Success in a Whisky Business

A woman chef, restaurant-owner tells how she beat the odds

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Stephanie Sidell opened her restaurant, she discovered the importance meeting challenges head on. Within six months, she fired almost everyone, replacing her chef, general manager, and retail manager, among others.

"Things were out of control, and everyone was on a different page," she says, turning her eyes upward to remember.

Now, three years later, things are better than under control.

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"Stephanie's on Newbury" [Street] in Boston has earned numerous awards and high praise for its American bistro fare and warm dining experience.

During an interview over lunch - where we shared her popular Smoked Salmon with Potato Pancake, and Warm Gingerbread with Hot Fudge Sauce - Ms. Sidell talked about the challenges and rewards of being a woman chef, restaurateur, and mother.

As the number of women-owned businesses has soared, the number of women heading up kitchens and restaurants has never been higher. Sidell is representative of a new emerging tier of females in food.

Perhaps it's no surprise that one of her first influences was Martha Stewart. "She awakened a lot of my visions," says Sidell, whose penchant for pretty presentation is evident from the table settings and flower arrangements.

Making a restaurant succeed isn't easy for any chef-owner. Sidell says the main challenges are, first of all, surviving (most restaurants fail within the first year) and gathering a good management team.

But being female can present added challenges, if, for example, one of your purveyors doesn't take your tone of voice seriously. When it comes to being a tough cookie, she insinuates, women are sometimes judged differently than men. A tough businessman garners respect, she says. A tough businesswoman is called, well . . . something else.

Furthermore, as a mother of three girls, she points to the balancing act all working mothers must perform. In the restaurant business, that's magnified because of the demanding work and long days.

"You have to be ready to juggle your life," says Sidell. "It's all about commitment and perseverance," she says leaning into the table recalling that two years ago her average working day lasted from 4:30 a.m. until midnight.

"You can't let anyone interrupt your dream," she continues, "but you need a real understanding of what hard work is. You need a work ethic that extends."

For her, that has meant enduring the fickleness of food critics and complaints from staff. She recalls coming home one night exhausted, and having one of her children joke, "You feed the whole city and you don't even make us dinner."

"You must be able to take the bad with the good," Sidell says, and adjust

The most rewarding aspect of running your own restaurant, says Sidell, "is having people appreciate what you do, and hearing about it."

Once you get to a comfortable spot, there's always something different to try or improve, she adds. "Now that we're not putting out fires, it's time to evaluate and bring the restaurant to the next level," she says, hinting that she'd like to increase items in the adjoining gourmet store.

Put more tangibly: "Now I know the vinaigrette is going to taste the same every day. I can concentrate on more-important things."

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