine dining," says Hammond, the elder of the group at 29 years old, as he describes what he calls "perfect" service. "It's different from table to table. Perfect to one person means talk to me maybe two or three times during the evening and stay out of my way. Where, to someone else, it might mean they've had sushi before and they want me to baby them through the whole process, which I'm more than happy to do."
As a server, it has been part of Hammond's job to reassure regular customers that their favorite standbys on the menu are still there, while encouraging them to try John Adams' new specials. "We always have the concept of really fresh sushi," says Hammond, "so we can push a little more with the small specials. Most people don't sit down in a sushi restaurant and have something like seared foie gras. They're coming in for the sushi, but we can bring in French elements and other Southeast Asian elements and North African and South and Central American elements and gently move people into something they may love."
For Hammond, the ideal customer is like a movie buff. "Those customers are the most exciting the ones who come in and sit down and let it happen. They're like people who like a certain director, so they go to see his movie but they don't expect the same movie every night. They like a certain chef, so they go in and just enjoy the meal."
4th Course: P.E.I. Black Mussels steamed in Spicy Locally Grown Tomatoes and Corn Sauce served with a grilled Baguette and Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay
"I got used to having a narrative with customers," says Kathryn Reiner of a previous restaurant gig at the Uptown Café in Bloomington. "They knew my story and I knew somewhat what their deal was. It was really nice. It felt like home."
For Reiner, 25, a restaurant is a place where family and community intertwine. "I don't think you have to be a regular at this restaurant to have a great time," she says. "One part of a great restaurant experience is feeling welcome. If you come back, we know who you are. It's not huge, so you don't get lost in a crowd. I can probably order for half the customers here. I know what they're going to get, whether it's an old standby or because they want to try all the specials."
The second part to a great restaurant experience, of course, is the food. Reiner says it must be made with care. "We make all our stocks from scratch. A lot of places don't do that, you can't get a composed meal. The food has to have some heart put into it and by heart I mean a little thought, a little care. It doesn't have to be 'fine dining' all the time. I can come here in jeans and a T-shirt and feel fine or I can come here in heels."
As far as Reiner is concerned, the quality of the H2O experience needs to overcome the restaurant's somewhat unprepossessing location in a mini-strip along Broad Ripple Ave., roughly halfway between the heart of Broad Ripple's commercial district and Glendale. "This place has such a weird location and we don't have outdoor seating so it's not an obvious Broad Ripple place to go. On a beautiful night you don't necessarily think, 'Oh, let's go sit inside at H2O Sushi.' But what I think you're missing is that care."
5th Course: A Roulade of Rushing Waters Trout and Eggplant Duxelle, Purple Potatoes, Arugula, and Aioli served with Four Graces Pinot Noir
It's estimated that 60 percent of restaurants close in their first three years. So many things can go wrong and so many of those
things are beyond the most conscientious owner's control. Like the economy going bust. Or, closer to home, the city declaring that this is your summer to have the street outside your place dug up and turned into a construction pit during what should be your busiest season.
Chris Choi looks resignedly toward the excavation a few feet from his front door and says that, once it's done, he's sure the improved infrastructure will improve his business. Choi's glass, in other words, is half full.
Like all entrepreneurs, Choi is an optimist. Nevertheless, he admits the economy gave him pause before he and his parents decided to acquire H2O Sushi last July. "I was worried about having a restaurant because of the economy out there," he says. "But my parents owned a restaurant in Michigan and they told me, in this market, if you own a very good restaurant maybe it's going to be hard for another year, two years, but the economy's going to come back. Maybe some people think this is the worst time to buy the restaurant, but look at the other side. Maybe it's the best time to buy the restaurant and wait a couple of years, survive, and be ready to succeed."
Besides, Choi had a head start. H2O Sushi was already established. "It's been here for nine years and been great and successful."
Choi was also impressed by the restaurant's new executive chef. "The food is perfect. I want to let John do what he wants to do."
Choi recognized that walking into a business with the kinds of roots and relationships that have taken hold at H2O Sushi could be tricky -- a light touch would be required to keep the restaurant's human assets from going sour. "I remember the first day I took this restaurant, everyone looked sad," Choi recalls. "And I understand because some stranger had come in. I'm not even from here."
Choi knows that you don't become part of a family over night. But he seems to have embraced the process. "The biggest difficulty or challenge is they have very strong relationships for a long time," he says of the H2O team.
"Maybe it's going to take some time for me to be part of the family or be on the team with them. I'm just trying to be a friend. I guess that's going to take time. I'm not in a hurry about it. Hopefully we'll have a strong relationship like what they're having now. The one thing I feel lucky about since buying the business is having them here."
Nick Hammond responds to Choi's candor with a reassuring note: "Each and every day I want to be here a little more. As long as we still foster an environment where we're still all friends, we still all talk to each other, we still tell each other how we feel I think we'll be successful."