Person of the Week

Mary Brennell

"Chief Cook and Bottle Washer", House Chef, Owner The Cottage Restaurant and Studio

I’m a house chef and that means I grew up in the school of hard knocks and not a place of formal education. My favorite thing is going out to eat with friends and family and have a wonderful atmosphere… Nothing is more perfect to me than that experience. I wanted to create that experience for other people. If this is where your heart is, then this is where you need to be.

1.  What led you to the mission of being a house chef and owner of a restaurant?

I call myself a “chief cook and bottle washer”. I do a lot of cooking. The-Cottage-Hermann-MOumbrellaThat’s one reason why I own The Cottage Restaurant (Hermann, Missouri) because I didn’t want to put my name on the door with somebody else’s food coming out of the kitchen.  (To learn more about The Cottage Restaurant and Studio, click here.)

We make almost everything from scratch here. I do a lot of the cooking. I’m not a “chef” per se. You usually think of a chef as being one who is educated and raised/taught in an institution. I’m a “house” chef and I have another house chef. This means we are the main cooks of the restaurant — The-Cottage-Hermann-MO-but I grew up in the school of hard knocks and not a place of formal education other than what I’ve have learned from other people, books, or “what have you”.

I’ve worked in the restaurant industry for about twenty-two years. I started when I was sixteen. I did everything from waiting tables to bussing tables. I became a house chef at a country French restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri.

I decided that I should try something else and went back to school. I got a bachelor’s and graduate degree and studied social work. I went out in the real world for a number of years.The-Cottage-Hermann-MO-spoon I decided that being in a restaurant was where my passion really was. My favorite thing is going out to eat with friends and family and have a wonderful atmosphere, really good food, and the opportunity to be with people I love. Nothing is more perfect to me than that experience.  (The spoon and knife are reflecting the umbrella colors in wonderful sunny outdoor dining area looking out over a valley and bounded on one side by natural rock outcropping.)

I wanted to create that experience for other people. My social work degree is a great fit when you think about caring for others. That’s one of the things social workers do — we are out there trying to help other people. That’s what the restaurant industry is all about too.

2.  What does this mission mean to you?

A long time ago, I was working in a Mexican restaurant. People would come in hungry and in a scratchy mood.The Cottage Hermann MO I would feed them and then they would get nice, lighten up, feel comfortable, and become better. I realized this is what my job is all about – you feed the body but you feed the soul as well.

Customer service is a big, big piece of that. I don’t care what the atmosphere looks like. If the food is good and the service is good, the people are going to come back. I can’t tolerate a restaurant where the customer feels they are imposing on the staff. In my restaurant, the staff knows that they are there to care about people and to take care of them. They are there to meet the customers’ needs. That’s what we do.

3.  What was your best day being a house chef and owner of a restaurant?

This is hard work – especially since I make everything here at the restaurant. We work really hard. I put in twelve and fifteen hour days. Cottage-outsideI keep asking myself at the end of the day, “Do you want to turn that key one more time.” The answer is, “Absolutely yes. I want to come back. I want to come back, I WANT to come back!” I do enjoy the work. Everyday I walk out and talk to my guests and ask them how everything is. They will say, “This is the BEST lunch ever!” “This was FABULOUS!” “This was GREAT!” That’s what keeps me going.

Mary-Brennell2If I came out one day and everyone said, “Uh, it’s fine,” then I would wonder. That’s what I tell my staff, “When people say, ‘It’s good’ or ‘It’s fine’, that’s a red flag.” You need to find out why it’s only just good or just fine. But if they say, “IT’S GOOD!” Then that’s better than, “It’s good…..” “It’s OK”….. They are just being polite and that is not good enough for me. If they aren’t enthusiastic over the food, then you have to explore why.

4.  What was your worst day being a house chef and owner of a restaurant?

One Saturday night was my worst day because we got so busy. Cottage-windowsThis has only happened twice since we opened. We were so swamped. The service wasn’t as good because the servers were overwhelmed. The kitchen was overwhelmed. The food at the end of the night was not coming out as good as usual. It brings me to tears when people are not happy or they call and say that the service was not that great or the food wasn’t that great. This means I missed the mark there.

We hear this saying that the customer is always right. I don’t believe that. Inside-The-Cottage-Hermann-MOThe case in point is that sometimes people will get drunk and do inappropriate things – like at my restaurant try to climb on the rock wall. That is NOT the right thing to do. The customer is not always right, but they are always the customers. Every customer is my only customer. Everybody gets treated the same and with good quality customer service.

Our mantra is quality food, consistency and cleanliness. If we have quality food, we are consistent in how we cook and prepare it, and we try to keep everything clean so nothing spoils, then we have achieved our goal. The staff has to understand these standards and believe in them as well. Everybody has to come on the same page.

5.  How did you survive your worst day?

The-Cottage-Hermann-MO-Stained-glass-artWe finish off the day and I apologize. Bad days are rare. In fact I think there have only been two since we opened. But a bad day can happen. I can get stretched out looking at everything and expecting everything to go on perfectly. If something isn’t perfect, this bothers me.

How do I get through my day? I just come back the next day and see that it is a new day. I recognize we’re going to start this over and we are going to do the best we can. If I have complaints from people I say I am sorry and tell them that this is not who we are or how we do things. Stained-Glass-Art-The-Cottage-Hermann-MOI say, “Let’s make it right.” I know in other places that doesn’t always happen but here it does.

I have a great staff and we can make it right. We get along really, really well. I write them “love notes” on their pay stubs. I tell them I think they are great. I thank them for what they do. It is an internal and external customer service. They know that when I am getting stressed out that we’ve got to really work at this. We have to get this right.

6.  What advice do you have for someone who would like to become a house chef or owner of a restaurant?

Whole-The-Cottage-Hermann-MO-I came back to this industry because I was looking at my life and thinking, “This is what I really want to do.” But my fears were taking me from it. I’m fifty-five. Two years ago I thought, “Don’t live your life with regrets. You have to do what you want and go where your passion is taking you.” That would be my advice, “Don’t let your fears keep you from doing what you want to do. Don’t live your life with regrets. If this is where your heart is, then this is where you need to be.”