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The Omnipresent Chef

Four restaurateurs on the bliss and the burden of living above their own restaurants.

Jessica Boncutter in her living room above Bar Jules

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"Bar Jules is a little French-country, but my taste in furniture skews more modern," says Boncutter.

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Much of Boncutter's art is from Creative Growth, where she's a board member

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Yella and Tyler Catalana, the chef and co-owner of Mill Valley Beerworks

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The Catalana's interior

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The Catalana's interior

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Chef Thomas McNaughton above Flour + Water

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McNaughton wiht his dog, Ellie, and pet pig, Kona.

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McNaughton's drum set

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Saison chef Joshua Skenes at home

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Saison's home kitchen

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Weapons from Skenes's martial arts practice

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"It sounds like fodder for a novel."—Jessica Boncutter, Bar Jules 
"People think, ‘oh, that’s so sweet—you live in this cute apartment above your little bistro,’” says Jessica Boncutter of her three-bedroom home above Bar Jules. “In reality, it’s a frickin’ nightmare.” From the dining rush to the early-morning bottle deliveries, she says, “it’s so loud it’s insane.” She finds solace in small conveniences—a stolen nap before dinner service; a drink with friends upstairs while they wait for a table; extra storage space for restaurant linens. Boncutter’s close proximity to the restaurant means that she’s dialed in to the extreme. "I never have to put on my own music,” she says. “I can hear the restaurant’s playlist clearly through the floor.” and sometimes the bird’s-eye view lends itself to eavesdropping. “People will walk by and go, ‘oh, I heard this place is amazing,’ or ‘ehh, there’s nothing on the menu I want today,’” she says. “It’s like live Yelp reviews.”

"I've never had the need for perfect quiet."—Tyler Catalana, Mill Valley Beerworks 
Mill Valley Beerworks co-owner Tyler Catalana and his wife, chef Yella, nod off to sleep every night to the reverberating whir of the exhaust hood beneath their bed. They can tell whether it’s a busy or a slow night downstairs based solely on the drone of conversation below. “We have to wear headphones when we watch movies to drown out the hum,” Yella says. But the newly married pair jumped at the opportunity to move in a little over a year ago. Tyler, who is also trained as an architect, gut-renovated the apartment, painting it in a gray palette like that of the restaurant downstairs. (“Beerworks does feel like my kitchen and my living room,” says Yella.) The living arrangement means that she can take a break in the evening to have dinner with Tyler. “Living upstairs allows us to be quite civilized, by chef standards,” Yella jokes. She’s due to give birth to the couple’s first child this fall, and the two plan to stay put. “We just have to make it more baby-friendly,” Yella says. “You know—no crawling around the kitchen.” “I’ve never had the need for perfect quiet.”

“Sometimes I miss the commute.”—Thomas McNaughton, Flour + Water
The decision to move in to this two-bedroom apartment nearly five years ago was pretty rash, chef Thomas McNaughton concedes. “I had just broken up with a live-in girlfriend, so I moved in a hurry. I didn’t even have running water for three months.” Still, after a spate of 16-hour days at Flour + Water, he found the relocation a no-brainer. (“i had accidentally fallen asleep on the restaurant’s banquette at least twice,” he remembers.) On the downside, he walks through the restaurant to get to the stairwell to his apartment, which can make leaving the house in sweats rather awkward. And it can be difficult to enforce off-hours boundaries, as he learned the hard way when an employee walked in on him shaving in the nude. But the setup has its perks. “I’ll call down for a Flour + Water delivery every now and then.”

“I basically live in my restaurant.”—Joshua Skenes, Saison
Chef Joshua Skenes never had any romantic notions about living above Saison. “In this business, you’re in the kitchen all the time anyway,” he says. Though he does relish the 30-second commute, he claims that he doesn’t place much importance on where he crashes at night. “When I’m not cooking, I live a very simple lifestyle,” he says. “Everything in my life that’s complicated or special or fancy happens at work.” He rarely makes use of his home kitchen, instead reading from the piles of books scattered around the floor of his apartment or practicing martial arts in his living room, where he keeps a collection of swords, helmets, and gloves. Still, after a long night of work in the pristine setting of Saison, he finds the flat a rather glaring contrast. “Compared to the super-clean restaurant, my apartment is really messy,” he says.

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco. 

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