Tilia: Year One

Tilia owner and chef Steven Brown explains what happens when you dream because you have to.

photo by Katherine Harris

ALMOST ALL THE COOKS of any repute that I have ever worked with have the same idea of owning their own place. It will be small and food-driven, and they’ll oversee every detail with laser precision and allow none of the crap that goes on at all these other places. Because this dream of Cafe X is so pervasive, I eventually gave it an acronym: AROMO or A Restaurant Of My Own. At AROMO, everything will be handmade in-house—even the butter. It will be molded in cheesecloth and salted with special sea salt that is dehydrated in-house from ocean water imported from a secret location near the Canary Islands, and it will be so light it actually hovers above the pats. And that’s just the butter.

I think we needed that vision, something that looked like a perfect world, because for most cooks it is the golden calf that we worship, secretly knowing that for most of us it’s never really going to happen. My father once quipped that when you’re young, you dream because everything is possible, and when you get older, you dream because you have to. At 48, I was a dinosaur. I had to.

I think the kids, who seemed ever eager, ever younger, saw me as an aging sports hero who never won the championship. They rooted for me, helped push me along. I certainly felt that pressure: move up or move out. In 2004, I said enough, I want my own thing. Real estate was hot, and chefs were hot too. The truth was, I had a half-baked business plan and no clue as to how to get to the next level.

I kept working for other people, and all of a sudden it was 2009. The economy was terrible, but I was looking at the backside of 40, so I pressed on every button in the elevator to see which door opened first. I have often recalled a Douglas Adams novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, in which the protagonist never really knows where he’s going but always ends up where he needs to be. In my case, that might be true. If I had done something else, sometime else, I doubt that it would have been in Linden Hills, or even Tilia. In short, I feel exquisitely, perfectly lucky. Let’s call it luck-induced delayed gratification. In retrospect, the timing was perfect. Real estate was down, and unlike 2004, competition was down too. Suddenly I was in a strong position when, poof!, there it was right in front of me, the real damn thing. I remember walking into Rice Paper, tiny and green with two ill-joined rooms and a shotgun kitchen with three giant useless woks. It was crazy, but I knew it was the spot. It only took me half of my life.

I saw myself as the semi-retired chef/mentor in a sleepy neighborhood place, just me, a couple of regulars, and what I affectionately thought of as my band of few—two or three dedicated chefs and servers who embraced the idea of serving humble food the best way we knew how while having a life worth living. I really had no idea of what would happen. I didn’t even send out a press release until we were open. I am in constant awe that my friends, co-workers, and family all come willingly to the fray and pour their lifeblood into it, making this all come to life every day. Once again, I feel luck lives in my house.

A good dose of humility has come along with all of this too. A summer of insufficient air-conditioning comes to mind. No matter who you are, it’s not easy to ask people how dinner was when sweat is beading on their lips. As a chef or server, you get empathy from the guests; after all, they get to go home, and you have to stay. But as the owner, you are supposed to solve these issues or hire someone to do it—now, right now.

I have come to see that what I once thought of as the cushy role of being the owner—showing up to count the money, directing traffic from above the battle—is not really the case at all. Big shoulders are required. That, and 15 tons of air-conditioning.

In the end, that’s what this year has taught me. Being the owner can be like running with lead weights on your ankles, but if you are lucky you can somehow still fly. And once in a while, you look over and see that kid on the line and you know that AROMO is still alive for both of you. So you go home, kiss your kid, then get up and do it again, but better.