For Mission Taqueria’s chef, Jon Rodriguez, Feb. 14 hasn’t always been about romance.
“Valentine’s Day was always the breakup point,” he says. “I’ve had a solid five relationships broken up because of missing Valentine’s Day.” That is, until he met Jillian Moore, his girlfriend who is a bartender and server at Zahav. Dating someone in the restaurant industry — who shares similar hours and also works on holidays — has helped their relationship succeed for the last six years.
Last Valentine’s Day, I wrote about couples who work in restaurants together. This year, I spoke with twosomes who work in the industry, at different restaurants. With their schedules at odds, finding time to be together can get tough. But for these duos, coupling with a fellow restaurant worker makes sense.
“My ex-boyfriend didn’t understand why I was out until 4 a.m. and came home stinking like smoke,” says Rachael Smith, director of operations for Cheu Noodle Bar, Cheu Fishtown, Bing Bing Dim Sum, and nunu. While bartending and serving at Good Dog Bar in 2012, she met Sean Magee, then sous chef at Time.
“At the bar, he’d never smile at me,” Smith says. Magee typically came to decompress from the stress of the kitchen with a drink. Eventually, he started a conversation with Rachael. It turns out “he just has this adorable resting bitch face that I’ve grown to love,” Smith says.
They were married in 2017, with a wedding reception that included Pitruco Pizza, Mister Softee ice cream, and a jump into a pool in their wedding finery. And it took several years, but Smith and Magee finally have two days off in a row (Sunday and Monday) together, like a real weekend. “It’s bonkers!” Smith says.
Camille Cogswell, executive chef at K’Far, and Drew DiTomo, former chef de cuisine at Amis and owner of the forthcoming Romeo, spent three years in a long-distance relationship. DiTomo recalls hopping in the car at 2:30 a.m. after deep cleaning Amis to drive to Cogswell in Brooklyn — the next weekend, she’d come to Philly. Eventually, Cogswell moved to Philly and started working at Zahav.
A James Beard Award later, she found herself deep into the opening of her celebrated Israeli cafe and felt overwhelmed. “I was so busy that I couldn’t take care of myself,” she says. “Andrew picked up my slack. He was my emotional cheerleader, drove me to work, did house work, and even jumped in at the restaurant to help roll rugelach.”
Once his new restaurant opens, DiTomo says he knows they’ll go through this all over again. After both restaurants are open and running smoothly, they hope to finally get married in fall 2021, after a four-year engagement.
The scheduling challenges don’t bother these chefs though. “We prefer it,” DiTomo says. “It’s nice to know that someone’s in your corner who completely knows what you’re going through. When I say I have to work seven days a week, she gets it.”
Just like most couples, when restaurant industry duos do get two days off in a row together, it usually involves a mix of household chores and fun. Cogswell and DiTomo love to go hiking on their shared days off and visit Longwood Gardens. Moore and Rodriguez tend to go down the Shore on Sundays.
Having different hours actually helps Michael and Natalie DiBattista raise their family. Natalie, who is director of operations at Condesa, spends part of the morning at home and Michael spends the day with their toddler, Lucelly, 3, before picking up their two older kids, Matthew, 15, and Arianna, 10, from school. He then heads to work as a server at the Capital Grille. Sundays are their family day and time for cooking “funky vegetables” from local farmers markets.
Magee, the one-time chef who now works as a bartender, enjoys cooking at home. “I miss cooking, but I don’t miss working 16 hours a day,” he says.
When it comes to their Valentine’s Day plans, these couples all answered the same way: “We work!”
Last year, Moore and Rodriguez did go out of their way to have their first real Valentine’s Day date, though: “We went to The Pub in Pennsauken on a Friday night in my finest fur coat and had Long Island Iced Tea and steak,” Moore says. “Then we went to Palizzi.”
These couples are often asked if they would want to work together. It’s something they ask themselves too.
“I joke that when I met Jon, I found the chef for my restaurant,” Moore says. “He is a perfect partner, not only in my life, but he would be perfect in business too.”
“We’ve never worked together before, so it would be an adventure,” Smith says. “Sean has a great brain for wine and is talented food-wise, and I can do everything else.” Her husband agrees and says it would be nice to focus on one thing as a team. “If I ever go back to cooking in that capacity, it would be for me and Rachael and no one else,” Magee says.
The DiBattistas have considered becoming partners in a small restaurant or cafe, though Michael humbly says: “She’d obviously be the boss. I’ll probably be the dishwasher.”
For Cogswell and DiTomo, working together isn’t part of the plan. “We’re not interested in risking our personal relationship over business,” Cogswell explains. She says that their independent interests and careers help keep their personal relationship interesting.
They say that they’re happy to continue supporting each other’s work in different kitchens and even though they’ve both worked in celebrated restaurants, there’s no competition between them.
“I don’t have a James Beard Award around my neck and I’m OK with that,” DiTomo says. “I’m so fired up for the spotlight that shines on Camille. I come home to someone who’s an amazing, inspiring, talented person and that’s who I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.”