The Female Multi-Concept Restaurant Partner
By Jana Soeldner Danger
Meet Executive Chef-Business Guru Lisabet Summa, one of America’s female pioneers in running a multi-concept group of novel restaurants.
How did the world’s worst waitress get to be head of a multimillion dollar restaurant corporation?
The road was a long one, and it led through the kitchen instead of the dining room.
Now a partner and Corporate Culinary Director of Big Time Restaurant Group, Lisabet Summa has worked in some of the best known restaurants in the U.S., along with chefs who’ve pioneered the modern culinary movement. She has also opened more than a dozen successful eateries on her own. But her career began as a server in Lake Forest, Illinois, the small town where she grew up. And she wasn’t a very good one.
“I was the world’s worst,” she said with a laugh. “At 19, I realized the front of the house didn’t interest me, but that I was inspired by the kitchen.”
Turning Lemons into Lemonade
When a chef who worked at the restaurant where Lisabet was toiling away as a server heard about her interest, she tried to help. “She had trained in England and she also did lots of entertaining,” Lisabet said. “I started working with her at her house, helping her cook, and I just fell in love with it.”
But cooking in a home kitchen wasn’t enough, and Lisabet was determined to get a real restaurant job. Setting her sights on Alouette, a French place in a nearby city where her friend had taken her to eat, she traveled there by train, went around to the back of the restaurant and knocked on the kitchen door. “Everybody inside was busy, and nobody answered,” she said. “I sat out there for a long time.”
When a man appeared outside the door to deliver a case of tomatoes, Lisabet slipped in behind him and looked around for the chef. When she found him, he asked what she knew how to do. “I really didn’t know anything,” she admitted. “But he said, ‘come back tomorrow.’ There were a couple of weeks of ‘come back tomorrows.’ Then one day, he handed me a chef’s coat and offered me a job.”
Climbing the Culinary Ladder
Twenty-one-year-old Lisabet began preparing all the desserts at Alouette, where she worked for about a year. Then she heard about a new restaurant called Sinclair’s American Grill, a partnership between a prominent local restaurateur and Marshall Field, that was opening in Lake Forest. She applied for a job and went to work there. It was 1983, the country’s palate was just beginning to develop a taste for fine food, and the chef was Norman Van Aken, who would later become one of South Florida’s first celebrity chefs and a James Beard Award winner.
Eventually, Summa left Sinclair’s to move downtown and take a job at Maxims, one of the most renowned restaurants in Chicago. But when Van Aken called during a cold Chicago winter and asked her to come help him open another Sinclair’s in Florida, she packed a bag and boarded a train. “Being from the North Shore of Chicago, I had never been near saltwater,” she said. “I came down and got a big mouthful of the ocean and fell in love. So I went back up, got my stuff and moved down for good.”
Coincidentally Sinclair’s, located in Jupiter, had another employee who would go on to great things: Charlie Trotter, who would eventually become internationally known for his restaurant in Chicago, was working there as a line cook. “He had been at Sinclair’s American Grill in Lake Forest, and he was one of the people who moved down to Sinclair’s in Jupiter,” Lisabet recalled. Talk about serendipity.
A Memorable Era
It was an interesting time in the American restaurant business, when chefs were just beginning to explore new concepts and flavor profiles. “I had been trained in a classic French restaurant, and Charlie Trotter was into this whole New American cuisine movement,” Lisabet remembered. “We’d get into these philosophic culinary battles over what was correct and what wasn’t. Charlie always had a very intellectual, cerebral approach to his work in the kitchen. I think he had a degree in philosophy, but he fell in love with the kitchen, too.”
In the summer, when everyone who could flee South Florida’s heat and humidity did so, and restaurants slowed to a sweaty crawl, Lisabet returned to the Chicago area to work. “I went back and forth for a while,” she said. “I specialized in baking pastries and desserts. They were my first area of focus. It’s been a great foundation, because you have to understand time and temperature, and the way ingredients work in recipes. It’s also a very creative, fun aspect of the kitchen. It wasn’t until I started teaching at the Culinary Institute of Florida that I branched off into other disciplines.”
Risks and Challenges
Perhaps her success is partly based on her willingness to take risks. When Summa heard that a chef from Montreal was opening a new restaurant near Military Trail called St. Honore, she decided to take a chance on what at the time seemed like a very unpromising location. “There was nothing on either side of Military Trail then,” she said. “It’s all built up now, but then it was just empty fields.”
In the early ‘80s, producing outstanding food was much more challenging than it is today. “Just to put it in perspective, when I was working at St. Honore, we couldn’t buy fresh thyme,” Lisabet recalled. “You couldn’t buy anything except olive oil – none of the products they were used to having in France. And you couldn’t see the explosion that was about to take place – the popularization of the culinary arts, or young people becoming chefs.
“I was totally on the cusp,” she continued. “We had the California culinary movement establishing a foothold in the big cities, but we had to scrape and claw to be part of it.”
After leaving St. Honore in 1987, she moved into a variety of different positions, both in kitchens and in teaching. Then in the mid 1990s, when Big Time Restaurant Group was opening Big City Tavern on Clematis Street in downtown West Palm Beach, they offered her the chef’s job.
But she didn’t want it. “I wanted to be a partner in the business,” she said.
A Stake In The Business
Big Time principals Todd Herbert and Bill Watson agreed to take her on. “Being a partner is really the ultimate for a chef, because you’re working in conjunction with a management and ownership team, and you’re not just a silent person in the kitchen,” Lisabet said. “You have a voice in the business.”
She began by developing a menu for Big City Tavern and testing the recipes in her home kitchen, because the restaurant didn’t have one yet. Today, Lisabet is one of the few women running a multi-concept restaurant business. “I think the best thing for a chef is to be somebody who is generous with their knowledge,” she said. “That’s the tradition of teaching young chefs. Knowledge is passed down through generations.”
But it works both ways. “I’m always teaching, and I’m always learning. I learn from my cooks. I go into the kitchen and put on a jacket and just melt into the kitchen crew.”
Lisabet has a theory about food. “It’s either something nostalgic that harkens back to what someone loves, or it’s something that’s incredibly, surprisingly new. Both experiences can be equally great.
“You’re not making food,” she continued, “You’re making memories. It’s a great time to be a chef.”
Big Time Restaurant Group operates Rocco’s Tacos Tequila Bar in Brooklyn, New York, as well as 12 multi-concept locations in South Florida, including City Oyster & Sushi Bar, Big City Tavern, City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill, Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar, Grease Burger Bar and Louie Bossi’s Ristorante, Bar and Pizzeria. This year, Big Time’s expansion plans include two new locations for Louie Bossi’s – one in Boca Raton and another in Delray Beach, as well as two more Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar, which will open in Tampa, Florida, and at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport.