Opening a restaurant is like taking a trip to the casino roulette table; it’s win or lose, bang or bust and little room for anything else. As chef celebrities popularize cable networks, kitchen culture has evolved into a dream profession blanketed with fascination, glamour and plenty of followers looking to mimic success stories. Anyone who’s worked in a kitchen can see through the facade, so we wanted to get an unvarnished look at what owning a restaurant is really like. I sat down with four established Tristate restaurateurs at Otto’s in Mainstrasse for a candid discussion on Cincinnati’s culinary scene, everyday challenges and what they tell friends interested in entering the business.

Our Panel

Jean-Robert de Cavel
Jean-Robert’s Table, downtown

Jeff Ruby
Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment, downtown

Paul Weckman
Otto’s, Mainstrasse, Ky.

Gaetano Williams
Tano Bistro, Loveland

Restaurant Motivations

Williams: I’ve been in the business since I was 14 years old, so motivation then was income. It grew from being in a high school environment where you’re working fast food, to full-service, then ultimately ownership. Basically, to me, if it’s in your blood, then it is. You have to love what you do and I do. I couldn’t think of doing another thing, other than maybe owning another restaurant, which is the insanity of it all.

Weckman: For me, just the lifestyle, I like the hours, I like the people, I like the customers. I like the work… I was never an office guy, or somebody who could sit behind a desk and be still for very long, so this allows me the opportunity to get around and meet new people… I like all the characters you meet in this business, from dishwashers to servers to cooks. Everyone has a story and some of the best are in restaurants.

Ruby: I grew up in the business. I started living in it when I was 8 years old. I started cooking in my mother’s restaurant when I was 13, fired my first chef when I was 13. And I’m still firing them. I’m 66 years old, 53 years later chefs are no better now then when I was 13 years old. I’m still firing them. I thought by now they would have learned their lesson (laughs from the table). My stepfathers were in it. My mother was in it, I grew up in it, I hung out in them. Stepfather had a luncheonette called the Ruby in downtown Newark on Raymond Boulevard. It was a real greasy spoon, and I hung out there at the counter. I grew up in it and loved it. It was the only thing I knew.

de Cavel: It was something I wanted to do, I always loved to cook, and loved being in the kitchen, and I think that is just what I did… I really enjoyed what Paul [Weckman] said, because it’s a lifestyle, and I love that lifestyle. Either you have that lifestyle, or you learn to love that lifestyle, and then you get stuck in that lifestyle. All of us love that lifestyle.

Cincinnati’s Culinary Scene

de Cavel: I think what I see now that’s different, of course OTR is a big undertaking, but it’s the same thing in Covington, it’s the same thing in some of the other neighborhoods, like Hyde Park, and some other areas where you have restaurants run by a front person or in the back. You have more of the restaurants like the bigger cities have. I think Cincinnati was ready for it, and Cincinnati was ready because people enjoy good food in Cincinnati. New Orleans gets more press out of Cincinnati. It’s not because food is better in New Orleans, but I think it’s because it’s also a vacation destination. What do you do on vacation? You go to the beach, you enjoy yourself, you play golf and you go to eat.

Ruby: New Orleans is so overrated. Those restaurants suck… Most of them.

Williams: The scene here was really demographically divided when I got here. You look at north, south, east, west, you have a lot of generational habits for people who have the same place, the same type of food…. You know the Skyline Chilis, the Gold Stars, you had a lot of corporate restaurants at the time… There were a lot of corporate. It’s kind of funny because the people in general don’t want the corporates, they want the individual offering, they really support that quite a bit. I think it’s just a bit of a natural genesis of what is going on right now, especially with the downtown.

Ruby: It’s overcrowded and there is going to be death row eventually. But here is my take. I got here in 1970 at 22 years old. Downtown Cincinnati, in my view, had a better restaurant scene than it does now. Downtown did. There were three five-star restaurants, by the way, let me interrupt myself; the culinary talent in this city is terrific. What has happened on Main Street is incredible. Guy Fieri interviewed me for the Food Network at Taste of Belgium. In my opinion, that is the best restaurant district in the city. When I drive down from [University of Cincinnati] to Over-the-Rhine, and I go by all those places, I get really… just emotional with myself with what these people did. The courage it took. Starting with Dan Wright, and the rest of them. It took some testicular fortitude to do that. AKA balls… There is so much culinary depth, so much diversity there. But downtown, when I got here… You had the Maisonette, you had Pigall’s, you had the Gourmet Room. Three five-star restaurants…New Orleans didn’t have three five-star restaurants in 1970, New York had a few more. New Orleans used to be incredible. The last 20 times I’ve eaten there, they didn’t even come close to the quality here. They are just the names. I don’t want to name the places. There are some good little niche places though.

Weckman: (turns to de Cavel and Ruby) I think I might be one of the only chefs that hasn’t worked at one of your two restaurants in the city of Cincinnati. So I think that these two guys bring… When you think of the culinary powerhouses in Cincinnati, you think of Jean-Robert and Jeff Ruby. It has paved the way. When you guys got into it, it wasn’t celebrity chefdom, it wasn’t food everywhere, in every magazine, in Pinterest feeds, Facebook or Twitter; it came from someplace else. There wasn’t star appeal attached to it. The restaurant scene has always provided the fun moments of glitz and glamour, but it hasn’t been like it has been today. What I think has enabled a lot of this to happen, and it’s not just in Cincinnati. Hell, if you go to Ashville, N.C., if you go to Little Rock Ark., they have great dining scenes. You can see these entertainment and dining districts popping up. I think Cincinnati has some powerhouses, and some columns in guys like Jeff and Jean-Robert, who laid the foundation…. I was just in New York a few weeks back, and there is not that much difference in the culinary scene there compared to Cincinnati.

Challenges of owning a restaurant

Ruby: Obama…

Williams: We’re all small guys. For us, when I do a payroll services, with PayCorp or AEP, they are now offering HR services, because little guys like us need a backup plan to discuss how to handle a potential firing situation with an employee. God forbid if we make a mistake on our own.

Ruby: When we got that federal lawsuit we got for the tips, we didn’t know we were making a mistake. And when we did find out, because they changed the law… Government regulations are difficult.

Weckman: The rules aren’t made for the little guys.

de Cavel: You have different day-to-day challenges. I think one of the bigger challenges is taking care of the customer. At the end of the day when you open a restaurant, everyone is excited, because it’s a new restaurant, it’s new and everyone wants to see. Then after that, the biggest challenge becomes finding an identity.

Ruby: This business is totally different than any other. Two reasons: one, if you don’t sell, you have to throw it away. You can’t ever have a sale. In the restaurant business, if you don’t sell this you have to throw it away. You make it up and prepare to sell it, or it spoils. Two, it’s the only business where the customer is the expert. It’s the only business where everybody is an expert. They’ve been eating all their lives. As soon as they come out of the womb they started eating and drinking. Everyone is a freaking expert.

Advice for friends interested in opening a restaurant

Weckman: I would tell someone to come work the dish tank on Friday or Saturday night for a year... The hardest thing about owning a restaurant is everything. The things that I think about on a daily basis: are my food trucks going to show up, is this dish tank going to break, is Jose going to show up to run the dish tank, is someone going to cut themselves, is there enough money in the bank to make payroll, are we staying current enough without being too trendy, is someone getting ready to quit… This is what happens to us on a daily basis through our head. There are a million problems. I would never recommend someone open a restaurant until they know what that thought process is like. I’m not complaining, I love it, my wife accepts it [laughter]. I don’t know if she loves it, but this is my life.

de Cavel: Anyone can open a restaurant, opening a restaurant is very easy, and today it’s easier to open with all the connectivity. But opening something that is true to you and has that identity is challenging. One thing I say to people all the time: I don’t care if you have good wine, do breakfasts, have good cooks, or it’s all fresh and good food… I mean I don’t care what you do, what your thing is, if you have a seat, if you put a seat here, whether its $5 or $500, if you put a seat there you need to fill it or you won’t be successful… It’s about taking care of the customer and making sure someone is always sitting in that seat.

Ruby: A guy tweeted me. He has three kids, wife just died. He said it’s always been his dream to own a restaurant and he wanted 30 minutes of my time. I told him everyone dreams about getting in the restaurant business. I told him what the death rate of restaurants was. It’s everyone’s dream to own a restaurant, every rock star, movie star, jock star. Everyone has a restaurant. [Robert] De Niro has more restaurants than all of us together. Like he needs the money…. That is everyone’s dream. Nick Lachey is opening one… I say [to the guy], “You got three kids now, you’re a single dad. Guess what? It’s going to take a lot of your time, you don’t know the business, forget about it. It’s that difficult and you got kids to raise. You’re not going to be with your kids and they need you.”

Other career aspirations

Ruby: I was a singer in a rock band that got me through college. That is what I would do.

de Cavel: I would be a house designer.

Williams: I was in the music business as well growing up. I had a scholarship for piano and played jazz piano. If I could recommit my time to playing again, that is where I would be.

Weckman: Depends on what personality I have that particular day. Maybe a surfer.