Many married couples work hard to keep their romances hot. But when you’re both restaurant professionals, sharing a lot of time in the same kitchen, things naturally tend to sizzle.
That’s what lots of us imagine, at least. Driven by the passion of great food and wine, a high-energy workplace and the fiery personality of most chefs, it would seem the restaurant business fuels powerful relationships. Think husband-and-wife team Kyle and Katina Connaughton of the new, high-profile Single Thread Farm-Restaurant-Inn in Healdsburg, for example, or Lucas and Karen Martin of the longstanding French favorite K&L Bistro in Sebastopol.
But what does it really take to keep the flames alive, without burning out? Some local chefs share their secrets.
Josh Norwitt, Miriam Donaldson of Wishbone, Petaluma
Could it be any cuter? Norwitt and Donaldson met while working at what she calls “Romeo and Juliet restaurants” in San Diego. That’s her playful reference for two places that were in competition, meaning the couple’s love should have been forbidden.
“A mutual friend knew that I wanted to go to a really weird event and that no one would go with me,” Donaldson recalled. “A televangelist — I think it was Billy Graham, actually — was hosting a huge free event for an intense evangelical Christian cheerleading show. Everyone thought I was crazy, because I’m an atheist, but I’m always interested in what excites humans.”
The friend promised her that Norwitt was weird enough to go, too.
“We agreed to meet up,” Donaldson said. “But we never made it. We found each other more interesting, and 15 years later, we still do.”
After moving to Norwitt’s northern Petaluma family cattle ranch 10 years ago, the couple immediately sought out fellow “artists, musicians and weirdoes,” Donaldson said. They found a community at the Black Cat Bar in Penngrove, known for its colorful gay and punk rock clientele. They opened their six-table Humble Pie café next door to the bar in 2008, followed two years later by the larger Blue Label restaurant in Santa Rosa. Then, they debuted their rustic California-chic Wishbone in 2014.
“I call myself the chef, but that’s because I was the first one who could make pie crust,” said Donaldson, with a laugh. “Also, we find it helpful to switch up the usual ‘guys are chefs’ structure, since when we play with those perceptions, we are a stronger team. Josh is the rancher, because he can lift more hay than I can, but after almost a decade working together, our jobs have melded.”
Today, the couple works around the clock, finding connection in their shared labors of love. Rather than complain about demanding schedules, they encourage each other, and collaborate on everything, down to the pasta homemade daily with local duck eggs.
“I cannot imagine doing this alone,” Donaldson said. “If Josh was the only one doing this, I simply would not understand. I would be upset that he was never home, and the same would be true for him. But because this is our common goal, we have each other to lean on, and we always have a partner who understands the burden of our passions.”
So far, it’s been a recipe for success, with Donaldson admitting that when things get really tough in the kitchen, they pour each other a shot of whisky and take a time out.