When married restaurant veterans Scott Worsham and Sari Zernich-Worsham decided to open mfk., their passion project built around their love of simple seaside food in the Mediterranean, they could not anticipate the overwhelmingly positive response they would get.
One year later, despite a few personnel hurdles, struggles with reservations and its intimate size, the restaurant has become a well-rounded hit (neighbors, travelers, industry workers, critics). Below the couple discusses everything that has happened in the past 12 months, particularly how they have dealt with losing key staff.
Can you talk about the events leading up to opening the doors last year?
Scott: I had been trying to talk my wife into opening a restaurant for about five or six years. We've both been in the business for well over 20 years. We've opened a bunch of restaurants for other people and we've always done well and I felt like we knew what we were doing. It took me a while because she's much more cautious than I am. So after two-and-a-half years of looking for the proper location we found this little tiny space here. The rent was so cheap and it came with a liquor license and in this neighborhood if you're selling booze, you're probably going to be okay.
Sari: Scott would probably say that this has been his biggest 'I told you so' moment of our marriage to date...and yes, he was right!
So thinking back to when you first opened and the first year, what has that been like for you?
Scott: We had this reputation that we were always crowded and we weren't. How do you combat that? How do you say ‘hey, we actually have quite a number of openings every evening.' But everyone thinks that you're small, you're new and you're hot so you're busy. But the first couple days we opened was just like a blur. You're just trying to make sure you got everything lined up and nothing's falling through the cracks and it's working. It doesn't really sink in until a while later. I'm not even sure if has yet, to be honest.
Sari: Of course it was chaotic, exciting, we were both running on adrenaline. Scott and I are lucky enough to both be surrounded by great family and friends who support us unconditionally.
You're first time restaurant owners and you both have plenty of experience but what were some of the surprises, good or bad, that you have come across?
Sari: Every opening has it's own bumps and welcome surprises. The restaurant flooded the night before we were to have our soft opening. I still remember our staff all jumping in to do whatever they could to get the water out, using whatever they could find. We all bailed water out until the wee hours of the morning and we all ruined our shoes, but it was that kind of bonding that only happens when you are really in the trenches. It's strange to say but I have fond memories of that flood and that is because of our team, they didn't hesitate to roll up their pant legs and get in the thick of it.
Scott: I think for me the main surprise was our customers and our neighbors and the people who have really embraced us here and keep coming back, our regulars, and it was like we didn't have to explain anything to them. They immediately got it. We opened this place up a little bit selfishly after coming back from a trip in Spain for almost a month. We wanted that simple little neighborhood place that has awesome, simple and good food of quality.
What are some of the things you've learned about running a restaurant in the past year that you didn't know?
Sari: That there is more than one right way to get to the same result. That you need to really listen to your team and giving up control is one of the best ways to allow your team to grow and help the restaurant succeed. It is a priceless and invaluable gift once your employees develop a vested interest in the restaurant. Our co-chef's Danny Mejia and Matt Morawski are amazing chefs and great leaders. They make the kitchen sing and the menu shine. Our GM Roger Landes has developed a fun and unique cocktail menu that pairs wonderfully with the menu.
What were the most satisfying moments so far?
Sari: One of the things that can make a small restaurant a truly special space is when the whole dining room feels like it's a dinner party in your home. I love it when we start a porrón filled with Ameztoi "Rubentis" Txakolina (a lightly effervescent Basque rosé) at one end of the bar and it makes its way through the whole dining room. Guests are meeting new people, sharing food and experiences with each other and all the while cheering on the passing of the porrón. Those are truly beautiful nights at mfk.
Scott: A few months back, there was a couple of people at the bar and Sari and I were both here and this woman came up to me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, you know, John Ash and I are here and we're just loving everything.' I'm like chef John Ash from Sonoma County? I didn't recognize him. I hadn't seen him in 25 years. I went over and talked to him and he had such amazing things to say. It crushed me. I had to leave the room. You don't expect one of your idols to come in and go, ‘Hey man, fuckin' awesome here. Love it. I'll be back.'
You had a good start, then the critical acclaim started coming in. How did that change the volume of people coming in? Obviously at the beginning you didn't have reservations.
Sari: Of course the reviews did have a positive effect on business. But overall the increase in business over the past year I believe is from repeat business and new customers visiting Chicago. We have customers come in from all over Europe and the United States and they really help spread the word once they return home.
Scott: We didn't have reservations at the beginning at that turned out to be a mistake. I really thought with the size of our restaurant it would be easier for people to be like ‘oh yeah, you just go there and they take care of you.' But like what I said earlier, people just assumed—because we got good press right away—that there's no chance I'm going to get in there.
You didn't use OpenTable at first, you were doing your own thing. What changed?
Scott: We were taking phone calls and then we realized our staff was spending way too much answering the phone. And if there's only one person here working lunch and they're answering the phone, then those two or three tables at lunch are not getting the attention that they should get. We decided to check it out for a year and see what happens, so we are in the wait and see phase. I hate to say it, but it's helped.
Going back to reviews. Was there anything in particular that stood out. A review or accolade that made you realize something's happening here? In terms of perception.
Sari: Of course we are very grateful for and humbled by any mention. Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader was one of our first reviews and I remember running out of the house at the crack of dawn to grab my copy. That continued with the 3-star review by Phil Vettel and the Dining Awards from the Chicago Tribune. Chicago magazine's "Best New Restaurants 2015" was a beautiful surprise. And being on GQ's "Best New Restaurants in America" list really put us on the map on a national level.
Scott: I don't know of any other restaurant that has been as fortunate as us. All of our reviews have been pretty glowing and I don't say that lightly at all. I've been in the business long enough to know that that never happens. Somebody somewhere is going to take a crap on you and I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
You started with Nick Lacasse as the opening chef. Could you talk about Nick's leaving and why you think things didn't work out with him as well as the other back of the house changes?
Scott: I love Nick, he's a great guy. Couldn't be any sweeter. He's a phenomenal cook. This guy can come up with a dish in 20 minutes that will just blow your face off. And then also, Joey Schwab, same kind of guy. Comes up with a dish really quickly and you're like, oh my God, that's perfect.
From day one (I said) our signature at this restaurant is going to be that there is no signature. Things are just going to be prepared well and served properly. We cook it properly and it tastes delicious and it's super simple. That's kind of like the opposite of what chefs are supposed to do now. Chefs are supposed to deconstruct things and rebuild them in a different way.
Did you feel like it was too soon for Nick to be wanting to leave? In the end what are you going to do? You can convince someone to stay, but if they don't really want to be there then what's the point?
Scott: You only want people there who want to be there. If somebody has already expressed to you that they don't want to be there and you're making them be there, then that's never a good idea because in some way that dissatisfaction is going to come out to the guest. Whether it's in a half-assed execution on a dish or it bleeds into other staff members and then it finally bleeds out to the front of the house.
So then after Nick left, Joey took over and wow, what an amazing chef that guy is. But unfortunately he had worked himself into a medical situation. He was in a bad way and was in the ICU for like eight days. So after that he was like, ‘I don't think I want to be a chef anymore.' We were super sorry to lose him, but what could we do? We had no choice. We were for sure going to keep going.
How hard is it to get to that point to have to part ways with somebody?
Scott: It's awful. When you have somebody that you really care about who you've been through skirmishes and wars with and you have to sever that relationship—whether its them leaving or you asking them to leave—it's never easy. It's the worst part about the business. Because people spend more time in this business with their fellow employees than they do with their wives or their girlfriends or children. You're here a lot. Especially if you're in the back of the house, you're here 10-12 hour days. It becomes like a little family, so when one member of the family decides they're going to go off the reservation it hits you.
Can you talk about Matt and Danny - how they came to mfk. and how they are doing?
Scott: Matt started as a line cook. We dumped a lot of responsibility on him when Joey got sick and he stepped up to the plate. And Joey, right before he left, did us the great service of hiring Danny, who is killer and these guys work great together. I went through this phase where I didn't know if I wanted to rely on one person to drive the kitchen and the press. I wanted to go back to just be about the restaurant and the experience you have when you come in. Keep the cult of personality out of it, which is where we're trying to get to. I know I'm sitting here talking to you. It's not even ironic, somebody should smack me in the face for saying this right now.
Running a restaurant is stressful and you're married, which is another sort of stress. How has it been working daily together on something that you can't escape from?
Sari: Scott and I met while working together in Washington D.C. at Art and Soul. So we really don't know anything different, since we have always worked together. We are a great team and have different strengths. It is nice and calming to know that your partner in life is also your partner in business. Of course we do not always agree but those movements don't last long and in the end we make the best decision for the restaurant. Scott has taught me that it's not always my way or the highway, that there is more than one right way to do something.
Scott: Do we have arguments? For sure. Who doesn't? Any relationship is going to argue. The question is how do you resolve the arguments and get back to where you're nice to each other. Luckily neither one of us holds a grudge too much. I could see how with anyone else this would be a relationship killer.