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Union's Bruce Kalman: Why Chefs Should Also Be Owners

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An opinion piece by chef Bruce Kalman of Pasadena's Union.

Bruce Kalman, chef and co-owner of Union
Bruce Kalman, chef and co-owner of Union
Wonho Frank Lee
Matthew Kang is the Lead Editor of Eater LA. He has covered dining, restaurants, food culture, and nightlife in Los Angeles since 2008. He's the host of K-Town, a YouTube series covering Korean food in America, and has been featured in Netflix's Street Food show.

Bruce Kalman is the chef of Union, which opened over a year ago to critical acclaim and a steady stream of diners in Old Town Pasadena. Partner Marie Petulla offered to give Kalman some of the ownership, which has set the restaurant up for long term success. Here now, Kalman bring his perspective as a co-owner and chef of the bustling operation.

My career started in the mid 80's in Jersey, making pizza, chicken parm sandwiches and antipasti salads. Mind you, I was just 13, but after one day I was hooked! The ingredients, the energy, the sarcasm; I fell into the food and beverage industry head-first.  Since then, I have experienced working in numerous restaurants and hotels, from fine-dining to fast-casual, all very unique, yet all had one thing in common: An owner.

This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, because I had the opportunity to work with a lot of owners directly and learn a ton about operations, business, drinking, smoking weed, and then some. I also learned about the frustrations chefs have working with owners who keep them on a tight leash (reference Jon Favreau in "Chef"). It's the recipe for an extremely uncomfortable workplace, with tension so thick you can cut it with a knife. Everything and everyone suffers: The food, the staff, and, ultimately, the guests, usually resulting in a loss of business and sales. Can you guess who is blamed?

It's the recipe for an extremely uncomfortable workplace.

Now that I am both a chef and an owner, I get it, and I see both sides. You have a responsibility to the guest, and a responsibility to the staff. These days I spend most of my time developing chefs and cooks, teaching them how to stand on their own two feet and the importance of everything, not just the food.

Their responsibilities are endless - cook great food all day every day, move their asses, keep the place clean, keep things organized, make sure items on the shelves face the front like a grocery store, work like a team, have a great attitude, respect ingredients and each other, etc. The list keeps going, but this is what it takes to become a great chef and, ultimately, a great restaurateur. When my chefs ask me how I'm able to see everything, I tell them I was taught to come in expecting everything to be wrong every day. It trains you to constantly scan the room like Kit from "Knight Rider."

Opening Union has been such a wonderfully challenging experience. During friends & family, myself and my two sous chefs decided we would set up the line and figure out where mise en place should go, as we were cooking for guests. Maybe not the best decision I have ever made, but I was free to make that decision. I was free to write the menu without "approval" from a boss; no burger required! We wanted the menu to be defined not by what was currently trending, but by the ingredients we were procuring from our purveyors, like Ben Hyman from Wild Local Seafood, and Nan Kohler from Grist & Toll, who actually opened her mill in Pasadena around the same time we opened Union.

Freedom has led me to cook and create some of the best food of my life

I have a lot of chef friends, many of whom have visited me at Union, and the response is typically the same: "This food is unadulterated you!" I don't claim to be the best chef in the world, or even in LA for that matter, but freedom has led me to cook and create some of the best food of my life. People can taste that passion.

The opportunity to partner with Marie Petulla was a definitive moment for me. She is one of the best people I know and having a partner that shares your philosophy is not only vital to the success of a restaurant, but vital for creating a cohesive team from the front to the back-of-house. There is no dividing wall between the two, like in a lot of restaurants. We always joke about how much we used to fight during the opening of Union, and say, "Hey, at least we were communicating!"

Unions Spicy, Addictive Spaghetti Chitarra

When people talk about how much they love the Union experience, we talk about what a big role our symbiotic relationship plays in our success. We taught our team hospitality first, service second which makes for an incredible feeling as soon as you walk through the door. I'm not saying that everything is hearts and rainbows all the time, as that would be a pipe dream!  But when we have to be tough, they understand that it all comes from a great place, and that our vision and philosophy is rich and meaningful. They drink our "Kool-Aid," which of course is local, natural, sustainable, and humanely raised!

If restaurant owners would just realize that they would benefit from allowing their chefs to do the job they were hired to do, their top lines would most likely increase, resulting in a bigger bottom line and a happier environment. Now more than ever I understand the stress and pressure that comes with owning a restaurant.

I also know that I can't do it alone, so everyone's voice needs to be heard

However, I also know that I can't do it alone, so everyone's voice needs to be heard. I do my best to teach the standard and expectations, and then try to step back and allow the team to do their best. It's tough sometimes, but it's the only way to build a solid foundation to grow a company. Marie and my shared commitment to operating this way has been an instrumental part of Union's success, and something we are both excited to expand upon when we open the pasta bar at Grand Central Market this summer.

I'm not saying I haven't learned a lot from the owners that I couldn't deal with, in fact, without them I wouldn't be the leader I am today. In the end, I just realized that I don't like being told what to do!

Union Restaurant

37 Union Street, , CA 91103 (626) 795-5841 Visit Website

Grand Central Market

317 South Broadway, , CA 90013 (213) 359-6007 Visit Website