For Restaurant Owners Who Live Upstairs, “Working From Home” Has a Special Meaning
It usually rains on my anniversary, but the latest October celebration turned out to be nice enough for pandemic streetside dining in Boston. As a food writer accustomed to going out multiple nights a week, adjusting to work-from-home life hasn’t been easy, so I was excited to select a face mask to complete my look for dinner out with my partner.
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We picked a neighborhood favorite, Tres Gatos, a tapas bar located on the first floor of a Victorian, just a couple blocks from our apartment in Jamaica Plain. We settled at a table on the garden patio (next to a heat lamp), ordered, and soon our server returned with a mint-crowned cocktail. I beamed, declaring it the first drink someone had garnished for me in eight months. Standing a few feet away, I could see the server smile underneath her mask. “The owner and his son grew those herbs in their garden, right here,” she said, pointing out the raised bed as she walked away.
The turn-of-the-century, two-family house isn’t just home to the cozy tapas bar and attached shop, Tres Gatos Books and Records. Proprietor David Doyle, his wife Maricely Perez-Alers, and their 8-year-old son, Dylan, also live there, in the apartment on the second floor.
Sipping my cocktail, I thought about the boy picking mint leaves with his dad earlier in the day. Was he trying to sleep right now — could he hear any noise from the patio? While I’ve been working from home and missing restaurants, what is it like to actually live at the restaurant where you work?
Well, the garden is a godsend, David Doyle tells me when I ask him that question a couple months later. Because of the restaurant patio, his family has no private outdoor space. (The pandemic has put on-hold some long-term renovation plans to give the family more room, Perez-Alers shares.) Tending to the flowers and plants around the whimsical outdoor dining area at Tres Gatos is a way for Dylan, who’s going on 9, to get fresh air, spend time with his dad, and get a little taste of restaurant life.
It’s “really cool,” the boy says, when the chefs can use ingredients he and his dad grew. Dylan likes to sit in on the pre-service meeting at Tres Gatos on days when he brings the crew freshly harvested basil, multiple varieties of mint, strawberries, oregano, fennel, and stevia, he says.
I ask him if music or noise from the restaurant or record store ever keeps him awake at night. No, Dylan says, unknowingly relieving me of any guilt that my October outing interfered with his sleep schedule.
Sometimes, an early-morning delivery will set off the security alarm and wake everyone up, Doyle says. Dylan managed to sleep through the most recent overnight emergency, but it awoke the owner: A howling wind blew off a piece of the restaurant’s exterior hood vent and sent it crashing to the ground. Doyle dealt with the broken metal the next morning, but knowing about an issue like that immediately, instead of discovering it the next day, “helps my peace of mind,” he says.
Though people looking in might see the exact opposite, living where you work is actually a form of achieving work-life balance. “Restaurants don’t really respect boundaries. If there’s a problem at 10 o’clock at night, I need to deal with it,” Doyle says. Tres Gatos was open for a couple years before the family moved in upstairs. Even the short commute he had at the time kept Doyle from being immediately available for the business — or for his family, he says.
Moving above the restaurant, Perez-Alers adds, “was really about managing our time with intention.” She is a partner at Tres Gatos, but has a full-time job as a healthcare quality director, among other responsibilities. “Where can we trim some excess so we can make the transition to work and family life more seamless?” she says. For a notoriously demanding career like a restaurant owner, an equal balance between work and family life isn’t a feasible goal. But being there when you need to be can be easier if work and home are the same place.
“It’s not for every family, but it worked for us,” says Sun Young Park, who owns two restaurants in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and chef, Peter Cho. Han Oak opened in 2016, just a few months after their first child, Elliott, had turned 1 year old. Located in a commercial district with a creative, supportive landlord, Han Oak is a homestyle Korean restaurant, separated by a narrow hallway from a 500-square foot loft they moved into as a family. A second son, Frankie, arrived in 2017.
The couple never attempted to separate work and family time at Han Oak. “I don’t see how you can,” Cho told celebrity chef (and worried new dad) David Chang in an episode of “Ugly Delicious.” When Elliott was first born, Cho was clocking 14-hour workdays at a restaurant across town. He was missing most of his son’s waking hours, while his wife needed a break at home. It was an untenable lifestyle — and one that’s all too familiar for many restaurant professionals. The couple dreamed of creating a place where they could both be there for their children, and serve the style of food and hospitality they wanted to deliver.
At Han Oak, the boys had free rein of the place before dinner service started, including the dining room and the open courtyard that doubles as Han Oak’s outdoor patio. Toys would often accumulate around service stations. Occasionally, guests in the restaurant were privy to an audible tantrum.
But there were great benefits: When Frankie was born, Cho could help with the nighttime routine. The chef would wear the infant in a carrier while Park readied Elliott for bed; Frankie would doze off to the sounds of knifework, sizzling pans, and cooks shouting “order up.” Then Cho would slip away from the line to put the sleeping baby down in the loft, while Park would tuck Elliott in (and maybe have some time to herself) before Frankie needed a nighttime feeding.
To give the growing boys more space, the family closed on their own home in March 2020, just three days before the pandemic shutdown. For their children’s earliest years, though, “there were so many benefits to living at the restaurant,” Park says.
The pandemic has certainly challenged the restaurateurs’ daily pace, but Doyle’s family has been fortunate, he says. The live-work setup has helped, rather than harmed: His wife has been working from home since March “without a day off,” because of her leadership role at a community health center. When Dylan’s private school went virtual last spring, Doyle says he was glad to be close by, noting that his son handled the transition well and was able to be independent. The third-grader has been back in the classroom since the fall. “In-person learning has definitely given us a break that many parents don’t have,” Doyle says.
Han Oak, meanwhile, reopened for takeout over the summer, and while the family no longer lives there, they will continue to use the attached apartment as a semi-private haven when they need it. Cho and Park also enacted plans for their second restaurant, Toki, which opened mid-January in Portland’s downtown.
Since they’ve been away from Han Oak, Park is amazed to see just how much her sons, now 6 and 3, learned there. One day at their new house, Elliott declared, “My mom is the best hostess!”
“I didn’t know he realized [that was my job],” she says. “The way that they hold their trays is the way that the servers hold trays. When they play kitchen together, it’s cool to see them yelling words like ‘service’ and ‘order up.’”
Dylan Doyle, too, might be a born hospitalitarian. “His confidence, his ability to relate to adults has always been good. It’s fun to see him think like he owns the place,” Perez-Alers says.
She recalls a time her then-4-year-old son slipped away from her care while she was in another room in the apartment. Mildly panicking, Perez-Alers found Dylan downstairs just a few minutes later, taking a seat in the restaurant while the staff began their daily pre-meal meeting. The boy has several honorary aunts and uncles who are longtime employees. Being part of the community is a central tenet of a neighborhood restaurant like Tres Gatos, and for her family — even while maintaining a masked, social distance — it’s a reciprocal relationship.