Meet Tom and Bessie Bollag
A Dialogue with Tom "Bruno" Bollag…
Chef’s Kitchen has come a long wayHow did Chef’s Kitchen come to life?
My wife Bessie and I opened this place fifteen years ago. At the time, we saw a real lack of places to eat affordable food fast, other than the drive-by McDonald’s-type of fast food restaurants. We saw parents running around between work and picking up their kids from soccer practice, with no real place to go for fast healthy food. This became our motivation.
Initially, our goal was simply to provide our clients with reasonably-priced meals, quickly enough that they wouldn’t have to wait—they could call and pre-order, and then pick their meal at the window. And we did it! But pretty soon, the lines were so long at the pick-up window that we had to open the inside of our kitchen to our customers as well. And so we became a restaurant.
At that point, it was still just Bessie and me running the place by ourselves; I would bring the customer’s food to the counter and point them to come get it. If they chose to eat in the restaurant, they could, but all we had to offer them were paper plates and plastic silverware. We were, basically, a self-service-paper-plate-and-plastic food establishment.
It wasn’t long before our regular customers grew fond of the quality of our food and they demanded to be able to enjoy their meals in our restaurant in a real sense. Their wish moved Chef’s Kitchen in the direction where we are today: a full-service fine dining establishment with real silverware, plates, glasses, and dessert and wine menus.
Food with loveHow do people find out about Chef’s Kitchen?
Word of mouth has carried our restaurant from the day it first opened—I never spent one dollar in advertising! As far as I’m concerned, promoting your restaurant with billion-dollar advertisements is not the heart of the restaurant business. I let my food speak of me and my clients speak of my food.
“Choose the best for yourself in life!”How did you evolve toward cooking? What was your inspiration?
“Well, simply food has always inspired me! To me, food is not for the stomach, but for the spirit. However, much of the knowledge and inspiration that I have today was passed on to me from my father.
My father was a great cook—the best cook I knew! He always used to say, “In life, never settle for anything other than the best!” He educated me to be very competitive, yet he never let me beat him in anything. I always thought that if there is one person that I could never surpass, that would be my father. One day he admitted to me, over lunch in a restaurant, that there is one thing he cannot do: sauces. Then, I knew that was my chance to become better than my father at something. This became some sort of motivation that pushed me really hard to learn the secrets of sauce-making.
“…food hits the pan when you order it!”
“Sure I learned how to make sauces, but I also became a chef! However, you should know this about my cooking: I never make the same sauce twice! I don’t have a canister of sauce waiting just around the corner. Every single piece of meat or fish that I cook has its own sauce prepared for it on the spot—it hits the pan when you order it!
As for the other influences of my life, they are all here, in my restaurant. Schnitzel, for example, means home-cooking to me; I used to eat Schnitzel all the time, growing up in Switzerland. Then, there is my mom’s Marinara sauce for spaghetti that I’ve enjoyed from the early days of my childhood on (my mom was Italian). From the French cooks with whom I cooked a while back, I took the idea and recipe for the Swiss Béarnaise sauce. And there are many, many other foreign influences in my cooking, from all the places in Europe where I lived or traveled—Germanic, Viennese, Czech, Polish, and Asian.”
“When I’m open, I’m cooking for you!”What makes food spectacular?
Food, just like music, should take hold of you and give rise to an energy that sends you in a dream world! This is where art meets food. And when you have this kind of experience, you will never forget…neither the dish, nor the moment! I have had people walk up to me in tears and say that they never ate something so good since their mom used to cook for them. “How did you make this?” They ask me. Well, it’s what I’m here for: to create! I’m able to create every night because of my customers. And my customers know: when I’m open, I’m cooking for you!And what does the chef do when he is not cooking?
Vacations! My wife and I love to spend some time away from here once in a while and just be with each other. Hawaii is where we go once a year to rekindle our relationship and simply be a couple, away from the restaurant business. From Hawaii and, sometimes, also from South America we bring back spices and other ingredients for my cooking. We also travel to Europe yearly, mainly to visit my family in Switzerland, but also to visit various countries and, of course, to take pleasure in their cooking! My wife has recently fallen in love with Switzerland!
On Bessie…Speaking of Bessie, your clients see more of her than they see of you. How’s so?
They do, and that’s because Bessie is the human element in the equation. You see, I’m the artist: I’m here to create for you a dish and an experience you’ll never forget! But while I’m at it, I cannot be interrupted. All I have on my mind during cooking is my food. And no one touches my food during the cooking process other than me. How, then, would I find the time to communicate with my customers?
This is where Bessie comes into play. Every night, Bessie is out there with the customers. She maintains warmth between the customers and their food. She talks to them and she knows exactly what they want—that is, what food they need to be happy! Bessie’s hospitality meets no boundaries: whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, she will look you in the eyes in the most non-judgmental way and know exactly the food for you.
The two of us complete each other not just in our personal life, but also in the restaurant business, and none of what I have accomplished today would have been possible without Bessie.
“I’m marrying that woman!”How did you and Bessie meet?
I met Bessie twenty-five years ago, in a restaurant. I happened to be with my old friend Mario, from Bolivia, when I spotted Bessie across the bar. Up until that point, I thought love at first sight is not something that could happen to me. But when I saw Bessie, I knew instantly how in love I was!
When I left the restaurant with Mario later that night, I looked at him and said, “I’m marrying that woman!” He was stunned. Deep inside me, I didn’t need any confirmation that Bessie truly was my soul mate. Within a month, we were planning to get married!
The love between Bessie and me carries further into Chef’s Kitchen. Both of us love this place and all the people who come in. We don’t just offer you a product; we give you our love.